EWEN Bell goes swimming with humpback whales in Tonga’s Haapai Islands with Majestic Whale Encounters. Humpback whales have no trouble finding the Kingdom of Tonga, arriving every winter in their hundreds on holiday from colder waters. Barely rising above the Pacific Ocean, these slender islands are edged with abundant reefs and sheltered waters. For whales on vacation, Tonga is also a great place to swim with humans. Between July and September the whales come to give birth to calves, compete for mating rights or simply rest up before the journey south. Tonga is a stopping point for the migrating whales and for travellers seeking something out of the ordinary, such as swimming alongside a pod of fully grown humpbacks. Ha’apai relies on tourism for everything that coconuts and fishing can’t provide. Carmen and Matt Ellis come here every winter to chase the humpbacks. Majestic Marine Encounters was started by Carmen to turn her obsession with the whales into a lifestyle. Not content to watch them from a boat, Carmen wanted to dive into the water and make friends beneath the waves. With the blessing of Tonga’s king, some sensible tourism guidelines and a dash of experience, it is possible to enjoy swimming with the whales. The walk from bure to boat is barely a hundred metres, with all the snorkelling gear and a wetsuit supplied on arrival to Ha’apai. Jodie is our guide for the next week, and she gives us a basic briefing on water safety before we head out. Five of the next six days will be spent on the water looking for whales with Jodie, and hopefully jumping in to have a swim with them. Idyllic beaches for a lunch stop also provide fresh coconuts to drink. Picture: Matt Elli Beautiful…Idyllic beaches for a lunch stop also provide fresh coconuts to drink. Picture: Matt Ellis When not looking for whales, we stop and enjoy a snorkel along the reefs of Ha’apai, with many spots rich in coral and fish. Each day involves a demanding morning of whale spotting, lunch out on the boat, then a few more whales before returning to the lagoon to rest our exhausted bodies. Finding the whales is the first challenge. They are everywhere in these waters, but there is a lot of water for them to hide in. Adult humpbacks will surface every 20 minutes, expelling the spent air through their blowholes before gulping down fresh oxygen. You can spot a blow from 3km away, a fine mist that rises above the waves. The boat races towards a sighting and then waits for the whales to surface again. Some whales are cautious of boats and prove remarkably hard to follow. Others seem almost as curious of us as we are of them, surfacing directly behind the stern or throwing a breach right in front of the bow. Most are somewhere in between. When the moment is right Jodie signals to the group that we’re going in the water. Flippers and snorkels are quickly strapped on before plunging in. For an inexperienced snorkeller, this is a little terrifying and it takes some getting used to. With an entire week of snorkelling and whale swims, there’s time to build up confidence for when something special happens at sea. Juvenile humpbacks often gather in groups of two to five, and the more company they have, the more likely they are to show off. Swimming with a pack of rebellious teenagers offers an excellent opportunity to watch their underwater prowess, and sometimes to be unexpectedly approached. We floated at a distance from three young adults while they twirled and danced around each other until one broke off and dove directly beneath our swimmers, performing a belly roll in the process and presenting his pale white tummy. It was like being mooned by a humpy, and this was only our first day in the water. Some days chasing whales are better than others, much like the weather. Across a week- long stay in the middle of winter, you get a healthy dose of sunshine and an equal chance of cloud. The whales are around regardless of the skies, however. Most days you can see the whales steaming past the shore without leaving the beach, but finding the right whale to negotiate a swim with is never a certainty. Whale mums like to keep their newborn calves inside the reef where the water is a little warmer and flatter. For the first few weeks, they’re naturally shy of passing boats and will give their babies a nudge to move away if curiosity takes over. Older calves are given more latitude to approach boats and swimmers, although often they are a little clumsy in the water compared with their graceful parents. Playful calves and their nursing mothers can prove very tolerant of swimmers, with calm waters inside the reef making for a gentle encounter all around. At some point the mother will rein in the baby’s enthusiasm to make new friends and head for isolation. Resting whales often pair up and take short naps along the edge of deeper reefs. They sleep with one eye open, with the underwater world around them covered nicely between the two animals. Every 20 minutes, they surface briefly for air before diving to rest. On our fourth day of whale chasing, we watched this cycle a few times with a pair of resting whales before attempting a swim. On the third dive, a team of snorkellers flippered up and waited at the surface for their company. Sometimes when they ascend for fresh air, they take an interest in the swimmers but not today. From the boat we saw the pair pop up a little further away. They didn’t want to play. While waiting to see if they popped up near the boat again, another whale decided to grab our attention. A fully grown humpback breached less than 500m away, not once or twice but three times before we got the engines in gear. We spent plenty of time hanging about the playful whale, waiting for more of the same. He quickly joined the resting pair and did his best to disturb their sleep, with a few more breaches and some show- off moves such as spinning around at the surface with his fins flapping through the air. It didn’t take too long for the resting pair to head out of the reef, and the disappointed playmate went in the opposite direction. My most successful swim of the trip happened later that same day, and with very little warning. Having spotted a blow about a kilometre away, we motored to the site and turned off the engines, waiting for the whale to reappear at the surface. We didn’t have to wait long. Instead of diving deep in search of solitude, this one was feeling curious. He surfaced at the bow of the boat, so close we couldn’t even turn on the engines. He just kept coming closer, visible beneath the surface making the colour of the water change from dark blue to aqua and turquoise. Jodie starts yelling at us, go go go. Fins and goggles went on and we all jumped into the ocean. Once beneath the water, my awareness of the waves and chop above evaporated. A massive whale was swimming towards me. For those minutes the whale became my world, I was oblivious to the boat, the water or the world above me. My eyes were fixated on his, watching the curve of his flanks. He glided past in slow motion, and I studied the scars on his skin, the evidence of competitive encounters with other males, and counted the barnacles along the edges of his tail fluke. Deep straight cuts had created a pattern of scars along the black skin of his upper body. The young fella looked like he’d lived a full life already. I don’t know how long the encounter lasted, a minute or an hour, time loses relevance beneath the waves. I had done nothing but drift at this stage, the whale did all the work. Typically, you have to swim out to get close enough for an encounter, but this time I was lucky. Once back on the boat, our new friend kept close and allowed a second group a close inspection as well. Each time a group of swimmers went out in the water, he would check them out and swim past gracefully. When finished, he would swim up to the boat and motor past with his nose out of the water, as though the boat was more interesting than our snorkels and fins. Before we had time to gather up the last swimmers, he sped up and launched himself into a full breach less than 100m away. He managed to get his full body airborne, even the tail fluke, before crashing back into the ocean with a powerful splash. The show was only just beginning. For the next half-hour he treated us to several displays of breaching, and even found a second whale to join in. It was hard to reconcile the docile creature we met beneath the water with this mighty show-off. As the boat turned to head for shore, our fluked friend wasn’t ready for the fun to end, and launched another breach directly in the path of our boat. Jodie brought the engines to a full stop, but not before the boat echoed with giddy screams from everyone on board. *The writer was a guest of Majestic Whale Encounters, Air New Zealand and Tonga Tourism. GO2 – TONGA GETTING THERE Air New Zealand flies to Tonga via Auckland. TOURING THERE Majestic Whale Encounters’ week-long tours include wetsuit and snorkelling gear and some meals. You’ll be on a boat with no more than eight swimmers, taking turns to meet the whales in groups of four at a time. Majestic handles all aspects of the package including flights, accommodation and meeting the humpbacks. Tours from $3500 a person. EATING THERE The cuisine at Matafonua is a highlight but even so, a trip to Pangai makes a nice break to enjoy a lunch stop at Mariners Cafe and meet a few locals. A taxi into town and back will cost $50 if you want to explore the villages. WHEN TO GO The whales visit Tonga between July and September each year. A cyclone hit the Ha’apai Islands in January this year affecting the local fishing fleet, homes and resorts. There’s never a better time to visit than now, to help the community bounce back and enjoy a peaceful tropical setting.