Blue Nirvana: Humpback Whales in Tonga

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We’re floating with mask, snorkel, and fins on the surface of the open ocean. Peering straight downward, the rays of light fade into a dizzying expanse of deep blue, filling our entire vision. Below us, perhaps thirty to forty meters down, we can see a large humpback whale motionless in the water. To its sides, the pale edges of its pectoral flippers rest peacefully, subtly reflecting light back upwards. Soon we can make out the shape of a much smaller calf slowly easing outward from beneath its mother.

140901_Tonga_0522Moments later the humpback whale calf comes rising upwards. It reaches the surface for a breathe, and then plunges back under. With twisting turns it rolls its body over, pushing its belly upward as its still-floppy flukes wag up and down, splashing water to and fro. It rolls again, then sweeps its long pectoral flippers like a dancer’s arms, arcing its body into a quick turn as it glides straight past us, a big eyeball on the side of its head, watching.

Another twist and flick of its fluke, and the calf plummets back downward to the side of its mother. Imperceptibly, she has risen several meters in the water column, and is now slightly easier to view from the surface. The whale calf swims gently along her side, then down under her belly, eventually hovering almost out of view, perhaps nursing.

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Several minutes later, the calf’s head is poking out to the side of its mother again. The youngster slowly swims up past her head, rolling and rubbing its rostrum against hers in what appears to us as an affectionate display. Then the calf is once again gliding upwards towards the surface, directly towards us, angling slightly to breathe again nearby. The calf turns and passes much closer to us, rolling in a playful manner as it turns in a big circle while splashing its fluke across the surface, upside down. It begins to descend, then pauses and rises again to take another curious look at us before languidly swimming off to pass alongside another of us human swimmers floating like flotsam on the surface.

The massive mother remains motionless below.

140829_Tonga_7531After the calf’s third series of surfacing antics, it descends only perhaps twenty meters to reach its mother. It nuzzles her again. In time they both rise together. After watching the calf — a mere fraction of the mother’s length and girth — we gasp into our snorkels as we gaze at the enormous “Mother Ship” lifting upward. With her youngster swimming alongside her flank, the mother lifts and bows her immense head at the ocean’s surface to breathe. Her giant wings and tail fluke make lazy downward movements, like a gentle tai chi exercise, and together the two whales careen forward effortlessly as she breathes again.

Our small team of five swimmers paddle our flippered feet with great fervor, yet — compared to these whales — with only pathetic results. In the distance, we can see the mother taking another breath before she descends once again to her resting depth. She will remain there for perhaps another twenty minutes again as her calf explores the strange and very foreign world on the surface of their huge ocean home.

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Over a ten day period in Tonga, we had multiple wonderful encounters with humpback whales. Usually we were with solitary mother and calf pairs, sometimes a male “escort” was present with them, and occasionally we found some exciting male “competitive groups” – locally referred to as “heat runs” in Tonga. After decades of watching whales from boats and ships, these glimpses into the underwater world of whales were a game-changer for us. In expanding our minds and warming our hearts, this experience has forever broadened our understanding of the lives of humpback whales.

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