Snorkeling with Humpback Whales in Tonga
Humpbacks whales live and feed primarily in Antarctica. They “summer” in the South Pacific during their annual breeding and birthing periods. And, since it is breeding season, you can hear the enchanting songs of the males from miles away (the 150-200 decibel calls can be heard up to 100 kilometers in the open ocean).
Swimming with these huge, majestic and elegant creatures is a unique experience that Tonga allows because the country, desperate for tourist dollars, is one of only two countries in the world to allow the practice. It is still something of a controversial practice due to the possibility that it may alter the behavior of the giant, still endangered mammals. Authorized Tonga guides must follow many strict guidelines for conducting these tours. For example, boats cannot go within specified distances of sighted whales and must drop snorkelers well away from them. Only four visitors (plus guide) can be with a whale at a time and snorkelers must stay behind the guide and time is limited to 20 minutes. And there are only specific hours during which visits are allowed.
Sightings and chances to snorkel with the giants are virtually guaranteed. Virtually, however, is the operative word. It just so happed that the day we went, whales were extremely sparse. And on top of that, the winds were high and three to four feet swells were common. We went the entire morning without seeing a single whale and by that time, two of the eight people went down to serious sea sickness (with one choosing to exit our boat for a return early on whale watching (as opposed to whale snorkeling) boat.
It took till mid-afternoon to find our first whale and by the time we completed our fire drill entry, the whale had left. It took two more hours to find our next one. We were with the first group on our boat to enter the water. Once again the whale had departed before we had a chance to complete our next fire drill entrance and power swim to where the whale was. The second group leaving the boat (which we were not with) had some wonderful encounters, including when the whale surfaced within a couple feet of them. Our guide, wanting to ensure that we had a chance, took our group back for one final chance. This time, we did not only saw amid-size, adolescent male, but even heard him singing (thankfully, at far less than 150 decibels). While this sighting lasted only about a minute before he too departed the premises, at least we finally got to see (and hear) one of these majestic creatures up close and personal. An incredible sight and enchanting serenade that we will long remember and forever treasure.
When we returned to our resort, we learned that other guests, on other boats had similarly disappointing experiences that day. This was, as we were told by others who had been out the previous day, when they had four stops, each resulting in opportunities to cavort with one or two adult whales (albeit no babies). The day after, as we learned, snorkelers went the full day with nothing—until, again, the end of the day where they saw two whales, this time a mother and baby.
But, thanks to one couple of semi-professional undersea wildlife photographers and videographers staying at the resort, we did at least get a chance to see much of what we missed. Quite a supplement to our meager cache of amateurish point-and-click shots.