Mystical enclosure with humpback whales
Close to the reefs of Tongatapu our guide spotted breaches from humpback whales in far distance. That is nothing unusual for the waters around the 180 islands of the kingdom Tonga, especially in the period between July and October.
We headed towards the point where we saw the breaches and after finding the humpback whales we got ready to go into the water: wetsuit, mask, flippers and not to forget a camera. One can never predict what will happen when going into the water. But already after a few minutes it was clear that this one was going to be special.
Once being in the water we were able to observe a unique sensation with 4-6 humpbacks in different sizes from 12-15 meters in length and 35-40 tons weight. Being so close to us, sometimes even formidable close, we could see them doing loops and pirouettes. It was like they were inviting us to dance with them as they were spinning around in the water.
Mana told me: “Two of them swam directly towards me. With their flippers outspread they looked like airplanes during the landing. Only about 5 meters in distance the whales started doing pirouettes again and showing their white belly. One of them came that close with the flipper I could have kissed it (unfortunately they have a lot of really sharp barnacles). Already months ago before swimming with them in the Dominican Republic, I once was dreaming about kissing a humpback whales flipper. It barely can be described with words what is happening once you are in the water with these animals. Even now I am still thinking about and processing this mysterious experience. I would love to know what the whales were up to and how they were experiencing the encounter.”
We had the chance to experience many different situations with sea dwellers. Sometimes we got to meet whale mothers with their calves. During whale watching I was always asking myself what the whales would be doing beneath the surface. That is why it was a gift being able to go into the water now and see mother and calf exchanging affectionateness.
Younger calves (up to four weeks) often relax and lies on mums back. The mother is often relaxing in the reef zones, that means that she is lying on the ground until she has to take the next breath. The young calf sometimes is lying below her, so that you can only detect one animal.
When the calf is about 8 weeks old it becomes clearly more active and agile. It starts playing on its own with humans and begins to discover this mysterious species. The calf cannot hold its breath as long as its mother and therefore has to surface more often. Moreover, it has more energy than its mother, whom has to really take care of her strength. The mother is living off her fat reserves, as she is not feeding during the whole time suckling her calf. So, some power naps on the ground are clearly necessary.
The humpback whales eye has a wide angle which helps the mother to have a total overview of its surroundings. The calf is playful and curious and often comes very close to humans. When they continue their journey the calf is sometimes swimming on top or right next to its mother. That has the two advantages that due to an upcoming current the calf needs less of its own power. Furthermore it then looks like a very big whale what protects them from shark and orca attacks.
What looks like whale yoga is a very clever and useful result of evolution. Sometimes the female whale swims head down doing a head stand for minutes. Then only the fluke can be seen above the surface. The baby is swimming around its mother and it appears to be a good position for the calf to drink of the nutrient and greasy milk.
For me personally it was very interesting that it felt like the whale always knew exactly where we were and were able to calculate the distance to us humans – even with their long flipper – at any moment. It seems pretty difficult to me as the pectoral fins are so long – 3 – 5 meters. Yet experience shows that it never comes to any contact, even though they come really really close sometimes (uiuiuiui!). A befriended underwater photographer once told me a bypassing whale was folding in his flipper to not touch him.
What’s most important, as in all situations when it comes to encounters with whales and dolphins: Respect! We are their guests and the mammals determine the intension of the encounter.
Here we are reporting the highlight moments, as whale watching and whale swimming need a lot of effort and patience. Oftentimes we see those beautiful animals passing under water. A fantastic sight! Once in Moorea we saw a humpack whale mother with its calf escorted by two male whales. One of them was exhaling under water while also making noises – probably to send a message to the other male whale. Maybe it was something like “bugger off, I am closer right now!”. But that’s only interpretation it could be meaning a lot of different things.
That day Mana already told us about, was absolutely magical and worth every bit of commitment, effort and cost. It was the day where four humpbacks were playing with us humans. It is still unbelievable to me that the whales are the ones looking for contact and are interested in interaction.
Furthermore they seem to have a never ending endurance. After already being in the water with them for hours I was standing in the back of the boat where I saw a head coming out of the water. It was the “white boy”, a whale we already have been with in the water before. It was as if he was checking the situation and asking “Can we continue to play?”.
One time I am going into the water and directly below me I spot the white boy. He is standing vertically in the water, spinning around and showing his beautiful white belly. I was so excited I could not avoid squeaking under water. In another moment a whale is standing vertically below our boat and examined it in detail.
We should stop looking for intelligent species in outer space!
The game did not stop once we came out of the water. I was standing at the bow, spreading my arms in a moment of happiness. The white boy was lying on his back just next to me and imitating me by also spreading his flippers. But I am not sure who is imitating whom – a moment of utter synchronicity.
While Mana was hanging on a rope between the skids of the catamaran a whale came very close observing what Mana was doing there. For him that few seconds felt like eternal timelessness.
The same moment a few rough toothed dolphins came into the bow wave. The humpbacks seemed not amused about their presence. It is rare to see humpbacks doing a horizontal movement with their fluke, but that moment it looked like they were trying to shoo them away like an annoying fly. The rough toothed dolphins appeared unbothered and continued to do their own thing: being the clowns of the seas. It was very funny to see a video sequence that Mana filmed, where a rough-toothed dolphin imitated the movement of a whale.
Dancing in the water
What were the four humpback whales doing originally before some humans jumped into the water. And they invited us to dance with them. They spread their flippers and spun around in a very gentle and awake manner. They were curious and attentive about these beings with the weird masks and snorkels.
It was an encounter between two species with contact, closeness and curiousness from both sides. That meeting left at least us humans very happy and blissful. How did the whales experience the encounter? We will never know, but they had apparently as much fun as we did.
Te Mana o Te Manoa in French Polynesia means the spirit of the ocean. For me it means the spirits IN the ocean.
photo credits: Christopher Swan www.cswannphotography.co, Mana Bauer