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Vol 3, Iss 2: Swimming with Whales
August 23, 2023 | Vaka’Eitu (Anchorage #16), Vava’u, Kingdom of Tonga | 18º43’24”S 174º6’1”W | Wind: 21 kts SE | Weather: 72ºF Mostly Sunny
Co-Captain’s Log, Vol 3, Iss 2: Swimming with Whales
Vaka’Eitu (#16), Vava’u, Kingdom of Tonga
It was spring of ’96. I was sitting in the passenger seat of the car as my dad ran errands on a beautiful day in the Ozarks. We were chatting about our upcoming summer vacation to California.
“I want to swim with the dolphins at SeaWorld. I’ll sell my Barbie collection to make the money to do it.”
This was before we had internet at home, so how I knew as an 8-year-old you could pay to swim with dolphins, I have no idea. But I so vividly remember setting the goal and figuring out what I’d have to do to reach it. A couple weeks later, I was sitting in the driveway after our garage sale with zero Barbies left and $125 in hand.
That summer in San Diego, I donned a wetsuit for the first time in my life, walked to the edge of a pool, jumped in and swam with dolphins. It. Was. AWESOME!
So you bet, when I found out you could legally (with a licensed operator) swim with humpback whales in Tonga, it filled the top spot on my Tongan bucket list.
This morning, with adrenaline and nerves filling my tummy, I remember the trepidation-turned-joy I experienced in that SeaWorld pool. Unlike a SeaWorld pool, we have to go search for a whale on the bulky aluminum boat with our guide Kirstie.
We haven’t been searching long when, to our starboard side, a 50-foot female breaks through the water, turns like an expert high jumper, and flops back into the sea.
We all squeal, shouting “Good morning to you, too!”
Next to the big whale, we see a little spout. It’s a mama and her calf! What luck!
We follow at a safe distance as they come to the surface every 4 minutes so the baby can breathe. Each time they come up, they’re another hundred yards farther away.
Turning west, they enter the open channel and baby starts to show off. His breaches aren’t as high as his mama’s, but they are at once adorable and impressive. He breaches again and again, copying the majestic moves of his mother.
“Why do they breach?” I ask Kirstie.
“Several reasons. They have barnacles they’re trying to get off. Sometimes they breach just for fun. But also they are training to swim to Antarctica. Once they reach the higher latitudes, the ‘Roaring 40’s’, the mist from the seas cover the surface so they have to breach to get a good clear breath.”
We track behind them and follow their every move as they breach and mama slaps her 15-ft pectoral fin on the surface. If they’d just stay put for a little while, we could all jump into the water and play with them. They’re moving too far and too fast. We can’t figure out why they won’t stay still long enough for us to join them.
All our attention is fixed on our starboard side, watching the surface of the water for any sight of the mama and baby, when “WHOOOOOOOOOOSHH!” a 45-ft male surfaces a hundred feet from the boat.
Mystery solved. Mama is in heat and getting harassed by an eager suitor. Like that annoying guy in a bar who just can’t take a hint, he’s keeping mama and baby on the move.
We thank them for a spectacular show and head off in search of another whale.
Hundreds of whales travel from the Southern Ocean to Tonga each July-October to mate and give birth in these warm protected waters. They’re so ubiquitous here, they’re like deer in the backyard. We’ve seen loud groups of males “thwoping” and “woping” as they carouse the islands like a bachelor party in Vegas. We’ve listened through our hull to the whales call to each other throughout the night. Nearly every time we move anchorages, we see a mama and calf pair. The calf’s daily diet consists of 100 liters (26 gallons) of double cream milk allowing it to gain 70 kg (154 lbs) each day.
There are 60+ boats scattered amongst the 40+ anchorages in the Vava’u island group. Cell signal is sparse and internet unreliable. We all rely on our VHF radios to communicate with each other and with the businesses around here. Thanks to repeaters installed throughout the archipelago, we can hear and speak to anyone on channel 26 anywhere in Vava’u.
Our radios stay on channel 26 all day, every day and it provides not only valuable info, but great entertainment. Imagine you and your neighbors could only communicate via group text. Well, channel 26 is a mix between a neighborhood group text and the town hall scenes in “Gilmore Girls.” Thanks to the morning Cruisers’ Information Net at 8:30 a.m., it is also our version of the Today Show, filling us in on the news, weather, special events, and the availability of produce at the market. Each day we listen to a familiar cast of characters, like Brian (“DJQ”) who missed his calling as a Coast Guard Radio Operator, Greg (“Cafe Tropicana”) who fills propane tanks for cruisers, and the ever evolving cruising boat fleet as they chatter amongst themselves.
Our favorite episode so far:
“All stations. All stations. All stations. This is Vava’u radio. It has come to my attention that some cruisers are naked near the Neiafu wharf. We’d like to remind you it is ILLEGAL to be nude here. Anyone caught in the nude is subject to huge fines and jail time. Please respect the laws and customs of our country. This is Vava’u radio standing by on channels 26 and 16.” You bet Andrés Jacobo ran out to the cockpit real fast to survey the situation for himself.
“We’re going to have a beach bonfire and s/v Glam is going to make a paella on the fire with the lobster and squid we caught today. Would you like to come?” They didn’t have to ask us twice! We jumped straight into our kayak and headed for the beach. S/v Glam cooked up the most delicious paella we’ve ever tasted in one of the most primitive kitchens we’ve ever seen.
Kirstie is expertly navigating her whale watching boat through the channel east of Hunga: One bare foot on the captain’s seat, one bare foot turning the wheel to and fro, head out of the hatch above, eyes trained on the young male whale swimming ahead.
He isn’t coming up as frequently as the mama and baby, but he is more stationary. This might be our chance to swim with him.
“Get ready! When I say go, follow Kylie into the water and swim as fast as you can toward the whale.”
We see him come up for the first breath, the second breath, the third breath. We wait with bated breath as he comes up for a final fourth one. With this breath he dives down, flicks his tail, and like a foot print in the forest, gives us a clue as to where he dove.
Kirstie gives the signal and points toward the tail print. We slip into the water one by one and swim toward his last known position.
We can’t see him, but we can hear him singing. Long, deep melodies punctuated by the sounds of the brass section in an orchestra clearing their spit valves.
We swim around for 8 minutes, searching frantically for any spots of white in the deep water below.
Kirstie spots him as he comes back up for breath and she pulls us all back in the boat. “Must be a young male because he knows some of the song, but not all of the song,” she explains.
We follow him to his next location, wait for the 4 breaths and the tail flick before back in the water we go.
He sings and sings as we swim and swim, but each time he comes up, he’s 300 meters away. He’s putting on a great concert but he swims too fast for us so we peel off in search of another playmate.
It’s rained 75% of the time we’ve been in Tonga. We hear it’s related to El Niño, the position of the South Pacific Convergence Zone or the jet stream, the size of the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica, the long-lasting effect of the volcanic eruption here in 2022…maybe a combination of it all. Whatever the cause, when Tonga’s bad, it’s miserable. On the other hand, when Tonga’s good, it’s great! So on the days when it’s not raining, we’re paddling around like madmen escaped from the loony bin, knowing we could at any moment be shackled back into straightackets. We swim and snorkel and hike and kayak from sun-up to sun-down. Gotta make hay while the sun is shinin’.
The islands here are made up of limestone so there are caves along the shores. Swimming in Swallow’s Cave and Mariner’s Cave is considered a must-do while here. We paddled our (somewhat fragile) inflatable kayak hesitantly through the 30-foot entrance to Swallow’s Cave. Once through the small entrance, the cave opens up to an area as big and high as any high school cafeteria. No wonder they used to lower food down through the holes in the ceiling and hold special feasts in the expansive space.
Mariner’s Cave is a bit more intimidating since you must dive underwater to enter the cave. I’ve been practicing holding my breath and swimming as fast as I could, but I still wasn’t sure I’d make it. We paddled 3 1/2 miles to the cave, found it, held our breaths, and swam into darkness. To our relief, it wasn’t as scary as we were expecting. To our surprise, we could see mist fill the cave when the swell entered. Our popping ears told us the air pressure in the cave was changing with each new wave. While really cool, that’s probably the extent of any cave diving we’ll ever do.
(We don’t have underwater cameras but you can see pictures of both here: https://tongapocketguide.com/10-incredible-caves-in-tonga/)
You’ve probably heard the term “farm-to-table” to describe the uppity urban restaurants who claim to source ingredients from the local forms. Here in Vava’u there are no conventional supermarkets and we source our produce through what Andrés Jacobo calls “garden-to-galley.”
Or more accurately…
garden to skiff (most produce arrives from gardens on the outer islands via small boats)…
to market (the outdoor plaza next to the wharf)…
to backpack (our huge water-proof bags)…
to kayak (our only way to get to and from shore)…
to tube socks (to protect the produce from bruising)…
to net bags (hanging above our salon table)…
In the past hour, we’ve come up with a list of better names for the day than “whale swim”…
Hide and Go Seek with the Whales.
Finally, our friend Sue spots a blow behind us.
Maybe third time’s a charm? Maybe we’ll finally get to swim with a whale?
Kirstie points out the tailprint and once again we slide off the back of the boat.
We swim a hundred feet and suddenly…that’s a reef, no that’s not a reef. THAT’S A TAIL!!!!
A tail! A tail! I can see a tail!
Under the water I catch the eyes of our guide Kylie and give her an ungraceful fist pump.
We still our bodies, floating easily in the salt water, and we watch her.
And we watch her.
And we watch her.
She sits at the bottom for 20 full minutes. Is she dead? The baby was surfacing every 3-4 minutes, the singer every 8.
She is stone-still for a long time.
But then her arms start to move. A little wiggle. Then another.
Then she is getting bigger and bigger. Her enormous size, once disguised by the distance, is coming into its full glory.
I realize, “Oh, I’m right in her flight path. I better get out of the way.”
Andrés Jacobo must feel the same way as he is suddenly swimming closer to me, grabbing my arm, and gently pulling back from the whale who is coming to swim right beside us. We see the moment when she seemingly becomes aware of our presence, deviating abruptly to miss us.
We swim as fast as we can to keep up with her as she takes one breath. Another breath. We’re swimming as fast as our flippers can kick, but with the third breath, she pulls away, quickly out of sight.
I’ve never been hunting but all the sudden I understand the allure. After searching all day, I’m high on the adrenaline with one glimpse of this magnificent creature.
Next time she spouts even closer to shore, in shallower waters.
We’re back in the water and spot her almost immediately. Her white belly, like a waving flag, announcing her presence.
What is she doing, yoga? She is below us, nose down, with her back arched to lift her tail behind her head. The most amazing headstand I’ve ever seen.
Her yoga pose gives us a great view of her speckled tummy and baleen plates. She holds the pose for several magical minutes before returning to her resting pose with her back to us as we float above.
Once again, we watch for 10 minutes before she heads back to the surface for a breath. She must know she has an audience. As she comes close to us, she slows to half-speed and allows us to get a long look at her entire front side while she’s suspended in the water.
First breath. Second breath. Third breath. Fourth breath and down she goes.
Our spotter indicates the tailprint isn’t that far from where we are, so instead of jumping back in the boat, we all take off swimming in her direction.
We’re swimming at her tail, expecting her to dive deep and behave exactly as she has the past two times.
So we’re completely caught off guard when, with our eyes are trained below us on her, a whale charges at us at lightening speed.
It takes a second to realize we are looking at two whales. A male has found the female and in an incredible moment we watch as they swim nose to tail, tail to nose in one slow circle, another slow circle, and yet another slow circle.
You know when you’re watching the couples figure skating in the Olympics? The couples move so gracefully yet so powerfully, so close and in-tune with each other’s every move.
These whales, spinning and turning and flipping and twirling in perfect sync, give us a gold medal performance.
We’ve just watched a whale courtship.
We have no chance to catch up to them as they swim off to…*ahem*…
Well, let’s just say, if you want to watch these whales for yourselves, there’ll be plenty of baby whales in Vava’u in about 11 months.
We’ll spend the final months of the cruising season in the Ha’apai Islands south of Vava’u then look for a weather window to cross to New Zealand.
Your Summer Log
We’d love to know how your summer has been (or your winter if you’re with us in the Southern Hemisphere). Reply to this email and share with us any or all of your summer stories, your Mainsail (highlight), your Challenge, your Galley, your Wildlife, your Lingo, your Entertainment, and/or your Horizon. Can’t wait to read them!
Fair winds and following seas,
P.S. Our friend, Ann on s/v Afrikii, took pictures during the whale swim. See the whales we saw on our instagram (@CoCaptainsLog) or find them on my Facebook page.
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