Friday, August 29, 2014

And the baby flips...

Tonga is a Mecca for whale watching, specifically humpback whales who migrate to these waters from the Antarctic to mate and birth their young. We wanted to be sure to see whales and also we had heard that you could swim with the whales, so we booked a day on a tour boat. Although we had to be at the boat by 7am (and I'm not an early riser), we had a great time.

Early morning view off the back of the boat.

By 8am, we spotted our first whale mamma and baby. They swam up next to the boat and everyone got excited. Sione, our skipper, told us to gear up and get ready. We donned our wetsuits, snorkel, mask and fins. Paula (pronounced pow-o-la), our handsome Tongan guide, slipped into the water first, making sure not to splash and scare the whales away. Then the first four of us tourists followed. (Only four tourists at a time are allowed in the water with each whale to minimize the stress to our water-loving friends.)

Through my mask, I saw the mother whale below and the fat baby a few feet closer to the surface. They were massive, as you'd expect, and so still and beautiful. But then, without any notice, they took off. One of fellow whale watchers was not comfortable in the water and had gotten scared by the sight of the whales. As she freaked out, her legs splashed the water and her arms flapped towards the boat. She had spooked the whales and they weren't coming back, so we all climbed back aboard in search of another set of whales.

The momma humpback whale surfacing close to the boat.

It wasn't hard to find whales that day. What was a little challenging though, was finding whales that stayed put once we got in the water. Eventually we found a mother and her very young baby relaxing in the calm waters on the north side of the island. Our guide estimated that the baby was just 3-4 weeks old as it hadn't plumped up quite yet.

While we swam with the whales, the baby alternated between resting under its momma nursing and doing flips and gracefully turns under the surface. Every few minutes the baby would come to the surface to breathe, spouting a small fountain of water from its blow hole. Typically, the mother would follow showing us her great expanse as she tucked her flippers (fins?) and pointed her head to the surface. Then the two would dive back down towards the sandy bottom and go back to nursing.

Josh (far right) snorkeling with the whales.

The baby rolling and showing us it's fins and white belly.

We spent at least two hours, taking turns in our groups of four, watching the whales. Josh even got to hear the baby singing to its mother during one of his turns. I, meanwhile, was trying to get warm in the boat and didn't hear a thing.

As we were headed back to the wharf, we spotted a large whale in the distance slapping the water with its massive tail.

Slap, slap, slap, slap, slap. Pause for a minute. Slap, slap, slap, slap, slap. Pause.

This pattern repeated for several minutes and then, the whale seemingly satisfied, the ocean turned flat again and the whale was gone.

Clear blue water. Humpbacks lurk below.

Warming up after whale watching at a turquoise blue snorkeling spot. Josh went in; I did not.

Entrance to Swallow's Cave where I swam through jellyfish in my bikini (no stings!) and we saw a black and white striped sea snake.


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