Located 1200 miles east of Fiji, the Kingdom of Tonga has preserved a simple way of life close to nature. It’s also one of the few places in the world where one can swim with whales under the supervision of certified guides. Whales congregate in the warm waters of the Pacific to mate and breed after migrating from their Antarctic feeding grounds.
Road to Adventure
Once we are off, the guide recites the rules, which will ensure a safe observation for the whales and us. Like all animal observations, one must remain patient. It’s out of the question to scare the animals or to approach the animals too fast.
Once the whales are sighted, the captain estimates that the conditions are favorable for observation and authorize us to enter in the water. The guide slides into the water first and I gently follow him making sure to avoid sudden movements.
Humpback whales are very protective of their young, meaning an underwater photographer must approach slowly.
Smaller, younger whales have to breathe often, returning frequently to the surface.
We must be careful, as the calves like to play with snorkelers. The rule is simple: We don’t move, and we don’t touch. We didn’t try to interact with the calf, as it’s the baby whale’s decision. Don’t forget that this “little whale” still weighs several tons and that is his natural habitat.
It’s strictly forbidden to encircle the whales: One must stay a minimum of five meters away and all stay on the same side to make sure the calf is never separated from his mother.
Underwater, the calves seem to fly like a bird in the sky.
Curious, the calf likes playing very close to the snorkeler.
The baby whale tries to do a breach like just like her mother.
Photographing Tonga's Whales
There is not really a specific technique photographic for whales. There is mostly a technique of approach. As I said, you have to wait that whale come to you. You have to follow her only on the side—not front, not back. The whale accepts you if you respect this rule. She does not feel in danger when you are in her viewing angle.
To observe a humpback whale in its natural habitat isn’t necessarily an easy thing, and currently, seeing the calves swim close to their mothers is more difficult. Seeing this is a once in a lifetime moment. This magic instantly transported us into their world. But never forget that these mammals are still wild animals. It’s not guaranteed that you will see one. And if you are lucky enough to come eye to eye with these giants, respecting their peace is essential to continued preservation.
A humpback calf imitates her mother.
The bond between mother and child is very strong.
From time to time, a young male decides to join the group and is accepted as protector of the family.
After playing with us, the calf decides to return with her mother.
About the Author: Fabrice Guerin is a wildlife photographer, with a decade of in-field experience from the most remote corners of the world. Out of the water, he is an art director in the corporate world, living in Paris and Marseille, France. In the last year alone, his images have won several notable awards in international competitions: Underwater Photographer of the Year 2015, Windland Smith Rice International Awards, DEEP Indonesia, and Annual World Oceans Day. For more of Fabrice’s work, please visit his official website.