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Tonga’s Majestic Humpback Whales
By Don Silcock, March 20, 2021 @ 06:00 AM (EST)

A calf from the Tongan Tribe of humpbacks plays near the surface
 

It is one of the largest known animal migrations in the world, a journey of over 3,700 miles that takes the “Tongan Tribe” from their rich summer feeding grounds in the Antarctic up through the Southern Ocean, along the east coast of New Zealand into the Pacific Ocean, and finally to the 170-plus islands of the Kingdom of Tonga.

The Tribe is one of seven main populations of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) that call the Antarctic home during the summer months of the Southern Hemisphere. In summer, these waters abound with krill, one of the most successful and abundant species on the planet and a critically important primary element in the Antarctic food chain. All seven humpback populations spend those summer months gorging on krill as they prepare for the winter ahead.

Come May, when the average daytime temperature falls to around –4°F (–20°C), the whales know the time has come for them to leave and head north. It is truly a perilous journey, one they have been making for thousands of years, because the whales need warm, sheltered water for the winter months and, for the whales of this particular tribe, that means the islands of the Tongan archipelago.
 

The fluke of a calf still looks huge beside a dive tender

 

The Cycle of Life

The Tongan whales are but a small part of the estimated 60,000 whales that make up the current Southern Hemisphere humpback population. Like their Northern Hemisphere cousins, the southern humpbacks migrate huge distances each year as part of their cycle of life.

After spending the summer bulking up in their feeding grounds, the whales are ready to swim the thousands of miles to their winter grounds, where the mature adults will mate. Those female whales pregnant from the previous year will give birth and then nurse their calves in the protected bays and lagoons of the archipelago. By early spring, the cycle comes full circle again. The whales have lived for months off their rich body fat and are looking lean, particularly so the mothers, who have nursed their calves through their initial growth spurt so they can make the long swim south.

It was the absolute predictability of those annual migrations that made the humpbacks so vulnerable to the whaling fleets of the 18th and 19th centuries. Life was even more difficult for the Tongan Tribe as a small, but particularly harmful, indigenous whaling industry operated for many years in the archipelago. Tongan whalers used small boats rowed out from shore. Unable to take on the powerful mature whales, they targeted the calves, as they were easier to harpoon, tired quickly, and could be towed back to shore for processing.

The combined impact of the whaling fleets and the indigenous whalers had a devastating and disproportionate impact on the Tongan Tribe, with the total number of whales reduced to as low as 250 when the King of Tonga formally banned whaling completely in 1978.
 

A mother and calf stay close

 

Whale Swimming in Tonga

Ending whaling was not a popular decision. Tonga is a traditional, religious place, with very limited local industry. Many locals leave to seek work in places like Australia and New Zealand, remitting as much as possible back home to support their extended families. Whaling provided a valuable source of nutrition, and the whalers enjoyed significant status as true hunters who took on the elements to—quite literally—put meat on the table.

Viewed through the rearview mirror of time, the decision by late King Taufa‘ahau Tupou IV to halt indigenous whaling was both brave and incredibly visionary. The decision was followed with another groundbreaking idea: allowing in-water encounters with the whales. At the time, that made Tonga one of the very few places in the world where this was possible.

Initially, the low numbers of the Tongan Tribe, combined with the limited infrastructure to support whale tourism, meant that very little tangible benefit was felt locally. But, over time nature’s incredible ability to restore an overall balance asserted itself and the Tribe has grown, albeit more slowly than the other Southern Hemisphere populations.

With that growth has come significant changes in the infrastructure to support whale tourism, not perfect by any means, but more than enough to sustain the overall dynamics. What gaps there are tend to be more than compensated for by the incredible experience of being in the water with the whales!
 

Vava‘u’s very picturesque Port of Refuge
 

The whales are present in Tongan waters from around mid-June to early October and can be seen all over the archipelago, but the northern Vava‘u group of islands is by far the most popular area for whale tourism. There are 41 islands, but most of the whale tourism operators are based in and around the main town of Neiafu on ‘Utu Vava‘u, the largest island in the group.

During the whale season, their boats leave the wonderfully scenic Port of Refuge harbor every day to look for the humpbacks. Every day, that is, but Sunday, because Tonga is deeply religious and by law nothing happens on a Sunday but church…

The prevailing winds in Tonga are from the southeast, and the bays in the northwest offer numerous sheltered areas for the mothers and their calves to gather. So, unless the winds are really strong, the whale tourism boats are almost always able to go out and look for the humpbacks.
 

Neiafu’s pretty little harbor
 

You’ll need to take a break from the whales on Sundays in Tonga

 

Humpback Encounters

Tongan government whale-swimming regulations allow one licensed operator’s boat to enter the 300-meter (~1,000-foot) radius exclusion zone required around all humpbacks, with a maximum of four people plus one trained guide permitted to enter the water. The boats are not allowed any closer than 10 meters (~30 feet), but typically they will often hang back further so as not to scare the whales away.

It is all very situational dependant, and an experienced guide really is the key as they will understand what is happening and lead the encounter so as to maximize the interaction—while minimizing any impact on the animals. There are several different types of encounters possible with the Tongan humpback whales, which vary in nature from the serene and very touching interaction with a mother and her nursing calf, to the sheer intensity and somewhat intimidating “heat run”!
 

A freediver captures the drama of the heat run
 

Mothers and Calves

Encounters with mothers and their calves are a very special and endearing part of being allowed in the water with the Tongan humpbacks. The bond between them is clear and strong, and the mothers are very protective and wary of potential predators. Tired from giving birth, the mothers use the sheltered bays around Utu Vava‘u to rest while nurturing their calves in preparation for the long return journey to the Antarctic.

A good guide can read the body language of the resting mother and will position the group so as to maximize the interaction and overall photographic potential. If the mother has “settled” and accepted the presence of swimmers, the encounter becomes sublime, and she may even approach to take a closer look at the visitors. Being so near to such a huge creature is an experience that will stay with your forever!

Entry into the water has to be made silently from at least 50 meters (165 feet) away and a maximum of four swimmers, plus a guide, is allowed. The approach must be done very quietly—no splashing fins, please—and carefully or the mother will sense possible danger and lead the calf away.
 

The bond between mother and baby is palpable
 

Escorts

Escorts are mature male or female humpbacks that tag along with the mother and calf, and help fend off predators and other males who may try to force their attentions on the mother. If the escort is a male, his motivation is rarely altruistic though, as he is hoping to be allowed to mate with the mother. It is not known why females take up the escort role, but the answer probably lies in the social nature of these animals. Encounters with an escort whale are usually close and quite sudden as they typically stay in the background, guarding against predators, and if a potential one appears—you!—they move in quickly to scare it away.
 

An escort shows who’s boss
 

Swim-pasts

As you probably guessed, “swim-pasts” are when you are dropped ahead of a traveling pod of whales and they swim past you. There are two types: those with a group of young males who appear to be hanging out together (a bit like the human equivalents you see at shopping malls), and then there are the mothers and calves together with their escort. Swim-pasts don’t last long and you usually won’t get a second chance, as the traveling whales will dive down if they are repeatedly approached.
 

A mother, calf and escort “swim-past”: Have your settings dialed in so you’re ready to compose the shot
 

Singers

Although they have no vocal cords, male humpbacks are able produce complex “songs” by circulating air through the various tubes and chambers of their respiratory system. These songs are believed to play a part in the breeding cycle.

Singing males position themselves vertically in the water with their flukes up and heads down when performing. Often, this is quite close to the surface, and as they remain static in this position, it is possible to duck-dive down to get a closer look without impacting the whale, which seems to be in an almost zen-like state. When heard underwater, the sound waves produced make your whole body vibrate, so getting close to a performing male is an intense and somewhat intimidating experience!
 

A male demonstrates his singing prowess
 

Competitive Groups

Second only to heat runs in their intensity, competitive group encounters occur when one or more male “challengers” decide to try to displace an incumbent escort. The basic objective of the challenger has very little to do with protecting the mother and calf. Instead, it’s about replacing the incumbent and being best positioned for sex when the mother decides she is ready!

The challenger will try to force its presence upon the mother and make the incumbent escort abandon its hoped-for liaison with her. If the challenger is aggressive enough, there may be a passive changing of the guard and the vanquished escort will retreat into the blue. But more likely there will be a competition between the challenger and the incumbent, which is when the spectacle really begins, as the mother tries to stay out of the fray and protects her calf while the two contestants battle it out.
 

Challenger and incumbent spar over a female guarding her calf
 

Let’s see what you got, big boy!
 

The Heat Run

If the mother and calf encounter is a gentle and considered experience, the “heat run” is the complete opposite. They occur when a female humpback decides she is ready to mate, which she signals by slapping her large pectoral fins repeatedly on the surface—a sound that resonates through the water and presumably sounds like music to the ears of any males in the vicinity.

The males gather in the general area and wait for the signal that the great game is on, which the female initiates by swimming off at speed, with her retinue of potential suitors in tow. As the female powers ahead, the males jostle until, over time, there is just one left and he can claim the grand prize!

The encounter is mind-blowing. You are hurriedly dropped some 100 meters (330 feet) upstream of the pack and have just enough time to regain your composure and clean the bubbles off your dome before the whales appear out of the blue. My initial thoughts were that I was about to die, as about a dozen huge, 35-ton submarine-like creatures powered towards me at speeds of up to 10 knots! But they are not called “gentle giants” for nothing, and despite their ardor, they seem to be aware of where you are and simply go around or under you.
 

The humpback heat run is one of the most intense spectacles you’ll ever photograph
 

Heat runs can go on for hours so it’s quite possible to have multiple encounters by being picked up and then dropped in front of the pack again
 

Playful Calves

Newly born calves are 10 to 13 feet (3–4 meters) long, weigh up to a ton, and are a significant animal in their own right—even if they do appear small compared to their enormous mothers. Initially, a calf is quite timid and the mother is very protective, but consuming up to 200 liters of its mother’s fat-rich milk per day allows the calf to grow quickly.

Before long, they’ll start to demonstrate playful behavior at the surface, such as breaching and tail slapping. It is believed that this strengthens the calf in preparation for the long migration south and so the mother will allow this cavorting around while watching for potential predators.

The calves are very inquisitive and may come over to check you out, but be warned—this is probably as dangerous as in-water whale-watching gets. Although not aggressive in nature, the calves have very little spatial awareness, unlike the mature whales, which always seem to know exactly where you are. The risk is that you may get side-swiped by the calf’s pectoral fin or fluke as it turns or even worse get caught in a tail slap! Still, the risk is well worth it, as the interaction with the calves is a sheer delight.
 

The calves’ youthful energy and enthusiasm seem to positively radiate from them, making these encounters particularly special

 

A Truly Unique Experience

I spent almost three weeks in Tonga, based in Neiafu, and apart from Sundays, I was out on the water virtually every day from about 8am. Each day was different in some way or other: Some days, we would have wonderful mother-and-calf interactions; other days would be swim-pasts; yet others would have playful calves or singers. Then, there was the incredible heat run day…

But as we came back in to Neiafu’s beautiful Port of Refuge harbor late each afternoon, I was always filled with the same sense of wonder and awe at what we had experienced that day in the water with these magnificent creatures. This truly is a one-of-a-kind experience that you will never forget.
 

A rainbow over Vava‘u
 



In more normal times, Don is based in Bali, and his website www.indopacificimages.com has extensive images, articles and location guides on some of the world’s best diving destinations in the Indo-Pacific region and “big animal” experiences globally—including a Complete Guide to Tonga’s Humpbacks. Make sure to check out DPG’s Photographer of the Week article featuring more of Don’s awesome pictures.

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