To look into a humpback whale’s eyes

If there is one place I like to roam with the wild things, it is under the ocean’s surface.

There is something about being under the waves, in a world that is so foreign, yet for me feels so right. Yes, breathing is aided by an air tanks, snorkel and mask or you need to be able to hold your breath to free dive. Once you have mastered that however, the ocean is well … your oyster!

I recently travelled to Tonga with extreme excitement as I set off to swim with the humpback whales. Ever since I was a young girl I have been mesmerized by the beauty and magic of whales. I had a record with the sound of whale songs on that I had pulled out of a National Geographic Magazine and played it over and over until it would play no more.

With that hauntingly beautiful sound still so familiar in my mind, I stepped onto the shores of Uoleva Island, part of the Ha’apai Island group in Tonga. Expectant of a South Pacific island, the clean sand licked by lapping waves felt good between my toes. The water was so warm but still refreshing from the even warmer air that hugged me in a humid embrace.

Walking up the beach I was greeted by friendly smiles from the team at Sea Change Eco Retreat. A eco-friendly retreat located right on the waterfront, Sea Change is everything right in keeping things in tune with nature. I was in my element. Glamping in a tent set up on a wooden deck where you go to sleep at night listing to the lapping waves on the shore as a cool breeze blew in off the ocean with its salty breath.

The shower is mostly cold water (you can switch on the hot if you need) with the water pumped and the toilet is a sawdust drop toilet. It really gives a sense of camping, but with a toilet seat for that added luxury.

While the island itself is incredible, it was the whales I was there for. If you are looking for an experience that is unique, life changing and really gets the heart pumping than swimming with humpback whales in Tonga is the ultimate.

There are few wildlife encounters that allow you to get this up close and personal, while maintaining a respect for the animal and their environment, but in Tonga, they have found a way to peacefully interact with the whales with minimum impact.

Tonga is one of only a few countries in the world where you can actually swim with humpback whales. Swimming with the whales is done so with sensible tourism guidelines and experienced guides to ensure minimal impact on the whales and their environment.

Each year from mid-July to mid-October, Tonga’s serene islands become the resting place for the majestic humpback whales. North of Tonga’s main island of Tongatapu are the islands of Ha’apai, a safe haven for the migrating humpback whales from the Antarctic. These calm warm waters of Ha’apai offer refuge for the whales to breed, birth and socialise.

Depending on the weather, mornings at Sea Change begin with a healthy breakfast before heading out on the boat in search of whales. Joined by experienced and knowledgeable guides, swimmers are briefed about the importance of respecting the whales in their space to ensure a safe interaction for both whales and swimmers.

Finding the whales and watching them from the surface is exhilarating to start with. They are everywhere in these waters, but there is a lot of water for them to hide in. Adult humpbacks will surface every 20 minutes, expelling the spent air through their blowholes before gulping down fresh oxygen. Known as a ‘blow’, you can spot these some 3km away, a fine mist that rises above the waves.

The boat races towards a sighting and then waits for the whales to surface again. The vast array of interesting behaviours from the whales include a graceful spy hop, powerful fin or fluke slaps to continual full body breaching and inquisitive approaches to the boat. Add to this the use of a hydrophone (waterproof microphone) to listen to the magical whale love songs and the experience above the water in incredible.

The moment had come to dive beneath the surface into some of the bluest clear waters. Swimming towards the whales I did not know what to expect. I tried to remain calm as to not impact on them with my arrival. This was hard. I was soon upon a resting mother humpback whale while her calf playfully swims nearby. Trying to keep the legal distance from the whales can be challenging, with the young whales often keen to come up and investigate the swimmers. As these beautiful creature glide past you, majestic and curious, it is hard to contain the rush of emotions. I had to contain my squeals of excitement.

As the baby whale curiously came closer, it was as if I could reach out and touch her. She touched me though, through a fleeting moment of eye contact where I felt I looked into the depths of the ocean in that one moment. I went to jelly, unable to swim, just floating as this incredible animal glided past me and sank off into the depths to its mother once again.

It was a moment I will remember for a lifetime as I strive to ensure my everyday life from here forward will be conscious of decisions that can impact on the ocean and the very lives of these majestic beasts.

You can read more about my adventures in Tonga swimming with whales here.

CAPTURED TRAVEL

WHERE WILD THINGS ROAM

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About Author

Kate Webster

Kate Webster is a travel journalist - travel writer and photographer who travels the globe in search of vivid imagery and compelling stories that capture the essence of the places she visits.

Born out of a life-long love of travel and fascination with the world around her, is Kate's inspiration behind her writing and photography.

When she’s not bouncing around the world on ramshackle buses, overcrowded trains, or on the back of a rickshaw, you can find her based in Sydney or the Gold Coast, Australia eagerly planning her next adventure.