Our good friend Noel Forsyth takes us beneath the waves to spend some time with the gentle giants of the deep….
Like most surfers and other beachcomber types, I’ve always had something of a soft spot for whales. I first saw a pair of Southern Right Whales up close while surfing at Merimbula. After that encounter, I found myself seeking out locations where whales might turn up, along the Victorian and NSW South coastline. I nearly paddled straight into a sizeable pair of Humpback Whales near Ulladulla, and I even got a few fleeting glances of the all-white Humpback, Migaloo, in South Gippsland.
I thought that registering as an emergency hand to help at whale stranding events would be a good thing to do, but to my surprise, the Cetacean Stranding group was actually involved in scientific research on deceased whales to analyse their vital statistics, physical state and cause of death. In 2009, I joined a small group that sailed out of Eden looking for Killer Whales, or Orcas. We had no luck finding them, but we did come very close to several large Sperm Whales – similar to the mythical White Whale, Moby Dick.
I think I must have first read about whale swim/ snorkelling tours in an in-flight magazine, and decided then and there it was just the thing I needed do to fully celebrate my 50th birthday. That trip, from Cairns out to Lizard Island and Ribbon Reef on the Great Barrier Reef, brought me within arm’s length of a group of half a dozen Minke Whales. Minkes really resemble a very small scale Blue Whale, and are a bit bigger than a large dolphin. It was the last day of five days on the water before the Minkes finally graced us with their presence, but once they did arrive, it was on! From 10 am until after dark, we were swimming and observing these beautiful animals non-stop from just a metre or so away. Needless to say, I was hooked.
Being a dad, it’s not so easy to just up and off to go check out some whale action, so my next whale adventure was quite some time in the making. I had heard quite a bit about the Humpback swims which happened each year in Tonga, from August to October. I knew it to be quite amazing, but maybe also slightly questionable, as far the welfare of the whales was concerned. With many whale swim operators working a relatively small area, it’s not hard to imagine that tour operators might occasionally push the letter of the official regulations, in order to have a team of happy snorkeller/ campers at the end of the day.
As it happened, my opportunity to find out more pretty much just fell in my lap. A friend of mine, Dave Donnelly was doing his second or third stint in Tonga, working with the whales and training up some of the local Tongan dive guides in close quarters boat handling, safety procedures and establishing some entertaining sailing routes that took in coral reefs, islands and caves, as well as the obligatory whales. Somewhat surprisingly, my solo adventure trip got the green light from my wife, and I was off like a shot.
The flight from Sydney is relatively short, only about 3 ½ hours, but quite a bit longer on the return, due to the prevailing jetstream winds. My flight arrived at 2am. I’d finally cleared customs an hour later, and was at my appointed guest house around 4am. I didn’t get much time to sleep before I was up again at 6:30am to go to the port at Nukualof’a. The boat provided by Blue Water Explorer generally accommodates 8 swimmers, but for most of my trip, there were only 3 of us, along with Dave driving the boat and 2 local dive guides. My companions were a Marine Parks policy manager from Queensland and an expert on the sea life of Port Phillip Bay, whose film footage had been used by David Attenborough in his nature documentaries.
As a guy who just had a casual interest in whales, I did feel a little overwhelmed by the level of technical experience surrounding me, but my fellow snorkelers were fantastic company, and had a wealth of knowledge on everything from Seahorses and Spider Crabs to Manta Rays and Sharks. This knowledge was to come in very handy – almost immediately. After an hour or two’s steaming, we finally arrived at ‘Eua Island, where we were told on good authority we might encounter a group of Sailfish in a prime feeding locale. No sooner had I got in the water, than the dive guide yells out ‘Close up, there’s a Tiger Shark!’.
Sure enough, I followed the direction of where all the heads were pointing, and there was a 3 metre Tiger Shark, very casually cruising up towards the surface, eyeing us off. I wasn’t exactly sure how to take this, but like everyone else, was completely mesmerised by watching the shark as he slowly drifted off into the blue. This really started me thinking, where exactly did he go? Hmmm … After I was assured there was really no danger from the Tiger Shark, we went back to looking for the Sailfish. Unfortunately the visibility was far from ideal, so we jumped back in the boat and started heading back towards Nukualofa.
It wasn’t very long before we spotted out first pod of Humpbacks, and they too seemed to be quite interested in both the boat and the swimmers. I should explain here exactly how a whale encounter would generally happen. It seems that there are maybe 3 basic scenarios:
1) The whales show no interest in interacting with you, and dive off to parts unknown – don’t bother trying to second guess where they’ve gone, because they’re smarter than you are.
2) They’re part of a 2 to 6 whale pod, and far more interested in playing with each other than the tour boat or swimmers – this can still be really interesting, as the behaviour can get pretty rowdy, with the whales competing with each other to impress a female, charging along, tail slapping and occasionally blasting straight out of the water in a full breach display. Or,
3) the Humpbacks circle back to check out the boat and the miniscule little swimmers that are ducking and diving around them.
On my trip, at least, we were lucky enough to get the full interaction experience more often than not.
Once the whales come over to the boat and make a few close passes, the swimmers slip as quietly as possible into the water, then swim slowly towards the whales. If the whale pod is interested in your snorkelling group, then they really call the shots as far as how close to them you will eventually get. The sight that beholds you is easy enough to describe, but the sense of exhilaration is not. The Humpbacks vary from 12 to 15 metres in length, and weigh as much as 35 tonnes. They ‘re often in loosely knit pods of between 2 and 5. They glide slowly towards you and then sweep past, under and occasionally straight through the group of swimmers. On a close pass, you can see the whale’s animated eyeball slowly swivel to take you in – this is pretty crazy stuff. At times like that, it’s best to forget the Go Pro and just focus on exactly what is going on. These are the biggest wild animals on the planet, you’re in their domain and they’re coming right up to you – so close you have to make way so as to not get hit as they pass by at something less than arm’s length.
The water is in general very clear, but the whales sometimes arc out beyond your vision – at this point, all you can see is the stark white edges of their fins and lower flanks. They roll in all dimensions, seemingly having no preference for upside down or right side up. If they swoop in directly towards you, you need to be aware that their long, 3 ½ metres pectoral fins could sweep you aside with a casual brush stroke. This doesn’t happen though – the whales are really far more in control the situation than we are, and they’re well accustomed to avoiding the clumsy little swimmers who happen to stumble into their paths.
Like anyone that takes in something amazing these days, you have an immediate urge to record the moment, in all its glory. This is a little easier said than done – my “old” GoPro, although being made for shooting in the water, was never designed to handle the different focus and refraction you get beneath the surface. A new lens kit solved that, but not without some amount of frustration. The resulting footage looked really amazing – until measured up against the broadcast quality footage my companions had been getting, but after your 20th whale encounter, you slowly realise your time is better spent focusing on the spectacle in front of you and the animals themselves – the way their eyes follow you as they pass, how the mothers are so protective in shielding their calves, and how energetic and boisterous they become in a social situation when there are other whales milling around.
After five days on the water, you might think you’d be pining for a sleep in, or some time on land to still your sea legs a bit… but nope. As close as you end up coming to the Humpbacks, the experiences quickly seem a little distant, and in need of a top up with a new dose of ducking and diving to dodge the flailing fins. It’s inevitable that I’ll be back.
words & photography: Noel Forsyth