HA’APAI WHALE SEASON

Many of us dream of seeing a whale’s tail break the surface. I have seen it lots and never get jaded by it. That five seconds stays with you.

Like most, I am in awe of these beautiful animals. Having kayaked alongside all kind of species of whale at home in New Zealand, I wanted to get in the water and look at them and I wanted to understand their size and scale.

Ha’apai, Tonga is a humpback mecca from July through to October and you can legally get into the water with them, under the instruction of a ‘whale swim’ guide.

Karina and I stayed in a fale overlooking the reef at Matafonua Lodge, hosted by Darren and Nina Rice which was perfect for us: fantastic meals, kayaking (I don’t stay in places where kayaks aren’t an option), diving, snorkelling, bike riding, the most incredible sunsets and of course, whale swimming.

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As a lover of marine life, I’ve always been in two minds about whale swims – would it be distressing for the animals to have so much human interaction? Fortunately in Ha’apai, there aren’t too many guide boats visiting the whales, and the guides from Matafonua were incredibly respectful to the animals.

SPECIAL ENCOUNTER

On the first day I got some very exciting news. On my return from a bike ride, Darren told me there were zebra sharks within easy snorkelling distance! Often confused with leopard sharks, these beautiful creatures are born with stripes, which fade as they grow. They can often be found lazing on the seafloor.

The snorkelling here has to be seen to be believed, with the array of colourful fish, coral and water clarity. I dived down a few times at different depths for the zebra shark to get used to my presence as I was unsure how skittish they are. It turns out that these sharks don’t scare easily, and I got some great shots of this prehistoric-looking fish. Although quite placid, it is still a wild animal and I always recommend keeping some distance from all marine life.

On our way to our first whale swim, we saw a pod of false killer whales, or pseudo orca as they’re also known, which was another species I’d never seen before to tick off the list.

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Then, in the distance, we saw a ‘blow’ which was like a New York City fire hydrant. Seeing the size of the whale’s back as it cleared the water, I couldn’t believe I was about to get in the water with a 30 tonne whale and its calf. It’s a daunting thought to say the least but to get the experience of a lifetime, one has to push through instinctive fear!

SWIMMING WITH THE EARTH

Karina and I, two other whale enthusiasts and the guide all fell over the side of the boat into a huge blue abyss and swam for our lives in the general direction of where we had seen the humpbacks. The adrenalin was pumping wildly and noisily and I was breathing heavily into my snorkel. Then suddenly, through my mask, I saw a mass in the water. It was the size of a bus, heading straight towards us. Drawing closer, the finer details of the whale’s body became visible. All of a sudden I was frozen, and looking straight into its eye.

Astonishingly, this was just the calf. Like juvenile orcas, he was so inquisitive that I had to duck as his pectoral fin flew over the top of my head. The surge of water as the animal passed pushed me back and forth. Cracker was this little one’s name, as in, Fire Cracker. I could see why; for quite quite some time he kept up this barrage of approaches while he played with his five bouncy toys in the ocean.

And then it happened; with the grace and ease of the biggest ballerina you ever saw in your life, the mother cruised by. It was like watching a jumbo jet coming in to land, but this jumbo has an eye, and therefore ‘life’. It’s at that point I realised that we really do hold the key to their survival and the importance of that revelation, at that point and time, when I looked into that mother’s eye, left me quite sombre and very quiet for the remainder of the night.

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We had two more sessions swimming with the whales and like my interactions with the orca back home, no two encounters are ever the same, but every one is just as special and I learn something new each time.

I think everyone should see a dolphin or a whale at least once in their lifetime; if it changes a person on the inside and conjures up ideas for improved ways to better look after all marine life, as it did for me, then who knows what powerful inspiration these mammals can bring for someone else. Be good to the ocean.

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