Snorkeling With Humpback Whales Ha'apai, Tonga
by Cary Bennett
Humpback Whale Momma and Baby
I almost do not have words to express the wonder and beauty of snorkeling with Humpback Whales in Ha'apai, Tonga. They are magnificent creatures! There are only two places on the planet where you are allowed to swim with Humpbacks, and one of them is Tonga.
I had booked our whale swim boat trips a year in advance with Matafonua Lodge on Foa Island after much research online. I am so glad that we did. They have only the utmost care and respect for the whales. The boat only takes a maximum of 8 people for the whale watching/snorkeling trips.
When we would spot a momma and baby we would approach at an idle speed to a distance of approximately 50 yards away, then, they would cut the engines. We would sit quietly in the boat and observe their behavior. If the whales seemed accepting of our presence, i.e. they were pretty much staying in one place and not really moving, we would only then enter the water. We never entered the water until we had been sitting there quietly for at least 15 minutes.
Once Jody gave us the signal to enter the water, a group of 4 of us would quietly slip into the water and follow Jody to approach the whales. We always kept a prescribed distance from the whales and never pursued them if they showed signs of being uncomfortable, such as diving deeper or swimming away.
Mommas and babies are nearly always accompanied by at least one "escort", which is most often a male who will spend time following the momma and baby hoping for a chance to mate with the female. However, there may be a female escort who will be an aunt or other female pod member.
We were so fortunate to experience the full range of whale behaviors during our 4 days of whale watching/snorkeling. We saw pec fin slaps, tail slapping, breaching and even experienced a heat run! It was incredible! There were at least 7 or 8 males present competing for the female. They were jostling, head lunging and blowing bubbles at each other and bellowing at each other. It went on for a full hour. This is a rare occurrence that might only be seen once or twice in a season.
The whales we were with in Tonga are Antarctic whales that travel there from Antarctica to calve and mate from July to October each year. During the entire 4 months, the females will not eat. Humpback Whales have a gestation period of 11 months, and then, raise and nurture their calf for at least a year. Female Humpbacks do not typically breed every year. In most cases, they only breed once every 2-3 years. It is due to their slow reproductive rates that they need to be protected.
These whales are the same ones that have been under threat by the Japanese illegal whaling fleet while they are in the Southern Whale Sanctuary off Antarctica. Sea Shepherd has been in the Whale Sanctuary to stop the illegal whaling and finally succeeded in bringing the Japanese to the World Court in 2014 where they were ordered to stop their illegal killing of whales. If you can, please support Sea Shepherd and their efforts to protect these magnificent whales and oceans around the world.
If you ever have a chance to snorkel with these incredible creatures, I can promise you, you will never be the same! It is truly a life changing experience!