The remote kingdom of Tonga in Polynesia is home to humpback whales for a few months each year. Tim Rock explains what it’s like to be in the water with these amazing mammals.
Tonga Humpback whale and baby with snorkeller © Tim Rock
Tonga Humpback Whales – Dive Happy Episode 36 Show Notes
- Tonga Wikipedia page – a great primer on the history of the Kingdom of Tonga
- Tonga Adventures – Tim’s stunning photobook detailing Tonga’s whales and culture
- Diving Japan podcast – my previous chat with Tim on diving Japan, including encounters with humpback whales
- Diving Yap podcast – Tim describes the awesome diving and unique culture of Yap island in Micronesia
- Diving Cenderawasih Bay Podcast – Indonesia’s Cenderawasih Bay allows for some remarkable whale shark encounters
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Tonga Humpback Whales – Dive Happy Episode 36 Transcript
[00:00:06] CM: Hello and welcome to Dive Happy, the podcast about finding the best scuba diving in Asia. I’m your host, Chris Mitchell and, on this episode, I’m joined by veteran underwater journalist, Tim Rock. Tim, welcome back once again.
[00:00:20] TR: Oh, it’s great to be back, Chris. I’m glad to be talking to you again.
[00:00:24] CM: I’m very glad you’ve come back, Tim. Thank you for putting up with me. One of the things that we have talked about a lot over the years, but I have still never done and I very much have it on my bucket list, is diving or rather being in the water with the humpback whales in Tonga, which I know you have run several trips out there to go and snorkel and photo the humpbacks.
To begin with, I’ve got one simple but fundamental question, which is that I’ve been in the water with a 6-meter whale shark at Cenderawasih Bay in Indonesia. I know you’ve been there too and had similar encounters. A 6-meter whale shark is pretty daunting, but a humpback whale to me seems a whole magnitude of much bigger bigness. What is it actually like being in the water with a humpback whale?
[00:01:24] TR: It’s pretty impressive.
[00:01:30] CM: How big are we talking?
[00:01:34] TR: Well, a humpback can get 45 meters. That’s what? 50 or 45 feet. That’s what? 15, 14 meters, something like that?
[00:01:43] CM: About right. Yep. Divide by three. Yeah.
[00:01:45] TR: Weigh I think – Oh, gosh. How much? I think they get up to 4 tons for the big males. Yeah. It’s like a running into a train car underwater. They’re not small. Even if you’re on the surface and they come up and they arch their back and go by, it’s quite an experience because it’s just such a huge critter that is – it really dwarfs you. You feel pretty small real quick. You’re either bobbing out there in a little boat, or you’re all alone bobbing around in a wetsuit with a camera, wondering how you got yourself into this.
[00:02:36] CM: How near can you get to the humpbacks, given, obviously, you have to be incredibly careful of proximity?
[00:02:42] TR: Well, for a couple reasons. Mainly, just to help them maintain their space. There’s quite a few rules that I do most of the whale snorkelling in Tonga. Although, I have been up to Okinawa and also Ogasawara, but it’s not really a thing there like it is in Tonga. Tonga is totally legal and very organized and they have whale guides that go with you and there’s a certain distance that they ask you to stay away from the whales. If the whale happens to come to you, that’s a whole different story.
I don’t really know how to explain it. You’re pretty much in awe the minute you swim up and you just see these huge marine mammals. They just seem to be moving so gracefully and their fins flow through the water. It’s hard to realise, until perhaps you’ve gotten around behind one and then it does one little kick of its tail and the backwash sends you rolling backwards, just how much power the animal has and how much water it displaces. It’s like the first time you see a big shark or something. Just their grace and everything belies what they do in that environment.
You almost have to tell yourself, “Take a picture.” That was one of my experiences with it. I was just so in awe of watching them. I’m like, “Oh, you’re out here to take pictures of whales, dummy. Put the camera up and snap a few.” Yeah. If you’re able to have the experience to actually get in the water with it and the whales have to be in the mood. Sometimes they’re just like, “Well, there’s some snorkelers. Let’s go somewhere else.”
[00:04:31] CM: When they decide to move, I guess they move away pretty quick, right? If you’ve dropped in and they decide they don’t want to be near you, then they’re just gone.
[00:04:39] TR: Yeah, and there’s some technique to dropping in and everything. The whale industry is very well organised in Tonga. It’s a seasonal thing and it starts maybe around June and goes through only until the end of September. Usually, by first week of October, you’re getting the very last of the whales leaving. These whales are a group that goes down to Antarctica.
There’s a short window to visit the place with the height of the season, where a lot of – all the whales show up and the mating and the calving and everything, probably takes place in August; start of August into the middle of August. Once you get down there and get everything together, there can be quite a few different boats, and so you want to try to maybe go out early so you can see the whales without having a bunch of boats lined up behind you and that kind of thing and just hope that the whales feel playful, feel like they really want to enjoy your company as much as you want to enjoy theirs.
It’s very organised. There’s only four people in the water allowed at a time. Then the fifth person has to be a certified Tongan whale guide. That person will be the lead and give you the signal that it’s okay to get closer. Oddly enough, as big as a whale is, it can get lost underwater really fast. The good guides can follow what the whales are doing, and so you want to just keep an eye on the guide, as opposed to trying to find the whales for yourself. As opposed to what you were talking about like in Cenderawasih Bay, where the whale sharks are circling back in and you get a lot of passes at them, the whales don’t spend a lot of time in one place. You have to slip into the water very quietly. They don’t like it if you splash a lot. Then you actually have to work on a technique, where you kick underwater as opposed to kick a lot on the surface, so you don’t splash and make a lot of noise. If you do that, then maybe you can approach them.
Depending on who you’re approaching, say it’s a mother and a calf. If it’s a newborn calf, the mother will be very protective. It’s probably pretty likely that she will shield the calf and just move off. She doesn’t seem like she’s swimming very fast, but you can be kicking as fast as you can underwater and the whale disappears. If you get lucky with maybe finding a mother with an older calf, well that mother’s been taking care of this calf. She probably had it around the start of the season, if it’s fairly good size. The baby calves gain a 100 pounds a day. I don’t know what that is in kilos, but that’s what? 50 kilos maybe or something.
[00:07:43] CM: Yeah, Yeah, it is about –
[00:07:44] TR: 45 kilos. They can get to be pretty good size by the time they’re ready to head down to the southern pole again. The mother gets really tired after a while of taking care of this baby that’s constantly wanting to feed and wanting to play and wanting to run off and do things that she doesn’t want it to run off and do. If you wind up maybe closer to the end of August into September, where mom’s a little bit tired of watching the baby, she may just be down below sleeping and the baby will come up and maybe he’ll come over to you and it’ll play with you and swim back down and then maybe mother will come up and just move away slowly with the baby and won’t be so protective, because she’s been doing this for months now and she’s like, “Okay. Soon, we will be gone anyway, so let’s let the humans have a look.”
Look, there’s so many things to look out for. It’s just exciting. I guess I would say that for some people, it’s a great challenge. It’s almost like hunting or something. There are signs that you look for, as far as how they spout, how they blow water out of their blow holes. You’ll look for a mother spout and then a little baby spout to go next to it and then you know you have a mother and calf pair, as opposed to a big spout where it might just be a lone male, or a teenager or something like that.
Once you see them, then you have to figure out the direction they’re going, how you can approach them, how you can get into the water and not spook them and let them trust you and then get close enough for a photo. As odd as it may seem, you have to get pretty close to a whale to get a picture. You shoot with maybe a 17 or 24 millimetre lens, even a 36 millimetre lens. You might think wide angle, but the water there is pretty clear, and you want to try to get as much of the whale as you can in the picture. If you have a wide angle, you have to get super close. Sometimes, they just won’t allow you to do that. Sometimes you were then too close for the whale regulations too. You have to get a lens and have a little bit of water in between you still to get a nice picture of the whales.
If all the conditions are right then it’s great. If the conditions aren’t right, or the whales just don’t feel playful that day, or they’ve gone somewhere where nobody can figure out, even the best whale guy in your boat can’t figure out where they’ve gone, then you’ve been bouncing around out on the sea from 8 in the morning until 5 at night, with maybe a breach or two in the distance and a lot of whale spouts and that’s it. You have to be very patient. This can go on for days sometimes. Or else, you can just hop in the boat and be out there five minutes and all of a sudden, the whale pops up and you can play with it for an hour.
It’s all luck at the draw. You have to give yourself enough days to be able to have the opportunity to interact with the whales. You should schedule at least maybe five days for a whale trip, if not more. Also, try to keep your group small, so you can be able to get in the water. If you have a group of eight, it might be cheaper to rent the boat when you’re splitting the cost, but then you have to wait for the group of four to get in the water and do their thing. Then when they’re done, then you have to hope that the whale still hangs around for your group to get in the water. Or if their turn is good and then the next time it’s your turn and the whale doesn’t want to do anything, well, that was your turn. It’s best to keep the groups small, where you can up your chances of being able to interact and play with the whales.
It’s a little bit like nature or bird photography. It’s a little tricky too, because a lot of times humpback whales are performers. They do a lot of stuff on the surface. They do things, like spy hopping, will actually come up above the surface and look around and you can see their heads sticking out of the water. They do a lot of communication by slapping their fins on the water and their tails on the water. Of course, you’ve seen the spectacular pictures where they completely leap out of the water doing breaches.
What’s exciting about being in Tonga is the mother is teaching the baby how to be a whale, basically. There’ll be a certain point in time where the mother starts teaching the baby how to breach. You’ll see often in the distance a big splash and then maybe you’ll see a small splash and that’s an indication you should get the boat going over there fast and approach them. Get out your zoom lens. You’re moving between two different mediums, where you’re doing basically, above water photography with really high-speed, trying to catch the breaches. Then all of a sudden, the whale might swim under the boat, and all of a sudden you have to put the land camera down.
Most people just stay all dressed up in their wetsuits all day, because if you – by the time you put your wetsuit on, the whale might be gone again. If the whale swims over by the boat after doing a few breaches or something with their little calf, you want to be ready. You just jump in the water as quick as you can, get your fins on and snorkel over to the whale and do the underwater photography part.
It’s a bit of a challenge. On a sunny day, that’s fine, but it’s winter time when these whales show up in the southern hemisphere, sorry. It’s winter time down there, so storms can blow in. Oddly enough, humpbacks really like to play in white cap waves. You can be out there in big 5, 6, 7-foot roly-poly seas and then here’s a great big whale splashing down up ahead, and it’s raining cats and dogs, and you’re trying to keep your camera dry and trying to keep the raindrops off the lens. Then the next thing you do is try to find a solid, safe, dry place for your poor camera and jump in the water and you’re in these great big seas bouncing around. Of course, to a whale it’s nothing. To you, you’re bouncing around like a cork.
[00:14:40] CM: Fun.
[00:14:42] TR: People just see the pictures of the whales and go, “Isn’t that great?” Some photographers really do a lot of work to get a decent little picture. Then, maybe if the storm blows through and it’s flat as glass for a couple days and it’s actually wonderful. It’s not so much work. You have to take the good with the bad. You can’t sit out a couple days. If the boat driver thinks it’s safe to go out, you should really do it, because you’re missing a whole opportunity there. The whales are only there for a short time and you’re there for even a shorter time and you really have to just take the good with the bad.
[00:15:22] CM: That’s a great point about mentioning about the particular technique. You said, obviously, you’re snorkelling. I mean, scuba is obviously not allowed around the humpbacks. Is free diving allowed, or is it all purely, you must stay on the surface and just take your shots from there and, yeah, just be as quiet as possible?
[00:15:41] TR: Basically, what’s mostly recommended is to just exhale, so maybe your head just goes underwater. I know people do free dive on the whales and they also use rebreathers on the whales. The scuba diving doesn’t seem to like – they don’t seem to like. That part of it is probably because if a whale is upset with something, it’ll blow out a stream of bubbles. It’s a warning, or an aggressive type of behaviour. If some people were coming up noisy and blowing out bubbles and that thing especially in open water, it tends to disturb the whales.
Even if a whale looks like it’s sitting still and it could be sitting still; a whale is a big sail. If the current catches a whale, it might be pushing little you along okay, but it’s pushing the whale along pretty fast and you have to swim super-fast just to keep up with the thing sometimes. Scuba becomes a real impediment, actually, when that happens. The whales don’t just sit still most of the time anyway. Even if they’re just hardly moving, a little flick from a whale tail, they can probably still move in a knot or two. A scuba diver is just not going to catch up with that.
I’ve seen people try this before and even tried groups with the rebreathers and they just wind up popping up all over the ocean. It’s a fiasco. Howard Hall and Michelle Hall have a really beautiful whale video that they did, I think about two years ago now. I’m not really sure how Howard did it, but he’s the king of rebreathers. I’m guessing, he probably did it on a rebreather with maybe a 8K camera of some sort. It’s really beautiful. There’s no words to it and it’s just all whale behaviour and it shows mostly humpbacks with also some sperm whales and blue whales thrown in there. It’s a one-hour documentary, I guess you’d call it.
It’s entertainment. They had a soundtrack made just for this movie and it’s some of the most beautiful whale footage that you’ll ever see. Obviously, they were deeper than most people. I think, part of the whale etiquette is that, for your Average Joe who’s not shooting something for IMAX, they frown on you diving down on the whales. A lot of that is because that’s when they’re sleeping. Of course, then it disturbs their sleep when they’re just down there hanging.
The other part is because, when the mother’s sleeping, a lot of time the calf is not – the calf will be feeding. To have somebody dive down on the whales, disturbs the mother, or catches the eye of the calf and the calf comes over and doesn’t feed. It just disturbs their behaviour. It’s just best to wait around. Sooner or later, they have to breathe. The big whales will come up after about 20 minutes, 25 minutes. The little calves, they can only hold their breath for 8 to 10 minutes.
If you just find out where they are sleeping below the surface and drift as they drift on the surface quietly, the whales will come to you. You don’t actually have to go down to them. If you wanted to make it look like you’re a little deeper than you are, you can just exhale and maybe just have a meter or so of water above your head or something and then shoot them like that. To actually free dive on them, or to scuba dive with them, most people say that’s not good, because it disturbs their behaviour and I don’t think it’s actually allowed in Tonga.
[00:19:32] CM: Sure. You mentioned about the similar situation in Japan. Does it work in the same way there? Is it less regulated, or more regulated? Is there less chance of actually seeing humpbacks?
[00:19:45] TR: You have to work and get a permit to be able to get in the water within in Ogasawara and also Okinawa and let you just lucky and the whales come in, which happens. Even in Tonga, there’s stories of whales zipping by people and seeing them and circling around them a few times while they’re on scuba and then just swimming off. The whales are as curious. They’re like manta rays a little bit. They are curious and they’re friendly, I find. Okinawa is the same way. It’s almost all surface observation, unless you have a permit.
If you are out snorkelling someplace and it’s whale season and they happen to approach, you can get very lucky there too. Okinawan water is super clear. It’s very nice and same with Ogasawara. I remember a few years ago, Tony Wu, I believe, got a permit to bring a couple of people to Chichijima. They have sperm whales up there. You have to be very patient for sperm whales too, because they stay down a lot longer than humpbacks. They go down hour, hour 10 minutes, hour 20 minutes. If they just come up and take a breath and go back down, well, there’s two hours gone right there while you’re waiting for them to come back up.
If they actually come up and rest on the surface for a little while, then you can get some photos. I think Tony Wu’s group was able to get – I think Julia Sumerling got some nice video and Tony Wu’s group got a few shots of one with a giant squid tentacles in its mouth. They were very excited about that, because in between Hahajima and Chichijima is the only place where the NHK has filmed an actual giant squid, a live giant squid down in the depths. They know that the humpbacks go down there and feed on those.
They were extremely lucky to have one that was still munching away at the surface and had a few tentacles sticking out of its teeth. That’s pretty rare stuff, I’d say. Yeah, I think your chances, because it is such an organised thing down in Tonga now, I think your chances are probably best to go to some place like Tonga.
Tahiti now is doing a lot of humpback work too. It’s starting to get more popular there. I believe Mark Strickland, who I’ve done some whale work with down in Tonga, Mark leads some tours out of California to some Tahiti spots now and he’s been very high on the outcome of those whale tours. He’s got some very nice pictures out of those. You can shop around a little bit. Canary Islands, I believe, also has some tours that you can find sea mammals and I think it’s sperm whales in the Canary Islands. Just shop around see what’s going on.
I really like Tonga though, Chris, just because when you’re not in the boat, the culture is really nice. The people are friendly. At night, you see people sitting around drinking. Over here in Micronesia, we call it sakau. They sit out and play ukuleles and sing songs and do harmonies. It’s really a nice experience, just to talk to the people and see the culture. Very family-oriented. They’ve got a lot of good food. There’s a spicy dish that they – it’s like a ceviche that they make and it’s really delicious with the raw tuna.
Then just driving around some of the islands, there’s a place called Ha’amonga ‘a Maui. It’s an old Stonehenge type thing and that dates way back and along the coast, down in the main island, there’s big blow holes that you can visit. It’s really beautiful. It’s very tropical. All the islands, there’s three sets of islands. Where you land, it’s busy and there’s a lot of lower mangrove type land and that thing. They don’t see the whales around there so much and the visibility tends to not be so great.
Then you get up to Ha’apai, which is a middle set of islands, and those are all really beautiful, with coconut palms and white sand beaches. If you can get out into the channels there, the channels there have very clear water and you can either take a live-aboard catamaran, or go from one of the beach resorts there and go out day tripping, looking for the whales. Then you get up into Vava’u, which is the real popular place. It’s a combination of both the islands off of Vava’u were low beautiful sandy spits and little atoll looking things. Then once you get into Vava’u, it’s actually got high limestone. It’s a very beautiful, rugged place and has a daily morning market. It’s a really big destination for New Zealand and Australian sailors.
The main harbour usually has about at least six or seven dozen sailboats with all the yachties hiding from the Australian, New Zealand winter up in Tonga. At night, there’s enough restaurants around to take care of this business and the whale business that there’s a really a nice selection of restaurants. You can get great seafood. If you’re into cooking for yourself, you can get a little apartment with a stove and just go down to the morning market, which usually is open before you head out on your boat. Yeah, the whole Tonga experience is really nice. I really enjoy it.
[00:25:47] CM: Yeah. It reminds a little bit of what you were saying about Yap. It sounds like Tonga has its own distinct culture, which is really fun to visit and enjoy and explore. It’s not just going to see the humpbacks. It’s getting the whole experience both on land and on the water, right?
[00:26:06] TR: Yes, it really does. Actually, it reminds me of Yap, maybe 20 years ago or something. Yap’s a little more modern. Not that much, actually. Up in Ha’apai, it’s like that. People mostly walk. The streets aren’t noisy or busy. There’s just a lot of nice little shops and eateries you can stop in and there’s the kids playing and going fishing down by the harbour and down around the port. A lot of docks, a lot of boat activity. If you’re a sea person and really like the island lifestyle, Tonga is a really a fun place.
When I was there, I met Princess Pilolevu, I believe, was how she says it. Pilolevu Tuita. She was up there to dedicate a new whale program, because it was her father in 1959 that stopped whaling in Tonga and started protecting the whales and started this whole tourism industry. It’s the only kingdom in the Pacific, I believe, that’s left, or at least in the South Pacific. You might even run into royalty if you get lucky.
[00:27:21] CM: Awesome. Tim, you mentioned earlier that yeah, if you are going to make the trip to Tonga, then you probably want to have at least five days scheduled on the water. Given everything else you’ve just said, I mean, does that mean really if you do the trip there, you should really be thinking 10 days, two weeks. It’s a long way to go, right?
[00:27:43] TR: Yeah. I mean, it’s not really in the main flight path. Not too bad if you live in New Zealand or something, because there are some direct flights out in New Zealand. If you live in the North Pacific, or anywhere else that’s not super close. There’s direct flights from Fiji, possibly American Samoa, which is not easy to get to either, and then direct flights out of New Zealand. What most people wind up doing is flying either from they leave their home and fly to New Zealand and then fly up to Tonga. Then you fly up to Vava’u.
You have to at least set aside a couple days, more like three, usually, for flying. It’s a very religious place. On Sundays, you can hear all the choirs and everyone’s all dressed up and going to church and they all dress up in all their beautiful tapa outfits that they make by hand over there. That means everything’s closed. There’s no whaling. It’s considered work. I guess, there’s no whale watching on Sunday. You have to time your trip around that too. That also means there’s no flight out of Tonga on Sunday.
You have to be a little bit of a logistician and work it out, so your flight arrives Monday morning from somewhere, or Tuesday. When you leave, you not want to be there over the weekend and let you want to stay over the weekend, which I recommend actually. Yeah, I would say at least do a Monday to a Monday or something like that. Since, you usually have to fly to some place from where you’re at, like, in my case, I have to fly to Korea and then I fly down to either Fiji or New Zealand and then I fly over to Tonga, where the main airport is, and then you have to fly up to Vava’u. That’s about three overnights, three stays.
You set aside five, six days for flying, maybe eight days for your whale watching. Yeah, it’s a couple weeks altogether that you’re probably flying and let you just really hit all the times just right, you can knock some of that down.
[00:29:56] CM: Wow. Given the amount of work that’s involved, I would assume that you could still say it is totally worth it.
[00:30:04] TR: I really think it is. I just think it’s a wonderful overall experience. I mean, who the heck gets to see a whale? Not many people.
[00:30:17] CM: Very true. Very true.
[00:30:19] TR: It is very relaxing. If you want to get away from it all. There’s a lot of small, small islands and just little remote resorts and stuff that you can stay at. You can stay in town if you want to. If you want to get away from it all, you can go stay in some little place. It only has five buildings that you’re the only two of eight guests or something like that. You have your own beach to yourself. I mean, it’s very relaxing.
You can get up early at 6 and go out whale watching till noon and have the whole afternoon to yourself, that thing. It may seem like it’s a pain, but overall, I think if you plan it right and you enjoy nature and maybe you want to just get away from – although, there is Internet there, it’s not a lot. You can get away from everything and just really have a marvellous time.
[00:31:17] CM: Awesome. Tim, thank you so much for talking to me about the humpback whales of Tonga. I hope that one day I can also get out there with you and go and see them and you can stop them hitting me.
[00:31:31] TR: Yeah. I think you would be a fine model. I’ll get it out of you, swimming right next to one of those big humpback mamas out there and you’ll have that for posterity.
[00:31:43] CM: They were the last thing. Yes.
[00:31:46] TR: That was the last time we saw Chris.
[00:31:50] CM: All right, Tim. Thank you so much.
[00:31:52] TR: Okay, Chris. Take care. Thank you.
[END OF EPISODE]
[00:31:55] CM: Thanks very much for listening to The Dive Happy Podcast. You can see the show notes for this episode and browse all the other episodes at divehappy.com/podcast. You can also sign up for the Dive Happy Newsletter, so you get notified when the next episode comes out. Sign up at divehappy.com/podcast. I pinky promise, I won’t spam you.
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