Ron Hunter – Whale Tales

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Ever wanted to experience the magnificent sensation of swimming with the whales? Whales are one of the most majestic species in our ocean. Ron Hunter writes about his tour experiences.

2009 would be the eighth year in a row that we have personally travelled to Vava’u Tonga. It also saw the first of our tour groups head off out of Sydney for Vava’u, to be enthralled by the greatest wildlife encounters available on our planet – the opportunity to swim with the Humpback Whales of Vava’u.

Each ensuing year, the encounters with these gentle leviathans seem to get better. I always tell our travellers that I cannot put a tag of ‘the best whale day ever’ on any one of the days we go whale watching. Every whale day is different and special in its own unique way.

In 2009, as always, we had some days that just stood out as among the most memorable.

On one of these days we came upon a pod of thirteen adolescent male Humpbacks, around three quarters adult size of around 35 tonnes each. They might better be described as juvenile delinquents. They swam to our boat, jostling, bumping, and barging each other, then they proceeded to swim quickly in tight circles around our boat, coming as close as one metre away.

Mostly too close or fast to photograph, they continued this boisterous behaviour for around fifteen minutes. Non-waterproof cameras were at risk, as we were all becoming increasingly wet by the spray from their blowholes, as they exhaled whilst they passed our boat.

A group of us decided, with some trepidation, to attempt to swim with this group of whales. The five hardy souls slipped into the water and swam about forty metres to where the whales were continuing their ‘play’. The whales settled down somewhat and then set about inspecting their new playmates. The swimmers were treated to around fifteen minutes of absolute wonderment as these half dozen whales cavorted all around them.

Humpback whales are extremely intelligent and cognizant mammals, and despite their bulk are very agile and aware of their space. These whales swam around us, returning our gazes with their all-knowing eyes.

Back on board we slowly followed the pod, and we were all treated to a display of breaching, pectoral-fin slapping, lunging and other adolescent hi-jinx.

Wow, what a morning!

Our whale encounters were not over for the day. We spotted a resting mother and her calf not far away from where we having our lunch.

Five of us entered the water very quietly and finned ever so slowly over to be above where the pair was resting. We then just floated there watching the calf being nursed by her mother. Around every seven minutes the calf would slowly rise to the surface to breathe, a fine mist of mother’s milk streaming from her mouth as she rose, and on her way up she would check us out, eyeballing us, before swimming a few circles around us, then returning to her mum below. Every twenty minutes the mother Humpback would follow her daughter up and then the two of them would just lay there next to us around five metres away.

“Every whale day is different; every day is special in its own unique way.” Two days later this analogy proved, once again, to be so true.

Our regular whaleboat skipper, Moa, a delightful Tongan lady, was once again in command of the vessel we were aboard. Moa is, without a doubt, the most talented whaleboat skipper I have ever had the pleasure to go out with. I am also a whaleboat skipper, but Moa’s natural instinct and skills go far beyond anything I could ever hope to achieve.

Sure enough, around twenty minutes into our exploration we spotted a number of ‘blows’ – feathery sprays of water vapour that the Humpbacks produce as they exhale upon surfacing. One of the ‘blows’ was substantially smaller than the other two, indicating the presence of a calf with her mum and a male escort (prospective suitor/mate). We carefully followed the small family of whales until they became used to the sound of our boat and the water ‘slap’ against the hulls, as well as the steady murmur of the four-stroke motors.

The three whales quickly became used to the presence of our boat and began to swim lazily near our vessel, not in any hurry to go anywhere, really. Five of us slipped into the water, and the whales swam around us, checking us out before slowly moving off. We followed them and when they stopped near one of the tiny, uninhabited islets in the area, we once again managed to get into the water.

We had had such a great time; we could hardly imagine how it could get any better. But better it quickly did get. Two more male escorts literally burst upon the scene, breaching and lunging as they boisterously made their presence known to the other three whales.

One of the new arrivals was a fully grown male, very dark in colour with only a small white area on his belly and around fifty tonnes and sixteen metres long. The other was an adolescent, markedly different to his companion, with white extending from his belly right up around two-thirds of his flanks, and of ‘only’ around thirty-five tonnes and fourteen to fifteen metres in length.

It wasn’t all happiness and happy families now with this group. The three male escorts were all there to compete for the affection of the mother Humpback, who would likely come into season, ready to mate, at any time. The adolescent was certainly out of his depth, so to speak, swimming aside as the other two potential suitors began barging and trying to intimidate each other, blowing massive bubble curtains and head-butting into the flanks of each other. Exciting to be in the water swimming with them during this argy-bargy? Well, yes!

Once the ‘play’ settled down, two of the whales would repeatedly circle our small groups of snorkellers – the more mature whale sedately, inquisitively passing by, inspecting each of us in turn. All the while his younger, energetic and decidedly cheeky companion would attempt (and succeed) in scaring the life out of us. He was now passing by us at some speed, as close as one or two metres away, pulling his pectoral fin in so as not to brush us and ceasing the movement of his massive, powerful tail so as not to ‘bump’ us.

So careful, so agile, so cognizant, so intelligent, so curious, so trusting, so emotional and so many ‘puckering’ moments that none of us will ever forget.

Swimming with the whales in Vava’u is done according to guidelines set down by the Vava’u Whale Watch Association. These guidelines have been very well thought out, and have the whales’ welfare and safety as paramount. All encounters and swims with the whales are conducted with the utmost respect and care for the whales.

The whales of Vava’u definitely enjoy and seek out the encounters; they are inordinately curious about us.

We will, of course, be returning to Vava’u and the whales once again next year, 2010, for our ninth year in a row of being mesmerised. Many of our travellers have already booked again for the 2010 season of tours, and many more will book again around March to April, when the whales will start calling them again.

We have eight tour departure dates every Monday ex: Sydney starting July 26, then right through August and September.

Tours to Vava’u and the whales are led by shark, dolphin and whale experts, David Hinshelwood, Marcus Coombes, Gabby Hunter, Tanya Smith and Ron Hunter.

More details: www.whaledive.net or phone Ron on 02 6554 7478 or email ron@diveforster.com.au

All travel is organised through:

Harvey World Travel – Tuncurry NSW – Licence number: 2TA 5683 / 2TA 56w84

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