Whale watching in the Kingdom of Tonga- a dream of ocean lovers around the world. For those of us lucky enough to come here to snorkel with Humpback whales, it is a life changing experience. There is nothing quite like floating on the surface of the sea looking down through your mask at nothing but shifting, flowing blue-green infinity all around. Then having a creature the size of a bus enter your field of vision and move by, rolling their massive body so as to look you in the eye with intelligence and curiosity.
It is even more amazing when this leviathan is a mother accompanied by her baby, who she allows to swim between herself and you, unafraid and inquisitive. You do not have to be a new-age yay-hoo, or even an animal lover to be emotionally moved by such an encounter. The shear mass of a whale compared to your puny self and the “extra-terrestrial” nature of the fluid world in which you are clearly only a visitor (and she is completely at home) will put even the most jaded of us into a state of awe.
The Monarchy and the people of Tonga have for decades protected the whales that come to spend the winter months here. Even before whale tourism, they proclaimed there would be no killing of whales. That doesn’t mean that the average Tongan has much experience with whales. They may see a blow now and again from shore and those that travel between islands by small boat probably have seen them breaching – hurling themselves up out of the sea and crashing back down in a great splash visible a mile away. But that is about it.
So today, after much arranging and planning, we attempted to remedy this situation in our small way. With the help of our friends here in Tonga, we arranged a school visit on the small island of Tungua in Southern Ha’apai and invited some children to come out for a whale encounter.
We had to scramble to shift our presentation from sharks to whales, and make it fit for a range of ages, but the children made it easy. First, a discussion about whales – including that they do not eat big fish but mostly tiny krill, and plenty of them! Also, that whales only eat in the summer months while in Antarctica – not in Tonga where they come to play, mate, give birth, and teach their young to breathe and swim before making the long trip back to their Southern Ocean feeding grounds.
Then we took the 25 kids outside and had them measure out the length of an average Humpback Whale – around 40 feet – by linking hands and making a line. Two other lines created the 2 pectoral fins and we put the “whale” in motion with kids crouching and standing – basically doing the “wave” from the head to the tail in one long ripple - and the pectoral fins circling to mimic the undulation of a whale through the water.
Happy laughter carried us back inside where we showed a short video of our encounter with a mother and calf the day before. Of course, Shark Man (Renee in the shark costume) made a quick visit to everyone’s delight.
Then six children, their school Principal, and a parent joined us aboard Nai’a. It was rainy and cold and we were drenched by the time we got back to the ship. We warmed up with a round of hot chocolate and a tour of the boat while our whale spotters did their work. Once each child was fitted with mask and fins, and paired up with one of us, we took to the skiffs to approach the whales.
It is hard to describe my own feelings of happiness as I watched the three kids in my skiff see their first whale up close. One breached near our skiff! When it came time to get in the water, Fuku’atu, my “buddy” and I were the last to go in. Then his fin slipped off and I had to dive down and get it. I could tell he was fearful about being in the water so I held him up and told him to “look down, look down”.
Suddenly he stabbed his finger downwards over and over – making sure I too would see the white edged pectorals and fluke of a giant whale go by just beneath us looking for all the world like an airplane….AWESOME! I was thrilled we had found a whale for the kids to see!
In spite of the rain and the cold, our luck continued and again and again we slipped into the water to see whales go by, looking up at us in curiosity. Each time we returned to the skiffs, the kids, with chattering teeth, compared notes in Tongan and gave us high fives. It was only when the whales had clearly moved off that we returned to Nai’a and the next big thrill for our small guests: the hot showers on the deck! I’ll never forget the ecstasy on their faces as the hot water poured over them – all six insisted on sharing the same shower and I am sure they would still be there if we hadn’t convinced them that lunch was waiting once they were dried and dressed.
During lunch, we played the video footage of the morning, and other whale images from our trip. The kids played with Julie’s shark puppets and coloring books while our two adult guests asked us questions about whales – and sharks. No one was ready to say goodbye when the time came. All in all, the Principal said it best….”These children will remember this day for the rest of their lives.” We hope they do. This may be just a small seed planted by Sea Shepherd, but I hope it will take root and the whales and people of Tonga can come to know each other and rely on each other in a future that supports them all.