This blog is part 3 of a three-part blog about experiences from adventures in Eua, Tonga. Go to the previous blogs for the introduction and Experience #1: Pod of Five, and Experience #2: Cathedral Cave.
Experience #3: Mother and Calf
Humpbacks come to Tonga to breed and give birth and while more common in the protected waters of Vava'u and Ha'apai a couple find sheltered spots along the west side of Eua. Boat captains follow a simple rule, if the mother stays between the boat and calf, and starts to move the calf on, you leave – don’t stress the mother or a calf that is yet to gain its strength.
In three previous visits to Tonga we have swam with a couple of cow and calf pairs, mother and baby, Humpbacks before. The calf can be playful, curious and fast, and the mother lets it investigate snorkelers under her watchful eye. On each occasion the mother had come 'out of hiding' and had a hopeful bull as an escort. However, this time was different.
'Slipping under the waves' is an overused cliché but in this instance it was a necessity, the last thing you want to do is to upset a 30-something tonne mother. So, in our small group of five we quietly lowered ourselves into the water and swam, floated slowly towards the two whales, avoiding sudden movements and any splashing.
As soon I could see them under the surface I hesitated. At less than 2 metres long this was easily the smallest Humpback calf I'd ever seen, it was so young. I immediately thought that the mother isn't going to let us near them but, keeping together, we approached. The mother became aware of us and we waited. We were spread out with a few metres between each snorkeler. She descended a bit with the calf beneath her but did not move off. How do you tell a whale that you mean no harm? I tried a slow roll on the surface - like when interacting with young adult whales – we’re here to play?
Then the calf came up for air, my rolling seemed to attract its attention and it came towards me, took a breath, did a head-down tail-up twirl, gave me a stare, and went down again. The mother didn’t move and the calf resumed its position nestled under her chin – it seemed that they were comfortable with us being there.
Every five minutes or so the calf surfaced to breathe, it did a roll or twirl, checked out a snorkeler or two and then returned to mum. Often the calf would rest under its mother’s chin but on another occasion it moved alongside. A giant five-metre long pectoral fin swung out and gently guided the calf beneath the mother where it was embraced in both arms – it was a beautiful sight.
After a while the mother rose to breathe, did so and then descended about a metre but did not move off. The pattern repeated, each time the calf surfaced it would roll or twirl, take a look at a visitor and return to mum. Over time it came closer, to within a few metres of each person – even though it was very young we could never out-swim it and the best option was to avoid any sudden movement, relax and enjoy.
After an hour in the water with the mother and calf we all felt particularly privileged, grateful to have had such an experience, and that it was our time to leave them be.
Diving and snorkelling adventures provide awesome experiences and, according to that study, happiness (see In-water Adventures = Happiness Part 1) – I can't disagree. These were just three such experiences that Karen and I enjoyed, and we can't wait for more! We hope that you too have some amazing adventures.
Want to join us next year?
Thanks to my fearless travelling companions: Karen, Felicity, Linda, Carson, Geoff and Harry. Great adventures are always best when shared.
Special thanks to the Deep Blue Tonga team at Ovava Tree Lodge, Eua: Finau, Grant, Aneesh, Aaron, Harris and most especially to Wolfgang. Great food, great service and amazing adventures are their specialty.
More photos: Tonga - Eua - 2015