A whale of a tale...

Fri 17 Oct 2014 05:32
For me, the lasting image in my mind's eye of Tonga won't be the friendly faces, the hundreds of piglets running around the place, the imposing churches next to higgledy piggledy pretty houses. It will be the Humpback Whales. 

The dorsal fin of  a calf behind his mother. You can see her blowhole and the tubercles on her head and body. The line of water spraying out shows her mouth.

It's illegal for anyone other than a registered whale watching company to come within 100m of the whales  and it's forbidden to get in the water to snorkel with them by yourself. You can understand why: they're 50 ton wild animals, if you got too close and they suddenly changed direction those tails would slice round viciously. If you frightened one and he breached, falling on a dinghy or on a sail boat, it would be disastrous. It also safeguards the local economy - it's the main tourist activity they have to offer. So we went on an official whale watching day trip soon after arriving, getting right up close to these beautiful creatures and being able to snorkel nearby them, but we have had many more opportunities to enjoy their company whilst we've been here. Once we'd 'got our eye in' by spending the day on the whale watching boat, we were soon spotting them everywhere. Sitting at anchor in the Vava'u group we'd watch them swim past along the channels, on passage from one island to another they'd be around the boat, tail slapping, breaching, or just happily swimming along. If we reduced sail and held our course we couldn't help it if they came up close, could we?

The Humpback's tails have individual markings, you can tell one whale from another by them and by the shape of the dorsal fin.

Big fin, little fin (What begins with fin?). This calf was less than a week old, so tiny compared with his mother.

On a day sail with Julia on board we were scarcely out of the harbour limits of Nuku'alofa before we saw a blow and one came past us, half an hour later we spotted three, they appeared to be two small ones and a much bigger one. Could they be a mother and twins, one bigger than the other, or was it a big calf with a small mum and a huge male escort? Twins are very unusual in whales but not unknown. They proceeded to breach; to practice sticking their tails up out of the water (they must have been doing handstands!) and slapping them on the surface; to lie on their backs with their fins sticking up and to swim in circles around each other whilst we drifted and watched them. They seemed to be simply frolicking, being happy to be whales in the water.* At one point they seemed to be heading straight for us so Phil motored away from them but they didn't seem bothered by us or interested in us at all.

Flipper flapping

and tail slapping - that's the underside of the tail you can see - he must have been upside down!

What I can't put across well enough with these pictures is the sheer feeling of exhilaration we get when we're privileged enough to be close to these massive creatures. With their barnacled, tubercled bodies, their strange proportions - they keep on sliding up out of the water for ages before you see the dorsal fin - it's much further back than on a dolphin, their pleated throats running right down to their bellies, they are astoundingly beautiful.

Leaping for joy - "This is how you do it, kids!"

When we went out on the whale watcher boat we were able to get in the water and snorkel near by them. It was a very overcast day so the visibility wasn't great but the haunting views of them swimming underwater, making sense of the brief appearances we saw above the surface, were magical.

Calf, mother and male escort.

The calf leaves the mother to swim up for air.

I'd read up on Humpbacks before we hoped to spot them, and watched David Attenborough doing his thing with them, but seeing them for myself I learnt something new: They leave footprints. When they surface and dive back down under,  a circle of smooth water remains on the surface, for a surprisingly long time after they've gone. So I can even show you a picture of 'where the whale was!

*I was reminded of the bowl of petunias and the Sperm Whale "What's this thing? This... let's call it a tail - yeah, tail. I can really thrash it about pretty good can't I? Wow! Wow! that feel's great!**
** Apologies to those who didn't read HHGG*** 
*** The current Ed. (Julia) has told me I should apologise to those of you who don't know what HHGG is! So I do, most sincerely. Google it.