“Go on. Now” our skipper commands, “And good luck.” As directed, we ease ourselves into the water without making a splash because even our tiny frantic arms might disturb the giants peace. For the next few minutes there’s only blue, not turquoise but a thick royal colour, the kind where you have no idea how deep the water is. I’m trying to stare through it, pierce it with my eyes, mostly out of excitement but there’s a hint of fear too. For thirty minutes we’d been putting alongside two of Tonga’s whales, a female humpback and her calf, waiting for the time when they showed a calmness that meant we could join them.
“I can’t believe we can travel Tonga on a budget”
Sticking to our guide I make tentative strokes forward until I freeze in my place, there’s something up ahead, a shimmer of white in this blanket of blue. The whale that approaches is three times my size but I remind myself that this is the baby one. It’s almost pure white, has a curled dorsal fin and definitely needs more time to perfect its swimming technique. My heart fills with awe, with love for this wobbly giant, trying to manoeuvre itself from the surface.
Only as he (or she) dips below do we notice the dark shadow and one enormous watchful eye following his every move. The mother rests four metres below the surface, barely moving apart from that bowling ball sized pupil making sure her baby is coming to no harm. He approaches her nose and nudges it with his own before coming to rest beneath her ample bosom. Mother and child pause as if in a trance and we are splayed on the surface equally still and silent, well aware that this is a once in a lifetime moment.
The mother can hold her breath for 20minutes but the babies lungs are far less adequate, after a few short minutes he moves restlessly beneath her belly. Once out from her enormous shadow his body is so buoyant it floats to the surface without a single kick. His pectoral fins barely keeps him steady as he frolics between the water and air before making a significant effort to reach his mothers safety once again. This time, instead of nudging her he recedes to her rear and we look upon a 1 ton baby suckling milk from a 40 ton parent the size of school bus, A SCHOOL BUS!!! Three minutes later he stops feeding to balloon back up to the surface and seems to notice us for the first time, he is more curious than scared and beelines towards us.
Thinking we have some control over the situation we try to back-peddle with our hands, which is both ridiculous and ineffective and the whale is almost touching us before his mother intervenes. Showing who’s boss she tilts her head to one side and the baby immediately retreats and perhaps has been chastised for its carelessness, as he keeps his distance from now on. Our guide guesses that this humpback is about 4 weeks old and chances are that this is its first encounter with humans, it’s good to see that mum is setting the guidelines.
It’s amazing how time flies in the presence of a whale, we have spent one and a half hours boating and swimming beside these two and the time has come to leave them be. A silence descends upon the boat, its filled with pure contentment, amazement and disbelief. Prue and I look at one another and know we’ve just shared something truly special, a moment never to be forgotten.
The second time we take a dip we are in the company of three of Tonga’s whales, the baby is much older than the last and its mother is accompanied by a male escort, possibly hoping to get lucky on the migration south. The two enormous bodies are sitting at the surface allowing the baby, with its body still very buoyant, to have a break. Seemingly impatient, the escort plunges below the female and rests head-down in the water flicking his tale. From the surface all we can see is a glimmer of white and blue, white and blue. I have no clue what he is trying to say but it fails to impress the mother who remains in a trance while the baby bounces around on the surface.
We pass nearly an hour poised like this, stunned that we have been granted the permission to watch these animals, to scrutinise the wrinkles around their eyes and their knobbly 5m fins. I’m watching the sun shimmering along their broad backs when they decide our time is up, with a huge kick of their tails they return to the shadows and we don’t try to follow, there’s no point. All we can do is grin, cry and say “Thank you.”