Sunday, September 6, 2009

Swimming with the Whales

Yesterday our friends at Fins 'n Flukes took us all out whale watching for the day - us, other peace corps volunteers Alicia, Sarah and Phil, and the new japanese volunteer kyoichi who's also our new next-door neighbor. The humpback whales have been here since about May or June, I've seen just a couple from our beach off on the horizon. But they're a lot easier to see out on the water. They're here in the warm south pacific waters until around early October, then they migrate back to the antartic waters with their new babies.

After only about ten minutes of leaving the harbour we spotted some humpback whales, between our island of Lifuka and Uoleva island just south of here. There were 3 or 4 whales swimming together, we could see their blowholes spouting water and their humpbacks and dorsel fins just above the water. There was a mom and baby calf in this group of whales swimming together. The backs of the whales above water were huge! Once we got up close to the whales we peeled up our wetsuits, threw on our flippers and masks and slowly slipped into the water - if you make too much splashing noises it would scare the whales away. It was us four girls in the water, and once we were in I realized the whales were a lot farther away than they had looked, and they were traveling so we couldn't catch up to them. The waves were big and rolling in the ocean so it was tiring to swim, and I was trying not to think of what else lurked below in the deep waters. But it was cool to see the spouts and humpbacks in the ocean not too far from us. We got back in the boat and moved along with the whales. This time a Tongan boat passed by the whales, a little too close for comfort I think. They acted differently, showing their backs a lot more to make sure the boat saw them maybe. We tried again slipping into the water, but they were still moving away from us.
After observing them for awhile and seeing that they were staying at the surface in one place, we got the boat really close and slipped into the water, this time holding onto a rope on the boat and not moving too quickly towards them. Then Sabine (fins 'n flukes) stuck her mask in the water and motioned all of us to do the same, and I saw the huge tail of one of the whales! Brett jumped in, and the five of us snorkeled up closer and all of a sudden out of the deep murky blue appeared an entire whale, head to tail, and then another! It was amazing to see such huge creatures just suspended there in the water, right next to us! We got up close, I'd guess around 20 feet or so (the closest you're supposed to get is 15 feet). That close I got a little freaked out since you don't know which way the whale will move. But they're really conscious of everything in the water and any slight changes, and where their own body is in relation to us. And all of a sudden they were gone, moving farther away from us. It was only a minute or less that we saw the whales underwater, but it was incredible to be so close to such huge whales and see them in their natural surroundings. Tonga is one of the only places in the world where you can still swim with the whales, it's against the law everywhere else. So this really was the chance of a lifetime.
After swimming with the whales we had a coffee/tea break on the boat, and Brian and Sabine have an underwater microphone on a long cord that they put in, and we were able to hear the whales underwater! It was cool to listen to, they were making all sorts of noises and sounded really close to the boat, but with this microphone you can hear them up to 20 kilometers or so away. We then boated around some more, and the Japanese volunteer caught a fish, a huge grouper. He filleted the fish and we had fresh sashimi right out of the sea, and some pasta for lunch where we anchored in a really pretty aqua lagoon area. It was an incredible day overall! More photos are posted in the link to the left.

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