Swimming in Tonga with the Humpback Whales

4.8/5 (3)

On the World Map, Tonga features as a little dot, just above New Zealand and the right of Australia. Most people from the Northern Hemisphere, including myself, do not know of its existence. And fewer know about ‘Eua (pronounced Eh-uu-a). It is a dot within a dot. But that tiny dot attracts and accommodates several gigantic humpback whales, particularly for their mating season. These whales come from Antarctica and chose Tonga and its islands as their fertile channel. They come every year without fail, and pregnant whales give birth and ensure their little ones put on some fat to bear the cold, and the single ladies come to mate, and come back the following year to give birth. 

Why they chose Tonga is still a mystery. Is it because it is mostly uninhabited? In 2021, the population recorded on the island was a little over 1 lakh. Just to put it in perspective: one of the slimmest states in India, Kerala has a population of 33 million currently. Is it because Tonga has kept its greenery and waters practically untouched? Why would they come to Tonga, even though it is not their eating ground? This season (July-October) is a time for fasting, as much as it is for sex. Weird combo. But Tonga is weird too.

For a country that is heavily dependent on tourism for its national income, domestic airlines and their local ferry move without a fixed schedule. They cancel whenever they want. They take off at a certain hour…with us playing guessing games or in my case waking up at 2.45 AM because someone said the ferry will leave early in the morning. They are not doing this intentionally to piss you off. They are just not bound by a clock. Sundays are meant ONLY for prayer. Everything comes to a standstill. Not a fly will move. People don’t lock their house doors at ‘Eua, because the crime rate is practically non-existent. If ever, there is an incident, it could be of a pig or a chicken being stolen. For them, a family’s wealth lies in the number of pigs or cattle one raises. There are no traffic signals, because you guessed it, there is no traffic to control. There are no ATMs to withdraw cash. There is a person sitting in an office who swipes your card and gives you the receipt and then moves to a cupboard and takes out the cash you want (plus exchange fees). The airport is not 24/7 accessible. They only open a few hours before a flight takes off or lands and then shuts the whole airport down. It is a poor country and so most things on the grocery store shelves are imported from either New Zealand or Australia. Items are really expensive. 

Most Tongans are fat. And I do not use that word lightly. I do not mean it in the negative connotation it carries, or in an objectifying manner. Men, women, and children are unapologetically fat. No one could care less about how they look. Body image problems? Nope. Beauty standards? Please. Vegans? Alien. However, if one were to Google top 10 obese nations of the world, then the Pacific Island nations from Nauru, Cook Islands, Tuvalu, and Tonga dominate the rankings. Studies indicate that it may be because of two reasons. The “Thrifty Gene” theory says that Pacific islanders once upon a time had to survive at sea for long periods of time, that eventually their bodies clung to fat and eventually became part of their composition. The contemporary maxim declares imported food and poor exercise as reasons for their obesity. 

The humpback whales are also, without a doubt, huge. So huge that underwater, as is the nature of water, it looks even bigger. Unlike other whale swim operators that may have access to trackers to identify a pod of whales, mine (Kikos at ‘Eua) works solely on his vision. We had to look for whales. 

The first day at sea was a humbling experience. There I was, sitting on a boat with a tight wetsuit, hoping to get in with the whales as planned. Though we experienced rough waves, I was asked to keep an eye out for the whales’ blows (this was an indication of a whale or whales). This is the season that they come to the surface, which means I do not need to go scuba-diving. I just need to snorkel. Upon a sighting, we would steer the boat in its direction and off our engine. Then we wait. This gestation period is to also check if the whales are curious about the boat or you, and come to meet you halfway or if they want to be left alone. Most of the time on that particular day, it was the latter. But the boatmen and my guide (a whale aficionado), Tina, said the rain may be interfering with the whales surfacing. We had to leave after a while and it was very disappointing. Because it hadn’t gone according to my plan. But who am I, in the face of Nature? Like I said, humbling. I cannot control both the waves and the whales. 

The next day, I saw it. The face of Nature. The eyes that have seen evolution. The eyes that hold the universe. It was like a moving magnet. It watches you as it circles you, keeping you transfixed, but at the same time pulling you towards him. I just wanted to be next to it, and away. Hypnotic.

We spotted a pod of whales after a while the next day and the whales also gave us a green signal as they approached the boat. I jumped into the sea. Two gentle giants, at first, amidst a blue black ocean. I forgot to breathe in that moment, and flooded my air tube. I came up for air as I realized there were more tails swooping into the water. I looked down and I saw more whales circling us. Each of them took their turns in inspecting us and started playing around. Tina later told me there were all males, and they like to show off. Because after some time, we were surrounded by whales who breached (jumping), slapping their fins and tails over the surface, gliding, and making music under the sea. 

There were times I panicked as this large animal seemingly came towards me from underneath. And I would flood my pipe again, forgetting to breathe. Eventually, I would chug down so much salt water during this process, that the second I climbed onto the boat, I vomited. I am convinced it was the sodium that made me hurl, not seasickness (I had popped two pills anticipating that). After the swim, I just sat on the boat and rode back silently. Tina understood it, perhaps, reliving her first time with the whales. It was frightening and magical at the same time. There was no denying that for those many hours in the sea, all I saw were the whales, and all they saw was us. We both felt seen. I came back to the room, called my mom, and started crying. I felt alive. 

A photograph with the whales. Credits: Kiko

Humpback whales are said to live in every ocean. But it is to ‘Eua they come to do life’s greatest acts. No wonder the people there are so nice and carefree. The whales chose them. What other bigger validation exists?

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