Swimming With Giants

When you leap off a tiny red speedboat into the middle of the ocean and land just metres above four fully-grown 40-tonne humpback whales, words truly fail you.

Whether you’re a seasoned diver and underwater photographer like Martin, uncoordinated farm girls like my sister, Jaime and I, or a 60-something year old stroke victim who struggles to walk unassisted yet dives as though he himself is a fish, the absolutely dumbfounding sensation running through your body is universal.

I managed to sleep most of the way from Sydney, but woke just in time to look out the window and catch a glimpse of at least 20 out of the 170 odd islands that make up the Kingdom of Tonga. The flight from Tonga’tapu (the capital) to Vava’u (the whale watching island) had me wishing they served alcohol on board. However, knowing that the airport terminal is a shed and the boarding gate a rusted outdoor bench, it was never going to happen.

It didn’t help my anxiety when the pilot couldn’t figure out how to close the plane’s only door and repeatedly bumped the horn instead, giggling and muttering oopsy daisy to himself each time. Upon landing, I almost expected to see a pterodactyl fly past, as the limestone island resembled Jurassic Park. I’m not entirely sure if it was the rich vegetation or the turbulence knocking us around, but there was certainly some Jurassic vibes happening. I could tell Jaime was feeling the same by the wide-eyed glance she gave me across the aisle.

Phil, who I had been emailing back-and-forth for months organising the trip, greeted us. I had wondered if he was a Tongan or maybe just a fly-in-fly-out tour operator from Australia. The last email said, “I’ll be wearing a red cap, no shoes, and I’m about 6’11”’, and sure enough there he was. From a quick first glance, I still couldn’t guess his nationality – not until he greeted us with a big friendly, “G’day!”. I guess spending all your winter months in this tropical paradise guarantees you a year-round tan.

We toured the small town of Neaifu with Phil and two more of his guests, Yolande and Warren. After about a 45-second drive we had covered the main street and settled for a coffee with a view over the harbour. The beautiful, calm water was peppered by visiting yachts.

We soon settled into our guesthouse with which my luxury-obsessed sister was less than impressed. She was desperateforanice,longshowerafterthelongflight. What she got was a quick, cold rinse in a shower that, even I wanted to wear shoes in.

In a place like Tonga, you want to maximise each minute of your time, so the mornings were always early. We were to meet at the harbour by 7.30am even after a lousy post-flight sleep. When we arrived via boat to the Mystic Sands Resort, I feared for Warren. He was barely able to walk or stand with out the assistance of his tiny wife. How would he get on the boat? More importantly how would he get off in a hurry when the time came? He surprised us all.

After only half an hour on the water, we spotted our first of the 40-tonne locals. Warren was too slow jumping in and missed out, my heart sank for him. He wasn’t about to let it happen again though and soon dispelled any doubt we had about his swimming capabilities. When he got into the water, he came to life again. Any ability and fitness robbed from him after suffering a stroke were camouflaged once he immersed himself in the ocean. The smile on Warren’s face when his head bobbed above the waves was something magical to see.

The thrill is addictive, and as the Tongan laws restrict the number allowed in the water with the
whales to four people, sitting back and watching from the boat is almost agonising.

A few hours later, the second time Jaime and I got in the water, we experienced what may have been the beginning of a heat run. We didn’t see them for long, but we saw four male humpback whales powering through the ocean below us, chasing a female out of sight, driven by nothing else but the natural desire to reproduce.

“DOWN, HEAD DOWN GUYS,” Seoni yelled. We’re told he’s best whale spotter on the Island of Vava’u.

Just when we thought spending our days swimming with humpback whales couldn’t get any better, we pulled up at a small, sandy and very remote beach. I’m not very good at directions so I don’t know how far out we were from Vava’u, but it felt like we were completely alone in middle of the ocean. Phil and Seoni dragged a large esky off the boat and onto the beach, filled with freshly made bread rolls and sandwich fillings. They even had vegemite (I don’t know the science, but I’ve rediscovered it as a cure for seasickness).

The week we spent in Neaifu, Vava’u absolutely flew. We began to get so obsessed that each day that Phil’s boat wasn’t fully booked, Jaime and I ended up jumping on board. Of course, these bonus days turned out to be the best days!

A very large, sleeping mother lay on the surface of the water. We jumped out of the boat at her tail, and after at least five minutes of swimming we finally made it to see her face – these creatures are enormous. There her baby greeted us, and by baby, I mean a mini-van sized whale calf. It’s an image I’ll never get out of my head – how could I? The gracious and generous mother was not fazed by our presence; we were in the water for so long my hands resembled dried prunes when we finally moved on. I don’t remember much of a conversation for the 10 minutes that followed, just wide eyes, ear to ear grins and a lot of ‘Wow’s.

On our last day in Tonga, dark and miserable clouds polluted the skies. It was horribly windy and the water was so choppy I had to double dose on my Travelcalm, causing some pretty serious drowsiness. Out on the boat, in my drowsy state, appeared the natural highlight of my 20-year life so far. It turns out that whales, especially teenage boy whales, really love to come out and play in those same crazy waves that were making me nauseous.

One pubescent bull took an interest in the tiny humans floating beside him. Like most of teenage boys I’ve met, he was an absolute show off. He tumbled and turned, belly flopped and played dead floating on his back. He waved to Phil driving the boat and then he rapidly swam away… Well, so we thought. He didn’t get more than 100 metres away before he abruptly turned around and came straight back for us as we were on our way back to the boat.

In the water I always made sure to follow Martin instead of our guide, Seoni. Being an underwater photographer, Martin always positioned himself to get the best views and angles. When this teenage whale approached us again, he came within a metre of Martin and I. As incredible and breathtaking as it is to come face-to-face with a giant of the ocean, it was also terrifying. With waves knocking us about, and a 20-tonne, navy and white, teenage boy in my face, I froze. A mixed bag of fear, shock, and pure amazement absolutely paralysed me. Martin, on the other hand, had hit the jackpot as far as photography goes.

When I made it back to the boat, checking my back every two seconds that we weren’t being pranked by a whale again, Phil asked enthusiastically, “How was that?!”

Like I said, in these moments, words fail. I just shook my head and smiled.

Words by Holly Byrne
Image by Martin van Aswegen

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