Whale diving. Ever wanted to be face to face with a majestic humpback?
The Dive Shack recently took a bunch of ocean lovers over to Tonga in the South Pacific to find out. In case you haven’t heard of Tonga, it’s a tiny bunch of Islands in the middle of the ocean, right next to the international date line. One of only two places in the world to go humpback whale diving.
Eleven days. Nine divers. More whales than we could count and a collective once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Putting this trip into words really will never do it justice. The good news is we’re going back next year, so you can come with us.
We land in Tonga, on the tiny island of Va’vau. This Island is so little it only has two international flights a week landing here, and the security scanner isn’t even plugged into the wall. The main street has more pigs than cars (really, sows and their piglets run around everywhere!) and the main reason people visit is because for four months of every year, humpback whales come here to mate, give birth and frolic in the warm, crystal-clear tropical waters.
We check into our rooms right on the beach and start off with some gentle training to get everyone’s dive skills ready for our encounters with one of nature’s gentlest giants. Our dive skills are mixed in the group, with some of our group doing their beginner freediving course on the trip, whilst some members of our group are already advanced freedivers ready to get in some extra training. The water is a balmy 26 degrees and the visibility is a not too shabby 30+ metres. It feels great to be back in warm water after recently diving with cuttlefish in 13 degree waters!
Our first day of whale diving encounters is spectacular.
We are fortunate to have Ash Lambert as our whale guide. He is nicknamed the “whale whisperer” and comes from the same Maori village in New Zealand as whale rider. He also worked as first mate with Mike Ball dive expeditions, so if anyone knows the ocean and whales, it’s this guy. Our skipper, Vili, is a village elder and all round legend. We have these two for the whole week, and we feel very fortunate to be in such experienced hands. Tongan Whale Expeditions really put in the work to keep us all happy. We find a juvenile – around 7m length, and it’s in a very friendly mood. We are sharing the whale diving experience with Ai Futaki – Japanese female champion freediver and underwater artist. We watch her play with this young whale, and it’s an incredible sight seeing her connect with this animal on a deep level. We eagerly wait our turn. When Ai gives us the nod and leaves the water, half our group slide in and our guide engages the young whale in play. We are only allowed four divers in the water at a time, so we rotate through, having the most incredible experience. This juvenile humpback is copying our behavior with a fantastic display of mimicry – we dive, it dives, we spin, it spins. Several of our group members are in tears as they fulfill a lifelong dream to be gliding through the water with this majestic animal. The rest of our group are wearing grins that will not come off all week. Pure freedom.
The rest of our trip is filled with amazing whale diving encounters, some spectacular diving checking out reef and sea caves, sunset cocktails, line training, lazing about on the beach, exploring on kayaks and socializing in the quirky little town. Towards the end of the trip, I have an experience I will never forget, and is hard to put into words. I’ll do my best.
It’s late in the afternoon and we get in the water with a mini heat run. A heat run is where a female who is ready to mate calls out and several males in the region come in to compete for mating privileges. Often several females in one area will be on heat at the same time and will attract a large number of males. The whales swim flat out, and the males will fight by banging against each other, breaching, tail slapping and singing. Earlier in the week we saw a small heat run with nine whales. Apparently they get up to fifty whales sometimes. On this day, we are following some young adults practicing with a mini heat run. There’s a female and two males, and they are swimming fast. Our boat pops us in, and we see them for about 15 seconds before they are gone again. They don’t even notice us. We take it in turns hopping in, swimming flat out, losing the whales, getting back on the boat. Repeat. After about six swims with this small group, our whale guide says this will be the last swim we have with them as they are heading pretty far out to sea, and fast.
I decide to keep up with them for as long as I can. We get in the water and start swimming. My days as a whale shark spotter on Ningaloo reef, along with my carbon fins mean I have a distinct advantage – so as the rest of the group starts to drop back I stay with the whales. I’m swimming my little heart out and as they start to get away from me, I do something slightly strange. I don’t know what makes me do it (perhaps it’s my training as a singer, or years of mimicking animal noises) but I start singing whale noises through my snorkel. I send vibrations and squeaks through the water and this is the weird bit – before I know it, the female whale does a u-turn and comes straight for me. The males are following just behind her. I can’t quite believe it and squeal out in excitement. As she is heading straight for me – I do the first thing I think of, and drop down underwater, trying to engage her in play. I duck dive and spread my arms wide, showing her my belly. She looks at me, and dives too, spreading her pectoral fins wide, seeming to say “hey, I see you. Let’s play.”
I swipe the water with my arm, and she swipes with her pectoral fin sending a stream of bubbles in front of me. The two males join in the fun and the rest of the group join us, having plenty of photo opportunities in what becomes the best swim of the whole trip. The whale and I blow bubbles together, spin, and spend what feels like an eternity communicating with our shared mammalian dive reflexes. We dive and frolic together, and for the next 45 minutes, my eyes don’t leave hers and we dance together underwater in the most incredible experience of my life to date. Towards the end, the three whales spy-hop and we look at each other below and above the water. Shortly after, they turn to leave and I wave goodbye with my heart in my throat. I’ll never forget this.
The rest of our trip goes without a hitch and we leave on the last day feeling that none of our group will ever be quite the same again. I feel honoured to be able to help so many people tick something as special as whale diving off the bucket list, and feel very grateful to have a job where I can do this. I can’t wait to come back again next year and see the whales and amazing people of Tonga.
Thanks Tongan Beach Resort and Tongan Dive Expeditions as well as Eirin and the crew at Dive Adventures for making this trip so incredible, and thanks to Beck, Tanya, Nina, Dave R, Dave B, Tristan, Danae and Michelle for sharing this incredible journey with me. I can’t wait for next year!
What the group had to say:
“Our trip with The Dive Shack to Tonga was truly a once-in-a-lifetime, bucket-list kind of experience. Not only did we get the most incredible whale diving, but I also gained a new skill with freediving, which I’m not sure I would have ever done without Rosie introducing me to it.” – Nina
“Everything was amazing! One of the best trips I have ever done through a dive company”. – Beck
“From caves to whales, the Tonga trip has been a truly memorable experience for me, I would happily do the trip again, and recommend it to others. Zero complaints and only good vibes!” – Danae
“Best thing I have ever done in the ocean.” – Tristan
“The Dive Shack team make you feel not just valued as a customer, but as a friend as well.” David B
“Well planned and organised overseas trip with a good balance of training, whale diving and social time, lead by a wonderful, fun host. – Michelle
“Swimming and diving with humpback whales was magic – couldn’t wipe the smile off my face! Thank you Dive Shack for an experience of a lifetime.” – Tanya
The people in the group were great and the whales were awesome. – David R