Monday, September 21, 2015

Singing Humpback Whale

When I first read that you can snorkel with humpback whales in Tonga, my first thought was "Really???!!??"  I wondered how close you can get, and primarily, whether this can be done without bothering/disturbing the wild whales.  I was amazed to learn that they have their calves in Tonga from July to October before heading back to Antarctica, and they are not feeding, just resting, so it is possible to see them in a very different way from a traditional "whale watch," which I've done from Boston, Kennebunkport (Maine), and Monterey Bay (CA).  I researched the places and companies offering this adventure, and decided on the company that I thought seemed serious about not interfering with the whales and doing ecotourism in a considerate and respectful way.

The trip got off to a bit of a slow start as there was a storm when we arrived in Tonga with 24 hours of rain.  The first two days on the water we didn't swim with whales - we saw some, but there were no opportunities judged by our guides to be swim appropriate  - other than one, which I did try for - but it ended up a very ambiguous whitish something in murky deep water that wasn't identifiable as a whale.  (And I managed to dislocate my right shoulder on that attempt!  There was swell and as I went in the water the boat came up and somehow the shoulder was knocked out.  So I decided to try and swim out anyway and see the whale - but didn't.  I'll save the rest of the dislocation story for later, but I did get it back in place, by myself (with my husband helping me with meds and getting the wetsuit off of course!).  And, I didn't miss any opportunities to swim because of it, I made an underwater sling out of a duffel bag strap and carried on just fine).

On day three we had our first real chance to swim with whales.  Of course, I still didn't know what this meant, and when one of the guides said "it's a singer" I didn't register what that meant, really, either.  For this and all chances ("drops") there is a hurried rush to get ready, as 4 people and 1 guide gear up to get in and swim with the whale.  This means fins and mask on in less than a minute, and sometimes lining up on the backboard of the boat.  The captain positions the boat a safe distance from the whale and the guide jumps in and then signals when to "drop" - ideally in a non-splashy way.  Then you swim as hard and fast as you can to get to the guide, who is pointing down into the very deep, somewhat murky blue water.  And this is what I saw - at first:

Wow!  Floating above the singing male whale, we could clearly hear his song, which went on for about 20 minutes and was incredible to hear underwater.  So, so much cooler than just hearing it on a recording - because you can feel it, and see him "live" performing it!  (I could care less about live bands but somehow hearing an animal singing live is mind blowing!)

I didn't spend any time looking at the camera - all I could see was blue in the screen anyway - so I just aimed in the direction of the whale and hoped.  Here's one where he is in frame, and you can see the white on the fins, and tail, and a white remora on his back:

I'm not great at underwater photography and these are tough conditions, but you can see it's a whale!  And he was right below me - it was surreal.  I didn't even think of - or know - that my underwater camera could be changed to video and record underwater.  And I have no idea if it would have worked anyway - but I didn't get any audio recording of the singer and the one from the hydrophone on the boat didn't record.  BUT - one of my travelmates, Teri Walz, DID get a recording - again not perfect, but enough to remember this beautiful experience by and thanks to Teri for letting me post it here:

After awhile, he came up for air - and seeing him come up beneath and then in front of us was incredible.  He was right at the surface, one comparatively tiny fin protruding and a giant body beneath the surface.

And then back down to recommence singing:

It was a stunning, surreal first whale swimming experience!  Just floating above a living, free, wild whale and hearing and feeling him sing his song made me forget everything else and just stare in awe.  It seemed too good to be true.  On the surface you don't see the whale, you don't hear anything - but if you know where to drop in, (I did two drops with this whale) and you know where to look - there he is.  His fins just moved ever so slightly as he was suspended, singing, calling out to the ocean - what he was saying, I'll never know.  I was just honored he didn't seem to mind me listening in.

1 comment:

Teri Walz said...

This was a very special experience as it seems to be a bit more difficult to find "singers". It appeared to me that the captain needed to follow and time the "footprints" the whale left behind after a dive in order to locate him. Fortunately for us, the captain was right on and those two empty swim days almost disappeared with the discovery of this magnificent melodic being.

Thank you for sharing the lovely pictures Heather. They are truly beautiful! (I am grateful you have them as I was concentrating on the audio-but now we have both!).