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The Love of Whales!

Ok seriously – connectivity on this island is an issue. 😃 I was going to just say that it takes about 3-4mins to open a gif attachment over whatsapp. But just right now as I am writing this at Tropicana cafe –  I’ve been asked what I was doing with the connection cause there was a huge upload taking up the bandwidth. To my knowledge I wasn’t doing anything but browsing the web but I’d forgotten that I emailed myself two photos (about 40MBs each) – cause you know syncing might take the 5 months of my trip so the option is off. Well, it brought their network to its knees. So if I’m not posting daily, or updating my Instagram feed, it’s my attempt to avoid getting my face plastered on a Wanted sign in this beautiful tropical Kingdom with charges of completely disconnecting the islands. 😛 
But this likely will mean less but longer posts, cause I try to write every day- when the feelings and experiences are fresh in my wildly mesmerized mind…  
Im truly finding myself out of words to describe the experience I’ve been having in the water with these gentle giants- all 20 tons of them. They are so playful and so wonderful. They avoid us, just coming close enough to appreciate but never to touch. 
I’ve had 4 days in the water with them – I think I will leave it just at that – just the perfect amount. I’ve seen mother, father, calf; mother and calf, two young adults, 5 adult males chasing a female in the middle of a heat run, and multiple single guys. Ive been in the water with almost all of them, the most memorable ones being the mother, father, calf, the two young adults playing around with us and the heat run of course. All extremely amusing and at the same time hugely intimidating. They are about 14 meters long. I’m not even 2!! So imagine that. You see and feel their bubbles after they are long gone, giving you an idea of the force they pack in those fins and especially that tail that’s just at the top of nature’s miracles. 
The time in the water with them is an experience to truly appreciate the meaning of being present in the moment. You find yourself with no choice but to truly feel that moment in all of its beauty, miracle, cuteness and respect. You feel the connection with the whale, yourself and the others in the water. The encounters are with 4 other people at a time if you go out in an Expedition boat. You shouldn’t expect 1:1 time with the whales unless if you charter your own boat, like many photographers do. The rule is that you can only have 4 people + 1 guide in the water at any given time during each encounter. Sometimes the encounter is just one whale sometimes many. Companies share encounters too. Not all whales are equal, not all whale guides are equal. When one is found and we get 20-30mins with them, it’s time to let another group enjoy the interaction. Usually, if the whales are in their playful mode they will be around for a while and everybody will get their chance at least once. If they are not in their playful mode, even if you’re first in the water the likelihood is that you’ll get 1-2 mins with them if that, or just a glimpse of them sliding away. After a few of these trials you rather wait on the boat to be sure that you have a playful whale rather than be the one chasing a whale in the open ocean. 😀 That is a tiring task – so thank you Ofa and Shawna – our skippers of the week who were tasked with “go check” tours most of the time sparing us remaining mortals the majority of the chasing. 
In my previous post I mentioned the mother, father and calf – how they allowed us to witness the bonding between the mother and the calf. Then we had this experience with the two playful young males who were just after some serious fun. We watched and joined in as they were swirling around, twisting and turning underneath and besides us, head bobbing out of the water, flapping their pectoral fins and splashing all over the place. We had a beautiful couple of free divers on board who took the risk and dove down with them, one of the coolest and bravest things I’ve witnessed- clearly demonstrating the fineness of the line between brevity and…. 😛  They were diving about 10-12metres, nervous and excited, hearts beating, using their fins more than normal to steer away and follow at the same time. If either of the whales decided to turn over in the middle and leave the divers below – they would be in trouble. But it never happened. That’s how aware, cautious and careful these gentle giants are. And this wonderful couple from Rhode Island got some amazing photos of each other thanks to their guts more than anything else. 😃 Thanks guys for the amazing time in and out of the water! It was great to meet you for sure – good sailings and hope our paths cross again. 
Stay tuned for the story behind this 🙂

The days on the water are long and tiring. I didn’t feel tired until Friday – from the adrenaline rush. The truth is I’m not used to being in the water for 8 hours every day. It means to take beatings from the sun, wind and waves all at the same time for 8 hours straight. Add to that the olympic(!) swimming you have to do just to catch up with these giants – and you’re just drained at the end of day 4! I’ve been doing the tours with Tongan Expeditions/Dolphin Pacific – I truly wanted to rave about my experience with them but am left unable to do that. I will leave it at that. At the end of the day, I did get my whale experience and their operational problems and attitudes really aren’t mine to resolve. They are experienced enough to know what customers might be complaining about, and I’ve witnessed a few people being very vocal about it, it’s up to them to decide to take it to heart or to ignore them because they have the 5 star ratings on TripAdvisor anyway. Though I will add – Vili, Ofa, Shawna, Ash and Estelle are particularly delightful on the boat and dives. However, I suggest anybody who is willing to do this, go on the Tonga Tourism site and find whale watching operators who are not on Tripadvisor. There are plenty of companies who have been doing this for over 15+ years and due to connectivity, skills and time issues they don’t have their own TripAdvisor page or are categorized under sailing/boating/fishing rather than Whale watching. 😉

The one I always heard great things about is Whales in the Wild – I am trying to get on a tour with them for a day this week but availability is tricky of course. Let’s see. 
Also you can notice the prices vary considerably depending on the type of operator you select. Some of them are purely focused on underwater photography and include things like accommodations, lunch, dinner and photo workshops. For the serious photographers this will definitely be worth it – as the Pros are truly Pro photographers – Scott Portelli of Swimming with Gentle Giants for instance. Learning the tricks from him would be worth any investment and am sure that it would be a great experience. And also Nadia Aly of Humpback Swims – she specializes with the whales in Vavau and has been doing this for years working with only THE best operator and skippers on the island who understand the whale behavior very well, making the encounters longer and more interactive.
Hold on for photos – just posting this took a while, so I’ll see if I can find workarounds. Please go to my Instragram bnaturl to see the ones I could post. Did I mention that my underwater camera died on my second day out on the water? Yes, I should be really upset about it, I kind of am, but I have no other choice but to make the most with my camera on land. So I’ve been taking some really awesome shots of the whales breaching, tail slapping and playing around. Plan B is to have a different set of photos of this experience – I still have a few of them from my first day – and that’s alright. 
This week is time to volunteer with VEPA! 😃 

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