Looking down into the water, all I could see was the blue abyss. Then I looked up, and there she was: a 45ft humpback, floating just 20 feet away. In that moment, everything stopped. A marine encounter to top swimming with dolphins – swimming with whales.
By Julie Conway
For years I had longed to swim close to them and explore their world. And for months I had planned my trip, waiting patiently while they made their migration from Antarctica to Vava’u, a string of tiny islands in the Kingdom of Tonga, in the South Pacific seas, where they gather in large numbers to mate and give birth.
A researcher in Alaska told of how, a minute after a humpback whale came under his boat, he found himself in darkness: he was enclosed in the whale’s mouth.
His Zodiac boat was still floating on water that had been taken in with him. Thankfully, the whale was as shocked as the researcher, and opened its mouth and released him a few seconds later.
My mind was suddenly jolted out of its frantic ramblings by what sounded like a horn used by clowns. It was the boat’s captain’s signal to slip into the water.
No splashing was allowed because it frightens the whales and we were told that when we reached them we should stay absolutely still and not, under any circumstances, touch them.
I wasn’t planning to get that close.
With my head down in the water, all I could see was the blue abyss. Then I looked up, and there she was: a 45ft humpback, floating just 20 feet away.
She gazed right at me with a black eye the size of an orange but was still, unhurriable, watching me closely. In that moment, everything stopped. If there had been the greatest storm I don’t think I would have noticed.
It seemed as if a cloud of blissful emptiness had surrounded us and only she and I existed.
My heart stopped pounding and my breath slowed down to long inhalations to meet her rhythms. But the stillness was broken by a large splash, as her baby, the size of an elephant, came zooming up from beneath her and charged straight towards us.
There was no threat in his intention; it was simply the boisterous playfulness of a youngster who hadn’t yet learnt to respect his strength.
As he came towards us, twirling, his fin just missed my husband. But determined to show us, his new friends, how clever he was, he rolled on to his back and came up close again.
This time his mother decided to intervene. Now, it’s one thing when a calf comes within inches, but quite another when his submarine-sized mother does.
With her long nose, she gently nudged him away from us, then curled her pectoral fins, which were double the length of my body, under her huge mass so they wouldn’t bump us as she gracefully glided by just a few feet away.
I didn’t feel my heart beat once the entire time, but as soon as she had gone it started pounding from the thrill and shock of being so close.
For an animal that large and powerful to show such awareness of where her whole body was in relation to us and to pass with such extreme care was humbling.
That was more than enough excitement for one day and, as the sun was going down anyway, we made our way to our home for the night, Foeata Island, on the outer edge of the Vava’u group of islands.
On Foeata there are no roads, no cars, no television, no internet and just one phone. Perfect.
As our boat moored in the turquoise waters, Feleti Pott, a giant bear of a man with a hint of ginger in his full head of hair and long beard, tumbled on to the beach and peered over his spectacles with a half smile.
His wife, Ma’ata, stood beside him in a long, silky, sapphire dress, her black hair tied back and the silver cap on her front tooth glittering in the sun.
“Welcome to Blue Lagoon,” she called out as she helped us to pile the rowing boat with much more luggage than was necessary.
White sandy beaches framed the lush island filled with palm and papaya trees and, from the boat, it was hard to tell that the island was inhabited.
The fales, traditional wooden huts to which we were heading, were hidden on the other shore. Only the owners and guests in the six fales stay on the island.
As I scrambled in a rather undignified way from the rowing boat I left all my concerns on board. There was no way of keeping in touch with the world from here, so I set my worries adrift. The peace, a comfy bed and the reputedly excellent food were all I needed.
Feleti and his family have lived on the island for almost 10 years. Originally from Düsseldorf, he began building the Blue Lagoon resort himself in 1996 from trees on the island.
We’d been warned of his ferocious reputation – a talented chef who cooks only when he feels like it – and told to be careful of his sharp wit. We needn’t have worried too much though: he had a heart as big as his considerable frame.
He showed my husband and me to our fale, a circular wooden room by the beach with coral sand on the floor, a huge stone-slab table in the middle and a tree growing up through the centre of the hexagonal roof. The windows had no glass and it sounded as if the sea was breaking straight in.
The real treat was the bathroom. It looked like something out of Neptune’s grotto. A huge volcanic rock, mottled like a meteorite, sat in the middle of the room. A papaya tree covered in ripening fruit was growing up around it. There was also hot water.
As I showered I looked up through the hexagonal hole in the bathroom roof and saw the trees swaying. I felt as if I was showering outdoors.
It was time for dinner. The restaurant was a round wooden structure, enshrined in the bush and open to face the sea.
The sunset turned the waves to a shimmering orange as they crashed over the reef in the distance.
It’s possibly the most romantic restaurant in the world. And the food – lobster and papaya followed by red snapper with a pasta salad and fruit – matched the setting perfectly.
There must be some drawbacks to living in this idyllic place.
“Ah,” said my husband, Stuart. “What about the weather – aren’t you afraid of the hurricanes?”
“We all have weather,” sniffed Feleti. “When the hurricane came I took my family and my newspaper over to the sheltered side of the island, and sat and read until the coconuts stopped flying over my head.”
Next day I woke early with excitement. Emboldened by our whale encounter the day before, I entered the water with less trepidation.
We soon spotted another mother and calf – but she seemed far more nervous. As we floated on the water watching them, her calf tried to get close to us, but the mother pushed her down into a deep dive… the whales’ version of time out.
After a while she relaxed and lay 30 feet below us with an escort, another adult female, and watched as her baby twirled her fins and curled and played about 20 feet in front of us.
It was a magical experience, but I became slightly nervous when the mother started to rise to the surface like a giant wall. We left them in peace for the night.
The next morning, Captain Cam arrived with news that he had spotted two spouts on his journey to pick us up. We made our way straight towards them, but after three attempts at slipping in the water beside them it was clear they didn’t want to interact. We respected their privacy and decided to stay onboard and eat lunch.
That’s when one of the passengers spotted a fin.
A seven-foot tiger shark circled the boat, then went on its way. No wonder the whales hadn’t wanted swimmers in the water: the mother needed to focus on this predator without having to worry about keeping an eye on us as well.
On our final day, slightly more wary, we were tempted into the sea by a mother and calf who seemed in playful moods.
The calf lay on her side on the surface and slapped her fins; then her mother did the same. The mother was clearly enchanted by her offspring.
As we got close to them we noticed the calf’s tail fluke was still crinkled up from being squashed in the womb. She was just a few days old.
The pair played happily for a while but seemed a little nervous. We decided to leave them alone and go and have some lunch, but it was hard to pull ourselves away.
There were spectacular sights in the bay: parrotfish, vanilla-coloured angelfish with black stripes, huge coral and deep caves.
As we set off from the bay again the water was still and it looked unlikely that we would find the mother and baby again. Then, on the horizon, we spotted a huge splash, followed by another and another.
When we got closer we saw it was the pair we’d seen earlier. They were breaching, throwing themselves in the air and crashing back down on the water.
They seemed to be calling us into their world. As we floated in the water the mother watched proudly as her baby played, swirled and twirled around.
Occasionally she put her nose underneath the calf’s body and nudged her to the surface, as if reminding her to breathe.
The baby, clearly delighted at having an audience, flicked her tail and fins to show us just how clever she was. When we took a break on the boat to give them some space, the whales hurled their huge bulks above the surface so they could see what we were doing.
We cheered and clapped as they breached again and again, while Captain Cam pleaded with them to stop jumping so close in case they overturned the boat. But the mother seemed to be able to judge just how close she could jump.
One of the women on our trip had been unable to swim for a few days because of a bad cold. The mother floated her calf right up beside the boat and they both turned and looked up at her.
They stayed for several minutes and exhaled a huge spray of salty water, showering us. Then they were off to play. I never wanted to wash again.