Instagram changed travel. It did for me, anyway. One day as I was scrolling my feed, my thumb stopped on a picture that made me say, “I’ve gotta do that.” It was a photo of guy taking a selfie with a humpback whale. No, not at SeaWorld (hard pass, I’ve seen “Blackfish”), but in the wild. The man had his snorkel gear on, and the whale had popped up behind him like they were friends posing at a party.
Fast forward two years and I’m on a boat in the Kingdom of Tonga (you know, the country that gave us the oiled-up flag guy at the Olympics a few years ago). My guides, a couple local Tongan brothers, took me out to look for whales. The head guide, the older brother of the two, informed me that we would have to wait to see how they respond to the boat, but thankfully, it didn’t take long to find a mother and her two-month-old calf who didn’t mind our presence. We jumped in the water, maybe 40 or 50 feet away from them, and I couldn’t help but think of the story of Jonah I heard as a child; this experience was going be wild.
Unfortunately for me, the waterproof case I got for my phone wasn’t quite as waterproof as advertised, so the day of this excursion, I ruined the only camera that I thought to bring. Surprisingly, though, being phoneless helped me live a little more in the moment than I otherwise would have. I had a wetsuit on for buoyancy, a mask and snorkel to breathe and fins to move a little faster -- what else do you need?
For years, whales have come to Tonga to raise their babies after giving birth near Antarctica. My guide shared that his eldest brother was the first Tongan to swim with whales, as everyone used to be afraid of them. Whale season in Tonga runs from about July to late September or October, with mid-August being the peak season.
As I lowered myself into the water, I was careful not to spook the whales floating nearby. My guide and a fellow traveler slowly approached them, and since it was still early in the morning, my visibility wasn’t great. At first, when I looked underwater, I couldn’t see the animals at all. Then, I saw the mother. She was massive (respectfully), and not far away from me. At the risk of scaring her away, we took it very slow. She positioned herself between us and her calf, as any mother would, but as the calf began to explore, it became apparent that she was curious about these strangers swimming with her.
I remained floating on the surface, but some of my companions elected to dive with their snorkels to 15 or 20 feet below the surface. I let the natural movement of the water take me a bit closer, and as the cow descended into the surf, I ended up floating directly above her. I mean it when I say that nothing could have prepared me for this. After a few more minutes, the family swam back into the abyss.
Let me guess, you have so many questions.
“Is it expensive?”
I took two flights to get to this side of the world, first arriving in Fiji and then taking a boat to get to the island I stayed on. The whale swim is fairly priced, all things considered, and only ran me several hundred dollars. Pro tip: I would recommend booking multiple tour times, as you’re never guaranteed actual time with a wild animal.
“Is it safe?”
Humpback whales aren’t usually aggressive and would rather swim away than confront a human.
“Can you touch them?”
No, that’s strictly forbidden by the Kingdom of Tonga.
“Where is Tonga?”
North of New Zealand roughly three hours by plane.
“Was it worth it?”