In the topical waters of the South Seas, we can hear a male humpback whale singing to attract a mate as we snorkel off an uninhabited island in the Kingdom of Tonga.
Holding onto to the anchor chain of our yacht we try to breathe quietly to hear the whale’s distinctive and haunting call echo through the water.
These gentle giants come to these waters to mate and to deliver their calves. They will remain here for several months before returning to their feeding grounds in Antarctica.
The waters around the Tongan Islands are warm, calm and contain very few predators – the perfect conditions to rear humpback young. The calves are vulnerable despite being 3m long and weighing nearly a tonne. They need their mother’s full protection including when they tire of swimming and risk drowning. Their mothers come to the rescue and assist them by pushing their large heads beneath their offspring’s bodies and gently nudging them to the surface.
Our guide tells that that the calves suckle approximately 500 litres of milk a day, but their mothers eat nothing at all. They practically starve during the five months they will remain here because their food source does not survive in these warmer waters. Like many tropical shallow seas, the crystal-clear waters around Tonga lack the necessary nutrients essential for the growth of plankton – the staple of humpback whales.
The adult whales, therefore, will feed again only when their playful calves are strong enough to make the long journey to the Southern Ocean.
As the adults conserve their energy and swim slowly, minding their young, we enjoy watching them from a safe distance to avoid disturbing them. We observe them breach out of the water with thunderous vigour, swim quietly with their dorsal fins glistening just above the water’s surface and when they are ready for a deep dive, we watch them pick up speed and gain momentum by using their large tails before they disappear into the dark blue yonder as the calves wait for them.
Photography by Stefan Heinrich
Occasionally a lone male announces his presence by explosively expelling air through his blowhole just beside our yacht.
Being on a sailboat is the perfect way to move through these picture-perfect isles without making any noise that may upset these large cetaceans, As a reward of our consideration, they allow themselves to come close to our hull if their curious calves stray off their side to check us out. They are comfortable as we do not threaten them. Our engine is switched off and we are propelled forward only by the natural power of the wind filling our sails.
All of a sudden we see a large fever of Manta rays with a few turtles crossing our path.
This is day five of our 10-day adventure and so far we have had only great moments.
“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in the net of wonder forever!”
To plan our trip, we sought the assistance of expert marine biologists from the University of Queensland, in Australia who gave us a better understanding of the best time to see the humpback whales and how to orgainise the logistics of hiring a high-quality boat and a seasoned skipper who knew these waters like the back of his hand.
Tides and coral make sailing quite challenging and risky for the inexperienced sailor. Our skipper, on the other hand, is a seasoned sailor, who learned the ropes as a young boy from his fisherman grandfather. With him at the helm, we sail from island to island without a hitch and often along channels that other sailors avoid, for lack of experience.
Provisioning the boat with all the supplies that make a sailing vacation greatly enjoyable, requires thorough planning too, but the reward is worth it. We can enjoy gourmet meals, fine wine and delicious cocktails as we watch the sunset in the distance or the moon rising overhead.
Why should you visit the Kingdom of Tonga?
The Kingdom of Tonga is a delightful island paradise little visited by travellers as it requires spending time on a privately chartered boat for several days to fully enjoy its beautiful and unspoilt nature of tiny specks of land separated by several miles of ocean.
Our thorough preparation for this trip meant we can totally enjoy everything this land has to offer and this is true of anybody eager to visit an unspoiled and nearly pristine world truly off the “beaten track”.
If you want to read more about our exploration of Tonga, have a look at the 8th edition of our e-magazine Fellow Traveller and if you too want to have a rewarding sailing holiday in Tonga contact us to learn how to do it in style.