What Whale Swimming in Tonga Looks Like…
Swimming with whales is the main reason so many of us have Tonga on our bucket list. Nothing builds up the excitement quite like seeing what whales swimming in Tonga actually looks like! That’s why we asked whale swimming guides and underwater photographers, Ivan Breslauer and Amanda Manhas from Underwater States, to share some of their best shots, as well as some insights into swimming with Humpback Whales in Tonga.
Each whale season, July to October, Ivan and Amanda come to Tongatapu to show visitors the beauty of swimming with humpback whales and capture all of the action along the way. And it doesn’t end there for the couple, who also do orca expeditions in Norway during the off-season. So where does this passion come from?
“It probably originates from seeing whales and dolphins in movies and TV shows like Flipper and Free Willy,” says Ivan. “I’ve been snorkelling since I was 5-6 years old and was always fascinated with marine mammals. For me, they are the most charismatic animals.”
So without further ado, here are some stunning photos of swimming with whales in Tonga…
1. Reading a Whale Underwater
When doing a whale swimming tour in Tonga, a whale swimming guide is crucial to not only keep you safe but to create the best whale swimming experience possible for the situation. Whale guides know how to read the whale underwater, as Ivan says: “You read the whale by trying to interpret its body language. You can tell very quickly if the whale is relaxed and interested in you or annoyed and avoiding you by the way it moves underwater.”
2. How a Whale Swim in Tonga Works
So what about from above the water? How does a whale swim work when approaching a whale? “We observe the whale’s behaviour from the boat. If we see they tolerate the boat, we go in the water,” explains Ivan. “We never get closer than five metres so we stay out of reach and accidental contact.” So is whale swimming dangerous, then? “It can be dangerous if the swimmers aren’t listening to the guide’s instructions. Grown whales can weigh up to 40 tons and have five-metre pectoral fins that can move fast through the water. It’s better to stay out of their path…”
Learn more about whale swimming safety in Is it Safe to Swim with Whales in Tonga?
3. Whales Socialising
“Whales do move around different Tongan island groups. It’s not uncommon to see photos of the same whale in Ha’apai the week before and in Tongatapu a week later (and the other way around),” says Ivan. “They meet other whales, use the opportunity to practice their social skills, sing to attract females or other whales, compete over females and mate. Humpbacks are very sociable, not only amongst themselves but also with other species. We’ve observed them interacting with dolphin species (spinners, Fraser’s and melon-headed whales), as well as with humans, and that’s what makes them so charismatic. They’re also known for their empathy and protecting other species from shark attacks, including humans.”
4. Swimming with Mothers and Calves
Whale swimming is available in Tonga between July and October because whales come to the waters of Tonga to breed and calve, leaving their feeding grounds in Antarctica. “Whales give birth in Tonga and nurse their young there until they’re big and fit enough to go to Antarctica. We’re noticing that at the beginning of each season moms and calves tend to avoid humans as they are careful of predators. Later on, as the calves grow bigger so does mom’s confidence and it’s very common to have swims with calves later in the season.”
5. New-Born Whale Calves
“This calf was barely a week old and it was very unusual that the mom let it swim with humans,” recalls Ivan. “It was a great privilege to witness and photograph this animal. Usually when calves are born their skin is very light grey, getting darker grey within a couple of weeks. Their colouration depends on the genes. But in Tonga, we mostly see humpbacks that are blue-grey in colour with white bellies and white patches on the sides and pectoral fins. They gain weight quickly drinking mom’s fat-rich milk, doubling in weight within the first couple of months of their lives.”
6. Swimming with Escorts
“An escort is a short-term companion, most often a male that follows a female or a mom-calf pair, looking for an opportunity to mate. Males sing to attract females and induce estrous in them. They also compete with other males and fight for the right to mate with a female. During the competition, they breach, head-lunge, tail-breach and charge.”
7. Breaching Whales
Ivan also explains that they see whales breaching every day from the whale swimming boats, which must mean there are other reasons whales breach so often? “There’s a number of possible reasons – getting rid of dead skin and parasites, inviting other animals/communication, competing with other males among others,” explains Ivan. But getting the perfect shot of a whale breach takes a bit of practice. “For this kind of shot, you need a whale that continuously breaches a couple of times. After the first breach, you pre-focus your camera on the place it last breached and set the camera in burst mode. Then you anticipate the area where it’s likely to breach again and as soon as you see it break the surface, you take a sequence of photos, hoping you got a perfect shot on one of them.”
8. Remoras Under the Whale
When swimming with whales, you often see fish swimming under the whale’s stomach. “Those are remoras, fish that can cling to whale’s (and other big sea animals) skin,” says Ivan. “They feed on parasites, bacteria and dead skin. Whales and dolphins can get rid of them by breaching out of the water.”
9. An Underwater Connection
What is it like to get so close to a whale that it looks at you? And how big are their eyes?! “It’s roughly the size of a tennis ball. It feels unreal, they move the eyes slowly but when an animal that size puts attention on you it feels very humbling and there’s some unspoken connection there. Both of you are interested in each other, but there’s a communication gap that we still haven’t crossed.”
10. Every Whale Swim is Different
Finally, here’s an insight into the whale swim that the Tonga Pocket Guide team experienced where Ivan and Amanda were there to capture the action. Ivan explains what happened that day: “We got a report about a group of playful whales and that another boat got a good swim with them. We got there and went in the water with them – the group consisted of four subadult whales (two males and two females) which were showing very playful, non-competitive behaviour. They seemed to just be having fun with themselves as well as with us – they were very tolerable of swimmers in their social zone. Mostly they were busy interacting with each other, “dancing” through the water, but they also stayed with us and allowed us to be a witness to their show. Water was very clear that day and the images we got were some of the best of the whole season.”
Check out their website, Underwater States, for more dreamy images and videos to get you excited about seeing whales in their natural element. Plus, for more tips on planning your whale swim in Tonga, head to The Guide to Whale Swimming in Tonga or check out more beautiful shots in our Photography category.