Tongan whalesong

by Rae Gill. photos by Kelvin Aitkin

The Islands of the Gentle Giants

Whoah! As 16 metres of humpback whale glided slowly towards me I felt a stab of fear. I looked into her wise old eye, just metres away. We were eyeball to eyeball for what seemed like an eternity and somewhere in my peripheral vision I was aware of her long, graceful pectoral fin being carefully swept under me to avoid contact. As she cruised graciously past, I felt a rush of water thrust me backwards as a flick of her elegant flukes propelled her downwards into the deep sapphire blue abyss. Her newborn calf was hugging her left side as she descended.

This was the reason I gave up my real job, to tempt courageous whale enthusiasts into the crystal clear depths with these gentle giants!

Due north and east of New Zealand on the international dateline lie the scattered islands of the Kingdom of Tonga, one of the world’s main migratory destinations of breeding humpback whales. There are three island groups: Tongatapu, the capital, is the largest island at the southern end of the group and Vava’u the most northern group. Roughly half way to Vava’u in the north is the Hapa’ai group. The favourite area for the migrating whales, is Vava’u where the shelter in the deep, picturesque bays protects against the occasional strong southwesterly winds.

From June each year Southern Pacific humpback whales migrate to warm breeding grounds in Tonga, and other island groups as well as the east and west coasts of Australia. With a huge layer of blubber gained from the rich feeding grounds in the Antarctic during the southern summer, humpbacks fast during the extended mating and birthing season.

For some reason, the 2000 season was a good year for humpback calves. Jon and Aunofo, my boat drivers, were masters at spotting the tiny puff of vapour (in whalewatching language a ‘blow’) that marked the surfacing of these cute miniature whales. This day, Aunofo spotted the small ‘blow’ in the distance, amongst a shallow area where the white sandy bottom can be seen clearly among the coral bommies – a favourite hangout for mothers and calves. As we approached we could see the huge hump of the mother’s back awash on the surface, then came her tiny new born calf almost riding tandem, followed by a graceful arched tail fluke. Then they were gone. This cute, tiny infant must have seen us during its brief appearance as it was heading our way. We quietly slid into the water, peering downwards. Just below us the friendly, curious calf was tumbling clumsily around; exercising her new found freedom from the womb – her still silver skin confirmed she was only days old. It was some minutes before mum appeared and calmly guided her newborn to a ‘safer’ distance. I was very aware of just how close we were at times. Just like human babies, a calf’s motor-skills are yet to be refined and, with this gleeful little whale of four to five metres in length, what might be a minor brush for the whale, could possibly be a serious contact for a human.

I am always extra cautious around a mother and calf as the mother can become easily stressed resulting in less feeding time for the calf. However, with this pair we did not need to be concerned. For over an hour they continually turned back to pass beneath us. Normally the calf would be safely tucked away behind or above the mother, but this mum seemed to be proudly showing off her calf.

In Vava’u, the Tongan people are very friendly and happily live in strong village and family communities. My first impression of Vava’u was the happy smiling people, especially the bright-eyed children. My second impression was that there were pigs everywhere. On the way to our resort, large sows wandered aimlessly across the road with litters of cute piglets trotting along behind, grubbing and snuffling in the ditches and snoozing under the tropical trees. They fought raucously with the local dogs for supremacy and obviously breed prolifically. I wondered if they breed them for food, but like their pet dogs, they just like having them around to clean up the food scraps. After three weeks they blended in with the scenery, along with the deep rich green of the vegetation, azure seas nudging turquoise lagoons, white sandy beaches, the brilliant sunsets dancing across the tranquil waters of the harbour, the absence of TV and mobile phones, the abundance of scrumptious fresh seafood and sweet tropical fruits, the rich harmonious singing drifting from the churches each morning, their love of rugby and their Royal family. Even with the chaotic Saturday market we were left with an impression of an idyllic tropical paradise.

Humpbacks are not the only attraction in the Tongan waters. Huge fields of sea fans, hard coral bommies and brilliantly coloured tropical fish flourish. On the idyllic island of Foeata clear turquoise lagoons lap onto white sandy beaches fringed with swaying coconut palms. Friedl and Ma’ata welcomed us to their traditional open-sided restaurant, poised just above the beach, with broad smiles, Caribbean music and the aroma of freshly baked bread. Friedl came from Germany some years ago as head chef of a big resort, fell in love with Tonga … and Ma’ata. Each day he creates a variety of truly delectable dishes that tempt and tantalise your taste buds. What more could a mere mortal want than a delicious gourmet lunch on an idyllic island after spending a morning swimming with humpbacks?

The amorous virtuoso

It was early morning and the sea was like glass. Jon had put the hydrophone into the water, following a lone humpback who quietly broke the surface to take a breath only to quickly disappear. Instantly the whooping and grinding sounds boomed from the speakers, exciting and attracting us. Jon moved the boat directly over the sound and we slipped into the water. It’s amazing how easy it is to lose a whale that can grow to 18 metres and weigh 48 tons. One minute its huge arching back was there, breaking the surface, then it was gone. I knew he was still there – I couldn’t see him, but I could definitely feel his song vibrating and charging through every one of my mortal cells.

I stared downwards, and then below I could see two white spots in the dancing, inky-blue. Far below me I began to make out a pale line joining the dots. It was the edge of the singing male’s tail flukes; white barnacles joined by the white underside of the tail as the serenading male hung vertically, nose down, over a 500 metre abyss.

I could feel the outrageous bellows and whoops vibrating my snorkel in my mouth and my fins were quivering uncontrollably. He must have been aware of our presence above him, but his serenade and hormones precluded all such minor distractions. He was just singing his little ol’ heart out for some willing buxom beauty, somewhere within a 10 km radius. Back on board, everyone was elated at their flirtation with this male virtuoso. Like me, they were falling in love with these 40-ton beauties, just as I had a couple of breeding seasons ago.

Males compose and sing complex songs. Each year the song begins with the last song from the previous year, but is gradually adjusted, changed and improvised until a new annual ‘greatest hit’ is created. Interestingly the songs heard in Tonga are one year behind the Australian version.

Tonga certainly is a very special place, an untouched paradise with its excellent diving and seasonal marine mammal action. That is why I return with several groups of whale-enthusiasts every humpback whale breeding season to share the underwater world of the gentle giants. Maybe we will see you at Ana’s Bar in Vava’u for a cold beer or a glass of wine after an exhilarating day at sea.

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