2011 Humpback Whale Season in Tonga: Part 1

The 2011 humpback whale season in Vava’u is off to a spectacular start!

In my first six days on the water this season, I’ve been able to ID four humpback whale calfs (Taha, Ua, Tolu, Fa). In addition, I’ve received photos of another calf I haven’t seen yet, so that’s five confirmed baby whales so far. We also saw two additional mother/ calf pairs which we were unable to ID (but I’m pretty sure were different from the ones I identified) because we weren’t able to get into the water with them. In other words, there are lots of babies swimming around.

humpback whale calf and mom
Fa (humpback whale calf #4 of the 2011 season) and mom

Besides seeing the baby humpback whales mentioned above, my first group of travellers got in the water to see and listen to a singing bull whale for several breath cycles, jumped in with several heat runs of between three and six whales, spent time watching a pair of whales resting in 15 metres of water or so, swam with a couple of single juvenile whales, and watched a number of whales breach, and breach, and breach, and breach, and breach...like cetacean versions of the Energizer Bunny.

If you read my posts from last year (see August 2010 and September 2010 post archives), you’ll know that this is marked change. Last season was a bit of a challenge, with what seemed like a lower-than-average overall whale count, mother/ calf pairs really making us work to ID them, and all whales in general seeming “standoffish” and unfriendly. The season certainly had its highlights and special moments, but overall, it was tough.

Based on my experience last week, I think it’s fair to say that if things continue in this manner, this season will be the complete opposite.

Relaxing Island Life, Hectic Days at Sea
I tried something new (for me) with my first group of fellow travellers this year. Instead of staying in town, we based ourselves at Mounu, a beautiful little island situated right in the heart of whale territory, fringed by white sand beaches and shallow coral reefs.

The island has four bungalows, so we occupied the entire resort, and basically...had an amazing time!

Our hosts, Allan, Lyn and Kirsty were fabulous, and the weather and whales couldn’t have been more cooperative.

One of the bungalows at Mounu Island Resort, under a full moon
One of the bungalows at Mounu Island Resort, under a full moon

Our terrific hosts Lyn, Kirsty and Allan
Our terrific hosts Lyn, Kirsty and Allan

Get this...the day that we showed up at the island, a mother and baby were waiting right offshore, literally a swim away. It was getting dark, so there was no way to go see them, but they put on a bit of a show with tail-slapping, breaching and such to bid us good evening. The next morning...you guessed it...they were less than 100m off the beach.

So after a quick(!) breakfast, we had all of a five-second commute before getting in with Taha and mom, a little boy whale that was reasonably playful, though mom was on the cautious side.

humpback whale mother and calf
Taha (humpack whale calf #1 of the 2011 season) and mother

From there, things just kept getting better. Here’s a quick rundown of the highlights:

Day One: ID-ed two baby whales: Taha (male) and Ua

Day Two: Pair of adults resting at 15m or so. Humongous pod of spinner dolphins, which at one point harassed a poor single whale that could only huff, puff and grunt in obvious frustration. Loads of fun for the dolphins, nice show for us...not such a happy time for the whale. But in the end, the dolphins relented and the whale dived down to get some well-deserved R&R.

Day Three: ID-ed a third baby whale, little Tolu (female). Tolu was incredibly, incredibly playful. Her mom never rested though, so we didn’t have a chance to spend extended time with the baby. But every time Tolu came up, she spun around, twirled, slapped, swished...obviously enjoying being carefree and young. Personality-wise, she reminded me of Ikumi (calf 201005 from last season). If we come across her again when mom is more settled, I have no doubt that she’ll put on quite a show.

Of note, Tolu has a long scar on her abdomen. It appears as if the scar is the result of a run-in with a line of some sort, perhaps a fishing line or longline. The cut looks like it was deep and painful, but it’s healing over, and Tolu fortunately appears none the worse for the unfortunate encounter.

humpback whale calf playing at the ocean surface in Tonga
Tolu (humpback whale calf #3 of the 2011 season) playing at the ocean surface

Incidentally, we’ve decided to name the baby whales this year according to the Tongan numbers. So Taha = 1, Ua = 2, Tolu = 3, etc. We’re doing this in part to make it easier to name the whales, but also so we can learn how to count in Tongan. So far, I’ve learned how to count up to seven. By the end of the season, perhaps I’ll be as proficient at counting as a Tongan toddler.

Day Four: Nice heat run with six whales.

Day Five: Cooperative singer in the AM, with its fluke resting at 12-15m or so, followed by a second encounter with Tolu, and then a five-whale heat run that broke up into smaller groups. Spotted another baby, but unable to lock down an ID.

One of the whales in the heat run had all-white pectoral fins (both dorsal and ventral), which is something I keep an eye out for because they are relatively easy to recognise. I didn’t get a good photo, but I did get one that’s OK to use for ID purposes. One thing I’ve been meaning to do is organise all the photos we’ve accumulated over the years of whales with all-white pecs to see if there are any repeat sightings.

Four of the humpback whales in a five-whale heat run
Four of the humpback whales in a five-whale heat run

Day Six: ID-ed Fa, the fourth calf of the season. Fa and mom were sneaky, slipping away a few times when we were close, but on one drop, when I was sure mom was going to take the baby and swim away at speed, she inexplicably turned around, brought the baby right to me, swam in front of me at slow speed, and then cruised away. The pair were so close that I couldn’t fit them in frame for all the photos!

This was invaluable for ID-ing this baby, as the visibility was low, and I wasn’t sure at the time if the other photos would be good enough to establish an ID.

The whales’ approach wasn’t threatening in any way, and they were already on a trajectory that was heading away, so the pair actually changed course to come toward me. This has happened many times over the years, so I’m wondering whether it’s a common pattern of behaviour. It sounds silly, but it’s almost like the mom “presented” the baby for perfect ID photos, and then resumed her path out to sea. Go figure.

We saw another mom and baby not 200m away from Fa, but it was clear that the pair weren’t happy having company, so we left them alone.

Later, three whales treated us to a breach-fest. Of course, for the people with cameras, the wrong whales always seemed to breach at the right time, while the right whale always did the wrong thing at the right time. It was...in short...an introduction to the frustrating (but fun and addictive) world of whale photography for everyone on the boat.

Friends Old and New
Of course, even the best weather and whales wouldn’t have meant much without the company of great friends, old and new. My first group of six travellers comprised Vania and Yvonne from Hong Kong, George and Debbie from the US (whom I met during a trip to the Eastern Fields of PNG), and Martin and Julie, who were also from the US.

Despite differing backgrounds and ages (Vania and Yvonne were the kids of the bunch; they’d probably argue that I was the child though), interpersonal dynamics clicked, so we were joking around and chatting away like old friends from the get-go.

I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with all of them, and I’m so, so happy to have been able to share a few special cetacean encounters with the group. It meant the world to me to see the looks of joy, wonder and amazement on their faces each day. It was also nice having a chance to ramble on about some of the whale-related experiences I’ve had in the past. Whether anyone actually listened or not...I’m not sure.

Vania, Yvonne, George, Debbie, Martin, Julie...Thank you so much for being perfect travel companions!

Group photo with Whale Watch Vavau
Everyone was happy at the end of the trip!

Onward and Forward
As I write this, I have another three groups who will be arriving this afternoon from Japan. Many have actually been here before, so the dynamics will be a little different in the coming days. The humpback whale veterans will be striving to get the “perfect” photo, or to see specific behaviours they haven’t encountered before. So long as the whales and weather continue to play nice though, I have no doubt everyone will have a great time.

There is one dark cloud hanging over the tourism industry here right now though...the banning of all activity on Sundays. A couple of days ago, I posted the text of the letter sent out by the police in Vava’u on this matter.

I’ve spoken with lots of people around town, and all I can say is that I’m no wiser about what’s actually happening or what the motivation behind this sudden policy announcement is.

I do know that the police enforced the policy yesterday, preventing any and all remotely fun activity from taking place. For instance, people wanting to go by boat to an island resort for lunch were told not to bother.

The letter of the law says what it says, but it’s never been enforced, and if it is actually enforced word for word, then nothing would be allowed, including operation of restaurants (which is currently being allowed), operation of any machinery, or even dancing. Makes no sense to me (or probably to any other sane person), but it is what it is for the time being.

For those of you who are joining me later this season, don’t worry too much about it. Whatever happens will happen, and we’ll figure things out. I can’t predict how this no-fun-allowed-on-Sunday policy will play out. But if the situation changes, I’ll post relevant information as soon as possible.

So for now, it’s off to the airport, and time to get ready to get back on the water.