Week One in Tonga

My first full week in Vava'u is up, and the initial three groups of people from Japan adventurous enough to join me here have come and gone. The weather was somewhat less than ideal this past week, ranging from unpleasant to downright horrific, with dark skies, strong winds, frigid air, chaotic seas and poor visibility to boot.


But of course...in keeping with the painful irony that often accompanies trips like this...the moment that everyone left for home this morning, the skies cleared, the sun came out and the winds settled. Sheesh.

I'm landbound today, but the conditions are too good to stay dry, so I'm heading out again tomorrow for (hopefully) some private time with the whales before my next groups arrive.

Despite the difficult prevailing conditions, it was an eventful and successful week. Here's a rundown of the main points:

First Encounters
whalesWe didn't see a lot of whales this week. I don't think this was due to a dearth of humpbacks. I think it had more to do with the challenging conditions (it's relatively difficult to spot a whale spout when 30-knot wind gusts are blowing every which way) and perhaps somewhat to do with the whales' general mood.

As I've written in previous seasons, the whales seem to have group moods. When one plays, they all play. When one travels far and wide beyond our reach, most of the others do...and so on. It makes sense, given that they are intelligent social animals and they're here en masse for a purpose.

This week, there were a lot of yo-yo whales...up for a few breaths, down for 30 minutes. Yo-yo cetaceans are the least interesting for people like me who want to get in the water with whales, unless you happen to come across yo-yo whales that are sitting in clear, shallow water...which, fortunately, we did.

On Thursday, we came across two whales sitting in shallow water, at times literally hanging just below the surface, sitting completely still...just passing time and enjoying life. It's difficult to know what exactly humpback whales are thinking when they behave this way, but it's not the first time we've seen this. It happens often enough to suggest that this is a normal behavioural pattern. In this case, as in all the ones in the past I can recall, the duo were males.

I suppose there's some wise-crack observation to be made about lazy guys hanging around doing nothing...

We also photographed and ID-ed three calfs, which I named Mellow, Speedy and Pasta. I named the third one after my golden retriever, since it was incredibly cute and playful...just like my dog was.

Both Mellow's and Pasta's moms were relaxed and perfectly ok with having people around. Speedy and mom were accompanied by an escort, and they were quite active, so we didn't get to spend much time in the water with them, though Speedy treated us to a breaching binge...executing 20 to 30 baby breaches (actually "flops" is a more accurate description than "breaches").

Of particular interest, in the one instance when Speedy, mom and escort swam under and past me, one of the three whales was vocalising. I hesitate to call it a song, but it was melodic and soothing, not staccato like the singers' songs that I've heard this season. It was also loud. I'm certain that it was one of the three whales, because the melody grew stronger as they approached and faded as they passed. There's no chance that the sound could have been from a nearby singer. I'm pretty sure the vocalising whale was the escort, but there's no way to be certain which of the three it was.

We documented with video a similar case last year...with a mom, calf and three escorts. One of those whales was also vocalising as it swam. Again, I believe it was one of the escorts (as opposed to the mom or calf).

Anyone have any idea how unique/ unusual this observation is?


In addition to these three calfs, we saw but could not positively identify four more calfs. They could have been one of the three I named, or they could have been different ones. I couldn't get into the water with those four, so there's no way to be sure. In some cases, the calfs were too active for us to get in (such as the mom and calf with three escorts that zig-zagged left and right in a frantic ping-pong like manner around one of the main channels) or in other cases, there were other boats already with the calfs and we passed by to give the whales and swimmers breathing space.

This season, I'm keeping separate count of all our sightings and separating them into ones we can't positively identify and those that we can with photos and video. Paul and Karen from Dive Vava'u are collecting calf data for me too...so after all is said and done, I'll collate the information and try to make sense of it. With Paul and Karen's help, I'll be able to expand the number of data points compared to last season, and also extend the time period, since they live here and can continue collecting information after I leave.

The Strange and The Sad
Besides the unusual weather and the vocalising swimming whale, there were a few other things about this week that stand out.

For instance, during the many hours when we weren't with whales, we saw a lot of other things, including bronze whalers, a tiger shark, a hammerhead shark, jumping marlins, a pod of false killer whales and lots of spinner dolphins.

The reason we saw some of these things, unfortunately, is a sad one. Early in the week, we found a whale that was entangled in some sort of line or netting that wrapped completely around its body. The material bound the whale's pectoral fins to its side. Worse still, the material had sliced into the whale's flesh, carving out significant chunks from its pectoral fins and dorsal area.

The whale was covered with whale lice, no doubt consuming the rotting flesh, and I'm certain that the whale is either dead by now, or will be soon.

The scent of death in the water attracted sharks, which is why we were approached by bronze whalers and a tiger (a nice 3.5-metre one). Unfortunately, I didn't manage to get a photo of the tiger. As soon as I dived down and made eye contact, it retreated into the murky water below, where it knew that I couldn't see it. The skies were dark, the sharks were in feeding mode, and the water was like frothy pea soup that day, so I pulled everyone out, figuring it was advisable not to use my friends as bait.


I'm working on a story about this encounter, and I have some facts to check first before I post more about the injured whale.

On a less depressing note, the injured whale pooped on me, which I'd like to say is a novel experience, but it's actually happened to me several times with healthy whales (and dolphins too, come to think of it), so I don't believe this particular experience had anything to do with the whale's injuries.

The Week Ahead
I have another couple of groups coming in on Tuesday, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the good weather will hold for a while. In the meantime, I have some time to head out onto the water.

My eyes are starting to adjust to looking for whales on the horizon. I go through this each season. For the first few days, I have a difficult time seeing things in the distance that my Tongan friends can pick out as clear as day. Too much time spent staring at a computer screen translates into poor long-distance vision, but after a week or so looking for whales, my eyesight improves dramatically.

One other observation before wrapping up...there is a noticeable lack of heat runs so far. For the past couple of years, there were lots of heat runs...and big ones at that. Coming across heat runs of six to twelve whales was common. In fact, the past two years were great for photographing these hormone-charged cetacean rampages. For the past week, however, there have been none at all. No one I've spoken with has seen a heat run all season. I'm not sure what this means, but it's interesting, and it's something I'll be keeping an eye out for in the coming days.

My days here are completely packed...up before dawn and asleep as soon as I can manage to wrap up the days' duties. I'm far behind on responding to emails and many other To-Do items, so it's difficult for me to write much during the week. For short updates and audio posts, follow me on Twitter.