Humpback Whales in Tonga 2014 | Part 1

It’s Sunday. And it’s raining. Which is perfect, because it’s been a really long week+, and I finally have a day to chill out.

humpback whale calf, Tonga
Humpback whale calf, a friendly female, Tonga

Ten days ago I set out from home, taking four flights comprising nearly 24 hours total airborne time and 14 hours in airport lounges; spending five nights in hotels on the way; hanging out with lots of friends; and eating far too much food.

Humpbacks aren’t alone in their arduous annual migration to the waters of Tonga!

Though I’ve been in Vava’u for just under a week, I’ve only gone out on the water three days so far. I spent a couple of days at Mounu Island Resort recovering from the journey, setting up gear and catching up with Allan, Lyn, Ma’ata and the gang at the island (+ Otto the adorable one-pup-island-greeting-committee of course).

I also recovered from my bout of whooping cough. Yup. I was training really hard to get in peak condition for the humpback whale season, and somehow, I managed to contract whooping cough about a month ago.

Stubborn as I am, I continued to train and tough it out for nearly two weeks, until I was unable to speak without whole-body spasms and piercing pain in my lungs. Upon visiting a doctor (something I hate, hate doing), I received a course of antibiotics and was told to stop exercising.

In Japan, this ailment is called the 100-day cough, because that’s about how long it can take to get through the uncontrollable coughing. It’s challenge enough keeping up with whales without a crazy cough making it impossible to breathe, so I was naturally concerned. 100 days would have taken me through the entire humpback season.

So, I decided that I would recover in less than a month (yes, I know that sounds silly).

humpback whale female with calf, Tonga
This is the third calf I ID-ed on my first day out on the water this season, a little girl.

During my first day on the water, which was for fun and checking gear, I coughed up a storm while swimming. I went to sleep that night dreading the rest of the season, but for some reason, when I woke up the next morning, the irritating, tickling urge to cough that had plagued me for almost a month had disappeared. Vanished. Gone. Poof.

Perhaps it was the fact that I had ID-ed three humpback whale calves on that day, or perhaps my body had just responded to my ludicrous insistence on recovering before my friends showed up, but as of that day, I was symptom-free, whooping for joy

Anyway, as I referred to in my post before departing for Tonga, I wasn’t sure whether I’d keep track of calf encounters this season, as it’s a lot of work, and I’ve already proven the points I set out to clarify. But when we encountered calf-after-calf(!!!) starting less than an hour of hitting the water, it was almost as if the whales were saying: “Hey, don’t be lazy. You’d better keep counting.”

Cetaceans can be unrelenting taskmasters.

As of now, with three days on the water, I have four calf IDs. Three of them I’ve confirmed as females; the fourth I couldn’t discern. So, as in all past seasons during which I’ve kept careful records, female babies are in the lead.

humpback whale competitive group heat run
There are nine humpback whales in this photo. The tenth is outside of this frame.

I’ve also seen two heat runs (a bunch of boys competing for a female whale).

The first was big. Really big. It was overcast and the water murky, so it was difficult to keep track of how many whales there were. It wasn’t until I had reviewed photos that I was able to determine that there were at least ten whales involved. Ten!

The day after the big heat run, I watched another, smaller one develop over time, first seeing lots of whales spread over a wide area…breaching, tail-slapping, moving in pairs, etc. We were able to figure out the general direction of movement, and got lucky picking the whales that we thought would be the center of attention.

The first time I dropped in to take a look, I could see that the pair we had chosen was a lovey-dovey male and female. I hoped the other whales in the area would leave the two alone so we might have some quality time with the amorous couple, but no such luck.

Within seconds of initial contact, a lone male came charging in, then another. A four-whale heat run was on! The action picked up, then another whale joined and chaos ensued.

I was able to get a few looks, but the whales were preoccupied and doing the yo-yo thing (coming up for a few breaths, then charging down to the depths to do whale stuff), so observation time in the water was limited.

humpback whale male with scars
Check out the scars on one of the male humpback whales.

For my friends traveling in coming weeks to join me here, and anyone else who might be headed this way…There seems to be an abundance of whales in the area. I gather from local chatter that this has been the case since early this season. I certainly hope this will continue to hold true.

The temperature is cooler than it has been in recent years. I am making use of my fleece pullover in the evenings, and I’m really happy to have a thick coat for the boat. Wind chill can be biting cold right now. It’s cold in the water as well, a good 1–2 degrees lower than in the past few seasons.

The winds have been strong the entire time I’ve been here. Conditions are challenging, but workable. The sun has been out a few times, but it’s been primarily overcast so far, with occasional bouts of rain. Visibility in the water isn’t great in the inner waterways. That’s normal. But overcast conditions + poor viz. make photography tough.

That’s it for now. Time for an afternoon nap.

humpback whale female fluke above water
Female humpback whale resting with fluke above water.

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