You read the title correctly, I was almost knocked unconscious by the tail of an enormous wild humpback whale while swimming with a pod yesterday. It was scary, enthralling and disorienting at the same time. I am writing this with a huge bump/egg on the port side of my skull. I seem to be fine and waking up this morning was a success. So now that I have lived to tell the story, I shall begin…
Although we may have to sell some organs once we reach Australia to pay for food, we decided that we should not miss out on the once-in-a-lifetime experience of swimming with wild humpback whales. Vava’u is the only place I know of in the world where they allow people to get in the water with wild humpbacks. We spoke to a bunch of locals and found the best operator and the most highly recommended skipper. We booked with the operation, “Whales in the Wild!” and the skipper Shioni. It was a hefty sum of Pa’anga (money) but we can now say it was completely worth every penny.
We woke at 0600 and were on the dock by 0700. We blasted out of Neiafu at close to 30 knots aboard a 26 foot aluminum dive boat with a big 250hp outboard on the back. The process for finding whales is much like a game of cat and mouse. We blast around the outer islands looking for whale spouts. When we find one we get close and see if it is staying on the surface. Most dive deep and only surface once ever 15 minutes or so. Those are not the best whales to swim with since the interaction is very brief. After a few hours of cat and mouse we were tipped off to a pod of 10 whales about 2 miles from our location. We blasted over to the west side and bobbed around in the rough seas while the pod drew closer. The whales were slapping tails and fins and once in a while one would breach. It was exciting and we got our wetsuits on and prepared to jump in. The skipper maneuvered near the whales and said to jump in. Our hearts were racing as we swam as fast as we could to get close to the whales. We were less than 10 feet from a whale that was surfacing and there were three more directly below us. The enormity of the whales and the volume of their calls, mixed with the bubbles they release was amazing. We shot some great video and tried in vain to keep up with their pace but they were soon gone and we returned to the boat with adrenaline pumping through our veins.
We continued our search for the perfect opportunity to interact with the whales. By 1300 we were off the SW side of Hunga Island. There were a few whales in relatively shallow water, an excellent opportunity to swim with them since they can’t easily dive deep. It was our turn to jump in so Alyssa and I suited up and hung over the edge. He maneuvered close to the path of the whales and we jumped in and swam like hell to get close. As we got close the whales turned over on their backs and did some fin slaps and put on a show for us. Then they swam towards the open ocean and everyone followed….but me. I saw another whale coming my way and stayed put to wait for him. He slowly made his way towards me as my adrenaline was being pumped in on overdrive. I didn’t swim away and I was less than an arm’s length from his enormous eyeball as he swam past me with what seemed a quizzical look. As he was mostly past me I turned away to get a GoPro shot of me with this amazing creature in the background and as I was fumbling with the camera he turned to dive, whipped his tail sideways and then slapped it down right on the side of my head! It was a hard blow that knocked the snorkel off my mask, pushed me under the water and stunned me. The next thing I remember was processing what had just happened and seeing the others screaming “are you OK?!?” I replied yes and was shouting how incredible that just was.
We returned to the boat and swam again a few more times with other whales, had lunch in a beautiful protected cove and most importantly, lived to tell this story.
Here are some pictures from the day. I’ll try and upload a video or two but the internet here is painfully slow.
In other news, our heat exchanger on our main engine is toast [my fault – didn’t know you had to change zincs every month in the tropics!] and it’s leaking coolant into the raw water = not good. So today we’ll pull it apart and make a temporary repair. I am having a new one shipped into Fiji so it should be there when we arrive. Always something isn’t it…
And now, the pictures!!!