Serenaders of the sea  

Swimming with humpback whales off the Polynesian islands gives rare insights into their lives in the deep
Get close to humpback whales in Tonga
Get close to humpback whales in Tonga

The locals call it ‘island in the sacred south’. Tongatapu, the main island of Tonga—officially the Kingdom of Tonga, which has 116 more of these islands—is a Polynesian coral island in the South Pacific. It is for the unhurried tourist who is happy meandering along the island’s tiny villages, foot-printing the sands of pristine beaches and daydreaming in one of the many coves to the sound of waves. And whale song. 

Swimming with the sharks off the South African coast has been pitched as an adrenaline experience, but diving into the blue waters of Tonga not just searching for humpback whales, but also to swim with them is as unique as unique experiences get. These songs of the serenaders of the sea are actually mating calls—in fact, Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa in the Tongan language means the ‘home of love’. Humpback whales’ orchestra of the ocean emits long melodious notes to call out to their true love: only the males sing. 

In spite of their size, they are among the most friendly whales on Earth. They are also the only whales that can do a full leap out of the water, known as breaching, and are called the most acrobatic whale. There are many diving resorts in Tongatapu, as part of a whale tour for six days, which also allows the amateur explorer to have a whale of a time on the beach or at the local fishermen’s club once the sun is done. Usually a tour starts around 9 am. Every day, the boat starts off with a maximum of four guests to look for humpback whales at their breeding spots. 

The crew has a naturalist and a marine mammal biologist, who can evaluate the conditions whether it is the right time to enter the water, because the whales could be with their offspring—be warned, calves are between 10- and 15-ft-long and weigh about 1.5 tonnes. One swimmer gets 10 chances. A professional tour will include short orientation lessons aboard. The naturalist will instruct the participants on their first swim, guiding them on swimming ethically with the great cetaceans.

The lessons are about how to enter and exit the water without disturbing the whales, which are initially nervy around people. Diving is generally discouraged because the whales could become aggressive, fearing the bubbles produced by underwater equipment as signs of aggression: though they are vegetarians, one whale weighs about 40 tonnes and you don’t want one of them getting mad at you. 

You’ll have to learn to be patient to find the whale until you can enter the water and spend time close by listening to them make music. Once the adult humpbacks get used to humans, they will allow you to swim along and listen to their songs; you can even record them. Some of the biologist guides seem to possess an ethereal connection with the giants, and will tell you how to use a hydrophone to listen to their specific inflections and modulations to even interpret the lyrics. They will be songs of a lifetime. 

                                                               Where to stay

There are many resorts on the islands of which some are owned by locals such as the three-star Matafonua Lodge in the Ha’apai islands, which is a family-run, sustainable place. At the five-star Al Aqah Beach resort, guests can enjoy the year-long warm waters of the Polynesian marine experience. Costs vary between Rs 1.5 lakh to Rs 2.8 lakh for seven days, depending on the resort.

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