Swimming With Humpback Whales In Tonga

The first thing you notice heading out on the boat, is the colour of the ocean. I have seen many bodies of water all over the world but I have never seen water this blue. Something like cobalt or indigo or ink. The deepest most beautiful Tongan Ocean Blue. Already I know that when people look at my photos, they will assume I have doctored the colour because it doesn’t seem real that the ocean can be this blue. Every day on the boat, I am amazed all over again by the blue. How can it be possible that the ocean can look this blue? How can waves appear so smooth and silky as they rise and fall? It’s quite hypnotic watching the waves; like watching an ink blue silk scarf thrown over the ocean, undulating and shining in a rhythmic dance.

The first day is rough. It’s very windy, which is unusual, and the whales don’t like it. The mums come here to give birth and care for their calf in the calm waters. The wind pushes them further afield and so we also need to head further out to sea in this big swell. It’s hard to find whales in these conditions. After an hour I find myself scanning the sky, looking for whale-shaped clouds and then scanning the ocean for whale-shaped islands. My mind is intent on finding whales.

Even when we find a whale, we have to determine whether it is a whale intent on its journey, or a relaxed whale interested in swimming with us. It has to be the whale’s choice. In this weather, most of the whales we spot are keen to keep going. Finally, we find a whale who responds to our presence. It slows down, begins to keep pace with us, then starts to circle around the boat but still at a friendly distance. We see one, then two whales; a mum and calf. Finally, they stop right next to the boat and maintain their position; periodically disappearing under the surface but then resurfacing within our radius. Now we are watching the whales and the whales are watching us. After about fifteen minutes, it’s absolutely clear that this mum is choosing to stay with us. Mutual interest and respect have been established. Time to get wet!

In the heavy swell, getting in and out of the boat is hazardous. Our guide (suitably named Tonga) asks us if we feel comfortable with this (which, at this level of excitement, is a purely rhetorical question.) He jumps in and heads out towards the last position of the whales before they submerged. He raises his arm with a tight fist and then a point downwards. This is the signal that there is a whale directly underneath him, about to ascend. We need to swim out there NOW!

I jump in, but the waves are so big, I can’t see the guide. Actually, I can’t see anything except waves in every direction. I can’t even see the boat anymore. Then I remember the instruction: as soon as you hit the water, the first thing you have to remember is to look down. I stick my head in the water and I am met with such a surprise. I dived into a choppy, lumpy three- metre swell, but directly beneath the surface, the world below is completely calm and serene. Quiet. There is absolutely no movement or sound here. I am just surrounded by an intense monochromatic blue; a paler blue than the deep ink blue that astounds the senses when looking at the ocean from above. The stillness below is quite breath-taking. This experience in itself is quite extraordinary. Looking down, I find myself surrounded by a cosmos of blue that seems to have no beginning and no end. It is empty infinite blue. I am a speck in an ocean of blue. Like the colour of the ocean when seen from above, this is also a blue I have never seen before in any ocean. Tongan Underwater Blue.

Suddenly but simultaneously in slow motion, a whale appears. I don’t think my brain has registered yet, that what I am looking at is a whale. It is a block of black materializing out of blue; ascending from the depths and coming right towards me. I’m still not sure this can really be a whale. Its huge but it moves with such graceful flowing motions. It seems to be gently gliding through the water. I’m not sure there are words for how I felt in that moment, but the closest I can come to describe it is serene excitement. It was both thrilling and calming, all at once.
From behind me, the calf appears and zooms past my shoulder to join mum. Somehow, the other three swimmers are all here and we link arms to become, to the mum’s eye, a single organism in the water. Our guide believes that this helps to keep the whale relaxed in our presence. Otherwise, if we were all to swim off and surround the whale, she might need to scan the whole area and monitor lots of targets instead of just one. Yet, when we are joined together in this way, it is not just the whale that experiences us differently. I find myself also feeling that linked arm in arm, tethered to this moment, we transcend our individualism and experience an enhanced togetherness. I have no doubt there might be something rather special about being the only person in the water swimming with a mother whale and her calf. In a sense, I am missing out on that experience. But the togetherness I felt in this moment is something I will always treasure. Our combined awe and amazement heightened the experience because it was shared. Like the whales, we are social animals. We need each other to thrive.

I used to meditate at a Buddhist temple in Surry Hills. There, I experienced the power of meditating in a group. I remember the monk talking to us about the way we work hard to pay for a holiday to go somewhere far away from where we live. We dream of “getting away” from our busy lives and landing in a destination where we will find peace. I remember meditation being described as a journey to a place that is calm and serene. This journey does not require a car or a plane. This is because all of us have a calm place within us. If we dive under the turbulent ocean of our busy minds, we find that beneath even the most violent waves, a part of the mind that is still and quiet. This is what I thought about as I swam with the whales. Here, beneath the turbulent surface, is that stillness and quiet. A whale appears from the depths and swims past for a time. My mind and body race to pursue it, but inevitably, the whale disappears into the deep and I will have to let go of my strong desire to follow it. This complete absorption followed by letting go, is so akin to meditation practice.

Over the next four days, the wind persisted but steadily began to weaken. Finding whales to swim with became easier and our daily encounters increased. Some were only fleeting moments and others became life-long memories. My mind was still reeling at the thought that I was actually swimming with whales (or should I say that the whales were actually swimming with me?)

On my last day, the wind was gone and the ocean was calm. I was so lucky to hear a singing whale. The complete quiet of the world beneath the surface was now filled with whale song. Only the males sing. The whale hung suspended, head down, tail up, motionless. His head was barely discernible in the depths below but his huge tail shone white just below me. It was not the sweet, high-pitched melody I had expected. The song sounded like moaning, longing. It felt like the whale equivalent of flamenco singers telling a tortured tale of unrequited love; the same deep longing and compelling pleading. This whale may have been singing for hours or days; I will never know, but I too hung in the water to listen for some minutes. It was like meditation with a mantra; the same sound repeated over and over again, until it becomes part of the mind’s landscape. Then he dived down into the abyss. I hope he left to join a female who had been attracted by his lament. I felt so privileged to have caught the last, brief bars of his aria.

I’m writing this as I sit in the airport at Vava’u, waiting for a plane that will return me to reality. I briefly look for whale-shaped clouds but the clouds today have merged to form a soft palette of grey across the sky. I feel, from now on, when I dive into my mind searching for some stillness and quiet, I will see whales gently swimming past the horizon of my consciousness. I really hope that’s true. I hope the whales swim through my mind forever.

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