A Lifetime of Destinations
Vava'u, Tonga 2019
Today the amazing Dan Wysuph from Fog City Tattoo in Santa Cruz turned my favorite photo into a tattoo. My tattoo is of a mom and baby humpback that I got to swim with in Tonga in 2019. I was honored when my photo of them was included in an article and published on-line with Nat Geo.
Swimming with humpback whales is an experience that cannot easily be described with words. We traveled over 13 hours on three different flights to the other side of the equator, crossing the international dateline to get to the Kingdom of Tonga for our humpback experience. After years of dreaming of swimming with humpbacks, I was finally there. I had researched and planned for years. I'd imagined what it would be like. I dreamed of whales. Nothing I read, watched, or thought of even came close to preparing me to be less than two inches from a week-old baby humpback. She swam by so close several times I could have touched her. Out of respect for her I didn’t.
I only learned a few words of the Tongan language while there. One that defines our trip is talahi which means “waiting patiently with hope”. Another is kataki lahi which translates to “a lot of patience”. And patience is not something I am good at. Swimming with humpbacks was definitely a lesson in talahi. We spend eight hours a day on the boat and during the first two days we only swam with them for about 12 minutes total. I think the whales were trying to teach me something.
On our third day, after two hours on the boat tooling out to deeper waters, we saw our first blows from a mile away. As we got closer, we realized it was the blows from two humpbacks. Our adrenalin started running. We got ready. Suddenly the captain was yelling “Go, go, go!” We jumped into the water with our snorkel gear and cameras, swimming as fast as we could to get to where we saw the whale tails as they dove deep.
Once in the water, we found the whales, a mama and a baby about 40 feet below us. They were just lying there motionless. Waiting, waiting, waiting. We floated on top the water one minute, two minutes, five minutes, what felt like an eternity watching them. Finally, the baby started to ascend. This incredible 15-foot-long baby humpback was swimming up directly below me. And for what felt like an eternity all I did was watch, in pure awe. Our guide tapped my arm and motioned for me to start swimming. I then remembered that I had a camera and began taking pics.
On this first long swim with the whales, I was so focused on my heart pounding and my breathing that I spent half of the time just watching, mesmerized by the experience. We were told the baby was less than a week old. She played with us for almost 30 minutes, swimming up for air and back down to her mother who was patiently watching. When the baby was with mom, she nuzzled under her chin. The love they felt was obvious. I remember being surprised by this. Then the baby would swim back to us and up again for air. This whole time, mom never took her eyes off us. Every once in a while, mom would swim by us and up for air too.
I'm grateful she allowed us so close to her baby. I laid in the water hypnotized the entire time. Luckily, I did remember to click some pics.