The sun was beginning to descend on the horizon as the small turbo-prop aircraft began its descent into The Kingdom of Tonga’s northernmost island group of Vava’u. A few hours’ flying time east of Fiji, we find the ‘real’ South Pacific. We are about to arrive on islands once inhabited by cannibals, the same group where Captain Bligh was set adrift in his longboat with eighteen loyal men, after the mutiny aboard his precious HMAV Bounty. Peering out of the windows I see below coral atolls – half crescent tiaras encrusted with jewels – and virgin reefs. It is a diver’s paradise. As we descend further, my eyes begin scanning the shallower coastal waters to see if I can get a sneak preview of the creatures I have flown over six thousand miles to see. I have never before witnessed the myriad of colours: from greens to aquamarine blues and every conceivable shade in between. The engine roars as we get near our destination and…touchdown…we have arrived in paradise.

The next morning, after preparing both the underwater cameras, I find myself heading down to the dive center to meet Karen, our Whale Guide and owner-operator of Dive Vava’u. We board the ‘Tonga Tango’, a very fast rigid inflatable, and before long are skimming our way out over the calm early morning sea. As we venture out a few miles in between tropical islands (each one a possible contender for the next ‘Survivor’ series), we begin scanning the horizon, hoping for the giants to show themselves. As time goes by, one’s mind begins to play games: outlying reefs with oceanic swells breaking upon them look remarkably similar to breaching whales. Time continues to pass and as the hours go by, so the conscious part of the brain begins to slumber. My mind drifts from whale watching to my family at home, the Hong Kong restaurant business I run, and a range of other, distant thoughts. Then, before I have the opportunity to realise what is happening, a jubilant Karen is yelling: “Breach, ten’o clock!” Bruno, our stocky Tongan boat operator, swings the Tonga Tango around and opens the throttle fully. We race towards the vicinity of the sighting at about twenty-five knots, the wind whistling by as the adrenaline starts to pulse through my veins. We arrive shortly after in the rough vicinity that the whale had breached, and the boat slows almost to a stop before we float silently, our eyes peeled in every direction. A minute passes, then five more before we see a familiar large black shape surface ahead of us, emitting a plume of spray as she takes a breath. Then shortly thereafter a second, smaller plume erupts as a young calf surfaces beside what we now know to be her mother. We hover silently some twenty-five metres from the duo, watching their every move. Karen and Bruno spend the time assessing the Whales’ behavior, while we sit completely dumbfounded, soaking up this incredible sight. We monitor them for some fifteen minutes, slowly edging the Tango closer, to within ten metres. Then Karen signals for us to kit up with masks, fins, snorkel – and of course the camera. We are going in for an encounter!

Perched on the starboard side, she gives the signal. We slide down the side of the boat, trying not to make a sound as we break the surface. As soon as we are in the water, the blue of the ocean blinds my eyes. I have dived in oceans all over the planet, but never have I seen water so blue: it was as if we were swimming in ink. Then we head in the direction Bruno is directing us and there in the distance is a dark shape, moving closer. The mother humpback comes into view, the sheer size is almost unfathomable. She is floating motionless about five feet below the surface. Nestled beneath her large jaw, the small calf pokes its head out to have a look. At birth, the calves are quite buoyant, and so commonly tuck themselves under their mothers to stay submerged. They are both at ease as we approach, the baby sliding out from the protection of the mother to surface and take a breath. Then taking us by complete surprise she swims over to us, frolicking just below the surface with rolls and twists. The innocence of these gentle giants is overwhelming and it is easy to forget that the calf weighs-in at one and a half tons. We try and keep our distance, ensuring that at no time we get between the mother and her calf. They glide past us with the agility of birds of prey: slow and graceful. I then remember why I am here: fully taken in by the moment, I had almost forgotten to capture this wonderful creature on film. The camera then starts rolling and I begin my underwater documentary. We spend twenty minutes swimming with these incredible ambassadors of nature before they dive and swim off, into the inky blue. Then we all surface and are beside ourselves, words insufficient to explain the emotions that have affected us. We climb back into the boat in silence, before breaking into complete, ecstatic jubilation.

Before the trip I had read several accounts – all rather cheesy – of how an encounter with a Humpback Whale is “life-changing”. Now, completely humbled I sit, a changed person from the human being I was, just half an hour ago. The same incredible experience subsequently occurred twice, or even three times a day, for the whole week. Every encounter was different; every whale had its own character and mannerism. Some dived almost immediately upon encounter, others hung around and interacted. On the third day we had a mother that came right up to us, to within three feet before she turned, stopped dead and then just stared at us with her large fishbowl eye. Gazing into the eye of a thirty-five ton, forty-five foot Humpback Whale is the most awe-inspiring moment of my life so far. Time seemed to stop. All the world’s problems seemed so distant as we connected. I wonder now, what was she thinking, staring into my eyes? She left us and returned three times before finally departing. She was clearly a very intelligent being and, knowing what we have done to her kind, she seemed to be so forgiving and understanding. The thought that as I write this she will be arriving in the Southern Ocean with her calf, where other ‘so-called’ humans are setting out to barbarically hunt her under the pretext of “research” sickens me deeply. I feel guilty for mankind after having shared such a peaceful encounter with her in the warm waters off Tonga. The ten days were over so quickly, and soon we were departing on our flight back to reality. Or had I actually found reality, only now to be slipping back into the humdrum haze of everyday modern city life. Whichever way you perceive it, I arrived back in Hong Kong a better person.

Gary Stokes,
Underwater Photographer & Videographer for Oceanic Love.

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