July 18, 2014 The Grampus

July 19, 2014

Neiafu Harbor
We swam with a humpback whale today!  Decided to bite the bullet and splurge for a whale swimming tour.  Tonga is the only country in the world where you can approach the whales (there are several guidelines, no more than 4 people in the water at a time etc).   We met up at 7:15 and steamed out of the harbor on an aluminum cat with twin 100hp outboard engines,  a very smooth ride on foils.  Kelsey and I were 2 of 8 “Palangis” aboard (the name for white man) and two very nice Tongan guides, Sione and Moa.  Moa had a smile and a sparkle in her eyes just like my Grandmother’s.
We quickly spotted 7 or 8 whales and steamed alongside them, but they were all on the move.  We were looking for a whale that remained stationary so we could jump in with it!  Crazy stuff!  After an hour or two, things were looking grim, and I was beginning to get a bit worried.  “You should’ve gone yesterday” the outfit owner kept telling us.  Whatever.
Suddenly, we came to a stop, and circled.  I have no idea how these guys sniff out the whales.  Sione jumped into the water and quickly motioned for us to jump in.  I leapt off the back of the boat into the void, and shockwaves of very loud whale song immediately pulsed through my entire body.  The whale was what they call a “singer” and was making the most unusual trumpeting and staccato bugling noises.  Like a cross between elephant, bass cello, and vinyl record static noises.  You could actually feel the noises pass through the hollow parts of your body, in the lungs, throat, and sinuses.
The whale was directly below us.  He was standing on his head on the bottom of the sea floor, about 60 feet down.  Through the crystal clear water, Kelsey and I could see the massive flukes and the white underside of the mammoth Antarctic Humpback.  Antarctic Humpbacks have white bellies, while Alaskan Humpbacks have black bellies.  The white belly was striking and made spotting him easier.  Kelsey and I looked around, but the guide was nowhere in sight.  The pulsating waves of sound continued and became more rapid.  We weren’t sure what was going on.  We only knew that we were in Tonga, which is quite different than the US!
Suddenly, the Grampus rose from the deep.  I was directly above him when his head, with massive eyeballs, loomed toward me.  It was kind of like watching an approaching Boeing 747.  I had to actually swim out of the way (rapidly!) to avoid coming up on his back!  I suddenly found myself staring into a massive, bulging eyeball three feet away.  The eyeball rocked around in its casing as he checked me out, and rolled back to stare at me as we swam alongside.  The muscles in his eyeball casing rippled with each movement of his eye.  The humanness of they eye was uncanny.  I learned today that Humpback whales have two brains, and one side rests while the other side remains alert.  Often they will have one eye open while the other eye on the resting side of the brain stays closed.
Next came his fins, which stretched out for quite some distance on either side of the wide fuselage.  These, in my opinion, were to be avoided after what we’ve seen them do in Alaska!  I swam out from the sides and they breezed by just an arm-length from my outstretched fingertips.  This also set me up well for avoiding the flukes, which were pumping with massive force, setting ripples of fat into motion down the entire length of his body.  The singing noise was equal part vibration, equal part sound.  His sides contracted like a massive bellows and the deepest sound I’ve ever heard/felt shook the water around us like an earthquake.
The other swimmers were spread out, and every time I glimpsed Sione he was swimming like a submarine on the sea floor, 60 feet down.  That guy could swim!  We repeated the pattern 5 times, where the whale stood on his head, nuzzling the seabed with his head, singing, rising to the surface within 3-5 feet from us.  Even out of the water and in the boat, his song shrieked through the aluminum hull.  It was unbelievable.  Only in Tonga!

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