Tonga

Eye To Eye

Eye To Eye

 

This is the wildlife image that holds the most meaning for me of all the photographs I have taken over the past ten years. I have it hanging in my kitchen where I see and marvel at it each and every day.

My husband and I are fortunate to have had access to a cruising yacht based in the South Pacific over the past several years. One of my favorite destinations is the small Kingdom of Tonga, where humpback whales migrate each year from the Antarctic to give birth and mate. We have visited several times during whale season and each time I took the opportunity to go out with whale watching professionals, over time learning the basic elements of locating and interacting with the whales in the water.

On our last visit in 2013, we were out for a cruise and scouting for whales on the way. The ocean was empty, no whales or whale watching boats in sight. Then suddenly we spotted a blow quite nearby.
Luck was entirely on our side. We had found a mother and very young calf that were floating quietly near the surface. They showed no signs of avoiding us or moving on, and no licensed whale boat operators were in the vicinity to ‘appropriate’ our find. I couldn’t resist such a golden opportunity. I quickly peeled off my clothes down to the swimsuit underneath and grabbed my underwater camera, fortunately already assembled and leak-tested and ready to go. There was a mad scramble gathering the bare necessities – fins, mask and snorkel – and then I eased into the water off the boat’s stern.

The two whales were maybe 150 feet away and I located them instantly through my camera’s viewfinder. I swam slowly and carefully towards them, minimizing any splashing or sudden movement, and they allowed me to approach without showing any skittishness. After a few minutes, mom turned and started swimming slowly away, giving me a rear view of her tail. But as I watched her go, snapping my last few photographs, I realized that her path was curving back in my direction. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the pair drifted back towards me until I found myself so close that I started backpedaling to avoid making accidental physical contact with mama’s long pectoral fin.

I spent nearly twenty minutes eye to eye with this calm and generous whale, while her baby slept and breathed above her, as we silently communicated with each other. I finally cut the session short when a third whale, probably her escort, arrived on the scene.

In itself the opportunity to swim alone and close to a cooperative whale is a rare and awe-inspiring experience. For the whale herself to voluntarily initiate that interaction was such an amazing, incredible privilege, never to be forgotten.

CBPP_20130831_Whale2-103-MI don’t often post photos of myself (especially in a swimsuit!), but my husband took this photo of the three of us from the deck of the boat.

Nikon D4, 1/180 sec at f/2.8, ISO 400, 35mm (17.0-35mm f/2.8)

Photo is copyrighted and registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. Please respect.

Eye To Eye is available for purchase HERE.

Posted by Carol in South Pacific, Tonga, Underwater, Whales, 2 comments