Probably the most common whale interactions you will have in Tonga are the humpback mother and calf encounters in one of the many sheltered bays of the archipelago.
They are certainly the most touching of encounters and the close bond between the mother and her calf will pluck the heartstrings of even the most seasoned wildlife observer!
The 170+ islands that make up the Tongan archipelago are ideal for the newly born calves to spend the first few months of their lives. The mothers are back in Tonga some 12 months after the conception of their calves and have made the incredible journey up from the Antarctic in their annual migration – a journey of over 6,000km.
The sheltered bays of the archipelago are really important… The mothers last ate in the Antarctic, at least 2-3 months earlier, and since then they have swam all the way up past New Zealand and along the sub-sea volcanic arch that leads to Tonga. They have given birth to their calf and now have to feed it while constantly looking after it and guarding it from hungry predators!
The mothers are tired and have to recover their strength because soon they will have to make the return journey south to the Antarctic, but this time they will have their calves to look after and feed.
They need a sheltered environment that will allow them to rest while knowing that their calves are safe from potential predators. Mature whales usually come to the surface and breath every 10 minutes or so, but calves have to breath every 3-5 minutes and every time they do that they are vulnerable to attack.
So a shallow bay is a perfect place for them to rest and keep their calves reasonable safe from attack.
Mother and Calf Encounters – Rules of Engagement
Under the whale watching guidelines established by the Tongan government there is a 300m radius exclusion zone around the humpbacks that vessels must not enter, however licensed operators may enter what is called the “caution zone” which allows them to get as close as 100m.
Entry in to the water has to be made silently from that 100m boundary otherwise the mother, sensing possible danger, will lead the calf away.
A maximum of 4 swimmers, plus a guide, are allowed to enter the water and approach the whales which must be done very quietly (no splashing fins…) and carefully so as not to intimidate and scare them away.
A good guide can read the body language of the resting mother and will position the group so as to maximize the interaction and photographic potential.
If the mother has “settled” and accepted the presence of the swimmers the mother and calf encounters becomes sublime as she may even approach to take a closer look and being so close to such a huge creature is an experience that will stay with your forever!
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