LUCJ HAS ITS PART to play in wildlife photography, and at this moment the Tangaloa, or Tongan gods, smiled down on me, as a whale announced its presence with a flap of its powerful tail.
Knowing that my opportunity could be fleeting, I threw myself into the water and kicked as hard as my legs would allow, shortening the distance between the humpback and me and my camera.
Whale of a mirror!
I had a battle on my hands. My fear of the cold means that I wear a 7mm wetsuit even in the hottest of climes. Those extra delicious millimetres of insulation unfortunately result in a rather overly buoyant me, and it can be a fight to get through the water (I know, I need to toughen up).
Regardless, I managed to get close enough to enjoy the glorious sight of both the whale and its reflection. The humpback and its mirror image combined is a gargantuan and glorious vista, truly a moving moment for me.
I rapidly fired off a few shots, but the experience was all too brief.
I wanted to enjoy the moment for longer, but the whale had other plans and, with a wave of a pectoral fin, it was gone…
Back on the boat, triumphant from my hunt, I reviewed my captures. My favourite depicts an arching humpback whale crashing down through the surface while being reflected serenely in the glassy ripples. This image is even more striking when displayed upside-down!
If that encounter sounds appealing, you too might want to meet the giants under water. How about while scuba-diving?
This isn’t possible everywhere in the world, but it is legal to dive with humpback whales in Tonga. However, you’ll find that locating the whales is a game of cat and mouse, and because the process of kitting-up with tanks slows down your entry, there are fewer chances of close-up interactions. It is also believed that bubbles disturb some whales, so they tend to keep a safe distance.
Liveaboards also operate in the area, and if I returned I would combine the diving and the snorkelling with praying to the Tangaloa for more of their generosity. But sticking to the snorkel I saw each day, on average, three mothers with their calves.
On slow days we would return via Mariner’s Cave, located on a tiny island half an hour from Vava’u. Yes, the Tongans named this cave after the ship’s clerk, and later accountant, William.
Here you needed to freedive 3m down and 2m forward to penetrate the cave (not so easy if you’re wearing your trusty 7mm). This would be a fabulous location to take your scuba-gear, and it’s worth the diversion from the whale encounters to view the hundreds of fish that school in the entrance.
These shimmering beauties make for a glistening backdrop to the modelling shots that are often taken at this site.
Flying from the main island of Tongatapu to the small island of Vava’u kept me off the main tourist trail, which suited me perfectly. But if you do the same, expect to be weighed on a giant set of scales with all your luggage before boarding the tiny plane.
Vava’u was exceptional. I was invited to feasts and enticed to social events in which the locals harmonised around a guitar while supping from huge wash-bowls of kava. This drink is made from ground-down roots of indigenous plants, and is said to have sedative, euphoric and entheogenic properties. It looks and tastes like muddy soup.
Kava is a legal high in Vava’u and I sampled its delights at the weekly gathering in the local police station. It was at this assembly that I asked a local about Mariner’s Cave, and he recalled his version of an ancient Tongan legend.
A Tongan king’s daughter fell in love with a poor man, but the king forbade their love. The couple ran away, dived into Mariner’s Cave and hid on the rocky sides of the internal hidden cavern.
Weeks later a fisherman saw the poor man diving in and out of the cave, collecting provisions for his beloved. On being informed, the king demanded that the couple be pulled out of the cave and brought to him. He had them beheaded for their disobedience – more bloodshed in Tonga, then.