Among The Whales
Travel+Leisure|January 2017

In the Waters of the South Pacific, Maggie Shipstead Enters the Domain of Some of the World’s Largest Creatures and Discovers That, Sometimes, Beauty Can Conquer Fear.

Maggie Shipstead

a confession: I’ve always been afraid of deep water. Like most phobias, mine isn’t entirely rational. It’s not about drowning, exactly, or being eaten by a sharp-toothed creature, although that wouldn’t be ideal. It’s more about not knowing what’s below me, about darkness and emptiness and my own insignificance.

And yet there I was, floating in the open ocean, peering down through a snorkel mask into water hundreds of feet deep. Above the surface there was wind and swell, blowing spray, gray sky. In the distance were the limestone cliffs and tousled coconut palms of Vava’u, an archipelago of 61 islands within the Kingdom of Tonga, itself a collection of 176 islands scattered across approximately 260,000 square miles of the South Pacific. Beneath the surface, there was stillness, vastness, silence. There was the saturated cobalt blueness of the Tongan waters, and there was a mother humpback whale 50 feet below, resting with her calf tucked under her.

The sight was both familiar and alien. I’d seen countless humpbacks on television and IMAX screens, gazed up at life-size replicas hanging from the ceilings of natural-history museums, even caught glimpses of flukes and fins from whale-watching boats. But now I was floating above a 40-ton, 50-foot-long animal with a beating heart and a mind full of unfathomable instincts and impulses. The white edges of her pectoral fins and fluke glowed bright aqua. The rest of her was a massive charcoal shadow, suspended in space.

Nisi Tongia, a local guide who works for New Zealand–based Whale Swim Adventures, gripped my wet-suited upper arm, anchoring me against the current. We formed a loose cluster with three other swimmers—five of us in all, the maximum number legally allowed in the water so as to avoid crowding the whale. Because scuba diving with the whales is not permitted, we had only snorkels and fins.

This was our first of seven days in the water with Whale Swim Adventures, a tour operator that has led expeditions in Tonga since 1999 and recently expanded to Tahiti (humpbacks) and Sri Lanka (blue and sperm whales). The company offers only multiday trips, a policy intended to give swimmers time to get used to the whales and to avoid pressuring guides into forcing encounters. Sometimes, though, while sitting on the boat’s swim platform, my fins dipping in and out of the wake as I craned around to see columns of vapor sent up by exhaling whales, I did find myself caught up in a certain hectic energy, an Ahab-like thrill of pursuit. The challenge of finding whales is part of what makes encountering them meaningful, but because the quest can be so unpredictable (big ocean, swift wild animals), swimming with these creatures is an activity I can’t recommend for control freaks.

On this drop, everything was going according to plan. A pale face, small by whale standards and studded with the wartlike tubercles characteristic of humpbacks, peeked out from under the cow’s chin. We floated, waiting. After a moment the calf emerged and glided upward, nose to the light, eye trained on us, inspecting. A clutch of remoras, or suckerfish, clung to his underside, and his white belly was grooved with expandable ventral pleats that would, in adulthood, help him filter up to one and a half tons of krill a day. For now, he was consuming only milk, while his mother ate nothing. The warm, protected Tongan waters provide safety during the whales’ birthing and breeding season, but no sustenance. In a few weeks, this pair would turn south, toward their Antarctic feeding grounds.

The calf took a breath, rolled languidly onto his side, and started wiggle swimming in our direction.

This was what I’d come for. This was an experience I’d wanted so badly that I’d put aside my trepidation about Big Blue and embarked on a 5,000-mile pilgrimage that could well have ended up becoming an exercise in terror management.

Just a few feet from me, the calf rolled onto his back, opening his knobby pectoral fins wide. We made eye contact: a six-week-old, 18-foot-long marine mammal and a woman from California. What could he have made of me? His beauty thrilled me almost to the point of pain.

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