I'll call her Anna.
She had a long and slender face and a pear-shaped figure, and she moved gracefully through the water, ballerina-like, gently undulating and occasionally performing pirouettes. I stopped cold when I first spotted her. My heartbeat quickened, and as she drifted slowly past I reached out my hand and waved. This probably sounds silly—waving at an animal—but at the time it seemed like an entirely appropriate reaction. For what we were having, this creature and I, could only be described as a moment—a chance encounter sustained by mutual curiosity. As Anna came to within six feet from my face, and checked me out, I looked directly into her eye. She was the prettiest whale I’d ever seen.
There is whale “watching”—you spend three hours on the deck of a boat glued to binoculars, and consider yourself lucky if you see a whale breach the water, but you’ll settle for fluke sightings—and then there’s swimming with these gentle giants, an experience of true contact that approaches something spiritual. There are only three countries in the world were such intimate encounters are allowed, including the Kingdom of Tonga, a remote archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean. Tonga’s deputy prime minister, whom I met in the sleepy capital town, Nuku'alofa, explained that this was a direct result of his own clever lobbying in the mid-90s. “I said to the IWC”—the International Whaling Commission—“there’s two choices: we can either eat the whales, or we can swim with them,” he told me, chuckling at the memory. “I was only joking. But it worked.”
Most Tongan whale tour operators run day trips out of the northern Vava’u group of islands, but our boat, the Fiji-based NAI’A, is the area’s only liveaboard, and leads 10-day sojourns around the relatively empty Ha’apai Island group during the whale’s winter breeding season. Humpback whales spend a few months a year around Tonga birthing, mating, competing, sleeping and socializing—everything but eating, which they do the rest of the time in Antarctica. We would witness up close the full range of whale behaviors: breaching, singing, fin slapping, and lollygagging, an unscientific term for the idle activity that our affable British guide Sam described as best for encounters. (Put another way: try to hold their interest when they seem to have nothing better to do.)
Anna demonstrated to us the tender ways of homeschooling—a mother’s education in the ways of being a whale. This sublime moment, however, was abruptly disturbed by another fact of life. As the two circled closely around me, a lone male suddenly emerged from the depths below. Such was his brash arrival that I quickly branded him a rogue, and I scrambled away to avoid a possible collision. Clearly, Anna felt the same way: she flicked the hopeful mate off with a mighty tail strike, and took off with her calf, disappearing quickly into the oblivion. The male slinked off, out of sight.
The scene reverted to an empty blue space, and I looked down into the void. Twenty feet below, a solitary white-tip reef shark was swimming by.