Whale song and a Royal Wedding

08th September 2012
I was fast asleep, it being 0230 in the morning when Mike’s voice woke me ‘There are whales in the anchorage….and they are singing’. As I gradually came to we both lay there listening to the gentle and haunting sound of these wonderful creatures singing and their song lulled us slowly back to sleep. We are in Tonga where the mighty humpback whales migrate annually to give birth to their young and mate – hence the courtship song of the males to which we have been privy.

So far, in the four years we have been at sea we haven’t had many good whale experiences and we were determined that this year’s visit to Tonga would remedy that and so far it has more than lived up to expectations. Here in the Ha’apai we have seen whales nearly every day and when I say seen I don’t mean vaguely in the distance but close enough to hear them breathing out and snorting. We’ve even had two turn and swim towards the boat, diving down underneath and surfacing on the other side.
Then there was the group of four males, all vying for the attentions of a female who were thrashing around trying to prove their dominance over the others, completely oblivious of us and the whale watching boat, again surfacing just beside us as we floated with our sails stowed and engine in neutral. It’s been absolutely incredible and truly wonderful.

But nothing so far has topped the Monday we had a while ago. We were back anchored off an idyllic south Pacific island – a mere scrap of sand and palm trees surrounded by a lagoon and coral reef - where we had heard the whales singing. From our anchorage outside the reef we spot a mother humpback teaching her calf to breach; she jumps high and majestically out of the water, and the calf? Well he/she just about manages to get their nose out. Looks a bit like the cetacean equivalent of Bambi on ice but with each attempt it begins to look more like a breach.
Then we realise they are getting closer to us, swimming parallel with the boat and there is only one thing to do and we do it – swimming kit and snorkels on and into the water where we hover and wait some distance from where Sea Rover is anchored.
At first there is nothing and we keep lifting our heads trying to spot them and then we gradually see a shape appearing, moving towards us at our level and there she is in all her glory swimming alongside us as we fin along holding hands just feet away. We have difficulty with her pectoral fin; it doesn’t fit the normal shape, that’s because it’s the tail flukes of her calf. She has brought it up to see us and the pair swim alongside us so close I can see the eyelashes around the calf’s eye.
As she surfaces to breath for a few seconds she leaves the calf swimming alongside us, then it too needs a breath, surfaces and they both return beside us.
Then as slowly, gracefully and gently as they appeared they dive down into the deeps and disappear. Awe struck we leave them and swim back to Sea Rover not quite believing what we have just seen and experienced, even I am lost for words in the emotion of it all.
But they haven’t finished and soon it is apparent they have returned and it seems rude to ignore them. Again we search through masks for them, hanging in the water, waiting. This time as they appear it is below us and we watch as the mother gradually rises through the water beneath us. It almost feels as if we will land on her head. But it’s clear she knows exactly where we are. But where is the calf?
We realise it is between her pectoral fins suckling.
This time as she came up beside us, again so close we could have touched her, we are treated to her profile, her magnificent head and eye. An eye that is so clearly belongs to an intelligent and sentient creature. Gently with a couple of laconic movement of her mighty tail she moves ahead, her tail an arm’s length away it was almost as if she wanted us to touch her. We don’t.
And then after a breath when again we are left with the calf the pair dive head first down into the darker blue and we swim back to the boat. Even once we have got out they are still there, in the same spot we left them, easy to anthropomorphise and imagine them wondering where we have got to.
We still can’t get over this experience and realise that Mondays don’t get much better than this.

With all this incredible marine wildlife it would be easy to forget that Tonga isn’t just a large water wonderland but we also had extraordinary times ashore in the capital Nuku’alofa on the main island of Tongatapu. The crown prince Tupouto’a ‘Ulukalala was set to marry his second cousin Sinaitakala and when we thought we’d head there to line the streets and join in the festivities, little did we expect to be joining in the event. For us it all started a couple days before the wedding with a traditional ceremony where the crown prince walks with his entourage to his fiancé’s house to present gifts to her family. We went along to the start and asked if it was OK to stand and watch, got welcomed effusively, given seats under the awning whilst awaiting the prince and then ended up being part of his entourage walking to Sinaitakala’s house.

The rest of the evening we sat and watched representatives of the noble families and island groups dance and present the couple gifts of the most fabulous lengths of wonderful tapa cloth (or gnatu when it is this highly decorated), woven mats and materials. Though what they think the couple will do with several metres of leopard print material is anyone’s guess!
We had a real problem trying to find out the order of events for the big day – tourist information here leaves a lot to be desired. Eventually we were wandering across the large area beside the palace where the army were deployed raising the marquee for the wedding feasts – no security to stop us and Mike got talking to a guy in a posh 4x4 who had a list and it quickly became evident he knew exactly what was happening when and where. In response to Mike asking him if he knew the family the response was ‘Yes, I’m the bride’s brother’! Not only that but, as we saw on the day, he was giving her away.
On to the day itself and again, no security to stop us we wandered up to the church and waited at the gates. When the bride arrived we simply followed her in – at a discrete distance of course and once inside were approached by someone and expecting to be booted out were pleasantly surprised to receive an apology that there wasn’t a seat for us! And it gets better.

Following the service we just went with the flow of the crowds down to the field where the marquee was now up and decorated. Mike was waiting to get photos of the couple after the official ones had been taken and a security guard approached him, not to eject him but to say ‘After you have taken your photos you must enjoy our Tongan food’. Mike tried to explain we hadn’t actually received an invitation but no he insisted we would be welcome. When the Royal couple arrived at the Reception, a Tongan woman from the bride’s family fell down on the ground by their car. It was explained to us that it was a sign of deference and she was expecting the bride to step onto her as she left the car. The prostrate woman was gently moved away.

We then made our way into the Reception, sitting with the choir from the wedding service (who had sung so well you would happily have paid to hear them). What’s more it didn’t end there. On the following Sunday the couple went, by tradition to church and this was followed by yet another feast in the marquee. This time when we asked an organiser if it was OK for us to be there we got shown to a table and seated with some other Tongans and that is how we met Vika, who had worked with Sinaitakala’s mother, accompanying her to England when she went there to study in the 70s.

As you can imagine this whole experience all felt a little surreal, somehow can’t imagine a tourist getting quite the same access to Kate and Will’s wedding! But it’s been explained to us that the Tongan culture is one of welcoming people in. A fact well documented in William Mariner’s book where it is explained that if you are hungry you simply go into someone’s house at mealtime and you will be fed. Even today the Tongans don’t really understand the palangi (foreigner’s) habit of eating alone.

Another part of the culture that we have seen and enjoyed is that of giving and exchanging gifts. In one small village of Ha’afeva in the Ha’apai we had taken some presents for the local school – pencils, note books that kind of thing and got talking to the head. The subject of the Olympics came up and it seemed that there is one TV in the village which is on in the evenings when the village generator is on. As it is in the village hall where the kava club is held (kava been the ground up root of piper methysticum, mixed with water that is mildly narcotic and we find vile to taste) only the men attend, but as a palangi it would be OK for us both to go. So there we were watching the table tennis final – not the sport of choice but even we did appreciate the lightening reflexes the players have to have. The round up section means we did see Usain Bolt win his 100 m final and cruise to a win in his 200 m heat – didn’t even seem to break into a sweat. We were very impressed with Jessica Ennis winning the 200m in her event. Think the decathletes and heptathletes ought to get at least two medals as to be at that level across so many events is a really incredible feat. Needles to say we didn’t partake of the kava but we were well looked after, Pita’s (the headmaster) wife sent over tea and keke – deep fried delicious little doughnuts. When the next day we went to their house to say a proper thank and take a few small bits and pieces, Gownsia promptly presented me with a hand woven mat of the type they use as a wrap round over their skirts on special days like Sunday. It all felt very humbling and will always be a very special souvenir of Tonga for me.

See more of our photos of Tonga

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Photo comment By Alan: Wow - what an amazing SeaMail.
Photo comment By Al: Mondays certainly do not get better than this! What an amazing experience. Looking forward to the next post and more wonderful pictures xxx
Photo comment By Fiona Snell: Can't believe your whale experiences sound fantastic.

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