by Tim Rock
The last Kingdom in the Pacific. And one of the last places on Earth a person can meet, face-to-face, one of the ocean's largest mammals. Tonga. Sailors come to sail and party. Others drop out and drink kava. Locals live to praise the Lord with hauntingly beautiful choirs. Some come to stay in tidy lodges and wander deserted beaches. And whale lovers make the annual pilgrimage to see humpbacks.
Tonga's claim to fame for those wanting to be in the water with a whale is that its one of the few places on the planet where it is still legal to snorkel with these gentle giants. Various laws in other whale grounds around the world like Hawaii and South Africa allow for whale watching, a fascinating experience in itself. But that way you only get to see a fraction of what's going on. In Tonga, you can watch above and below. It's an exciting and often humbling experience.
I was amazed at my first encounter there. It was windy, spitting a bit of rain and the boat was bouncing around like a cork. We were told there was a baby frolicking at the surface and mama was probably down below sleeping. Now when a baby whale "frolics" it makes quite a splash. When we were told to get ready, I donned fins and mask and quietly slipped over the side of the boat.
We found the young whale as the waves rolled over our heads and washed saltwater into our snorkels. But that first close encounter blotted out any discomforts. Cold, waves and salty lungs were all but ignored. Here was something three times my size, covered already in barnacles, wanting to play with me!
Humpback babies gain about 70-80 kilos a day. So even though this was a "baby" it was like swimming around with a small van with fins. Even though the sky was cloudy and the water a bit stirred up, we looked
All photos were made using Aqiiatiea D200 Housings and Nikon D200 cameras. TheD200 with a Tokina 10-17 lens (mostly at 10mm) at 6.3 was the basic setting with manual adjustments for shutter. No strobes were used. Land images were taken with a Sigma 10-20mm with circular Kenko polarizer, Sigma 18-200 OS with circular polarizer and a Sigma 80-400mm OS Lens. Aerial were made with the Tokina 10-17 at 17mm.
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