Tonga – Freediving with Humpback Whales

Tuesday 2nd to Thursday 11th September 2014

I took a quick plane ride overnight to Tongatapu via Sydney from Brisbane and then a connecting flight on a very small plane, to my final destination Ha’apai.

I had 45kg of luggage all up including 17kg of hand luggage, just a little over the 7kg allowance on Virgin or the 5kg allowance in Tonga. I was worried they may stop me taking it on the plane. Tonga is the first country I’ve ever seen weigh the people at check in.

Of course I can understand why as there are some rather large people in Tonga. I managed to get it through okay but did get stung excess. Needless to say I was missing Nick and the boys and their ability to help me carry stuff!

We headed on a small boat to Serenity Beaches where we were staying at Patti’s Resort for the duration of the trip. I was a little ill prepared for the resort, it was a basic level of accommodation and wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

There was no power for a start on the island but for a small generator that got switched on just for a couple of hours a day. This became a real nightmare when I needed to charge four RED batteries and two Canon batteries and there were about twenty things charging off the power board at once. Unfortunately the power constraints meant I never had fully charged batteries and my camera died a few times at very inopportune moments.

The rooms looked nice and the bed was very comfortable, in fact I slept the deepest I think I have ever slept in my life on the island. The shower was a basic solar hot water bag that hung pretty low so you had to squat down to rinse off after lathering up, but after a day I got used to it and it was fine. Whilst there were mosquito nets over the beds I never actually got bitten at all on the island.

You’ve heard the saying island time before? Well I think that came from Tonga because Tongan’s don’t really have much concept of time at all. Once I realised nothing would get done on my time but on Tongan time, I just embraced it and was almost forced to be patient and relax, certainly a new concept for me and one that was probably far overdue.

I should have done my research on the resort first because then I would have known to get supplies. There were no shops at all on the island so there was nothing to buy. The bar had some basic beer and very basic wine so my hopes of enjoying some cocktails on the island went out the door, and I was wishing I had hardened up and bought some duty free spirits to accompany my 17kg of hand luggage after all!! The other boys had bought some dark rum but I wasn’t desperate enough to hook into that, although I did make them a cocktail in a coconut with it!

Food was prepared for us, three meals a day all included, however you weren’t able to choose your meal aside from Breakfast. Some of the food was delicious and I really enjoyed the Taro and Sweet potato, and their eggs, bread and jam were really yummy.

I was also pleasantly surprised to find the coconuts extremely delicious, after having tried one in Thailand as a kid and having hated it. Some of the food I wasn’t fond of, but didn’t have the biggest appetite when I was diving anyway. There was always small bananas or coconuts on offer so never felt I went hungry, and after a few days I felt much healthier for not having the options of buying snacks.

The first day we arrived, we dumped our bags and headed out straight away for our first whale encounter. I had no time to prepare the RED so took the Canon 5D Mark 3 with me instead.

We had the best encounter of the whole trip that afternoon with a mother and calf. It was out of this world and there is no way to explain it in words. The calf was playing with us and coming so close to us that we had to try to move out of its way.

It was showing off by slapping the water and doing barrel rolls and dives, looking at us with its big inquisitive eyes. It was truly breathtaking! A magical moment in time that we were all reminiscing about at the end of the trip.

During our time at Ha’apai we would start Yoga at 7.15am, breakfast around 8am, get organised and depart for Freediving training at 9am. We would freedive until lunch time, eat lunch then spend the afternoon swimming with Whales.

I signed up for the Stage B course with Erez Beatus who was hosting the trip and Apnea Freediving so over the course of the trip we did some theory and a lot of practise on our technique. I really enjoyed the course and learning from Erez. I improved a lot over the course and by the end of it had managed to get pretty good technique in Erez’s words of course!

I really liked everyone in the group and because we were all freedivers we had respect for the Whales and each other when we were in the water, so there no-one getting kicked in the face with someone’s fins or anyone lagging behind when we did the big surface swims.

For the whale swims we had two groups of four with Erez, so everyone would get a turn to see the whale encounter. This worked really well and we approached the whales quietly so that they would accept us and allow us to watch them or interact with us.

We heard singers who are adult males that turn upside down in the water and sing complex songs over and over again. This was beautiful to hear and something that was a highlight for all of us, especially when we were freediving and trying to remain calm whilst holding our breath.

I would just shut my eyes and listen to their singing. Sometimes the mother and calf would also talk to one another, the mothers grunts and grumbles so loud it would pound through your chest like a drum.

We saw a few huge adults as well as several mother and calves. Every encounter was truly unique and compelling. We did some big surface swims, sometimes hundreds of metres which was a real drag (literally) with the RED camera because of its size.

There was one moment I came close to tears underwater from the overwhelming emotions from observing a mother and calf. The raw beauty of this gigantic animal showing the most tender love to its baby was incredible to watch and to be a part of.

Sunday no-one works in Tonga as they are a devout Christians. We went for a walk to see the ruins in the middle of the coconut forest and learned some interesting history. I also got an amazing massage from Patti the owner of the resort, did some time lapse photography on the beach whilst sunbathing and drinking a beer, and had a siesta in the hammock under the coconut trees. All in all a pretty nice relaxing day!

We spent one whole day freediving and this involved heading out by boat for over an hour to the famous Arch. The Arch sits in about twenty three metres of water and its highest point is twenty one metres.

I envisaged it to look, well like an arch with a skinny point you duck under but when we got there it was more like a bridge and looked a lot deeper than I imagined. The skinny bit of it still looked fairly wide which was a little daunting as it meant you had to swim down to twenty one metres but then swim under a few metres before you could come back up on your one breath of air, my mind was telling me I couldn’t do it!

On my first attempt at it, I dived down for a while and then glanced downwards to note that the arch was right in front of me! In fact luckily I dived down straight or I would’ve actually swam into it.

I dived down to twenty one metres grabbed the arch in one hand waited there a second, looked underneath, and then my mind said nope not doing it, so I went back up. I had some really strong contractions going up but shut my eyes and told myself to relax. A contraction is a result of the build up of carbon dioxide and is a physical reaction by the body, spurred by the mind in most cases to want to breathe. For me, my contractions are big and my body shakes, usually I feel this in my chest like someone’s in there beating to get out.

Photos below of me courtesy of Erez Beatus from Apnea Freediving:

The second time I attempted the Arch I made it down and without thinking found myself diving under it and back up. It was pretty down there and I couldn’t help but feel excited inside that I had done it as I tried to calm myself riding my contractions all the way back up to the surface. It felt like a great achievement and was one of the best highlights of the trip for me. I had a maximum depth of twenty three metres and a personal best.

We had the pleasure of experiencing a real Tongan feast on the neighboring island when we were there. This included a piglet on the spit, and some absolutely beautiful food prepared by our skipper Celesi’s wife. A selection of Sweet potatoes, a delicious tender chicken and noodle dish, succulent pig and the yummiest crackling.

I wanted to go back for seconds but was mindful that the locals would probably eat the leftovers so decided not to. There were several children watching us eat and several dogs hanging about, and although the Tongan family were so generous and forthcoming with the meal they had prepared for us, I couldn’t help but feel wrong about eating it in front of the others.

Photo of me above courtesy of Erez Beatus from Apnea Freediving.

Ha’apai was a real eye opener for me. It made me see the real necessities in life. I certainly feel I woke up to myself and what is really important in life, I do feel like Tonga has changed me. It has allowed me to slow down and enjoy life.

There is a real need for aid in Ha’apai and neighbouring islands. There are many locals with illnesses that can be cured by a course of antibiotics but they just don’t have the supplies. Every tool, every product has to come from either Australia or New Zealand, petrol is over three dollars a litre there.

I can see a great eco-tourism future for Ha’apai in the next ten years, and I hope this will assist the locals. Ha’apai feels like its at the end of the world and you feel really isolated there, but its a secluded paradise, a rough diamond so to speak. A place that if you embrace, will open up your eyes to what is truly important in life.

Will I go back to Tonga? Yes. I would love to take the guys back to experience the amazing encounters I had with the whales. Those encounters are just magic and I will never forget them.

For an EPIC video of myself underwater having the closest encounter with a baby Humpback whale that Ive ever seen see the below video courtesy of Erez Beatus from Apnea Australia


2 thoughts on “Tonga – Freediving with Humpback Whales

  1. AWESOME! Glad you got a wake up call. At the end of the day, all we need is Food and Shelter. Humans invent and creat things, and everything we creat we become Slaves of our inventions.

  2. mate I’m Tongan myself and thanks very much for your story and youre right people in the islands need medicine and so forth so hopefully we Tongans can help each other as well…like actually do something and not just talk about it.

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