Swim with Humpback Whales in Tonga
Humpback whales have visited Tonga’s crystal blue waters for centuries. Humpbacks migrate from their summer feeding grounds in Antarctica to winter breeding grounds in Tonga’s warm tropical waters. During their winter sojourn, they gather around the islands of Tongatapu, Ha’apai and Vava’u in order to mate and give birth. The whales start arriving in June and most new calves are born between July and September. Boisterous courtship displays and mating occur during these months…it’s an exciting time to be observing the whales in Tonga.
By October many of the new calves are mature enough to travel and by November, most of the whales have left Tonga to begin their journey south to the nutrient-rich waters of the Antarctic. The whales must travel approximately 6,000 km to reach their favoured restaurant location. It’s a long journey, but once there they are rewarded with their favourite menu item…arces of krill. Humpbacks have 240-400 baleen plates which hang on each side of their huge mouth. The whale’s prey are krill and small fish which get trapped in their hairy fringed edges of the baleen. The whales gorge themselves during summer since they do not feed on their winter breeding grounds and must subsist on fatty reserves stored in their blubber.
Since 1978, humpback whales have been protected during their feeding and calving grounds, but that has not always been the case. The 19th Century whalers altered their idyllic lifestyle, slaughtering the whales in great numbers in Tonga, other South Pacific Islands and in the Antarctic. Over 200,000 Southern Hemisphere humpbacks were killed from 1904 until 1963, when Southern Hemisphere humpbacks were protected from commercial whaling. Tongan whaling did not end until 1978 when a moratorium was imposed by Royal decree. Today ex-whaling nations are pressing Tonga to lift this moratorium and resume whaling. Since 1991 Tongan humpbacks have been studied and monitored by the University of Auckland research teams. The reachers have identified and catalogued 397 individuals to date. The legacy of whaling remains. Two hundred years ago, an estimated 7,000 humpbacks visited Tonga’s waters, but by the late 1960′s there were a few as 15 mature breeding females arriving annually. In 2001 the population was estimated at around 7,000 individuals. Recovery is happening, but is slow.
Tonga is a special place for its people, its overseas visitors and the recovering population of whales. The whale watch operators are aware of the delicate balance which must be maintained between viewing and harassing the whales. They have developed a code of conduct to help insure this population of humpback whales continues to find a safe and peaceful haven in the Kingdom of Tonga.