Humpback whales (Megaptera noveangliae) – or “big-winged” whales – live in oceans throughout the world. In 1966, humpbacks were declared an endangered species after their population had fallen to approximately five thousand due to whaling pressures. Greenpeace estimated that prior to commercial whaling in the 1800’s, there may have been up to 1.5 million in existence. Currently, the International Whaling Convention estimates the population to be about sixty thousand.
These gentle giants grow to be between forty and fifty feet long and can weigh up to fifty tons. Females begin to reproduce at around twelve years, while it may take males longer to reach sexual maturity. The females carry their young for twelve months, after which, the calves are protected and nursed for the first year. It can take a humpback whale up to ten years to reach its full size, and the average life expectancy is up to sixty years. Humpback whales are the most vocal of all whales, and they “sing” songs that can last up to forty-five minutes. These whales are also one of the most acrobatic cetaceans, breaching frequently and displaying many surface behaviors. Humpbacks migrate further than any other mammal, from polar waters, where they feed, to tropical winter breeding grounds near islands.
The warm winter waters of Tonga are an especially scenic location for mating whales. Humpbacks migrate annually from Antarctica to these tropical waters to mate and give birth. Tonga is an archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean composed of 171 islands – forty-eight of which are inhabited – clustered into three main regions: Tongatapu (the main island), Vava’u (the main tourist island), and Ha’apaiwhere. Humpbacks remain in Tonga from July to November while their calves grow in strength and size before migrating south to their summer feeding grounds.
Darren Rice is a British dive instructor, videographer and resort owner with a special connection to these majestic animals. He and his wife, Nina, moved to Tonga eighteen months ago and now operate Matafonua Lodge on Ha’apai. The lodge sits on pristine beachfront property, follows several eco-tourism practices and offers tourists the chance to meet the resort’s aquatic neighbors. “The government has guidelines for swimming with whales, but we’ve taken those guidelines a step further to make sure we don’t disturb [them],” Rice explains.
With fifteen whale watching operations on Vava’u and three on Ha’apai, human activity frequently disturbs the whales, making it difficult for people to get near them. Rice notes, “I think it’s only a matter of time before the government will need to further regulate whale swimming, which could greatly affect the tourism industry but will help protect these animals.” Rice’s method of whale watching and swimming emphasizes respect for the gentle giants; if they do not want to be encountered, he does not approach them.
Although some whales may be frightened by groups of humans and boats, there are some who want to interact with humans. Rice recalls experiences when the humpbacks swam under the boat, spy-hopped (a behavior by which a whale rises head-first out of the water and holds a halfway position), looked at the guests, and even reached out and touched them. Rice explains, “When this happens, it reinforces the fact that the whales do want to encounter us. We have many more positive swims than negative because of our approach – we watch them from the surface for about an hour to make sure they are comfortable, we swim at a distance and move slowly in small groups of four.” If swimming with whales is done properly, it is beneficial because it creates a bond between humans and animals.
When asked what draws him to the whales, Rice says, “The first time you have a good in-water encounter with a whale and it looks at you, it completely changes your life. Having a whale look you in the eye is indescribable; it gives you an overwhelming sense of the animal’s intellect. You see it watching you, thinking about you, trying to figure out who and what you are. That’s what draws me to the whales daily; it is seeing people’s reactions to the encounters. At that point, the whale stops being just another animal; it becomes an intelligent being with whom they have made a connection.”
The film Humpbacks of Ha’apai takes viewers on an intimate journey into the lives of these underwater titans, and one can see the incredible grace of the species. The bond between mother and calf is evident; they are always near one another and frequently seen touching, sharing gentle interactions. Rice wants his viewers to understand this intimate relationship because it is as close as, if not closer than, those made by humans with their own children. In fact, whale bonds are one of the strongest found in nature.
The whales are so visibly comfortable around Rice that they have even allowed themselves to be filmed while sleeping, about which he says, “It’s almost like they’re saying, ‘I completely trust you, so I am willing to go to sleep.’” He adds, “To have spent that time with a mother and calf was an absolute privilege.”
To ensure their survival, it is essential that we protect humpback whales and the oceans they inhabit. Human interactions with these wild creatures create a powerful connection, but it must be done responsibly. Darren Rice’s approach to interacting with whales serves as an inspiring example of what can result from giving the humpback whale the respect it deserves.
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