Andrew Woodburn's underwater photography of Humpback Whales off Tonga , a chain of islands in the South Pacific. These photos were all taken on breath hold while freediving off a cruise on the live-aboard 'Naia" in 2005. The whales had to be found by searching the ocean, in some cases scanning the horizon from the crows nest just like the whalers of old had to before screaming 'Thar she blows" as we saw the spray of breath pushed into the air. Getting up close enough to a whale for underwater photography is really up to the humpback whale rather than you own fitness and skill but either way to be next to a mother whale and her calf is a fascinating experience. Read the article below the unbelievable photos.
Having a "Whale of a Time" Humpback Whale article printed in Divestyle March April 2006
The search for the Holy Whale
Ever since seeing my first live whale in the ocean, I've wanted to really see a whale. It was so long ago I cant even remember, maybe a southern right off the cape coast or a humpback whale migrating up the Natal coast with the sardine run, it doesn't really matter, really seeing a whale means seeing all of it and that means a couple of things.
Firstly I needed a whale, now one would think that wouldn't be too difficult bearing in mind the size of the levitathions. But actually while whales are found in all the planets oceans there only very few places one can see them and even fewer places where close access to whales is allowed.
Once I had a whale ( or preferably a few) I needed a place where these giants wouldn't move too much as even the slightest movement of their flukes mean that humans are left wallowing in their footprint wondering how such a big mammal can disappear so fast. This meant that the options for whale encounters were further reduced to a few places where whales are either mating, birthing or resting. This also restricts the species one can see, as whales like the blue whale never really stop and mostly occur in the middle of large oceans rather than close to shore.
And lastly in order to see a whale I needed cleanish water, because in most cases these filter feeders occur in poor visibility, filled with plankton, rather cold and murky.
Now my first attempt at this type of thing was published in Divestyle a few years ago as the Mozambique Grand slam where we saw humpback whales, whalesharks, and Mantas all in one day. This interaction merely provided a taste and I quickly realised that I needed particular knowledge, equipment and methods to get the picture I was after.
Luckily there is a place on the planet where one can go and get nearly all the criteria at once. Even if it means a trip to the other side of the world (literally)
Three flights later , three days , innumerable security checks, excess baggage negotiations and a lot of movies and airline fare we stepped off the plane in Tonga, an island chain in the middle of the south pacific and a progressive country which realises that controlled whale encounters brings tourist dollars and preserves whales. So much so, that this area of the pacific has been declared a marine safe zone for marine mammals.
The boat, Naia was to be our whale hunting platform for 8 days. 16 people headed out to sea after a comprehensive briefing by long suffering Josh the cruise director. He told us that in 8 days we should have a chance at one close encounter ONE!
Why one? Because the weather, water and whales haven't read the instruction manual and therefore we need all the variables to be right to get that unique opportunity. And so we set off. Luckily right out the harbour we had the first chance to swim with two juveniles but although the water was clear the encounter was merely a taste to inspire us for things to come. The thing I remember most was the frustration of being an untrained whale watcher, wannabee swimmer. Josh repeatedly declined to let us in the water and move on to find other whales. His wisdom resulted in days spent in wetsuits sitting around so we are ready when it does happen. I resorted to getting as many topside photos as I could and actually recorded some great tail shots as humpbacks tipped nose down heading for the depths. We all became expert whale spotters and predictors of what next. Of the times we did get into the water the first thing that we wanted to do was swim madly to the whale which instilled great anguish in Josh as he repeatedly coached us on how to do IT. He was right and in the long run trained us all as to how he wanted it done. The Naia even provides assistance to those who are not strong swimmers or are fearful of floating about with mask and snorkel in deep blue water nowhere near land.
Finally we heard the words GO, GO, GO and we all rush to the aft of the boat, board the Ribs and head out to the water for an attempt with whales that seemed to want to see us. It was a test to calmly slip off the boat into the ocean and try look for th whales we had travelled so far to see.
The deep indigo blue, with no bottom supported us in its embrace and then out of the blue loomed a giant. They come like shadows drifting into view with and ease and grace unimaginable till you actually see it. Without seeming to try they fly, at complete ease, and are so flexible they can turn their massive bodies literally on a dime. These humpback whales were mostly on the move but not on a migration, so when it suits them they might just pop over to give a bunch of snorkellers the once over. And this is really what impressed me; these great ocean travellers are definitely coming to see us. They fly underneath us, rise up and turn to do another pass. Their long flukes are managed with a surgeon's proficiency so as to pass my head with inches to spare in order for their eye to asses this funny small sprat of a photo free diver which had to return to the surface in such a short time. Their eyes definitely hold a friendly curiousness and the juvenile whales tend to come back a few times to inspect people. It was a completely humbling experience to be in the water, so small as compared with something so big, so peaceful , so graceful and yet nearly wiped out by humans ignorance and greed.
After this encounter with 4 males, one female and a calf (who didn't really hang about) we searched for days and endured rain and wind seeing whales but never really getting close. Till finally on one afternoon while lunch was still being served Mo an ace spotter, shouted whale and only I went to see what had been seen. There ahead of us was a mother and calf floating on the surface. I asked Josh if I could try to swim to them rather than trying to get the boat too close. This was special as mostly we had avoided mothers as we didn't want to stress family units. I swam out, in too much of a hurry even to don a wetsuit, along side the boats hull to the bow and then with directions from the whale spotting platform towards the mother.
Out alone in the middle of the ocean I swam forward, unable to see this mountain of mammal theoretically in front of me. By lifting my head I could see the mothers back and blows periodically. Finally I could see the outline of her head and the white markings reflecting light back at me. As I came close she calmly sank to about 10m but remained under me just watching. I soon discovered why as I waited patiently just floating there. After a few minutes her calf emerged from underneath her massive belly and calmly headed to the surface for a breath not more than a few meters from me. I still didn't move and so it descended back to mom and the waiting continued. This in itself was incredible and if it was to be the sum total of my experience, it would have been enough. But what happened next was unbelievable. Time passed and finally after four breaths by the calf the mother slowly rose like a submarine. Once at the surface she remained there, allowing me to approach off to one side, and her calf to hover above her head. Both watched me and seemed to be trying to figure out what I was. I blew off my roll of film thinking that maybe this was it and that I should internalise this magical occasion as well as take pictures. After a couple of minutes I looked up and the skiffs were a couple of meters from me and other swimmers were sliding into the water to join the experience. The mother whale and calf just floated there, human and whales communed with each other in a small patch of the Pacific ocean.
She slowly moved with the calf, who was still young and unable to use its flukes to stabilise its swimming. It was fascinating to see the attendant remoras gathered like a flock of birds below both of them. The mother often pushes the calf up on her back or head to breathe and rest. We were able to swim with them for an hour or more and towards sunset she moved to the shallows off an island reef where she would spend the night. When she approached the reef it was time for us to return to the boat. This was a once in a lifetime experience for the global scuba divers most of whom had dived in places such as the Galapagos, Cabo off Baja California/ Mexico, the pacific and Indonesian top dive travel adventures.
Make no mistake; this isn't a normal dive live-aboard but an expedition. While there is diving available, just about all the time is spent with mask and snorkel. Each interaction is a spontaneous event so you need to be able to be ready fast. This means get ready for a lot of swimming and on and offing of boats. This is all ably assisted by huge Fijian boat handlers who know their stuff, even treating cameras like babies. The diving was good but not the core focus so I would dive once a day on the reefs and periodically at night with Richie the DM. The big issue on the trip is weather, wind, rain, and cool water. You're in the Open Ocean looking for whales so it can be hot and sunny, windy or rain. Take the appropriate gear. This will make or break the enjoyment of the trip, and lastly, take a wetsuit you can get on and off fast, and if you're really savy take two thinner suits so you can use a dry one while the wet one dries.
Fly from South Africa to Australia, to Fiji and then onto Tonga.
The Naia trip with booked through Hartley's Oceans and Islands can be tailored to any other itineraries you might want to include. Like more days in Sydney or Fiji.
Time of year: unfortunately you don't have much choice: the whales are only in Tonga for July to early September. And the Naia schedule is aligned with this season.
The Naia has excellent cabins with full ensuite bathrooms and superb menus which keep you well fed, this trip is as much an ocean cruise and sleeping , eating affair as it is punctuated with high energy whale experiences.
Andrews advice: Go with an open mind , no expectations, this is a once in a lifetime experience very different to normal dive travel. Do some swim, snorkelling training before you go