Tonga Bound

I’m almost out the door again, heading to the Tonga for my 12th(!) season photographing humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the South Pacific Kingdom.


flying over islands and blue water in kingdom of tonga
South Pacific seas, beautiful islands. Tonga.


Coming out of my recent trip to see beluga whales, where basically no belugas showed up, I can’t help but think back to how my relationship with Tonga got started.

The first time I visited the Friendly Islands was in 1997, when I had zero luck. Zilch. Zippo. Diddly-squat.

There were many contributing factors, but chief among them was the climate. As was the case recently in the Arctic, the prevailing conditions were “off”, perhaps because it was an El Niño year.

The water temperature at the surface was 17ºC (normally it’s at least 25ºC or so). Just ridiculously cold, even before hitting the thermoclines. Sheesh.

And though there were whales about…dark skies, incessant rain and relentless winds made for less-than-ideal cetacean-spotting conditions. And forget photography, particularly since we were using film (egads!) back then.


Flag of Kingdom of Tonga
Kingdom of Tonga flags


Glutton for punishment that I am, I went back a few years later and…wait for it…pretty much got skunked again. Sigh.

But I persevered, and here I am in 2013, with thousands of hours logged on and in the water with humpback whales, terabytes of data (photos, GPS, notes, audio, video), and many unforgettable memories of priceless experiences, some of which I believe are one-of-a-kind.

So my point is…to succeed at anything, you have to put in the time to fail, to reevaluate, to learn and then to try again. Deep, no?

In other words, my friends(?) in the Arctic haven’t seen the last of me…yes Tessum, that’s a threat ;)


humpback whale calf breaching
Breaching humpback whale calf. This one is a boy.


Incidentally, I’m taking a break from my calf count this year.

I will, of course, be photographing friendly calves and noting their behaviour, as well as writing about anything else unusual that I might come upon, but I’m not going to keep rigorous records and process data for hours each night and hundreds of hours after the season.

My calf count has been incredibly rewarding (especially when I recognised a humpback whale mother/ calf pair on TV while I was in Palau last year!), but I need a break…to enjoy being in Tonga, to relax with friends, and not to hole-up at the end of the season for weeks in a dark corner pouring through mounds of information and snapping like a rabid mongrel at anyone who dares disrupt my self-imposed, cross-eyed, data-delirium.


brilliant sunset over Neiafu harbor in Vava’u
Sunsets in Tonga can be spectacular


Every season in Tonga is different; the whales always have surprises in store, so I'm champing at the bit to get back into the water!

If you’re joining me there, have a safe trip, and see you soon. Remember, you’re travelling with me voluntarily.


humpback whale with scarring, rainbow breath
Every whale is different. This one has lots of scars, and seems to have a penchant for rainbows