Nov 082009
 

The most thrilling experience of our trip to Tonga was the opportunity to swim in the water with the humpback whales.  Surprisingly, in the presence of such large creatures, I didn’t feel scared.  The whales were so graceful and in control and aware of our presence, that I never felt like I might get accidentally whacked by a fluke, or a careless fin.  I did however feel an immense respect for these beautiful creatures.  From above, the humpback’s black fin and arched back brings to mind the sea serpents and dragons depicted at the blank edges of medieval maps.  But seeing the whales from beneath the surface of the water is a different experience entirely.  They are exquisite.

Inspecting their world

Every day on the water was a different experience.  As anyone who watches wildlife knows, no day is identical, and there’s always something new to see or do.  In our case, we watched playful breaching calves in calm water one day, got tossed around on rough seas as we watched jostling groups of males the next, and even got the opportunity to hang out with a particular singing whale on two separate occasions.

Above is a video with the singing whale.  Singing whales typically sit deep in the water, with their head low and their tail angled up slightly.  Sometimes the only thing you can make out is the stripe of white from their two sides, or the outline of the white under their flukes and fins.  Often, you can’t see anything but the deep blue and the rays of light spearing down into the depths.

Only male humpback males sing, and the songs evolve and change from one year to the next.  No one is sure what they are communicating, but researchers have recently confirmed that humpback whales have their own syntax, with sound units forming phrases that are combined to form their complex songs. Until now, it was thought that only humans used this heirarchical structure of communication.

Below is a link to a longer video, where you can hear the wide variation in the whale sounds.  You can hear sounds like water drops, creaky doors, and even scraping metal.   Around the 3 minute, 11 second mark, you can hear a distinct sound that we eventually came to recognize as a precursor to the whale coming to the surface.  Later in the video, you can see the big guy coming up for a breath.  When he wanted to surface, the whale would just give one slow stroke of his fins, which would bring him 30 meters up and away from us faster than we could swim. Click Here.

Floating and listening to a whale singing is very meditative.  The singing vibrates in your chest, and you can just bob at the surface and stare into the blue ocean.

You can hear “Wookiee” sounds in this one (around the 30 second mark): Click Here.

Sometimes I wonder what where the whales are right now, and what they’re doing.  It’s amazing how little we know about them, and their world.

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