Looking into the eyes of humpback whales in the seas off Tonga can make a visitor feel omnipotent and inconsequential all at once. By Maggie MacKellar.

Whale-watching in Tonga

Swimming with a whale and her calf in the waters  off Tonga.
Swimming with a whale and her calf in the waters off Tonga.

For years, 13 at least, I have worn my mother’s silver necklace without taking it off. It’s a beautiful piece, Georg Jensen, wildly outside my current circumstances, a piece to treasure. The silver is marked by her life and mine and, when I rub it in the fine white sand of the Freycinet beaches near my Tasmanian home and draw it out shining and clean, I think each small mark, each imperfection makes it more beautiful.

I wore it so constantly it felt as much a part of me as the skin on the back of my hands. But I’m not wearing it at the moment. It’s sitting on my dressing table in a cut-glass jar waiting for me to put it back on. What I’m wearing instead is a $10 piece of whalebone carved in the shape of a humpback’s tail, hung around my neck on a piece of string. It was given to me in Tonga by one of the women I was travelling with last year. I put it on in the markets to please her and left it on while we swam in, sailed upon and paddled through the warm, clear Tongan waters. I liked its roughness. I thought I would take it off when I returned home. But, despite making me look like a slightly displaced hippie, the whalebone has stayed around my neck.

I went to Tonga in August after my friend Jane emailed and asked if I wanted to travel with her and meet up with her sister, Heather, and husband, Neil, who were sailing their yacht Pandora from the Caribbean back to New Zealand. If I came, she said, I would sail with them from Tongatapu to Nomuka, an outer island of the Ha‘apai group where we would stay with Jane’s friends Tris and Dave Sheen at their Whale Discoveries eco retreat. There we would spend four days exploring the reefs and swimming with humpback whales. We would then return to Pandora and sail through the beautiful Ha‘apai islands to Vava‘u where we would once again leave the yacht and paddle kayaks, camping on magical beach after magical beach. I could not say no. Great, said Jane, and sent me a list of worn and broken gear her sister needed to replace on Pandora.

I left Tasmania with 100 metres of rope in my bag, assorted mysterious yachtie items, a pair of swimmers, a couple of T-shirts, a pair of shorts, a pair of long pants, a light jumper, a hat, some reef-safe sunscreen and my toothbrush. I was winter white and flabby. In the manner of all the best journeys I didn’t know what to expect.

Seasickness as it turns out. Eight hours of it on the first sailing leg. I did get my sea legs after that, but they were hard won. Then we landed on a tropical island so magical I felt as if a spell had been placed over me. I forgot the nausea. I forgot the winter and all the problems of home. Instead there was white sand, a reef break at either end of the beach – left and right – coconut palms, dogs and roosters and pigs and chickens, fresh fruit and fish curry, and a glowing sunset over an ocean that was a super highway for cruising whales. We sat on the beach nursing a beer and watched as the sun set in a riot of pink and red and molten gold and the whales breached, and slapped their tails, dived and sent spouts of water like smoke signals into the air. I slept in a tiny beach bungalow and, though the ground was firm, I still moved as if I was riding the sea’s back. Tasmania seemed another life away.

The kingdom of Tonga is one of the few places in the world you can swim with whales legally. As the experience has grown more popular, so have the number of cowboy tour company operators. We heard rumours of boats in the more popular tourist areas chasing whales, stressing mothers and calves by trying to get their load of swimmers into the water. There is a movement to ban the practice, arguing it disrupts the whales’ natural behaviour. But this wasn’t remotely my experience. Instead, when we set out the next morning on the Sheens’ boat Tropic Bird, we were the only vessel on the water and we were surrounded by whales.

That first day we saw whales almost straight away, but they weren’t interested in us, so we had lunch, dropped the hydrophone mic into the water and listened in awe to the concert of whales singing underneath the boat. We saw clouds of dolphins, and then like a ridge line in the water another whale. She was a mother with a calf. Dave kept the boat at a far distance from her, and read her behaviour for more than an hour. He’d bring the boat closer then back off, until she gradually became more comfortable as the distance between us shortened. He was like a skilled horseman working with a wild horse, gaining its trust. We watched as, with the whole ocean at her disposal, the whale turned towards us.

That night I lay on my bed and wrote of this first swim: “I can’t remember how, but we were in the water and what I mean is we were over the side of the boat in a second, slipping down into a bottomless blue backlit by sun. Below my fins were more hues of blue, with shafts of sunlight piercing into the depths. And then she was there. And the breath sucked out of me because of the wonder. Her eye locked on us strange creatures hanging near the surface, she bejewelled and her baby hung as if attached to her back. She didn’t swim so much as breathed past us and was gone into the deep. We rose like corks, each of us blasted out of ourselves and almost hysterical with something beyond the ability of language to explain. Even Tris, who has swum literally thousands of times, was grinning and renewed. Jane and I could only gasp and grin. And after that first swim she stayed and played with us, let us hang above her and watch her feeding the calf, let us swim beside her, clumsy and desperate not to offend.”

We swam with different whales over the next four days. On the last day we swam again with the mother and calf from the first day. She’d come up beneath us, curious but otherworldly, massive and unknowable. I swam on my side, just under the surface, my legs kicking hard, the fins pushing me forward. Her long pectoral fins hung relaxed, only her tail moved, and then only slightly. I was pulled in and then we were swimming together. I lost my awkwardness, forgot the group, felt weightless, impossibly insignificant and powerful all at once. There was a tugging to stay with her. But of course I didn’t. The world pulled me back and I rose to the surface and saw how far I was from the boat and the other swimmers. My fragility returned. I was land body in the sea, foreign, only a visitor. I lay on my back, surrounded by blue above and below, caught in-between worlds.


I don’t know when I’ll take the whalebone from around my neck and replace it with my mother’s necklace. For now, it’s a reminder of something wild, something beyond my ordinary. It takes me back to a place where I shed something, where I jumped into the ocean and was not sure what I would find beneath me and where I met another being, outside my understanding, who was curious enough to turn back and swim with me.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 9, 2018 as "Escape of water".

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Maggie MacKellar lives on a sheep property on the east coast of Tasmania. She is the author of two memoirs, How to Get There and When It Rains.

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