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Dernières expéditions

September 2013 : Tonga

 

The movie...

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Here is the full report of a very confidential expedition to the kingdom of Tonga with the aim of swimming with the giant and charismatic humpback whales. To maximize men-animal interactions opportunities and quality of the shooting, the number of participant had been voluntarily limited to 5 people, 3 men and 2 women, united by the same passion for ocean conservation and dedicated to bring up to the world the beauty and wonders of the seas...

Les 5 participants

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Tonga is almost opposite to France on earth. The trip itself is already a challenge...No less than 3 days, 3 airlines, 5 calls, almost 32 flight hours, a night stop and an aborted landing due to weather… were necessary to set foot on the Island of Vava'u, our destination. Karine tired face on landing in Vava'u is a good marker of the accumulated fatigue...

Real Tonga Airline

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Vava'u is the second largest and the northernmost island in the kingdom. It is renown to shelter the famous humpback whales - Megaptera novaeangliae -. Every year around July, mums and newborn calves come to the island looking for sheltered and warm waters. They are followed by sexually excited males looking for once again ready cows. Once the calves will be strong enough between the end of October and mid November, the whales are going to migrate towards the cold waters of Antarctica where they will spent the austral summer feeding mainly on the red krill - Euphausia superba -.

baleines à bosse dans l'archipel de Vava'u

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The volcanic archipelago is made of numerous islands and islets, covered in wild vegetation growing among sharp rocks and white sandy beaches. Inside the reef barrier, the water is clear and shallow and its temperature reaches 75°F. Sometimes milky, its color ranges from the deepest green to the shiniest turquoise.

Vava'u d'origine volcanique 2

 

Plages de sable coralien

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Outside the reef barrier, the ocean waters are crystal-clear and deep blue and offer the best shooting conditions. It’s that extended area that we have chosen to look for whales.

Queue de baleine sur l'océan

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We have elected "Whale Watch Vava'u" as one of the best local operator to look for whales. Known as the whale watch pioneer in the kingdom of Tonga, Whale Watch Vava'u owns two aluminum boats equipped with 2 outboard motors of 100 or 150 HP each. The strict local regulation allows for only one boat at a time engaging a single or a group of whales. The duration of the engagement is also limited to 1,5 hour with an hour pause between 2 boats. Although looking tough and restrictive, these regulations are favorable to whales, and to operators with more than one boat as they can optimize the whale search and handover within the company when a boat reaches the end of its slot.

Saut à coté du bateau

Whale Watch Vava'u

Mises à l'eau

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In Vava’u, the show takes place topside first. You can spot the whales from a rather long distance thanks to their blow, but also when they breach and fall back heavily, creating water sprays rising several feet over the surface that can be seen several hundred yards away.

Whale breach on the horizon

Whale splash

Whale breach

Whale sealanding

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As far as best shooting opportunities are concerned, what should you be looking for? First, “heat runs”, a group of males competing to obtain the favors of a ready cow. That expresses through a very agitated and noisy demonstration of strength and power, jostling, breaching, tail flapping and spy hoping. Take my word on this, when several 40 ton animals are playing at “who is the most powerful?”, you start thinking twice before sliping into the water... 
This very day, we met a 6 male heat run. Here after are a few topside pictures of it…

Heat run

Heat run

Heat run

spy hoping

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et sous l'eau....

underwater heat run

underwater heat run

underwater heat run

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Also, you should be looking for “mum and calf”, with preferably a relaxed mum. At the time of our trip, the newborns where between 2 and 6 weeks old and where 4 to 5 meters long, that’s 3 times less than their 15 meters long mums. The quiets mum rest at a depth of 45 to 60 feet during apnea periods of around 12 minutes. Meanwhile, baby must breath more often, every 3 to 4 minutes, and he goes from his mum to the surface. Entering in the water should be done with the greatest quietness, and the whales approach, controlled and calm. Don’t rush at the calf face, or mum will leave quickly with its baby and the encounter will be over.
If they stay, you will be able to attend one of the most breathtaking show that nature can deliver…

Calf surfacing

Calf surfacing

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Encounters and shooting opportunities are then maximized as the following images show :

Calf and cameraman

Calf and swimmers

Calf and cameraman

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At its own pace, mum escorted by her calf comes to the surface to breathe. If she feels confident, she dives straight away without moving away, and repositions at the vertical of the baby that keeps swimming to and fro. If she is being disturbed by noisy swimmers, or thinks that her calf is at any risk, she moves several hundred yards away and the whole approach process has to be initiated again. That day, the group discipline and our great respect for the animals proved efficient and allowed us to spend an hour immersed with mum and calf. Only the whale watch time limitation ended the encounter which otherwise might have last all morning…

Mum and calf surfacing

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If you are unlucky, you will find mum and calf with one or several escorts. The escort job, or so it thinks, is to protect Mum and calf and to isolate them from the rest of the whales, but also from these tiny puppets wading on the surface of the sea. To do so, the escort uses all possible means to scare mum and calf away, or to create bubble curtains separating them from the rest of the world, including swimmers. The escort creates bubbles curtains by blowing air at depth or by using its tail when it stand close to the surface as in the following sequence…

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One other thing to look for is the song of a singer. Only males are singing. They stand vertically, tail up, head down, in mid water and start a languid complaint. We saw that very whale diving and heard the songs in the aluminum structure of the boat, which acted as a sound amplifier. We got into the water but couldn’t spot the animal which sound seemed very close. The song it was singing was powerful yet melodious, and kept us in the water for several long minutes, just for the beauty of it…

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A mermaid song, don’t you think? Talking about which, I have a secret to share with you. At the end of the day, when nature becomes quiet and the air turns lighter, shut your eyes and listen to the sea carefully… You might hear the mermaids whispering around your boat. If it is so, keep your eyes shut to avoid scaring them. If you show enough patience, trust and belief in fairy tails, one of them might want to pay a visit. She did on our boat…

I asked her name, she was called Hannah.

mermaid

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Encounters quality and opportunities, have been widely enhanced by our guide, Kirsty, daughter of Allan Bowe, who created Whales Watch Vava’u 20 years ago.  With 11 seasons spent observing and swimming with these beautiful animals, Kirsty has acquired an intimate knowledge of the humpback whales behavior. She shared with us her unique expertise and her talent to approach the animals quietly but successfully. She contributed greatly to the success of our expedition and to the quality of the shooting.

Kirsty

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On Sundays, life stops in the kingdom of Tonga. Law prohibits work and all commercial and touristic activities come to a stand including airlines… It is hard to organize anything, knowing that renting a car is almost impossible... Unless you know a very friendly couple ready to take you on a powered kayak sight seeing tour, a wonderful day out of which you can see some pictures hereafter. Magical, in it?

Powered Kayak

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Did you like it? You’ll like it even more once I have shown the pictures of our next trip residence. With 4 bungalows on the whole of “Secret Island”, you will be facing the hard dilemma of choosing whichever cardinal direction your private terrace and beach will be facing. Enough on the subject, just take a look…

Secret Island

the bar

private sands

Bungalow

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I hope you enjoyed the tour and that you will be teased in joining us on our next expedition. If it is the case, drop us a line on info@scuba-production.com to talk about it or get more details. In the mean time, the whales of Tonga are waiting for our next visit…

Fluke

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