Tofua’a: Seeing Eye to Eye with Humpback Whales in Tonga.

In our first underwater shortfilm ‘Tofua’a’ we explore the possibilities of non-verbal communication together with freediver and marine biologist Lucas Handley in the blue waters of the South Pacific.

Text: Hadassa Haack
Photos: Jon Shaw and Scott Last
  • Tofua’a: Seeing Eye to Eye with Humpback Whales in Tonga.

  • A special encounter.

    When a 36 ton, 16 metre long Humpback whale decides to take a turn and check you out from close up, it feels like someone has pressed the pause button on time. There is no room to think about anything else. Spending time with these gentle giants in the silent, vast blue expanse that is the Pacific Ocean puts everything into perspective and like a child in a playground, you don’t want your newfound friends to ever leave.

    Language is no barrier.

    We head to the Kingdom of Tonga to not only film in a stunning location but to see how it is to interact with these singing acrobats of the sea. Thankfully, their numbers have recovered after whaling had brought them close to extinction in the 1960s. Vava’u, about five hours flight from Sydney, boasts sandy beaches, clear blue water and a peaceful, quiet atmosphere in its naturally protected harbour of Neiafu.

    Add to this a mild but changing weather with often dark, looming clouds, high cliff faces and mysterious underwater caves, and you have what can only be described as a true Treasure Island feeling. It’s not a place that is kind to cars but our C-Class coped just fine. Piglets cross the sandy, often unpaved roads like they own them whilst we pass one rusty, abandoned vehicle after another. Life is simple.

    Taking it below the surface.

    Tongans smile and wave at you in the streets as if you are their next door neighbour. They are welcoming but they also have a healthy pride: no one will hassle you to buy or do anything you don’t want to. Tonga – unique among Pacific nations – never completely lost its indigenous governance and remains the only monarchy in the Pacific. We have a great time showing the children our equipment and they eagerly pose to have their picture taken.

    It’s a reminder that language barriers and coming from different cultural backgrounds are only an obstacle to human understanding if we let them. But our main mission is to communicate with an altogether different creature: the Humpback Whale.

    To accomplish this and to capture it on film – our first underwater one - award-winning Sydney cinematographer Jon Shaw and champion freediver and marine biologist Lucas Handley as well as cameraman Scott Last join us on this challenging endeavour.

    Tofua’a means “whale” in Tongan and is also the title of our film. The Humpbacks feed only in summer, in polar waters, and then migrate to tropical waters to mate and give birth in the winter when they fast and live off their fat reserves. The season in Vava’u ends in early October and we arrive late.

    The first morning on the boat is therefore tense – everyone is straining their eyes not to miss any sign of their presence and to be able to utter the famous words: “There she blows!” The famous three words end up in an excited “turn around, turn around!” as I spot a single whale behind me. And so our adventure begins.

    The underwater communicator.

    Ocean wildlife is Lucas Handley’s forte. Also known as The Underwater Hunter, he is a marine biologist, experienced freediver and all round adventurer. Born and raised in Byron Bay, Australia, he now divides his time between the Solomon Islands and where ever work and film opportunities take him. His knowledge of the ocean is extensive, he can name every creature we see and for someone his age he has the kind of stories you’d expect an old man to tell. He’s also quite useful to have around - he’s a spear fisher who can catch dinner in 60 seconds flat when you let him.

    Lucas is used to diving with sharks and knows how to behave around them, even when they try to attack. They often follow him around to take his catch off him later. But, as he explains in our film, whales are different in that they are not motivated by food – half of the year they fast and they certainly don’t expect a meal from us. So as we make our way around the island in a Mercedes-Benz C-Class that clearly has seen better days but seems indestructible, we wonder how the whales will react to Lucas’ presence.

    Acrobats of the ocean.

    Humpbacks’ surface behaviour can be very acrobatic: breaching, tail-lobbing and pectoral fin slapping are common. We have the pleasure of hanging out with one particular active – if not off-showing – calf: it breaches continuously for about half an hour, seemingly having a fabulous time, every now and then popping its head out of the water as if to make sure we are still paying attention.

    And then there are the truly magic moments, such as when the initially shy calf can’t contain its curiosity and comes out from its hiding place behind its mothers back. After cautiously floating to the surface to take a breath and have a look around, it comes right up to Lucas and the two begin mimicking each other’s movements. Or the instance when three whales take Lucas in the middle and seem undecided as to what to do with (or to) this ever present human who can dive deeper than most. They decide to ignore him.

    On our last day in the final hours far away from the shore, a beautiful calf with a distinct black and white pattern comes right up the camera for inspection and generously provides us with the money shot before swimming back to its mum. Seeing them both turn and come towards me I am attempting the impossible feat of fitting these leviathans onto the tiny screen of my iPhone before they disappear into the depths of the ocean. I am left with is the distinct feeling that this moment will be hard to top in future adventures.

    Image Gallery.

    Seeing Eye to Eye with Humpback Whales in Tonga.

    Special thanks.

    Special thanks to: Phil, Ciani and Vili of Whales in the Wild / Everyone at the Paradise International Hotel / Lucy and Haniteli Fa’anunu who run the must-see ‘Ene’io Botanical Garden, Tonga’s only botanical garden / Kurt & Lynn Carlson and everyone in Vava’u who made our job easier and our time there special.