Building Trust with Whales

 A baby humpback whale rolls around at the surface of the ocean. Vava'u, Tonga. Photo: Matt Reichel.

A baby humpback whale rolls around at the surface of the ocean. Vava'u, Tonga. Photo: Matt Reichel.

 

Building trust with humpback whales is perhaps one of the most special experiences one can have in the ocean. This is especially true when swimming with moms and calfs, as humpbacks are not only highly empathetic animals, but also very protective of their young. If you can master the art of trust building with the whales, they may very well play with you for hours at the surface and it will very much determine the quality and length of your interactions with them. 

In September, 2017 I had the pleasure of joining my friend Karim Iliya, who's a professional underwater photographer, in Vava'u, Tonga to document these incredible creatures. Each season (August through October) hundreds of humpback whales gather in the South Pacific islands from Tonga to French Polynesia to birth and raise their calfs as well as mate. They travel hundreds of kilometres north from their feeding grounds in Antarctic to these warm, safe shallows where their calfs can learn in these calm waters away from Orcas and other potential predators. 

Karim founded Dance With Whales this past year as a way to share his passion for humpbacks and marine life with others: bringing them around the world to, as he puts it, "fall in love with the whales." Instead of guilting people into caring about the oceans and wildlife through images of pollution and destruction, he seeks to use beauty and love to encourage people to feel empathy and build connections with ocean creatures. 

Now, back to building trust with the whales. Like good parents anywhere, fifty-foot long mother humpbacks are naturally very protective over their calfs. Born at just over three metres or so, a baby humpback calf must learn quickly in order to gain enough skills and strength to make the journey to Antarctica to feed. Meanwhile, their mothers, exhausted from giving birth and not eating while in Tonga, must continue to supply the calfs with milk, so they need a lot of rest. 

This generally presents two scenarios: either the mother is untrusting of our presence with her baby and wants to move away, or, after some trust building and investigation, we may become useful baby sitters to allow her to get some rest. This largely depends on our approach and how we handle ourselves in the water with them. 

 
 A mother and calm swim off together.

A mother and calm swim off together.

 

As humans, we are not particularly agile swimmers, especially compared to whales, and considering our clothing and camera gear, we may look more like robots than sentient creatures in their eyes. The goal to building trust is to show that we too are empathetic animals that mean them no harm. We swim gently, slowly, and not directly at the mother and calf, but rather we must make wide turns around them.

This way we encourage the mother to not run away from us, but rather engage us to investigate and make eye contact. If we succeed, the baby whale will want nothing more than to roll around with us on the surface while mom rests. Babies must come up for air much more often than adults so it's easy if they have something to entertain them at the surface. 

This exercise in trust building took me some time to understand. In the beginning, I knew I was not the strongest swimmer, and the subconscious temptation to get closer to them before trust was built was certainly there and I made mistakes that got the whales unsettled. However, over time, I too learned to calm down and act slowly and with intent. By doing so, the whales come to us humans and we can bond for hours based on a strong early foundation. 

The experience will last a lifetime. 

 
 A humpback monthling makes a sideways turn near the surface. 

A humpback monthling makes a sideways turn near the surface. 

Matthew Reichel