Before we can truly appreciate the beauty of these magnificent animals, it is important that we understand what it is that makes them so unique.
Humpback whales (Scientific name: Megaptera novaeangliae) are ocean dwelling mammals. There are two suborders of whales, namely Baleen Whales and Toothed Whales. Humpback whales fall under the category of Baleen Whales, this can be seen where instead of teeth they have plates of whale bone which are used to filter krill, plankton and small fish out of the large amounts of water they gulp up. In the category of Baleen Whales, Humpback whales join whales such as the Blue whale and Fin whale in the category of Rorquals, this refers to the pleated grooves on their throats which can expand allowing them to take in huge gulps of water to find food.
Humpback whales grow to be about 16m long and can weigh between 30 and 50 tonnes. Humpbacks have the largest flippers of any whale measuring up to one third of their bodies. Each fluke (whale tail) is as unique as a human fingerprint, and whales can be identified by looking at the colours and markings on them. They get their name from the arch of their back while swimming and preparing for a dive.
We are not fortunate to have the humpback whales with us throughout the year, rather they migrate to the warmer tropical waters of Tonga to calve and breed in the winter months (mid- July to mid- October). They spend the rest of the year in cold polar waters in order to feed. The entire time they are with us in Tonga they do not feed- but rather nourish themselves on the thick blubber (layer of fat) they have. The mothers feed the calves on a nutrient rich milk which will prepare them for their journey back to the colder waters.
When an in water encounter is done right, with the utmost respect for the whales and for their wellbeing- seeing these beautiful animals in the water is one of the most awe inspiring activities on the planet.