Eye-To- Eye With A Whale: How It Feels To Swim With Humpbacks

By Alice Forrest on

Image by Angel Grimaldi

There are those moments in life that are difficult to describe. They are so unlike anything else you’ve experienced that they leave you feeling overwhelmed, emotional and dazed. They are larger than words or pictures can capture and somehow greater than just a physical encounter. These are the important ones.



My first swim with humpback whales was during a heat run.
This kind of behaviour is fairly common in Tonga as the whales come to the warmly protected reef to calve and breed again. During the heat runs, usually, one female is followed by groups of males, resulting in dramatic and incredible underwater scenes as literally over 600 tonnes of whales, often blowing bubbles, fly past and around you. The experience was intense and amazing – chaos on board the boat as we pulled on fins, masks, snorkels and prepared to throw ourselves in front of the mass of whale.

Photo by Scott Portelli
Image by Scott Portelli

Followed by utter peace as I leapt into the blue. As soon as my head submerged it was silent. Floating on the surface, head underwater, staring into the deep, deep blue. Suddenly, larger than I could have imagined, a dark shape came closer. Nothing could have prepared me for this, my first humpback whale, quickly followed by about seven others, soaring past. For a moment I was suspended in my own galaxy, feeling like I was floating amidst several grey and black planets. It was terrifying for a moment, that feeling of insignificance and fragility.

And then they were gone, back into the blue, leaving just thousands of tiny shining bubbles in their wake.

Images by Nadi Aly and Scott Portelli

While the raw power and intensity of a heat run is something I feel privileged to
have experienced, my favourite encounter was with a much smaller, quieter whale. Just one this time. A tiny baby humpback, only about two tonnes in weight and six metres long (imagine 2 Volkswagen beetles stuck together). The much larger mother was down below, resting while her calf visited the surface to breathe and play. I watched from about ten metres away as he hung suspended just below the silver surface. He came closer, twisting his tail high and his head suspended below for a better look. Before I knew it I had joined him, flying under the water, suspended in an intimate dance. He copied my movements, rolling and twirling until he hung next to me upside-down. Eye-to-eye. We stared at each other, and into each other.

Images by Angel Grimaldi

My curiosity, intrigue and wonder was reflected in that huge & intelligent eye.
A creature so different, and yet so familiar. Eventually, he dipped back to the depths to rest with his mum, sheltered under her chin, peeking up at me from the blue.

Experiences like these, the indescribable ones, are the ones that really change you. Those magical moments with the humpback whales have not only inspired me to keep exploring the ocean but also to protect it. Staring into that whale’s eye inspired a desperate need to clean beaches, change my diet, change my habits, do whatever necessary to make a difference. It also taught me that positivity and a connection to the ocean are the best possible motivations to protect it. Ultimately we are motivated best by a hope to protect what we love, rather than science, fear or anxiety.


Images by Scott Portelli

While you may not be swimming with a humpback whale soon, I hope that you are doing those indescribable things that you can’t accurately communicate through an Instagram post or a conversation. On a board or wearing fins or whatever that may mean for you. Something so personal it supersedes words.

And that these experiences continue to motivate you to keep seeking those wild, magical salty places. And ultimately to keep fighting to protect them.


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