Niue looks after its visitors big and small, issuing only a few swim permits to ensure a wonderful whale-watching experience for all involved, writes Sue Halliwell.
Breakfast could wait. Between mouthfuls of muesli, I had spotted two arched, grey backs and misty blows to the right of the hotel deck. Humpback whales.
It was a mother and calf, with mum lying log-still in the water and baby rising then disappearing beneath her at intervals. I guessed it was nursing and wondered if I could get any luckier than to witness such intimate behaviour on just my first morning in Niue.
We had come to Niue to see and swim with humpback whales, timing our travel for their August stopover on the migratory route from Antarctic feeding grounds, past New Zealand, to birthing and breeding grounds in the Pacific Islands.
Niue is a whale-watcher's wonderland — the tip of a steep, underwater volcano skirted by a narrow coral shelf. Mother humpbacks and their calves can come close to shore away from shark predation and a wild ocean, yet still be in deep water. And where the girls go, the boys follow.
Their dating and mating activities make for exciting viewing. On our arrival at the hotel the previous afternoon, I'd seen three whales breaching, tail-lobbing and flipper-slapping; most likely sparring males. The exercise didn't finish with one brief skirmish.
Sitting in a clifftop bar some nights later, we watched as five humpback males vied for the affections of a female, desperately trying to separate her from their rivals and her yearling calf long enough to mate with her.
After nearly an hour of spectacular mating mayhem, Mum managed to escape with her youngster while the boys continued to do battle.
Pacific humpback populations are recovering slowly from almost total annihilation during the whaling years. From 1900, when humpbacks became the New Zealand whaling industry's most hunted whale, until whaling ceased here in 1964, our industry was a solid contributor to the 200,000-plus humpbacks butchered in the Southern Hemisphere during the 20th century. Illegal Russian whaling in Antarctica didn't help, contributing about 45,000 humpbacks to that shameful tally before the whales ran out in the 1980s.
Thankfully, Pacific humpback whales are now hunted solely for tourist enjoyment.
However, it's still touch and go, with research such as that by New Zealand marine tourism specialist Dr Mark Orams perhaps the only buffer against calls by some Pacific Islanders to reinstate indigenous whaling, and the not-so-subtle seduction of Pacific governments by Japan.
Almost 20 years ago, Orams estimated that a humpback whale returning every year to breed in Tongan waters would generate US$1 million in tourism revenue for that country over its 50-year lifetime. If slaughtered, the products from that humpback would fetch only US$250,000 on the Japanese wholesale market.
Today the tourism revenue would be much more, which keeps Pacific humpbacks safe for now and allows that industry to mushroom — bringing a new set of problems. At the Whales in a Changing Ocean conference I attended in Tonga this April, hosted by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), scientists, tourism operators, politicians and conservationists from the Pacific — including New Zealand — were charged with helping to formulate a five-year plan to protect the whales from harmful exploitation while ensuring sustainability of Pacific island economies and livelihoods. This is especially crucial for islands such as Niue with emerging tourism industries. The country is one of only a few to permit swimming with humpback whales and takes looking after its visitors very seriously.
In 2003, Niue declared its waters a National Whale Sanctuary. Three years later, the country's whale conservation and research organisation, Oma Tafua, launched its first whale awareness campaign with the help of a grant from the New Zealand High Commission. Further New Zealand government funding was announced at April's SPREP conference for research that will help shape future whale protection legislation.
Niue's whale swim operators follow the 2008 Pacific Islands Regional Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching. Before we even looked at the water, we were taught about the whales, their conservation issues, and how to approach and behave around them. I felt we were now thoroughly prepared to meet a humpback or two, that is, until I came face to giant face with one.
We heard rather than saw our first humpback. Locating its blow not far from shore, we threw on our snorkel gear and slipped over the side of the inflatable zodiac. However, the whale eluded us, though we could certainly hear its mournful song of love, loss, loneliness, or whatever whale tale it was telling.
A shout from the boat and we were back on board. A mother and yearling calf had surfaced a short drive away, both then diving to the ocean floor. As we re-entered the water we could see them resting there, and — knowing they must eventually surface to breathe— waited close by.
Mum slipped slowly upwards to breathe. Junior followed and came over to check out his goggle-eyed observers. I remembered our instructions and let the youngster approach us rather than the other way around.
Our next humpback appeared to be solitary, resting in a bay near our hotel. We readied to meet it, until a tiny baby emerged from its far side. The guidelines, common sense and compassion thwart any wish to interfere with a mother and newborn, so we were out of there fast. I was grateful for Niue's small number of whale swim permits, which would hopefully ensure Mum and baby weren't bothered by tourists again that day.
It is to be hoped Niue's whale experience remains this wholesome for whale and whale watcher, and its government resists the temptation to mass permit interaction with its vulnerable humpback population.
Sound research and regulation will be needed to achieve this, as will heeding the rules, supporting the agencies protecting whales, using operators that employ locals, knowing the privilege, and putting down our muesli to appreciate the priceless experience this winter whale wonderland has to offer.