The Man who Swam with Humpbacks

This week’s blog comes from Mounu Island in the north of remote Tonga — a tiny coral atoll in the Pacific Ocean. Allan Bowe is 70 years old. He grew up in New Zealand where he had several careers, including as a highly successful advertising man and a commercial fisherman. Allan’s grand life shows in his slender but strong and flexible body, his luxuriant white hair and fisherman’s beard, sun-lined face and astute eyes. He is direct, with no shadow of political correctness. Allan told me how he came to get into the water with humpback whales when he was living in Tonga, operating a charter boat business.  

Allan: Well, I’d seen quite a lot of whales in my time as a commercial fisherman and then a charter boat operator. I always went over; if the whales were close I’d always motor over to them to have a look. They’re big, big things in the water. But I really knew very little about them. I’d had orcas be annoying, stealing my fish as I was pulling them in. I know way back then there were cases of fishermen shooting the orcas. 

They would actually follow you. You would lift your gear and move so that you’d think you’d get away from them and they’d follow you. And they were very clever. They just bit out the stomach of the fish. They got the soft part. You just got the head and the back bone and the tail. 

I was scared the first time I jumped in with humpbacks that’s for sure. 

You had a couple of whales heading towards your boat that day

I’d seen them coming down towards us. It was a beautiful flat calm outside Hunga Island, deep, blue, clear water. And I just thought: I wouldn’t mind having a look, just see what these things look like underwater. So I put on a mask and snorkel and swam out a little bit from the boat and waited. I keep looking up to see if I could see anything and then looking down. It was like they came into focus in front of me. I never saw anything initially and then just this darker shape. And then it all started coming into focus and getting bigger and bigger and bigger! My little heart was racing a million miles an hour thinking “Holy Hell, I’m gonna get run down here”. But, they just swept down, well gracefully, slid down under me, dropped their pectorals down (and I think that was quite deliberate). Well I know it is, now, because I’ve had that experience so many times. 

But the first time, you know, I was concerned. And the whales definitely looked at me as they went by. I could see the eye look at me. They just kept on their path. They didn’t turn round or do anything. And everything was like in slow motion. The whole experience was like in slow motion. I swam back to the boat and tried to get my wife Lynn to jump in the water and have a look. She wouldn’t. She was scared. Okay, that’s understandable. 

Photo of humpback whale calf by  KIRSTY BOWE

Photo of humpback whale calf by KIRSTY BOWE

I did it two, three more times; I managed to get into the water again that day.

You managed to put yourself into the path of them again —

Yeah. We were pretty well straight-lining it, down the coast. You’ve seen them. They’re not moving that fast. Too fast to swim and catch up with, but my boat was quick enough. My boat was only slow, it only did 8 knots, but I could get enough distance to get ahead of them and there was no hurry.  If I did catch up to them, I did, if I didn’t, I didn’t. I’d had that one shot, that I’m never, ever gonna forget. 

When we went into town that evening and went into the bar, I was talking to some yachties that were in there and said what I’d done. I just knew from trying to explain that they really couldn’t grasp the magnitude of what I’d been able to witness. I sort of became, in a funny sort of way, like a religious convert, you know, a born-again. I desperately wanted to share my experience, my meeting, as such. And so, anyone who was interested then could come out with me, ‘cause I wanted to do it more. It also gave me a bit of confidence to have some company, I’m sure, in the water. It can be a lonely spot out there in the middle of nowhere with whales.

Asking Allan’s wife Lynn about that first day, she reminded me that their boat was an 80 tonne motor-boat, with 6 twin berths in it. She did not get into the water that day —  someone needed to keep control of the boat. With nowhere to anchor it, if they’d both got in the water with the whales, the boat would have drifted away.

Not long after this experience, that impressive boat was destroyed in a fire. Allan continues:

After my original boat was burnt, I hit this crossroads in my life where I had to decide whether I wanted another big boat and continue what I’d been doing or whether I wanted to change direction. I chose to change direction as a result of my original swim with the whales.

Part one of a three-part series from Tonga.