Sue Mason, Wedded to Whales

Written by

Simon Mustoe

Sue Mason, Research Director at the Melbourne-based Dolphin Research Institute (DRI), has worked with Humpback Whales for years but last month, had the first ever chance to swim with one in Tonga. Here’s her story.

“It was a wedding anniversary and birthday for myself and John”, says Sue Mason. 

“I’ve never actually been in the water with a Humpback. I’ve always seen that through the eyes of other researchers - I spent a lot of time in Hawaii estimating the size of animals from video taken by researchers underwater”. 

So despite a lifetime with whales and dolphins, Sue says, “in our first encounter with a Humpback Whale underwater, John and I were in awe!!”

“When I did honours we were filmed on the news with a Humpback Whale. I remember it was bigger than the vessel and we had five people on it! The sheer size of the animals in relation to our boat was the reality check”.

At no point was Sue concerned about being in any danger. “What surprised me was how graceful they were”, says Sue, “we were free-floating with animals around us. I felt excited and exhilerated. There is so much happening and you get two perspectives: one underwater and then you lift your head up and see what’s going on above the surface as well”.  

Ironically, depsite being a marine mammal, Humpbacks are probably more aware of what’s going on above and below surface than we are ... we can only focus on one at a time. They are adapted to see above and below with equal ability. They have extraordinary peripheral vision and commonly spy-hop, to take a look in the air. 

“They have an amazing spatial awareness”, says Sue, “so I don’t fear whales because I remember in Hawaii we had a diver filming and sizing the whales. I was sitting at the front of the boat scribing behaviours and I watched this animal surface, move its tail to the right , to avoid hitting the vessel”. 

“Though there are times we would never go into the water”, says Sue. “On the recent trip to Tonga, we had these two young animals practising being a competitive pod - they used our boat as a third animal. There’s a time to be fearless and a time to be sensible! Like with with mum-calves, so often you see the mum teaching the calf behaviours. You wouldn’t interfere if a mother was teaching their child how to cross a road. You’d be respectful and let them be safe. You don’t want to put yourself in danger or get a telling off”. 

The Tongan trips are run in conjunction with the Dolphin Research Institute and as well as raising money for them, it also means visitors who share similar values, can choose an ethical option that doesn’t compromise on the experience in any way. 

“Ultimately, being eyeball-to-eyeball with a whale is what makes swims different”, Sue says, “you very rarely get this when you’re above water”.

“Also, being immersed in the culture in Tonga, you get this whole different way of seeing things.  To see the island through the eyes of locals, they are so proud of it. I’m not even a particularly religious person but you can’t help just being caught up in the total joy of their deeply ingrained faith”. 

“Similarly, whales in Tonga have a whole different culture ... there are varying environments, inside and outside the reef. Whales are there to do different things and you get this really fullsome experience. Even when the sea is a bit choppy, the calmness underwater is incredible”. 

“You switch off from the environment above and immerse yourself with what’s below. It’s engulfing. The clear blue vision of whales is pretty stuck in my memory”, says Sue. 

“The trips also attract people who care about the animals and about doing things well, typically respectful and ethical people, who develop into great friends. I know I will stay good friends with everyone who went this year, through a similar passion for marine life”. 

“The place we stayed was warm and homely. They were accommodating, gorgeous, caring and charming. Weeks after, we are still communicating. I just texted “here’s my island (Phillip Island), it’s blowing its arse off and it’s 10 degrees!”. 

“She said ‘come back to my island!’ - I wish I could!!”

Wildiaries •