Not only is Tonga one of the only countries in the world that allows you to enter the water with humpback whales but if offers a very unique experience with them. After giving birth on their northern migration route female humpbacks swim to the shallow waters of Tonga to raise their calfs. In these turquoise waters they relax, feed their baby and teach them everything from swimming to breaching and hunting. To watch this happen is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Swimming with whales in Tonga can happen anywhere, however there are some subtle differences in the price and the experience that is offered by the various island groups in Tonga.
Even swimming with whales in Tonga’s main island is possible and a good choice for anyone only making a stopover in the country. At $250TOP pp (With Deep Blue Tonga) or $500TOP pp (with Whale Swim Tours) whale swimming in Tongatapu is great value especially since you escape paying for an inter-island flight or ferry. Your boat will skirt around Eua Island to scout out humpbacks. Whales are more likely to be in migration mode so you will see them swimming past rather than resting in the shallows. The best place to view whales from the shore is from Ha’atafu Beach on the north western tip of Tongatapu.
For everything Tongatapu check out our comprehensive blog: How to Travel Tongatapu on a budget.
Tonga’s most southerly island offers the cheapest whale safari at $200TOP pp (With Deep Blue Tonga). Again this location is more suitable for whale swim by’s than shallow encounters but this also offers an excellent opportunity to watch the whales from the surface. Eua is a two hour ferry ride from Tongatapu which costs $20-25TOP per person or you can opt to take one of the world’s shortest flights, it’s only 8 minutes!
In Ha’apai whale tours can be arranged from almost any resorts on northern Foa Island (Sandy Beach Resort and Matafunoa Resort), central Lifuka (Ha’apai Beach resort) and southern Uoleva Island (Serenity Beaches Resort and Sea Change Eco Resort). Be warned that their guests come first and walk-in’s will have to take whatever seats are left. Because of its remoteness Ha’apai has only 6 operators which guarantees no other boats or pressure to share a whale encounter. A licensed whale swimming trip from Ha’apai costs between $300 and $350TOP, we easily found our way onto two boat trips departing from Uoleva Island, we saw no-one else on the water on either of those days and swam with the whales around 10 times, some of them lasting over 40 minutes (or so we were told, when you are in the water WHO knows how long you’re there for!)
For a whole lot more information on Ha’apai in general, read our blog ‘How to travel Tonga On a Budget‘
Vava’u is the legendary place to swim with humpback whales and the main reason for Tonga being a prime travel destination. This outer island is a hub for expats and so you can expect to find all of your home comforts here from a Swiss chef to an Australian barman. Vava’u’s mainland is a rugged cliffy island but its string of outer islands are filled with idyllic beaches that can be easily accessed by boat. The popularity of Vava’u can somewhat hinder your whale swim as there are many more operations here than anywhere else in Tonga and if more than one boat approaches the same group of whales they must share the sighting within the permitted time limits.
That being said in peak season there are so many whales that chances are you wont have to share. Tourism Tonga has a comprehensive list of whale swim operators from day trips, multi-day sailing expeditions and resort packages. Whale swims from Vava’u cost anything from $400TOP pp.
Here come the science bit. We were originally told that the whale season begins in June and runs through to October but this is not necessarily true. Whether it is El-niño or this year the whales were extra greedy in the feeding grounds of the Antarctic but June was a no show. When we arrived in mid July we were told that the whales were still on their way and we watched patiently from our camping spot on Uoleva Island. Don’t get me wrong, we made several sightings of whales from the shore and some people saw them while swimming but it was nothing compared to the action we witnessed in August when whales could be spotted breaching or breathing almost any time of day. We also learnt that when the whales are very young the mothers are more skittish so allowing the calf time to grow allows for you to have a better interaction.
All in all, if whale watching is a major reason for Tongan visit come between August and October to increase your chances of a great sighting and to avoid disappointment.
The rules concerning whales are simple in Tonga: don’t let your boat get within 10m of a whale, don’t swim within 5m of one, one and a half hour time limits apply for each whale interaction and only four people are allowed in the water at any one time. There are only a handful of companies on each island group that have a licence to swim with the whales and that allows the authorities to keep a track on everyones interactions and to prevent the whales from becoming overwhelmed.
There are a few “cowboy” operations and they might be cheaper but we can’t stress enough the importance of going with a legitimate company: They have to abide to safety standards, they have the proper equipment and they generally have a much keener knowledge about the whales. Plus, if you are caught whale swimming with an unlicensed guide you can be fined 1000TOP per person.
Remember: The key to an epic whale swim is not to chase the animal but to have them trust you and allow you to stay in their presence. Keeping your calm is not easy in the presence of these enormous mammals but it is completely worth it.