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Swimming With Whales in Tonga: How (and How Not) to do it

snorkelers swimming with whales in tonga

If you are a lover of cetaceans and you follow whale and whale-diving-related Instagram accounts, you have no doubt come across people diving with Whales in Tonga. 

While eight species of whales have been recorded in Tongan waters, but most people come here to swim with Humpbacks. 

It’s the small Polynesian country’s most popular tourist attraction, with over three-quarters of tourists arriving by air, and around 50 percent of those coming by boat coming to see the whales. 

That might sound like mass tourism, but Tonga, thankfully, is still quite an unknown dive and nature tourism destination. By and large, it is one of those “if you know, you know” places, particularly if you’re from the region (i.e. an Aussie or Kiwi). 

It is also incredibly out of the way.


Getting to Tonga


Tonga

The Kingdom of Tonga is a collection of over 170 coral and volcanic islands, only 36 of which are inhabited. 

The Vavau’ islands are the epicentre of Tongan tourism and where most whale watching/swimming tours are organized from. 

source: Google Maps

Tonga is quite a jaunt if you’re coming from anywhere outside of Oceania.

If your starting point is basically anywhere else, you’re connecting through (at least) Australia, New Zealand and/or Fiji (and wherever else en route). 

From Los Angeles or Vancouver, for example, it’s a 10-or-so-hour flight to Fiji. Then you have to line up your connecting flights, which might require a very long layover (perhaps even an entire day/night).

For this reason (among others), Tonga is still not that popular of a tourist destination and swimming with whales in Tonga is something of a “luxury” wildlife tourism experience for the hardcore. 

Again, if you’ve seen the photos and videos, it’s definitely one of those life-changing ones.

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Tonga’s Humpback Whale Season

The whale watching and swimming season in Tonga runs from June to October, with August and September being prime months.

These are the months during which the world’s Southern Humpback Whales travel from their feeding grounds in Antarctica to the tropical waters of Tonga (and other Pacific islands) to mate and calve.

They mate in the deeper waters off the islands and nurse their young in the shallower water between them. 

The Tongan government, like the governments of many countries around the world that oversee and protect such coastlines, have turned their whales into a major tourist attraction.

It has, in turn, incentivized conservation, converting Tonga from a whaling nation to a whale-watching one


The ethics of swimming with whales in tonga

The commoditization and commercialization of nature, in addition to incentivizing conservation, also raises a bunch of ethical questions–especially when people are coming from so far and spending so much money for an experience. 

The well-being of the whales should always take precedence over our desire to get the perfect photo-op, and there are certain guidelines in place that govern whale watching and swimming in Tonga. 

The country has done quite an admirable job of putting in place rules to protect its whales and, subsequently, ensure the longevity of its industry. 

  • There can only be four swimmers (plus a guide) in the water with the whales at any given time.
  • Participants have to float together along with the guide, and you are prohibited from free diving on mothers with calves.
  • There is no scuba diving with the whales. 
  • You have to be at least 5m from the whales at all times (although the whales can get closer if they like).
  • It is mandatory that boats give whales a 90-minute rest between each visit to prevent a constant cycle of visits that would stress the whales out.
  • An encounter lasts 90 minutes maximum and starts the moment the first swimmers enter the water.

What you’re likely to observe

Swimming with whales is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular wildlife experiences on the planet. Definitely up there with observing wild gorillas, shark cage diving with great whites or being close to wild elephants. 

You are likely to find solitary male whales singing, observe heat runs (where males fight for mating dominance), periods where mothers are nursing and resting and active periods during which you may get to see mothers teaching young to breach and slap the surface with their flukes. 

The experience of floating next to a 13-16 metre-long, 25-30,000 Kg gentle giant that dwarfs your tiny human body and approaches you with curiosity, its highly intelligent and emotive eyes looking directly into yours, is beautiful. 


How to swim with whales in Tonga

There are essentially two ways to swim with whales in Tonga: shared boats or private charters. 

Open (shared) boats

Open boats take around 8-10 people and cost around $150-$200 USD per day. They are nice for people in Tonga for a week who want to incorporate a few days of whale-related tourism into their itinerary. 

These experiences are great for more “casual” wildlife appreciators who, perhaps, haven’t travelled to Tonga solely for swimming with whales. Tonga offers fantastic sailing, diving and R&R as well. 

Nature travellers and underwater photographers who travel to Tonga exclusively or predominantly to see and swim with whales might be frustrated and maybe even a bit disenchanted by the “production” of the less exclusive open boat option. 

They might prefer a private charter. 

Private charters

Private charters are for small groups with higher expectations than regular tourists and are more suitable for nature photographers, scientists and naturalists. It is often the case that the group sizes are restricted to just four so that there are no rotation/waiting periods. 

When you opt for the charters, you are also likely to get the kind of captain that understands things like keeping the boat on the sunny side of the whale and has more insight into whale behaviour and what it implies for photography and videography. 

For instance, the captain might determine that a group of whales, based on behavioural cues, probably don’t want to swim or interact with humans, and you can move on. 

The captain of an open boat, on the other hand, working under the time constraints of multiple rotating groups, may decide to get swimmers in the water with whales he knows won’t be sticking around for long just so people have their time “with the whales.” 

Private charter costs 

With private charters, you’re paying both the day rate and the boat’s fuel. Additionally, some of these charters are organized by marine biologists/naturalists and/or pro photographers, and their expenses are also covered by the participants. 

Going out with someone who has an intimate understanding of the animals and ecosystem is wonderful and adds a lot of value to any wildlife travel experience, but you pay for it.

Depending on how big the private boat is and the number and size of the engines being used, you should account for anywhere from 100 to 500 litres of fuel on an excursion (depending on how far you have to go to find whales). 

Let’s say the fuel costs $2/L–pretty average in 2022, especially in a country like Tonga that imports all of its fuel. That’s anywhere from $200-$1000 just to cover the fuel. Split between four people, it will likely be anywhere from $50 to $250 extra per person. 

Then factor in the expertise of the guide or captain that’s with you. 

You’re easily looking at double or triple the price of the open boat. 


What a typical whale excursion entails

The idea is to spend seven or eight hours on the water with your eye on the horizon, looking for air spray and breaches. 

For the conditions to align–cooperative whales, visibility and weather–you might need to spend every day for a week rinsing and repeating your search.

After you’ve seen the whales, an experienced captain will spend some time analyzing the behaviour to determine whether it’s appropriate or worthwhile to get in the water. 


Tips for swimming with whales in Tonga

When it’s time to get in the water, the most important tip is to be as quiet and deliberate as possible. 

Whales are spooked by surface noise and splashing and will disappear if there is a lot of commotion.

The boat crew will brief everyone on how best to enter the water based on the boat’s layout to avoid scaring off the whales. Definitely heed that advice because you don’t want to be the overzealous, selfish person who scares the whales off and ruins it for everyone else. 

You also definitely want to avoid big, exaggerated fin kicks that break the surface and create a bubble wake. Depending on the kind of fin you have, it could be better to swim on your side so that the tips remain below the surface. 

Once in the water

Once you’ve entered the water, stay with the group and swim parallel to the whales. Never swim directly towards an animal. 

Do not separate from the group and “sandwich” a whale from both sides–especially a mother–as it’s the fastest way to end your beautiful encounter. Human beings, while obviously much smaller than a whale, are clearly predators, and animals are wary of us. 

When a humpback mom is relaxed, this is when she will allow her curious calf to explore and come investigate the weird masked apes floating around its environment. This is often when the most magical experiences happen while swimming with whales. 

As always, don’t touch the wildlife and make every effort to stay out of the whales’ way. 

What happens if you lose the group? 

If you find yourself out of position and away from the group, or if you find yourself on the far side of a whale, unless you are really in some sort of imminent danger, try to resist the urge to power swim back to the others. 

It’s likely that the whale either changed directions, the current picked up or you were so mesmerized you weren’t paying attention. 

If you find yourself in this situation, it’s better to wait for the boat to come get you. If the captain thinks he can bring you back to the group and get you back in the water, he’ll do it. 

Choosing a tour operator

Every island in Tonga has their own tour operators, but you can find all of them aggregated on the Tonga tourism website to see who the government recommends for each part of the country. 

This ensures you’re going through a licensed operator. 

It’s worth reiterating that this is the primary tourist attraction in Tonga, so if it’s something you really have your heart set on, book well in advance. 


A couple of safety considerations

I’d feel irresponsible recommending swimming with whales to someone planning a Tonga vacation without telling them a couple of things upfront.

Your swimming experience matters

This is an activity for confident, experienced swimmers. 

I’ve snorkeled and dove in some pretty hairy conditions and if you’re not used to swimming in open ocean, potentially battling currents, surrounded by large swells, swimming with whales in Tonga isn’t for you. 

Getting in and out of the water in rough conditions can be stressful and if you don’t know how to carry yourself, it might end up ruining the experience for you (or someone else). 

(image of big swell) 

That said, you can go on these whale-watching excursions and stay on the boat. It’s still a wonderful experience seeing whales from the surface.

Sea sickness

If you’re prone to seasickness, you might want to rethink visiting the Tonga whales.

The boats are quite small (only so many people are allowed in the water at a time, after all), and the swell can get quite intense. 

If you normally travel with motion sickness pills (e.g., Gravol), take one before heading out. It could mean the difference between actually swimming with whales and spending the entire time hunched over the side. 

The best fins for snorkeling/swimming with whales in Tonga

This is both a safety and an enjoyment consideration. You want to make sure you have appropriate fins for open ocean swimming. 

You don’t need large freediving fins. They take up a lot of space on deck, and much of your time swimming with the whales will be spent on the surface, looking down at them from above. 

Again, diving down on mothers with calves is not allowed. 

A pair of good dive or snorkel fins, however, are recommended. I’m talking about ones that have long-enough channelled blades that are sufficient for swimming horizontally on the surface and diving down for closeup opportunities if and when they present themselves. 

The operator you go out with might provide fins, but if you like to travel with your own gear (maybe you are also doing some diving/snorkeling while in Tonga), you can check out my snorkel fins review.

I cover a number of different fins that are appropriate for both recreational diving and serious snorkeling. 

It goes without saying that you are not going to be keeping up with the whales. They will allow you to get as close as they feel comfortable with but will leave you in their wake whenever they like, so it doesn’t really matter what style of fins you’re wearing. 

I would, however, advise against the small stubby “snorkel” fins–the kind you often get on snorkel day trips in places like Mexico or Thailand.

They are fine for puttering around in sheltered lagoons but not for anywhere with stronger currents (e.g., the channels between islands that whales like to use and where a lot of Tonga whale watching is done).

In waters with stronger currents, they also require more kicking to propel yourself, which, as we mentioned, is not what you want to be doing while trying to swim calmly. 

Finally, they also require you to burn more of your oxygen while descending, which means less time underwater with the whales before your lungs start burning. 


Photography Tips For Swimming With Whales

There are a few things to keep in mind when photographing whales in a place like Tonga. 

You’re working with natural light only

When you’re shooting large animals like whales, you’re shooting in natural light.

The first rule to natural light shooting in the ocean is to keep the sun behind you to better illuminate your subject. 

What’s more, you aren’t allowed to get close to the whales, you aren’t allowed to swim directly at them and you aren’t allowed to dive down on a mother with a calf, so most of your shots will be from within the first few metres of the water column. 

Additionally, you wouldn’t use a strobe for a couple of reasons.

First, because they create drag, second, they aren’t powerful enough to light up big marine animals like whales, sharks or dolphins.

While you’re stuck working with ambient light, you can, of course, still take amazing shots. 

You should also use a fast shutter speed to reduce image blur and add mood by doing things like freezing light rays in the water. 

Shutter speed and ISO

A speed of 1/250th and 1/320th do a good job. 

As previously mentioned, weather conditions are never guaranteed.

Tonga’s whale season coincides with the dry season, so it’s your best chance for sustained good weather, but if you find yourself out on dark and overcast days, increase your ISO from 100 or 200 (which is what you’d use on a lighter, brighter day) to 400 or 800. 

Put the camera in aperture priority

Choosing aperture priority mode (or shutter priority) lets the camera choose the f-stop.

When you’re shooting in blue water (as you are when shooting whales in Tonga), there isn’t such a big issue with depth of field because everything is pretty uniform, and it’s fine to let the camera make adjustments, so long as you freeze the motion. 

Single focus and continuous high drive

You’re most likely shooting in considerable swell while photographing whales in Tonga, so it’s a good idea to set the focus to single and your drive to continuous high. 

Try to shoot in short bursts while avoiding filling your cache. Setting a high shutter speed will certainly help you compensate for camera shake while shooting in these conditions,and burst shooting will increase the odds that your middle frames are sharp, even if your first and last images are a little blurry. 

A short burst is also written to your SD in less time than a sustained burst, so you can shoot more often and not miss any golden opportunities. 

Lens selection

When it comes to shooting whales in blue water, the wider the lens, the better. Canon’s 15mm, Nikon’s 10.5mm and 16mm fisheye, or Tokina’s 10-17mm fisheye are all suitable. 

If you would like a more comprehensive breakdown of my underwater photography tips, you can take a look at this article here.


Why swimming with whales in Tonga is worthwhile

Humpback whale populations were decimated by commercial whaling in the 19th and 20th centuries. Thanks to international conservation efforts that began in the 1980s, however, they are no longer listed as endangered. 

Tonga is one of the best places in the world (if not the best) to get up close to these gentle giants in their incredible South Pacific mating and feeding grounds. 

A beautiful, emotional experience that will change your life, your appreciation for whales, and the idyllic island nation of Tonga.