To swim with whales in Tonga is one of these major bucketlist items you won’t forget. If you are into ocean wildlife and you need inspiration for new water adventures, this post is for you!
This Ultimate Guide on Humpback Whale Swims in Tonga will give you a general overview on the whales, different operators in Tonga, the costs, as well as some tips on how to prepare!
(Updated August 2022)
Where Can You Swim With Humpback Whales in Tonga?
The Kingdom of Tonga consists of around 170 islands. The inhabited islands where it’s possible to swim with those gentle giants are Tongatapu, Vava’u, Ha’apai and ‘Eua. Most of the whale swim tours operate from the island of Vava’u.
Check out my other post about tour operators on ‘Eua, which organise tours to swim with humpback whales here.
What’s it Like to Swim with Whales in Tonga
It’s going be a day trip, starting at around 9 am. Depending on how far out you go it’s estimated to return to shore at around 4 pm.
Onboard the boat were 12 guests, ranging from a family of four to couples in the late thirties to single travellers. For example, one guest just attended for Whale Watching – so this is also an option for you! The crew splits the guests into groups of three to four people. Whenever a group returned from their swim, it would be the next group’s turn.
The captain is in constant contact with other boats. So once somebody spotted a whale, you would also head into this direction.
Do You Get Food On The Boat?
Yes! During the whole day, the crew would go around the boat handing out cookies or biscuits to snack on. Around midday, the crew prepared sandwiches, a mix of soft buns, smothered in mayonnaise and chicken. Only two of them were veggie and we had three vegetarians on board.
The company usually asks their guests for dietary requirements beforehand but did not do so on this occasion. Apart from the sandwiches, they provided lots of sweet watermelon as dessert. Yum!
As soon as we left the harbour, our safety instructor Bridget asks us to please keep our expectations low.
‘ Whales are very aware of their surroundings and our presence, she points out. ‘It’s their choice to allow us to share their space and we should feel very privileged
It’s always good to be patient and not compare your experience with what you might have on social media.
When you actually Swim with Whales in Tonga
“Get ready!” – Bridget shouts. In lightning speed, we put on our fins, mask and snorkel and position ourselves at the stern of the boat, anxious to finally jump into the water. I look to my left and see a spout of water, followed by a shiny back which belongs to a female Humpback whale we spotted. The next moment, the Humpback whale calf breaches just meters away from our boat, revealing its white belly to us. What a moment!
Our guide jumped in first, followed by the photographer. The GoPro in one hand, us 4 guests jumped in, swimming as fast as we could behind them. What must have been only a couple of minutes was enough, both the guide and the photographer stopped. They called back the boat and told us to return. The mother and her calf were too fast for us and have disappeared.
How Long Does it Take Until You See a Whale?
Indeed it took us over an hour of cruising around the area. As this is a wildlife encounter, you can never know when or how often it happens! For the longest time, we cruise around only to see nothing but an endless ocean and secluded little islands.
On the third try, we started looking for them, and there they were – resting underneath us. A mother and her calf, motionless hovering above the reef. The mother whale was just massive, ‘the size of a truck’ I thought. The calf was hiding underneath her – a touching encounter to say the least.
Our guide decided to take us around the back of the whale. Getting a better view of the back and the tail, I noticed a turtle! It calmly swam around the whale’s tail, until it vanished underneath and disappeared on the other side. What a special moment!
David our underwater photographer pointed out that the calf is about to surface to take a breath of air. We watched it slowly swimming towards the surface, followed by the mother. Within a matter of two tail strokes, both have moved on, out of side for us. Our group returned to the boat, everybody smiling, euphoric about what we just witnessed
I wish we could have stayed with them for longer, but the boat came towards us to pick us up. By the time every group was in the water twice, we cruised around and spotted a couple more whales – all very fast, on the go. Once the afternoon hit in, we made our way back towards Nuku’alofa.
When To Go Swim with Humpback Whales in Tonga
The best season to swim with humpback whales in Tonga is from June to October/November, starting earlier every year. The Humpbacks have spent all summer months in the colder water in the Antarctic, feasting on krill. It is one of the biggest and longest animal migrations, involving a journey of over 6,000 km past towards the Archipelago of Tonga.
Hence these journeys are essential for the survival of the species. With the Antarctic water being too cold for newly born calves, the pregnant females swim all the way to Tonga to give birth in the warm and sheltered waters.
Ethical Views: Swim With Humpback Whales in Tonga
I guess there is always that part of us that wonders – do we disturb the whales? Does it bother them to have as around? The Tongan government put some regulations in place in order to minimise the impact those tours might have.
As Vava’u has a high concentration of tour operators, you might be better off going to Tongatapu, where there are less and therefore
As I cannot speak for every tour operator, I can say that our guide from Deep Blue Diving made sure we wouldn’t come too close or swim on top of the whales. For instance, he instructed us to calmly, paddle sidewards in order to not cause excessive movement. Furthermore, guests are supposed to stay at least five metres away from the whales and it goes without saying that you should not touch them.
If you have been swimming with Whale Sharks in places like Cebu, Phillippines you know that there are multiple boats swirling around, and it’s overcrowded with people. In Tonga, it is not like that at all!
In Tongatapu at least, there were no two boats on the same spot swimming with the whales. However, they kept in contact with other boats but would leave the site so another operator could try and spot the same whales.
Some recently published article suggests that whale tours might actually have a detrimental impact on the mother and its newborn calf.
Story Behind This Picture
The picture above was taken on our 2nd swim. Spotted in the distance – another spout of air. We swam towards the guide and saw the two whales underneath us, deeper than the ones from before. You could see the outline and you could tell it was a whale, but low visibility made it hard to see specific details. I kept hearing a clicking sound and I asked David our photographer if he hears the same. ‘Yes’ he said, ‘they are communicating’. It was just a matter of time and the calf was swimming towards to surface to take a breath – just a few metres away from us.
Five Interesting Facts About Humpback Whales in Tonga:
- The female Humpbacks return to Tonga some 12 months after the conception of their calves. They have last eaten two to three months ago in the Antarctic and as a result, are now living off fat reserves. The sheltered environment of the 170 islands that make up Tonga is the ideal place for them. They can regain strength, feed the baby and prepare it for the long journey back to the feeding grounds.
2. Mature whales only need to go to the surface and breath every 10 minutes or so, whereas the calves have to take a breath every three to five minutes.
3. Humpback whales can grow to an average length of 18 to 21 metres and weigh as much as 44 tons.
4. The newly born calves drink about 150 litres of milk per day.
5. Although the whales can be seen mating, hunting and immigrating in large groups, they are generally rather solitary, non-social creatures that prefer travelling alone or in smaller groups.
How Much Does It Cost to Swim with Whales in Tonga
Since boats are only allowed to take so many people it is recommended to book your spot in advance. You can pay 50% deposit and choose the actual date at a later stage. The price for a swim with whales in Tonga starts at
A$230 (160 US$) to A$470 (325 US$)
However, many people just rocked up on the day and still managed to get a spot.
Available spots and tours to swim with humpback whales in Tonga depend on the month. As the season is short, you might want to pre-book the experience!
What Else Is Good To Know
A couple of meters from the shop away was an organic ice cream shop that sold massive scoops – a little treat to end a memorable day.
From the wharf, it’s a leisurely 30-minute walk that takes you along the waterfront towards the centre of Nuku’alofa. As part of the tour, Deep Blue Diving organises a shuttle service that drops you off at your accommodation.
Some of the operators have their own underwater photographer who takes pictures of the whales and the trip. After the tour, you can purchase the photography package for around 25 A$ (25 US$ or 23€). It was so worth it!
Tour Operators for a Swim with Humpack Whales in Tonga
Before booking a trip it’s important to know a few things. There are about 7 operators on Nuku’alofa and 3 operators on ‘Eua vs 22 on Vava’u.
Less operators consequently means less boats, and more time in the water as you won’t fight for a ‘spot’.
Deep Blue Diving – the operator I chose to go with and was absolutely happy with!
Tonga Whale Swim offers full-day boat charter & a premium whale swim package.
Humpback Swims – specialises in five or eight-day whale swimming tours that include accommodation, guide, breakfast and much more
Swimming With Whales – you can combine a whale swim with a stay in their guest house and decide between four, five and seven-night holiday packages.
For more options on operators have a look at Tourism Tonga .
Sea Change – an eco-retreat combining whale swim tours and yoga classes as special packages.
Matafunoa Lodge – offering daily whale swimming trips
What To Bring To Swim with Whales in Tonga
- A windbreaker or sailing jacket! After being in the water once and staying in your wetsuit for another 5 hours, it will get chilly!
- Sunscreen: as you either hide in the shade (gets chilly) or you stay on deck (might get burnt)
- Snacks: you might want to bring some snacks or lunch of your own, as the catering towards dietary requirements is rather limited
- Camera: GoPro or another underwater camera & housing
- Towel: to keep yourself warm & give shade
Where Else In The World Can You Swim With Humpback Whales?
Check out Whale Dive for more info.
Check out Whale Dive for more info.
Exmouth, Western Australia
Ningaloo Whalesharks – offers tours to swim with humpback whales and also whale sharks.
Sunshine Coast, Australia
Sunreef Mooloolaba – chance to swim with humpback whales as part of a half-day tour.
Salty Cay, Turks and Caicos
Dive Advice Travel – having a special offer to snorkel with humpback whales.
No matter where in the world you are located, I hope you get to experience this wildlife encounter somewhere! It’s truly a magical and unforgettable adventure.
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