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Swimming with Humpback Whales in Vava’u, Tonga.  

What to know before you go.

Swimming with Humpback Whales in Vava’u, Tonga.  What to know before you go.

Humpback whales inhabit all of the world’s oceans.  There are seven distinct populations in the southern hemisphere, all of which migrate each summer to Antarctic and sub-Antarctic waters to gorge on krill.  Each winter the whales migrate to warmer waters to give birth and mate.  In Tonga this translates to a whale swimming season from July through until October.  

Whale swimming operations are run from four main locations, Vava’u in the north, Tongatapu (the main island and main population centre in the south), Ha’apai and ‘Eua.   

Vava’u has the most whale swimming operators with good reason.  The island group provides protection from prevailing winds and on the NW side of the islands, visibility is often fabulous for underwater photography enthusiasts.  Vava’u also offers a more laid-back Tongan experience compared to the main island of Tongatapu.  

The numbers of people swimming with whales is restricted with a limited number of operators licensed to run whale swimming operations. In addition, under Tongan regulations, no more than four people are allowed in the water with a guide at any one time.  

All the best whale swimming vessels are small, typically carrying less than 10 people including guide and skipper.  Larger boats can carry up to 30 people, meaning less time in the water with the whales for each person. Do your homework when comparing operators and prices.  

Flights to the islands, accommodation on the islands and other amenities and activities in Tonga are limited which also act to curb visitor numbers.  

We have partnered with an experienced local operator to offer two exclusive small group departures in 2024.  

Check out the tour page for dates and rates.

Read this short story story by our founder David Sinclair about his humpback whale experience in Tonga, September 2023.

A day on the water swimming with humpbacks in Vava’u

There are no live aboard operations in Tonga. Each operator is limited to 7 hours on the water each day and SCUBA diving with whales is prohibited.  In Vava’u most operators head out between 7 and 8am and return between 2 and 3pm.  This affords plenty of time to locate, observe and determine if and when it is appropriate join the whales in the water.  

The guide and skipper will assess behaviour and decide if an approach is appropriate.  The first person in the water is the guide.  The guide communicates with the skipper with hand gestures as to whether or not the swimmers can enter the water and approach.  When entering the water, it’s important to slip into the water quietly and approach together.  Once near a whale a minimum 5m distance is to be maintained.  We are not there to disturb whales but to quietly observe.  

Later in the season after the calves have fattened up on mothers milk the mothers are more relaxed and the calves more likely to stray from mother’s reach.  On a few occasions a calf approached us for a look before returning to its mother.  The bond between mother and calf is extraordinary to witness.  They are clearly very tactile animals.  The whales also have incredible control and spatial awareness, seemingly turning on a dime or gliding by without any discernible movement.  

Above the surface we see plenty of flukes, tail slapping, tail sailing, breaching and more.  Beneath the surface you can witness more intimate behaviours and hear the whales communicating or singing.  You may even witness a calf feeding, scooping mother’s rich fatty milk from the water and you might witness a heat run where a chain of males pursue a female.  

To join us in 2024, check out the tour page for dates and rates.

Other activities and photo opportunities in Tonga, above the water and onshore

During the day you will typically stop for a spot of lunch on shore affording time for a snorkel around the limestone bommies and reefs flanking Vava’u. On the way back into Neiafu you might stop for a swim in Swallows Cave or Mariner’s Cave.  

The pressure in Mariner’s cave constantly changes as water ebbs and flows in and out of the cave.  With the change in pressure, water vapour appears and disappears inside the closed cave.  An extraordinary experience.  Both caves present fabulous underwater photo opportunities.

Once back in Neiafu, it’s time to view and edit your images and video or just kick back and enjoy the warm air and sea breezes.  

Meals and restaurants in Vava’u, Tonga

There are a few restaurants in Vava’u including Kraken, Mango and Harbour View. The menus are seasonal.  Neiafu is resupplied weekly from Tongatapu so some menu items may not be available.  There is a local fresh food market where you can stock up on drinking coconuts, papaya, bananas and other fruits and vegetables.  A series of small convenience stores stock a range of staples such as pasta, rice and tinned goods.  It’s a bit of a treasure hunt to find ingredients for home cooked meals, however, between the restaurants, the market and the convenience store you’ll get by just fine.  

Sundays are rest days in Tonga.  Apart from church, you’ll rarely spot a soul in the streets.  A respectful visit to a church service is recommended.  Be sure to wear appropriate, modest clothing and be prepared to be blown away by the extraordinary harmonies.  It’s quite refreshing to time travel back to an era when shops and other businesses closed for the day.  

However, you will need to plan ahead to make sure you have what you need for your Sunday.  A few restaurants will open on Sundays but not much else.  

To join us in 2024, check out the tour page for dates and rates.

Flying to Tonga

Flying to Vava’u you’ll pass through Tongatapu or Fiji.  We recommend flying via Fiji as the local Tongan airline Lulutai can be a little challenging to deal with.  Flights may only be booked by email or Facebook and payment made must be made by direct transfer in Tongan currency.  Lulutai are also prone to changing flight times.  On one occasion I had a flight leave 90 minutes early but was not advised of the early departure time.  Even the daily schedule posted on the Lulutai Facebook page showed the original time of departure so there was no way to know I needed to arrive at the airport earlier.  Luckily Lulutai did get me on the flight which had closed but had not departed.  

Photography equipment for Tonga

If you wish to bring a drone, be prepared to have your drone taken off you at the airport either in Vava’u or Tongatapu util you obtain the necessary paperwork for permission to fly your drone.  I elected not to bring my drone as I arrived in Tongatapu on a Saturday afternoon and left on a Monday morning leaving me no time to arrange the paperwork.  This is another reason to fly to Vava’u from Fiji – it allows time to clear the local hurdles and fly your drone.

For the underwater photography enthusiasts I recommend two camera set ups: (1) Your DSLR or mirrorless camera in an underwater housing, and (2) a GoPro for video.  The GoPro can be mounted on the DSLR housing, giving you a single apparatus with multiple imaging options in the water.  

Remember to occasionally put the camera down and just marvel at the incredible experience of swimming with humpback whales. 

Read more about capturing images and video of Humpback whales here.

To join us in 2024, check out the tour page for dates and rates.

Walks and wildlife photography in Vava’u, Tonga

If you have spare time in Vava’u, a walk up Mt Talau offers lovely views of the bays and islands.  Remember your water bottle.  

If you’re a bird lover keep an eye out for the delightful Crimson Crowned Fruit Dove, Pacific Imperial Pigeon, Pacific Kingfishers, Wattled Honeyeaters, the rarely seen Tongan Whistler and the gregarious Pacific Flying Foxes.   On the water you will encounter Frigatebirds, Boobys, Noddys, Tropic Birds, Herons and a few assorted Shearwaters and shorebirds.

Crimson Crowned Fruit Dove

Finally, Tonga is a developing country and works on “island time”.  So park your expectations that everything will run perfectly. It’s all part of the charm and an important part of winding down from our busy lives.  

To join us in 2024, check out the tour page for dates and rates.

Neiafu, the commercial centre of Vava'u taken from the summit of nearby Mt Teapu.

Neiafu, the commercial centre of Vava’u taken from the summit of nearby Mt Teapu.

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