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What is it like to swim WITH HUMPBACK whales IN TONGA

A firsthand account of swimming with whales from our founder and owner, David Sinclair.

September 2023.

Humpback Mum and Calf, Vava’u, Tonga

Lucky sits cross legged on the bow of “No Bananas” keeping a keen eye on the horizon for any signs of whale activity, a tell-tale blow, a fin breaking the surface or a fluke gracefully disappearing into the deep blue sea surrounding Vava’u in the north of the Tongan archipelago.  Lucky is a fortress of a man, chiseled from stone, a rugby player and at home in the sea. He knows his whales.

In Vava’u Tonga, humpback whales are never far away.  We know Lucky’s spotted something when the good natured banter between Lucky and our Tongan skipper Villie takes on a  slightly more urgent tone and peels of infectious laughter burst from Lucky’s lungs.  He clearly loves his job and what’s not to love.  The coastline of Vava’u is flanked with rainforest clad limestone cliffs, coconut palms gently swaying in the pacific breeze.  In the ‘winter’ months around four thousand Humpback Whales aggregate in Tongan waters, the mothers to give birth and nurture their calves in relative safety and the fathers to search for a mate.  The water is a lovely 24C and a deep blue.  The visibility on the more protected western side of Vava’u can be phenomenal.  

Day 1 Swimming with humpback whales

On our first morning we’re in the water not long after leaving the safe harbour of laid back Neiafu, the commercial centre of Vava’u.  I am totally unprepared for our first encounter.  I’ve seen the images and video and read accounts and I’ve seen literally thousands of humpback whales, feeding, breaching, tail slapping and migrating but am simply not mentally prepared to be in close proximity to a 40 tonne mother humpback fully inverted in the water, ’tail-sailing” with her calf nestling gently against her belly between her giant pectoral fins.  The calf rises to the surface for a breath and circles its mother.  We’re all speechless.  Nature can be that way, profoundly beautiful.  

Later in the day we encounter a heat run, a seething chain of males intent on passing on the genetic code to the female in front.  Again, it’s a profoundly moving experience to see these gargantuan creatures glide effortlessly through the water and disappear after a glimpse into their personal lives.  Movement is almost imperceptible yet they glide forward at a pace that no human can match even Lucky with tree trunks for legs and stiff long free-diving fins.  Experiencing the heat run is different to watching the bond between mother and calf.  It’s exhilarating in a different way.  On display is the full power of these massive mammals, contrasted against our relatively tiny and less than graceful form in the water.   On Day 1 I’ve had the two most incredible whale encounters of my life and I still have many more days to look forward to.  

Day 2-7 Swimming with humpback whales

Day 2 does not disappoint.  We find our first “singer”.  A lone male humpback inverted some 15 metres down singing its heart out endlessly with an array of vocalisations that reverberate through my chest as I float on the surface above.  We have more encounters with mums and calves, seemingly unperturbed by our presence.  The bond between mother and calf is tender and unmistakable. One of our group emerges from the water tears streaming down her face, the overwhelming nature of the encounter touching a nerve deep within.

For details on our 2024 trips, click here.

Day 8 Swimming with humpback whales

Our final day is a quieter day.  Stronger winds have us bound by protected waters to the west, restricting our movements.  We still see whales and get in the water but I’m not at all disappointed that we don’t have any intimate encounters, rather I’m left feeling gratitude for the encounters we’ve had.  I’m left feeling our guide is aptly named ‘Lucky’ and I’m left feeling relief that these creatures are no longer hunted on their long journey to Antarctica and back each year.  

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

Check the tour page for dates and rates.

Read more about what to know before travelling to Tonga to swim with the whales here.

Contact us for more information and be sure to leave a callback number.

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