Swimming with Whales in Tonga
Whales are amazing creatures. They are the largest animals on planet earth today. Some types of whales are such giants that they put the size of the dinosaurs to shame.
Humpback whales, which you can swim with in Tonga, are around 12–16 metres (39–52 ft) long and weigh about 36,000 kilograms (79,000 lb).
They suffered greatly during the days of heavy whaling and only about 30% of their original population is alive today.
They migrate 25,000 kilometres between the tropics in winter and Antarctica in summer each year.
You can see whales in many places, but you are allowed to swim with them in only a few places in the world. Tonga is one such place.
Tonga is a beautiful country and well worth visiting for many reasons. In this article I will focus on one of its main attractions – Swimming with Humpback Whales.
When to go?
Whales start to arrive in Tonga in July and trips do go out swimming with whales then, but the best time to see them is from August to mid October. The calves will be about 4 to 6 weeks old by this stage and a little more independent and the so the mothers will be more relaxed.
Where to go?
There are companies for whale watching are everywhere in Tonga, but not all of the companies have licences for swimming with whales. The two main places for swimming with whales are the island groups of Vava’u and Ha’apai. Everyone who flies to Tonga will fly into the Nuku’alofa International Airport on the main island of Tongatapu which is well worth a visit in itself. From there you can make your way to the island groups.
How to go?
Tongatapu to Ha’apai: Flights depart daily and take 30 min.
Tongatapu to Vava’u: Flights depart twice daily and take 55 min.
Ha’apai to Vava’u: Flights depart 3 or 4 times a week and take 25 min.
There are no flights on Sundays.
Bookings can be made at Real Tonga
The ferry, the MV Outuanga’ofa, departs once a week from Tongatapu on Mondays.
It takes 10 to 12 hours to get to Ha’apai and then another 6 hours to get to Vava’u.
The ideal would be to go to both island groups, but if you are short on money, time or both: You come to the eternal question posed to those heading to Tonga. Which of the two island groups to visit – Vava’u or Ha’apai?
- This archipelago of islands is more scenic than Ha’apai. The main island is mountainous and there are lots of places to explore.
- There is a wide variety of accommodation.
- Lovely beaches
- Good diving
- Taxis are easily available
- There are many tour companies offering a variety of different trips such as kayaking, island trips, snorkelling, kite surfing and fishing.
- You can hire a scooter and go and see ‘Ene’io Botanical Gardens.
- Great Sailing
- There is a good selection of bars and pubs
- There is nightlife
- There are many companies that can take you out to swim with whales. On some trips not everybody will get a chance to swim with whales as there will be too many people and/or not enough whales. Only four tourists can swim at one time. I’ve heard from one group who went on a swimming trip that they only got to swim with the whales for 5 min and that boats from different companies were queued up to take turns with the whales.
- Another girl had been out a couple of times and able to get close enough to take pictures of the whales once.
- The time you do get to spend swimming with the whales is often short (too many boats, too many people on said boats).
- The whales may also be less interested as many will have come up through Ha’apai and people will have swum with them there.
- If you try to see Mt Talau National Park then you will find that the road there becomes un-navigable on the mountain and the path very quickly becomes impossible as it is very overgrown.
Companies in Vava’u that offer swimming with the whales include:
- There are only two operators that can take you swimming with whales in Ha’apai. There is no queuing of boats and normally there is only one boat per whale.
- There are good sheltered areas for mother whales and their calves to relax and for you to see them.
- It is dependent on the whales, but you will normally be able to swim with for extended periods of time. With the boat I went with, we were split into two groups. One group would swim with the whale and calf for about 15min and then come back. The second group would then go out and repeat. Each group went out at least 3 times.
- The whales are more likely to be interested as they will not have swum with people on this journey north from Antarctica before.
- There are Ancient Petroglyphs on Foa Island (these can only be seen when the tide is out) and there are remains of royal burial pyramids on Uiha island.
- You can take island trips and kayaking trips.
- Beautiful Beaches
- Good Diving
- It is expensive to hire a boat and crew, but if you have time and money you can take a boat out and hike up Tofua island.
- Not as scenic as Vava’u, mostly just a sand bar that has risen above the water.
- There is a range of accommodation from expensive Lodges to budget options but there are not as many options as in Vava’u.
- There are not many cars here let alone taxis. You can walk, rent a bike with no brakes or hitchhike, the locals are very friendly.
- You can take trips out with one of the resorts even if you don’t stay with them but there is not a wide range of tour companies, nor is there a large selection of activities.
- There was one bar (Mariner’s Café) in the main town Pangai when I went.
- There is no nightlife to speak of.
Companies in Ha’apai that offer swimming with the whales are:
I went with Fins & Flukes and thought that they were fantastic.
But wait….there’s another option
Tongatapu and Eua
More recently Deep Blue Diving has started to offer swimming with the whale trips from Tongatapu and Eua islands. This is another option to consider. I don’t think it was an option when I went to Tonga, it did not come up in research and I did not hear other travellers talking about it.
How to go?
Tongatapu is the main island you will fly into from your country of origin.
Tongatapu to Eua: Flights depart twice daily and take 8 min.
The Ferry departs Tongatapu for Eua on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
It departs Eua for Tongatapu Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
The ferry departs from Tongatapu at 12:30pm and departs Eua 5am. The trip takes 2 ½ to 3 hours.
- There will be even less company competition, although this is practically non-existent in Ha’apai.
- The whales won’t have been through any other areas where swimming with the whales is offered.
- Tongatapu has several sights of interest. Tony’s Tour is probably the best way to see them.
- Eua has some really interesting hiking and is geologically very different to the rest of Tonga.
- You can go Horseback riding in Eua.
- There is good diving on Eua.
- This is very new so the crews may be less experienced.
- These places are not such great beach/activity locations.
- There is little nightlife on Tongatapu.
- There is none whatsoever on Eua. In fact there is really only a tiny little shop with no refrigeration to buy food from on Eua.
So it really depends on your trip priorities. If the main point of your trip is to swim with whales, then I think Ha’apai would be the best option. I certainly loved swimming with them there.
If your main priority is to take part in island activities and stay busy and swimming with the whales is just one of the activities you want to do, then Vava’u is probably the best option. It is a really nice place. Ha’apai is good for people who don’t mind entertaining themselves.
If you are an ultra budget traveller, then you can cut down on expenses and stay in Tongatapu and see the whales there.
If you really wish to get off the beaten track and don’t mind skipping the beaches, then Eua island is a good option.
Practical Whale Tips
Wherever you pick, there is always the chance that the whales won’t come out to play or that the weather will be bad; to be on the safe side budget money and time enough so that if one day does not work out you will have another day to try your luck.
If you wear glasses, check you know your prescription number before you go, so that the company you go with can give you the best suited snorkel mask.
Spit in your mask before putting it on. This helps to stop it from fogging up.
If you think might get seasick make sure to take appropriate medication and maybe a bucket.
When researching online it may look as though it is only possible to book week long vacation packages.This is not the case, just approach the providers directly and book the days that you want.
Take an underwater camera, rent one if you don’t have one. You will want to remember this.
Where else to go in Tonga?
Consider making your way north to the islands of the Niuas. There are 3 islands in this group: Niuafo’ou, Niuatoputapu and Tafahi. They are very rarely ever visited, as when the planes are running; they only go about once a week. Any tourists that do go normally sail there. I was not lucky enough to get up there, but they look really interesting.