Without hesitating I push myself off of the boat and into the rolling ocean waves. GoPro strapped to my wrist, I swim straight ahead, eyes scanning the waters around me for any flicker of movement or flash of a tail. A couple of waves crash over me, causing the salty water to flow down my snorkel. With a strong puff I blow it out, not letting it distract me from my mission. Visibility is weak, the ocean full of bits and pieces of flotsam after the rain and storms from the past few days but then, just as I’m convinced that we’ve missed them, two enormous shadows reveal themselves from the blue. Two humpback whales, a mother and calf, headed straight ahead. That’s when it hits me: Holy crap. I’m actually swimming with whales.
I still remember the day that I learned it was possible to actually swim with humpback whales. My friend and occasional travel buddy Jess from How Dare She shared a photo of her beside a humpback whale. In awe, I quickly pressed for details. She was in Tonga; a tiny island in the South Pacific that (at the time) was one of only two places in the world where you can swim with whales. Until that point, I’d never heard of Tonga but it quickly catapulted its way to the top of my must-do list.
However, while swimming with whales in Tonga was a dream experience for me, the cost and distance didn’t quite allow it to be one of those impulse trips I’m so quick to book. A trip to swimming with humpback whales in Tonga would take a lot of saving, planning, and time. But, luck was on my side when one another of my favourite travel buddies, Chantae from Chantae Was Here (my motorbike crash buddy) discovered she would be moving to Fiji for two years with her partner. When she shared that news with me, nearly a year ago, we made a plan. In the Fall of 2018, I would come to Fiji to visit and then two of us would go to Tonga to go swimming with whales.
It took nearly a year of planning and saving. We had to work around both of our schedules as well as keep Tonga whale season into consideration. More than anything else, I had to save. Flights alone cost a small fortune to that part of the world and the whale swims in Tonga aren’t cheap either. So, I slowed down on travel and concentrated on saving. It was a bit tough sometimes, especially with my itchy feet, but I knew, in the end, it would be worth it. It absolutely was. Swimming with humpback whales was everything I dreamed it would be and more and is easily one of the best travel experiences I have ever had.
We booked three days to swim with the humpback whales, each of which had its pros and cons but all three ended up being incredible. Day one we lucked in with a curious female calf and her mother. While the mother elusively stayed mainly below us, a shadow in the blue, the calf swam up to greet us and watched us curiously. I can’t even describe how it feels to look in the eye of a humpback whale. Unlike the bull sharks from Fiji, there was so much curiosity and intelligence in her eyes and, as cheesy as it sounds, I couldn’t help but feel privileged and humbled to have that connecting moment with her.
I thought our first day was a winner, but the second day was even better. As we sped across the open ocean looking for whales that might be willing to play we saw a number of them breaching in the distance. Their massive bodies erupting from the water only to come crashing down in a giant spray. It was amazing to see, but most of them were too far in the distance to actually approach. Then we spotted a single humpback whale playing with a school of spinner dolphins. The whale would splash around as the dolphins jumped and swam around her. Sadly, they didn’t stick around to play with us, but it was another amazing sight. Soon after, we found a juvenile female who was keen to play. We ended up spending more than 30 minutes in the water with her as she flapped her tail, dove beneath us, and swam around us- looking at us eye to eye. While day one was incredible, this second day was truly a dream whale encounter. This wasn’t just swimming with a whale, we actually played with her.
Day three was the worst in terms of swimming; it seemed like none of Tonga’s whales felt like spending some time with us. Yet we lucked in and spotted a heat run on the surface: five enormous whales chasing a female. They breached, splashed their tails, and one even rammed into the boat when it suddenly changed its course (it was fine and so were we). While there was no ‘playing’ we did get in the water for a swim by and I felt absolutely tiny as those massive males swam past me.
Without a doubt, swimming with the whales in Tonga was one of the top experiences of my life. I could ramble on for ages about what it was like but to be honest, nothing can compare to the actual experience in itself. So, for those who, like me, dream of swimming with whales I’m going to share everything you need to know about how to swim with the humpback whales in Tonga.
Everything You Need To Know about Swimming With Whales in Tonga
When is Tonga Whale Season?
Swimming with humpback whales is the biggest tourist drive to Tonga. However, before you book your flights, it’s important to know that swimming with the whales is not a year-round experience. Tonga whale season runs between the months of June and October with August and September being some of the best months. We chose to visit in September because it was calf season. However, the mothers and their calves tend to be shyer and less likely to play so while they are beautiful to see, you may not necessarily get one willing to stick around.
Please keep in mind that this time of year is winter in Tonga and while it’s not cold, it is cooler and can be overcast, stormy, and rainy. We had bad weather when we first arrived and the whale swims were cancelled and had to be rescheduled 4 days in a row. This is important to consider when planning your Tonga trip and I definitely recommend that you give yourself a bit of extra leeway.
Where can you Swim with the Whales in Tonga?
Fun fact: Tonga isn’t just one island, it’s 176. That being said, there are four main island areas that travellers can easily get to and go swimming with humpback whales: Tongatapu (which is where you will find the international airport and capital city), Vava’u, ‘Eua, and Ha’api.
Now, when it comes to swimming with whales in Tonga, most people assume you need to head up north to Vava’u. This is where you see most of the photos and get most of the information about swimming with the whales in Tonga. However, the assumption that it is the only or best place to swim with whales in Tonga is false.
Vava’u is great for swimming with whales, but based on our research it also ended up being much more expensive. Both in terms of getting to and for the whale swims themselves. I have since learned that Vava’u also has the largest number of whale swim operators which isn’t necessarily a good thing. More operators mean more competition when it comes to finding whales that are willing to interact which, as we learned, is never a guarantee.
‘Eua is supposed to one of the best spots for swimming with the whales in Tonga. At this time, there are only two operators running from this island which means better chances for the swimmers. Sadly, ‘Eua was hit badly by Cyclone Gita early in 2018 which left many of the accommodation properties and businesses in ruins and unable to open for the season.
Due to this, we ended up staying in Tongatapu, the main island, for our trip and for our whale swims. At first, we were a little wary having assumed that Vava’u and Eua were the places to go, but we were pleasantly surprised to learn that Tongatapu is just as good for swimming with whales and, for this season, was actually having a better year than the other islands. Tongatapu also has a small number of licensed whale swim operators, only five, which raised our odds of having a better experience.
How Much Does it Cost to Swim with Whales in Tonga?
As indicated earlier, swimming with the whales in Tonga is pricey. Prices depend on where you go and what operator you use, but we ended up spending about 1000 New Zealand dollars which, right now, is equal to about $670 USD, for three days. This is after being given a 20% discount for booking multiple days.
While I recognize that this is quite pricey, there is a definite advantage to going with the more expensive operators. They tend to have the small boats that only allow a maximum of 8 passengers (so 2 swim groups) which means more time in the water. While cheaper options are available, these are large boats that can fit up to 30 or so people which still have to be broken down into swim groups of 4. This means much less water time and a significantly smaller chance of having a really good whale swim.
How to pick a Whale Swim Operator in Tonga?
Each island has their own providers but your best bet is to visit the Tonga tourism website and look to see who they recommend in each area. This way, you can be sure that the company you choose is properly licensed.
If you are looking at swimming with the whales in Tongatapu, as we did, I highly recommend Whale Swim, Fish and Dive Tours. They have two boats both of which are staffed by an amazing team. We spent time with the whole crew and they were absolutely fantastic. Not just in terms of being fun, friendly, and giving us a great experience, but it was also very obvious how much they loved the whales and that, at the end of the day, the whale’s safety and comfort was the priority. As it should be.
Since this is the main attraction in Tonga, it is recommended you book well in advance. That being said, some places are really bad in terms of answering their emails so don’t be afraid to follow up or email multiple places at once and compare prices and options from there. We booked over two months in advance to ensure our spots.
Do I Need to be a Strong Swimmer to Swim with Whales in Tonga?
I’m going to be blunt and say if you are not a strong and confident swimmer, then this is not the activity for you. You are out in the middle of the ocean. The waves can be high and it can be incredibly rough with big swells. On our first day, I struggled to get in the boat without being smashed against it by the waves and I’m a very confident swimmer and scuba diver. I can’t imagine how distressing that situation would be to someone who isn’t comfortable in the water. With that in mind, it is possible to go out on the boats and just watch. It isn’t quite the same experience, but there is still a lot to see and enjoy on the surface and you’ll get closer to the whales here than on any other whale watching tour.
I should also point out that this isn’t the best activity for people who get seasick. The small boats with the big swells can be pretty intense. If you are prone to seasickness, make sure to take a pill ahead of time.
Is it Ethical to Swim with Humpback Whales in Tonga?
This is one of the biggest questions both Chantae and I had in our mind when we booked to swim with whales, but we were both pretty pleased with how everything was handled. Whale swim operators have to be licensed and there is an actual police force to monitor the boats and make sure they are following protocol and come back when they should.
You also don’t just jump in the water with any whale. The team follows for a bit and, if the whale seems interested, it will stick around a bit and maybe even come up to the boat. At that point, swimmers can get it. If it’s not interested and just keeps leaving, then the boat leaves to find another whale who is interested.
When it comes to swimming, only four swimmers are allowed in the water at a time and the closest you can get is 5 meters (though sometimes the whales come closer- however, our guides were fantastic for keeping an eye on this and telling people to move back). Also, the boats are only allowed to spend a maximum of 1.5 hours with a whale before they must leave and give it a rest. Even though we had two curious whales willing to play, we didn’t spend anything close to that amount of time with them. I felt that the whale’s wellbeing really was the main priority at the end of the day.
What to Take Swimming with Whales
The whale swim tours are pretty good at including pretty much everything you need including masks, snorkel, fins, and wetsuits. However, I definitely would add a couple of things to the list.
- A rashguard: Not only does it work as an extra layer for warmth but it also helps protect you from the sun. Even on overcast days, the sun is very strong here and you will get burned. Check rashguards for women. Check rashguards for men.
- Reef safe sunscreen: Sunscreen is a must but please make sure to get a reef safe product as you are swimming with marine life. Stream2Sea is a great pick.
- A dry bag: There is a space for your things on the boat, but even then I recommend bringing a dry back for your clothes, towel, cell phone, and money. They are great for any beach destination or a boat trip.
- An underwater camera: Trust me, you want a camera for this experience. I personally used the GoPro 5 Session with the floaty handle for my photos. But there are other, affordable options as well including this one by Olympus or this one by Nikon. If you are looking for something a little more professional, Chantae used the Sony A6000 (there’s also a newer A6500) with waterproof housing (check here for the underwater housing for the A600 and here for the underwater housing for the A6500.
- If you plan on doing a bunch of snorkelling, you may want to consider investing in your own mask and snorkel. It’s kind of nice to know the only mouth that’s been on your snorkel is yours and that your mask isn’t full of 100 people’s spit. You’ll get plenty of use out of it too because there are lots of snorkelling opportunities around Tonga.
Final Tips for Swimming With Whales in Tonga
My one final tip is to give yourself some wiggle room. As I mentioned earlier, there were four consecutive days of terrible weather where all whale swim tours were cancelled and nothing runs on Sundays in Tonga. If you only booked five days and you get stuck in bad weather- you may end up leaving without having the opportunity- it happened to two Brits at our Airbnb. We choose to stay for a week to give us some wiggle room and it worked out well for us.
I also highly recommend booking for more than one day. I know it’s expensive and that it can be a huge cost but it is so worth it. These trips depend on two of the most unreliable things in the world: animals and weather. So, you want to give yourself as much of a chance as you can. Our second day, when we had the playful female, the second boat with our company had nothing. I can’t imagine coming all this way and having my only experience be a bust like theirs was.
Finally, I recommend sorting out your accommodation early too. There aren’t a ton of choices and things get booked up quickly. I recommend using booking.com since you can get some good deals and have the option to cancel with a full refund on most bookings- which I find makes booking earlier easier. Or check Airbnb.
Swimming with the humpback whales in Tonga might have cost me a minor fortune, but it was worth every penny and was easily one of the top experiences of my life. I hope that if this is on your bucket list, you get the opportunity to do it as well.