In August of 2016, after a year and a half wait since booking, we traveled to Tonga with the hope of swimming with humpback whales. It was worth the wait, worth the price, and totally exceeded our expectations.
Most of our trips are the result of seeing a documentary and researching where the encounters were filmed (and by whom). This trip was no different. After seeing Darren Jew’s episode of Tales by Light, and Humpback Heaven on 60 Minutes, we booked the first available trip with Whales Underwater.
Tonga looks fairly close to Australia. “Fairly close” has a whole new meaning when you live in Australia.
The challenge with most good places in the South Pacific is that you can get to the main island, but then because of flight schedules you need to overnight. From Australia, there are basically two ways to go: via Fiji directly into Va’Vau or via Auckland and Nuku’alofa. We chose the latter because the Fiji flight runs twice a week and didn’t match up with our tour dates.
We experienced no delays or lost luggage, and arrived in Nuku’alofa around 8pm. We easily located the driver from the hotel, and were at the Scenic Hotel within an hour of deplaning. It was fine for a transit hotel.
The next morning we had our first bout of Tonga Time when our flight to Va’Vau was delayed. Luckily we found out before going to the airport, so we hung out in the hotel lobby using the free internet 10 MB at a time. We eventually departed around 2pm.
With the exception of Sunday (when the entire island is pretty much closed for business), each day followed the same schedule:
- 6am – Brekkie. And not just cereals. Full proper breakfast. I’m prone to seasickness so stuck with toast.
- 6:45 – Load up the taxis and head for the dock.
- 7am – Board one of two boats and head out in search of the whales. Some days we found them straight away. Other days we had to do a little bit of searching. We swam with whales every single day.
- When we weren’t swimming with whales, we were gorging on the packed lunches and home made treats. Or swimming in a cave.
- 3pm ish – Return to the docks, unload the boat, and taxi back to the guesthouse
- 4pm – Free time. Some people napped, others edited photos in the lounge
- 7pm ish – Dinner. Despite all of the physical activity on this trip, we both actually gained a kilo.
- After dinner – screenings of Tales by Light followed by Cards Against Humanity
Swimming with Whales
Once our talented skipper located the whales, we’d observe them for a bit to watch their behaviour. Then it was time to gear up and sit on the back of the boat awaiting the signal. “In the water, in the water, in the water!” he’d yell, and we’d try to slip gracefully into the water. Sometimes they were headed straight for you. Most of the time you swam as hard as you could, keeping one eye on Darren and the other down below. Sometimes the whales calm and settled. Other times they were whipped up into a frenzy. If you have done any reading on swimming with whales in Tonga, you will notice some trends. Lots of “there are no words to describe…” Lots of superlatives (amazing, graceful, powerful, tender, humbled, wow). And all completely and utterly accurate.
And for reference, this is how close you get (not being reckless – our guide had firm hold of our fins)
Would we go again? HELL YES ! We’re already on the list for a future expedition 🙂