When people ask me what my favourite travel experiences have been, swimming with humpback whales in Tonga is always one of the first things that springs to mind.
I first swam with the humpies back in 2017, and as soon as I slipped into the water and saw a whale for the first time, I knew that it would be an experience that I had to repeat.
So, this past August I jumped on a plane with my dearest Daddio (or as he is known on this blog – Papa Burne) and headed back to the glorious island nation that is the Kingdom of Tonga.
However, it should be noted that this is not the kind of trip that can be booked last minute. There is a lot of logistics and planning that goes into making a trip like this happen, so let’s get that stuff out of the way first.
When should I go?
The humpback whales usually start to appear in Tonga in July and have usually left by mid October, however, I would always advise to plan your visit from mid August to late September for the optimal chance of having good sightings and swims.
Some years the whales can be quite late to arrive, so a visit in July has the potential to be decidedly unfruitful!
Where in Tonga should I go?
The main spots for whale swimming are in Ha’apai and Vava’u, although whale swims are also possible around the mainland of Tongatapu.
Each of these locations has pros and cons.
Vava’u is home to the best water visibility in Tonga, making it the first choice for many would-be whale swimmers, however, it is also like the wild west of whale swims. There are more tour operators here than anywhere else in Tonga, and it has become the kind of place where anything goes – even if it is against the law. The Tongan government has recently cracked down on making sure that swim operators follow all the strict rules, especially in this area. At least three people have ended up in jail this past season for going against these rules! If you choose Vava’u, make sure you research your tour operators and choose one who will abide all of the rules and protect the safety of the whales.
The mainland of Tongatapu is more convenient to access but is also the place with the lowest likelihood of a successful swim. I would only recommend this area if all other tour operators in Vava’u or Ha’apai are booked up.
Personally, I love Ha’apai. The water visibility isn’t as good as Vava’u, but there are far fewer tour operators – meaning that there are many more whales to go around!
How far in advance do I need to book?
To be frank, you need to book as far ahead as you feasibly can.
Nowadays, accommodation in Ha’apai is booking up around a year in advance (for the high season period) so the earlier you book, the better off you will be. This has not always been the case, but it seems that word has gotten out and people are suddenly flocking to Tonga.
How do I get to Tonga?
International connections to Tonga are somewhat limited but not altogether infrequent. There are connections with Sydney and Samoa several times per week, as well as daily connections to Nadi and Auckland.
How much money does a trip like this cost?
Well, costs will depend on a number of factors, but I will list below what I spent (in Australian dollars) to show a rough estimate.
1 night at an airport hotel in Tongatapu: $60
6 nights at Sea Change Eco Retreat: $197 x 6 = $1,182
5 days of whale swimming: $225 x 5 = $1,125
Land transfers: $33 x 2 = $66
Return flights from Tongatapu to Ha’apai: $290
My bar tab: $150
1 night at Fafa Island Resort in Tongatapu: $200
Total cost (not including international flights) $3,073
If you were looking to cut back on costs, it is worth noting that our accommodation was on the more expensive side and there are absolutely cheaper options available, but as Tonga is still a developing nation, you might end up going without a hot shower for your entire trip!
How confident do I need to be as a swimmer?
Honestly, it will kinda depend on the day.
There were kids on the boat with me for a few days who did really well, but there were also adults who seriously struggled if the water was on the choppier side.
You will be clad in a wetsuit and you will likely be wearing flippers, but it is still ocean swimming. If you are a decidedly weak swimmer or are prone to panicking then you may want to reconsider whether a trip like this is really for you.
How long should I go for?
At least a week! Every day in the water is so different, and some swims are definitely better than others. If you are going to Tonga for the sole purpose of swimming humpies, then do yourself a favour and give yourself as many chances as you possibly can!
What do I need to pack?
As well as all of the normal travel essentials, make sure to also bring a stash of reef-safe sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, lip balm, a warm jumper for the cooler nights, a book (or three) and a waterproof camera set up.
What do I need to be aware of before visiting Tonga?
Two things immediately spring to mind.
Firstly, Tonga is a Kingdom, and what the King says is what goes! One of the things that the King denotes is that Sunday remains a day of rest, and as such, very little goes on in Tonga on this day. No boats go out whale watching, no flights operate and everything is closed except for hotels and hospitals – although these do run on the bare bones of their staff during this period.
Secondly, drones are permitted in Tonga, but a kind of permit is required, although this is not widely advertised! There is a teeny tiny sign at the airport telling visitors of their need to pay for such a permit or risk being hit with a fine. Personally, I did not see such a sign and thus was very fortunate that my drone was not detected when I left the country. It seems like it is designed to catch people out and raise some revenue, but hey, when in Tonga right?
How close will I get to the whales?
Ultimately, it will depend on the day.
On some swims you’ll be lucky to get a short glance at whalies, and on others you could be in the water for hours! Tonga enforces a minimum 5m distance kept from the whales at all time, but I gotta be honest with you – the whalies do not all seem to have gotten this memo! If you come across a curious and playful whale you could literally get close enough to touch, although for safety reasons this really should be avoided where possible.
How long will the swims last?
Once again, this will totally depend on the day. On some days, you might only find whalies who aren’t super interested in hanging out with you, and you might only see them for a few short seconds. On other days, you might come across a super playful calf and you may have swims that last up to 90 minutes!
It is worth noting that there is a 90 minute maximum on swim times – after this has been exhausted the whalies will be left alone by all boats for a minimum of one hour before any other swims are commenced.
It is also worth noting that seasoned mothers tend to be much more chilled about humans hanging with their babies. Mummas who don’t like people getting close are much more likely to be first or second time mums.
What if someone doesn’t want to swim with whales? What other things can they do?
Luckily for those people, Tonga is an amazing place to visit, even if you aren’t game to swim with the whalies! There are so many fantastic (and easy) snorkels to do, many opportunities to go kayaking or stand up paddle boarding, whale watching is always an option even if you don’t want to swim, or honestly, you could just pack a few books and spend your time on the island relaxing and recharging.
Finally, what does it really feel like to share the ocean with humpback whales?
Honestly, it’s a feeling like no other.
Your sense of size and depth perception is skewed and you don’t realise how big they really are until they are right in front of you. It can make you feel so small and in awe and endlessly intrigued. I never once felt scared or frightened, the thought never even crossed my mind. The moment the guide tells you to jump in and swim, all you can think about is catching a glimpse of that whale.
Furthermore, each whale has a different personality, and if you are lucky, some of them might be willing to show their off. Feeling like you are somehow getting to know a creature that is so different to yourself is something truly otherworldly.
Sometimes, you may even form a connection with a whale. This happened to me on my last day of swims on this trip. One particular calf was super playful and engaging, so, I played back! I rolled in the ocean, he did the same. I blew bubbles at him, he would send bubbles back. He kept coming back straight to me, over and over again. At point, he really looked like he was going to try and lift me up – if I hadn’t moved out the way, I think he would have done it. Now, there were four other people in the water during every moment of this, but it seemed like I was the lucky one to truly to truly make that connection.
Every single one of these next photos was taken of the same calf during the same swim, the little guy just kept coming back to me; it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.