How the whale watch/swim industry works in Tonga

I have been to Tonga the last seven seasons in order to photograph Humpback whales.  Over the years I have gained valuable insight that people considering a whale swimming adventure will appreciate.

Just because permits are issued there that make whale swimming legal does not mean it is easy to swim with whales.   The animals are wild and can come and go as they like. So patience is required. I tell people to hurry up and wait.  It might take hours, or days to get the right conditions and whales.  Not every whale is curious about humans.  Some are on a mission heading somewhere at a fast pace and dont have the desire to interact with people.  Their are single whales that are singing, groups of young adult whales playing, and practicing behaviors they will use once sexually mature, heat runs with bulls seeking the approval of a female, mothers with newborn whales trying evade the males looking to mate, mothers logging on the surface with their babies.

In addition to finding curious whales, we need to have good ocean conditions.    Strong winds generate white caps and this makes it harder to find whales.  Flat seas and sunny skies makes it easier to find the whales. Regardless of surface conditions, in the water good visibility and etiquette among the swimmers is  required.   When swimming with whales its very important to swim together as a group.   Whales don’t like it when people spread out.  The more whales need to look around the more stress they feel and the more likely they will simply descend out of view or swim away.  It is also important to be courteous to the other swimmers.  Cutting of another participant in order to get a better shot is rude.  It’s more productive to just be patient.

Poetry in Motion

There are two types of whale swim charter boats, open and private.  Regardless of type, the rules state that only four people and guide can be in the water with a whale at any time. While its nice to be in the water on every drop, the participants not swimming are able to create topside images such as spy hops, breaches, head lunges, and more. There have been countless times I have been wet or in my my mask and fins when there has been great action on the surface.  The photographers that were not on the next drop were able to concentrate on capturing that behavior.

The motivation for the captains of the open boat is to rotate groups into the water and show them whales. Typically this kind of boat will take anywhere from 8-16 passengers. The quality or length of encounter is not as important as just making sure everyone gets a few glimpses of the whales.  On a private charter there are fewer people on the boat. More important the captains motivation has gone  from finding any whale, to finding whales that demonstrate behavior that might lead to a mutual interaction.  This is when a curious whale floats along with a group of curious humans.  A private charter will cost more than a open boat charter.  A liveaboard boat will cost more than a day boat.  In all cases you will get what you pay for.

Swimming with whales

Check out this site for information on whale watching in Vavau’.  It will list all of the operators.    While looking for information check out this site on  whale swimming in  Ha’apai

In Sept/Oct 2012 and 2013 , I will be the guest host on several special liveaboard trips dedicated to whale photography.  I am working with Dave and Tris Sheen of Whale Discoveries. These adventures will be limited to a maximum of 8 people.  The plan is to visit locations too remote for land based charter boats to travel and that are very productive in terms of whale encounters


About Doug Hoffman

Portrait and underwater fine art photographer.
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