Humpback Whale Report – Tonga 2011

2011 Tonga Humpback Report.

In the world of adventure travel Tonga is one of those destinations that has yet to be discovered by the mainstream. While the diving is good this remote destination is one of the only places in the world where the government issues a set number of permits allowing people to snorkel with Southern Hemisphere Humpback Whales.

playful baby whale

An independent kingdom, Tonga is comprised of 176 coral and volcanic islands, thirty-six of which are inhabited. The islands are divided into three major groups.  Nuku’alofa, the capital, is located on the main island of Tongatapu and is the most developed of the islands. The Ha’apai group is in the center,  and contains numerous flat, low lying islands. The Vavau’ island group is home to most of the tourism.  The islands feature tall hills, volcanoes, jungle, sandy beaches, and safe anchorages for boats.

As planes fly, Tonga is about an 90 minute flight from Fiji.  On the atlas  the islands are on the eastern edge of the Indo-Australian Plate, not far the Tonga Trench. This is a long oceanic valley reaching depths over 5 miles deep.

Each year Southern Hemisphere Humpback Whales leave their feeding grounds in Antarctica and swim to the tropical waters of Tonga to mate and give birth. The whales like the shallow protected waters between the islands to nurse and the deeper water for mating.

mother and calf humpback whale

coming up from the deep

Wisely, the Tongan government has realized the value of Humpback whales in terms of eco-tourism and the money it brings into local communities in the form of charter fees, souvenirs, restaurants, hotels,  taxis, and taxes.  The fact that the whales are a resource for tourism and contrubtes money for the economy out ways the value of selling a whale for its meat. The money generated flows through the islands and affects  many Tongan families rather than making one family rich which is what would happen by selling the fishing rights.

The Tongan government with help from the international whaling commission has established rules and guidelines when it comes to whale watching and swimming.  In addition the governament decided to issue  a maximum of 16 whale swim licenses in Vava’u.  Each permit holder is allowed to operate two boats.  So, in theory there can be as many as 32 boats. In practice however, there are about 18 boats out on the water. Not every company has two boats, and at any one time there are a few boats  down for maintenance  or  waiting for parts.

Most of the whale watching is done in the Vavau’ island group. The islands in this area have volcanoes and hills which provide shelter from wind and waves. The Ha’apai group is made up of a group of flat low lying islands.  In perfect conditions it’s idyllic, but when there are storms there is nowhere to hide. Currently there are two land based operators offering whale watching and swimming tours.There is one operator in Tongatapu.

Vava'u Harbor

For the last 14 years, a Fiji based live-aboard called the Naia has spent 2 months of the season offering whale trips in Ha’apai. This ia world calss dive boat that takes 18 passengers.

At the time of this writing Whale Discoveries ,    has plans to bring a 65 foot sailing catamaran to Ha’apai for live aboard trips for a maximum of 8 people.  The compnay has just started accepting bookings.  This is huge news for those people that are serious about maximizing their opportunities to swim with and photogrpah whales.

There are many kinds of behavior going on while the whales are in Tonga. Participants will likely encounter single males singing, young whales that are not yeat sexually mature playing, heat runs in which  the males are fighting for dominance and the right to mate, calm periods when the mother whale is resting and nursing, and active periods when the mother is teaching baby important life skills, and of course how to breach.

Swimming with whales is unlike any other experience on earth. Besides being surreal it is quite humbling.  Literally your floating next to a leviathan that could crush you easily but instead is gentle and curious. When a whale swims by and looks at you there is an instant connection. You will likely feel a sense of belief and hope that will change your life and make you an advocate for preserving and protecting these magnificent mammals.

The regulations make it clear that there can only be 4 swimmers plus a guide in the water at any time.  Swimmers must float together with the guide and are prohibited from free diving on mother and calfs. Scuba diving with whales is not permitted. Whales must be given a 90 minute break between the time one boat finishes and another boat boat begins whale swimming. Encounters are limited to 90 minutes with the clock starting just as soon as a second boat arrives on scene and swimmers are in the water.

Some boat companies prefer to wait and share whales that have been found by other boats. This practice is called “cueing”.  Some do it in the manner described in the regulations. Some dont.   This is very sad as it means the captains of those boats value the expereince for the tourist at the expense of the whales. YOu know what they say,  it only takes a few bad apples to spoil the buuch.

Whales tale

Types of operators –

There are two types of charters for swimming with whales.  Open or share boats, and private charters.

Open boats are affordable and cost between $175-225 US per person per day. These boats take around 8-12 people, and are perfect for visitors planning a week vacation and want to enjoy a few days whale watching,  scuba diving, sailing, relaxing, or exploring the island. These tourists are going for the novelty and experience of just seeing a whale underwater as well as seeing breaches, spy hops, and tail slaps from the boat.

Avid underwater photographers might get frustrated coming so far to get to Tonga then having to wait for their rotation in the water. For that reason it might be worth the added cost of going on a private charter.

Private charters are for small groups whose expectations are higher than regular tourists and are perfect for scientists, naturalists, and nature photographers. In many cases the group size is small so everyone is able to go on every drop. In cases where rotations are needed, participants that that are rotated out of the water should grab their topside cameras and get ready to crreate images of  flukes, fins, breachs, e.t.c..

Tropic Bird - Whale Discoveries

The captain of a open boat might decide to put his swimmers in the water with whales he knows are on the move,  just to be sure all of the rotations of people get at least one chance in the water.   The captain of private boat will be looking for whales demonstraing certain behaviors, with the desire to locate whales that are curious and might be up for a mututal interaction.

Private charter fees are based on a day rate plus fuel consumption. Some charters are organized by marine naturalists and professional photographers and their expenses are usually covered by the participants fees.  The added costs are well worth it as the pro can share tips and techniques that can really make a difference and save people from making costly mistakes.

Depending upon the size of boat and number of engines those considering a private boat can expect to use anywhere from 100 to 500 liters of fuel a day.  At $1.90 US/liter, this can really add up. With these costs in mind participants can expect to pay 2-3 times that of going on a share boat.

Typical Day

The daily plan is to spend 7-8 hours a day at sea, keeping your eyes on the horizon looking for blows of air, and breaches on the horizon. In marine and nature photography there is an old saying hurry up and wait. This is definitely true when it comes to whales.  Mother nature takes her time to deliver cooperative whales, good visibility, and nice weather.  For those that really want a good experience plan on 8-10 days on the water.  Remember, patience is a virtue.

is it flying whale or a missle

Once whales are sighted, experienced captains and guides will observe and recognize behavior patterns and know when when its time to get in the water and when its best to keep looking for cooperative whales.  When it is time to swim, it is very important to be as quiet as possible when entering the water. Whales do not like a lot of noise coming from the surface and their reaction is to simply disappear.  As each boat is configured differently the crew will explain entry techniques that enable participants to get into the water while creating as little noise as possible.


Big fin kicks that break the surface and create a bubble wake are bad and can also end encounters. Depending upon style of fin used it might be wise to swim side-ways in order to keep the fin tips underwater.  Large fins made popular by skin divers are not needed as they are designed for ascending and descending not for floating at the surface. They are also big and cumbersome on the boat.

When in the water always stay together in a group and if swimming travel in a parallel course to the whales.  Never swim strait towards the  whale.  Do not separate and approach whales from opposite sides as this causes stress for the mother whale and is the fastest way to end an encounter.  Imagine how you would feel if an animal came at you at full speed and you did not know its intentions. Keep in mind that when the mother is relaxed the calf is free to explore its world and check out  the humans.  This is when wonderful encounters take place and lifelong memories are made.

In the event a swimmer loses position during an encounter and is separated from the group, or finds themselves on the far side of the whale, its best to avoid the urge to swim fast to catch up.  Chances are the whale turned, the current picked up, or the swimmer simply got lost in the moment.  Should this happen its best to fall off and wait for boat pick up. If appropriate the captain will drop you close to the others.

There are several companies in Tonga offering whale swim trips as well as professional photographer led expeditions. Try doing a search on google for whale photography expeditions or guided whale swim trips. Another good source of information is

One of the best images from the 2011 season

Logistics and Details

Just getting to Tonga can be an adventure and is most likely a major part of the reason the Friendly Isles have not yet become popular. From LA it takes 10-11 hours to get to Fiji, or New Zealand.  Depending upon airline and routing, a layover in Nadi Fiji, New Zealand, or Tongatapu, Tonga is required.

Keep in mind in Tonga, domestic flights do not operate on Sundays. In most cases the international date line will be crossed and a day will be lost.  The good news is you get a day back upon return.

The distance to Tonga from LA,  is 5167 miles and from Hawaii is 2,965 miles. Air New Zealand offers flights to Tonga arriving at Fua’amotu Airport (TBU).  Air Pacific offers flights from LA and Honolulu..  This is one of those destinations that the effort it takes to research and book flights on your own is not worth it.  Using a travel agent that has done business in the Pacific and knows the airlines will save hours of strife and frustration.

Flights don’t always operate as advertised. For this reason trip insurance is strongly suggested.  Be prepared to pay excess baggage fees, and to have your carry on weighed on all domestic Tonga flights.
  Cathams Air is currently the only domestic airline although there is a unconfirmed rumor a new airline may start sometime in the 2010 season.

If a layover is required in Fiji, The Tanoa International Hotel, is convenient, clean, and includes airport pick up and drop off service. If hungry take a taxi to the Chicken Bite restaurant, about a five minute drive. The menu features pizza, fried chicken, and some of the best curry anywhere. They also sell cakes and tasty desserts.

Those with an extended layover in Tongatapu can get a day room and rest at the Fuaamotu Lodge. Located a five minute drive this is a great alternative to getting a taxi and driving to town which is 30 minutes away.   The place is not fancy but its a perfect place to unwind after a long flight. The food is good and portions are big. Expect to eat tapioca or sweet potato, a local green vegetable and chicken. This is a great way to spend 6 hours.  Right across the street is a small street side store that sells cold beer and snacks.  In 2010, the cost was $45 TOP for the room and $15 TOP more for the meal. Included transportation to and from the airport.

The other choice is to get a taxi and go to town (30 minute drive) for lunch.  Going to town will cost about $40 TOP.  As an option you might want to take an island tour.  The price wont vary much so ask the drivers if their cars have A/C or windows that go all the way down.  A taxi to and from the international to the domestic terminal is $5TOP per person.

Friends is a good lunch spot and internet café. The waterfront is a good Italian restaurant and has a hotel upstairs making it very convenient for overnight layovers.

In Vavau’, there are several choices for accommodations including bed and breakfast style, backpackers, home stay, and hotels in Neiafu, and a number of resorts on the outer islands.

The Puataukanave is in the center of town.  The service is only fair but the location is great.  The Hilltop Hotel is another good option. The paradise Hotel has some room open but others are cstill closed.  There was a fire in 2008 and it has not been rebuilt.  For more information on accommodations check out

The rainy season lasts from December to April.   The most extreme months are from January to March when temperatures can be be 101 degrees with 100% humidity. Thunderstorms can occur in December and February. The Vavau’ group, gets the most rain and the Ha’apai islands, the most wind.

In Tongan life, family and religion are of utmost importance. As Christians the people do not work on Sundays. Expect everything except a few restaurants, and resorts  to be closed. This includes airports, markets, and banks.

I am hosting a few whale photography dedicated adventures in 212 and 2013.  space is limited to 8 people per charter.

Sept  12-19, Sept 21-29, and Oct 2-11 in 2012   and   Sept 20-30 and Oct 2-11 2013   Contact me for details or check the website

Douglas J Hoffman


About Doug Hoffman

Portrait and underwater fine art photographer.
This entry was posted in Decor, Island scenic, photography workshops, Travel, whales and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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