Whale Photography Workshops in Tonga with Douglas J Hoffman

Waving aloha

Gentle Giant

I have been organizing and leading Whale Photography Workshops in Tonga for the last 10 years.  I do back to back 10 day charters and take groups ranging in size from 4 -7 people.   In 2014, the adventures are in Ha’apai and are land based.  We will stay at the Sandy Beach Hotel and each day go out on a ribbed inflatable boat called Tropic Bird.    In 2015, the adventures will take place from a 53 foot sailing catamaran called Wildlife. The 2015, trips will be limited to just four people. Guests will get on oand off the boat in Nukualofa, saving time and the need for inter-island flights. Couples are preferred as the cabins have double beds. Please check out the travel page on the web site or email me at dhimages@maui.net  Below is an in-depth look at Tonga and Whale swimming.

In the world of adventure and dive travel, Tonga is one of those destinations that has yet to be discovered by the mainstream. While the diving in Tonga is very good, this remote destination is one of two places in the world where the government issues a set number of permit that allow people to snorkel with, and photograph, Southern Hemisphere Humpback Whales.  The Dominican Republic is the other. Tonga is more remote and has clearer water. When it comes to whale swimming the fewer the boats and people the more whale swim opportunities there will be.  When it comes to photography clearer water is always preferred.  So, I decided to go to Tonga.

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. They like the shallow protected waters between the islands to nurse and the deeper water for mating. 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 come each year and are a resource for tourism out weighs the value of selling a whale for its meat. The money generated flows through the islands and affects a lot of Tongan families, rather than making one family rich, which is what would happen by selling the fishing rights.

An independent kingdom, Tonga is comprised of 176 coral and volcanic islands, thirty-six of which are inhabited. 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. Tonga is made up of 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 with many hotels, restaurants, and about 13 whale watch companies. Many of these run two boats. The islands feature tall hills, volcanoes, jungle, sandy beaches, and safe anchorages for boats.

The Ha’apai group is made up of a group of flat, low-lying islands. It is idyllic in perfect conditions, but when there are storms there is nowhere to hide and it can get rough. Currently there are four land-based operators offering whale watching and swimming tours. Very little whale watching is done from Tongatapu. This is the area I have chosen for the 2014, and beyond.  The reason is it’s more remote so there are fewer boats and people.

Whale in Paradise

In order to keep the whales as a natural resource, rules and guidelines have been established.  The regulations make it clear that there can only be four 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. It is not legal to scuba dive with the whales. Whales must be given a 90-minute break between the time one boat finishes and another boat starts. This is to keep other boats from lining up and starting to swim just as soon as one boat falls off. Encounters are limited to 90-minutes with the clock starting just as soon as the first group of swimmers gets in the water.

Unfortunately this rule is not enforced all the time. When this happens many of the boats in Vavau’ que up. This means they wait for one boat to finish and then they move in without giving the whales a rest.  I have seen three and four boats waiting for their turn. It makes me sad when this occurs as its bad for the whales, as well as the tourists.  I don’t think this is an every day occurrence but it is still not something I want to be a part of. and one of the key reasons I have decided to go to Ha’apai.

There are many kinds of behavior going on while the whales are in Tonga. Participants will likely encounter single males singing, heat runs which is when 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 how to breach and slap their flukes on the surface.  Swimming with whales is unlike any other experience on earth. Besides being a 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 that will change your life and make you an advocate for preserving and protecting these magnificent mammals.

incredible encounter with baby Humpback Whale

incredible encounter with baby Humpback Whale

There are two types of charters for swimming with whales. Open or share boats, and private charters.  Open boats are affordable and cost between $200-250 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 are satisfied with a few glimpses of whales underwater, as well as seeing breaches, spy hops, and tail slaps from the boat.
Avid underwater photographers and naturalists might get frustrated coming so far to get to Tonga then having to wait for a turn in the water. For that reason it might be worth the added cost of going on a private charter dedicated to whale observation and photography.  Private charters are for small groups whose expectations are higher than average tourists and are perfect for scientists, naturalists, and nature photographers.  On a private charter there might be four people so everyone is able to go on every drop. However, there are also many private charters that take six to eight people and rotations are needed.  If the group leader manages the peoples’ behavior in the water so that the whales are comfortable they will hang around for hours allowing each person on the boat a lot of time observing from the water as well as from the boat.

Captains that work with photography groups understand why its important to keep the boat on the sunny side of the whales, as well as recognize behavior that indicates if the whales are on the move or if they want to interact with people. If a group of whales are sighted but not right for swimming the captain will keep looking for cooperative whales.  In comparison, a captain of a open boat might elect 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.  So each captain has different motivation depending upon the group he/she has onboard.
Private charter fees are based on a day rate for the boat plus fuel consumption. Boat owners will determine the private rate based on the total number of passengers allowed regardless of how many people are on the trip.  These businesses have a three month season to make their money for the entire year.  So they charge what they have to.

traditional sailing canoe

traditional sailing canoe

Some private charters are organized by marine naturalists and professional photographers and their expenses are usually covered by the participants. The added costs are well worth it as the professional can share tips and techniques that can really make a difference and save you from making costly mistakes. He or she can also manage the group in the water so that everyone has a good time and the whales are not stressed. 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 $2 US/liter, this can really add up. With these costs in mind participants can expect to pay at least two times that of going on a share boat. But s they say you get what you pay for.

The daily plan is to spend 8 hours a day in the boat keeping your eyes on the horizon looking for blows of air, and breaches on the horizon. In marine and nature photography, there is the 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.  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.

whale 5
When in the water always stay together in a group and if swimming travel in a parallel course to the whales. Never swim straight 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 us 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 have been cases where whales and people have come in contact. Most of the time it’s because the baby is curious. Swimmers and photographers need to pay close attention at all times and do everything possible to stay out of the whales way.

Whale Photography tips
When photographing large animals in the blue, strobes are not used. They create drag and are not powerful enough to light up a sharks, school of dolphins, or whales. So the best thing to do is work with Ambient light. When possible keep the sun behind you and allow it to illuminate the subject.  Using a fast shutter speed helps problems like image blur from ruining portraits and can help overall image composition by freezing rays of sunlight that dance in the water column, adding a sense of drama and dimension to the scene.  Underwater speeds like 1/250th and 1/500th work well. On days when the sky is dark and overcast turn up the ISO from 100 or 200 to 400 or 800. Todays cameras make it possible to set the ISO much higher than ever thought possible without noise issues.
Select shutter priority. This lets the camera select the f-stop. In blue water work there is not a big issue with depth of field so let the camera does what it wants, as long as it freezes the motion.  Set the focus to single, and the drive to continuous high.   Shoot short bursts at a time and try to avoid filling the cache. Even though high shutter speeds will minimize camera shake swimming and moving in the water has an effect. Shooting in bursts provides an opportunity to create a crisp image as the first and last image might be soft as a result of motion, but the frames in the middle are sharp.   Short bursts are written to the card in less time than a sustained burst.  As for lenses the widest the better. Any of these will do the job (14 mm, 15 mm,  10.5 mm fisheye, 16 mm fish eye, 10 – 17mm fisheye, 12-24, 16-35, & 14-24, and 17-35 mm).  The higher quality lens the better image you will make.  Some zoom lenses like the 12-24 require a close up filter of +3.

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 hours to get to Fiji. Depending upon airline and routing, a layover in Nadi Fiji, 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).  Fiji Airways  offers flights from LA and Honolulu. This is one destination not the worth the effort it takes to research and book flights on your own.   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. Be prepared to pay excess baggage fees, and to have your carry on weighed on all domestic Tonga flights.  Don’t forget trip insurance as well as Dan insurance.  Real Tonga Airline is currently the only domestic airline.

Swimming with whales is a life changing experience.   For more information please email me dhimages@maui.net

About Doug Hoffman

Portrait and underwater fine art photographer.
This entry was posted in bucket list adventure, dive travel, Dive with a Photo Pro, incredible adventure, marine, once in a life time, photography workshops, swim with whales, Travel, whales and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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