My first trip to Tonga to swim with whales was in 2006. Since then I have organized trips each season. Over the years I have developed relationships with the best boats, captains, and whale swim guides and learned a lot about whale behavior and whale photography. Just because it is legal to swim with whales in Tonga does not mean it is easy. Whales are wild animals and not all of them are curious or open to human interaction. To have an epic encounter all the elements have to come together including calm seas, clear water and cooperative whales. This does not happen every day. That is why these trips are for 9 or 10 days. My thinking is going to Tonga is a once in a lifetime event and it is worth it to do it right. A week just is not enough time.
Tonga is a wonderful destination but it lacks infrastructure and the level of service many international travels are used to. There is only one domestic airline, International flights are not available everyday, the country has Sunday laws, and the quality of the whale watching boats varies greatly as do the mindset of the operators and captains.
Basically there are the boats that cater to general tourists that want to see whales. These boats take as many as 12 people and are looking for whales they can put swimmers in the water with. The quality of the encounter is not as important as the quantity of whale swims they can produce. In other words if a whale swims by and the people see it that counts as a drop and they get back in the boat so four more people can get in the water and see the whales. Many of these boats are Tongan vessels that are safe in protected waters but questionable in the outer areas or in harsh weather. The other kind of boat is a private charter vessel. In this case their are fewer people on the boat, and the captain has the mindset of finding whales that might produce an extended interaction, and doing it in locations where the visibility is best. These are the boats that produce the best results.
Next year I have put together two programs. The first is in Vavau’ and is land based. The boat is a 27 foot cat design motorboat with two 15o Yamaha outboards. The second is on a 53 foot sailing catamaran. These trips are dedicated to creating photographs or video of the whale behavior we observe. The sailboat trip is full but there is still space on the land based adventure.
The goal is to find whales that are open to an extended mutual interaction. In other words were not looking for every whale, just the right whale(s). Some whales are doing their own thing and simply not interested in humans. We can tell by observing the whales behavior. When whales are seen acting in a manner the captain, whale swim guide, and I feel might produce an extended encounter we get in the water and swim until we see the whales. Once in view we stop swimming and start observing. The whales know we are there, and if they like our behavior we will be rewarded with an incredible encounter. As the whales comfort zone increases they will come closer and closer and check out each swimmer.
In 2016, I am planning three programs. There will be two liveaboard charters, and a land based option. Each is for 10 days of whale swimming. The adventures take place in mid August through mid September 2016. The liveabaord trips take four people on a vessel called Wildlife I have worked with the owners for about 5 seasons and love how they run the boat. The boat is perfect for whale watching and swimming.
The land based adventure will be for a max of six people. The plan as it is now is to go to Vavau’ and spend 12 nights and have 9 whale swim days. Sundays are no swim days. Tonga has laws that prohibit land based operators from working on Sundays. The boat is a 27 foot cat design motor boat with two 150 HP yamaha outboard engines. The accommodations are at a guest house or B&B style accommodation. Liveaboard boats seem to be ok working on Sundays because they are out of sight of the main harbor and towns.
There is a chance this trip could change venues as there might be a new option coming online next year. I have been told that there are plans to build a safari style camp or a long house style lodge on one of the southern Namuku islands in the H’apai group. This area is remote and incredibly beautiful. There are no other whale swim operators in the area and there are lots of whales. These islands are just a 30 minute boat ride to the Kotu island group which is pristine and has plenty of whales. If the change happens it would include 12 nights and 10 whale swimming days. There will be a change in price should this happen.
Getting to Tonga is not easy. It takes time, requires long layovers, and patience. There are not daily flights into and out of Tonga, so this means you may have to spend 2-3 days getting there. This is why Tonga is not a mainstream travel destination. But, it is worth the hassle. There is only one domestic airline called Real Tonga. They dont fly on Sunday. Their website is easy to use. They allow 20 Kilos for check in and 5 kilos for carry on. On my last trip I had two heavy carry on pieces and they charged me $40 each way.
If interested in these adventure please contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you know someone that might be interested please share this post.