Over the last twenty years Tonga has established a reputation as one of the best places in the world to swim with humpback whales. Across the island nation there are several locations where whale swims are offered, but far and away the most popular location is Vava’u.
The clear warm waters of Tonga would probably be highly regarded as a great dive destination but for this detail. Humpback whales have hijacked the Tongan dive industry and now the only thing that people want to see underwater in Tonga are whales.
The northern island group of Vava’u covers an area of 115 square kilometres, with the 34 limestone islands in this area offering the most sheltered waters in Tonga. Over two thousand humpback whales visit Tonga each winter and spring to mate and give birth, and a great majority of these whales end up in the calm clear waters of Vava’u.
Vava’u also has the most whale swim operators, around twenty, one of them being Swimming with Gentle Giants, run by award-winning Aussie underwater photographer Scott Portelli. Scott has been running trips to Tonga for over twenty years, with each group having a limited number of guests led by an experienced underwater photographer. I was fortunate to join a trip in September, and had seven spectacular days of whale swims.
Whale swims in Tonga are well organised and well regulated, designed to have little to no impact on the whales. Local whale guides are used and only four guests are allowed to join them in the water. At all times you are required to follow the advice and guidance of the guide and the local skipper. Our skipper Villy had over twenty years’ experience with whale swims and seemed to know which way the whales would go and when they would stop for a rest. While our guide Lucky has been leading guests for ten years and amazed us constantly on how he could spot an almost invisible whale resting 30m below. They told us when to get in, when to get out, and when to get back, if we got too close.
Each day we were allowed seven hours to look for and swim with whales, and each day we had two to four whale swims that lasted from five minutes to over one hour. For me the most memorable swims were with the mothers and calves, this is what I had most looked forward to and it never disappointed. We generally swam with them when they were resting, the mum either asleep at depth or on the surface.
When mum was resting 10 to 20m below the calf would have to leave her every few minutes to get a breath of air. This is when the fun started as the calf would often come over to us to satisfy its curiosity. Having a 4 to 5m long calf swim within one metre of you as it peers into your eyes is an unforgettable experience.
We also got to swim close to a mother resting at the surface, known as logging, while her calf hovered under her chin. Swimming alongside a 12m long mother whale was something that I will never forget.
We also swam with male humpback whales that were singing. When they sing, they hover near the bottom with their head down and tail up, with their haunting melody vibrating through your body.
I had hoped to see a heat run, when a pack of males chase a female and get a bit frisky. However, we only saw a mini heat run, with two males following a mother and calf.
Whales are not the only underwater attraction in Vava’u. The area’s limestone islands are riddled with caves which are fun to explore on snorkel, however I also saw some great fish and critters in the harbour and even squeezed in a dive on a pretty reef. However, all these other underwater attractions are overshaded by the whale swims.
I enjoyed every humpback whale encounter I had in the clear warm waters of Vava’u, Tonga and I know it will be a destination I will return to again to see these gentle giants at play.