Complete Guide to Swimming with Humpback Whales in Tonga

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I was ecstatic when I first learned it was possible to swim with humpback whales in their natural habitat. I’ve always loved animals, especially marine life (and big cats), and any encounter with them leaves me in awe. So swimming with them in the wild sounded like an experience of a lifetime.

In the heart of the South Pacific, Tonga emerges as a haven for those yearning to witness the majestic beauty of these marine giants up close. In this blog post, I’ll take you through what to look for when booking a whale swimming tour and answer the many FAQs I’ve been getting since my journey to the Kingdom of Tonga. You’ll discover why this remote archipelago has become a hotspot for eco-conscious travelers eager to immerse themselves in one of the planet’s most awe-inspiring natural spectacles and learn what to look for when booking your trip of a lifetime.

Is it dangerous to swim with humpback whales in the wild?

Humpback whales are one of the most docile and gentle creatures on earth, posing no inherent danger to humans. While they are wild animals known to be curious, they are mostly nonaggressive and do not harm humans.

Is it ethical to swim with humpback whales?

The ethical considerations surrounding swimming with humpback whales are complex. On one hand, the allure of sharing the water with these majestic creatures is undeniable, offering a rare and awe-inspiring opportunity for humans to connect with the natural world. However, it is crucial to approach such encounters with a profound respect for the animals and their habitat.

Responsible ecotourism operators prioritize guidelines that focus on the well-being of the whales, such as maintaining a safe distance, minimizing noise, limiting swim time, and avoiding any actions that may disrupt their natural behaviors.

While some argue that even well-intentioned human interactions can have unintended consequences on these wild animals, proponents believe that fostering a connection between humans and humpback whales can promote conservation efforts and a deeper understanding of the marine environment.

I believe when humans can safely interact with animals, it fosters a greater appreciation for them, which in turn favors the balance between the desire for experiences and the imperative to protect these vulnerable species. This balance is essential for ensuring the ethical nature of human-wildlife interactions.

Are humpback whales endangered?

Humpback whales were on the brink of distinction from the whaling industry but have since recovered due to commercial fishing bans.

Tonga realized there was more money in protecting these gentle giants than hunting them by declaring all Tongan waters a Sanctuary for Whales in 1976. Populations were reported to be as low as 250 before the whaling ban but have since increased to the low thousands in Tongan waters.

Where can you swim with humpback whales?

Due to laws surrounding swimming with whales, there are only a few places in the world where it is legal to swim with humpback whales.

Many humpback whales are migrating each year from their feeding grounds in the cold waters of the Arctic to their breeding grounds in warmer waters in the Caribbean and South Pacific Ocean.

Some major populations migrate from Alaska or Antarctica to the Dominican Republic, Hawaii, Tonga, Tahiti, and Mo’orea to give birth.

The best places to swim with humpback whales are in Moorea and Tonga. US law does not allow organized humpback whale swims and requires boats and humans to maintain a distance of 100 yards from them. It is possible to swim with Humpback whales in the Silver Bank and Navidad Bank areas of the Dominican Republic, however, this area is highly regulated with limited accessibility.

Mo’orea and the Kingdom of Tonga, both located in the South Pacific Ocean offer many micro locations for humpback whale swims, organized tours, daily operators, and a healthy population of humpback whales from late June- early October.

Mo’orea, French Polynesia, is an ideal tropical location with a myriad of outdoor adventures perfect for the animal lover. It is known as one of the best places in the world for shark diving and offers opportunities to interact with other marine species, including dolphins, sea turtles, and rays.

Swimming with humpback whales is a popular tourist attraction in Mo’orea and is great for tourists who want to see other kinds of wildlife and enjoy a tropical paradise. The drawback is, that many tour operators take large groups and only offer up to one interaction per tour.

Mo’orea is more touristy and less regulated than other areas so it is important to do your research and choose a responsible tour operator. If you are looking to photograph whales or a more bespoke experience consider a private charter.

The Kingdom of Tonga is made up of more than 160 islands, many of which are uninhabited. It is more remote and harder to get to than Mo’orea. The whale tourism industry is also regulated with a limited number of permits, boats, and people in the water at a time. The three main islands for humpback whale swims in Tonga are Vava’u, ‘Eua, and Ha’apai.

‘Eua and Ha’apai are less touristy than Vava’u and are great for people who do not mind a simpler experience in a more remote area.

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What time of year is best to swim with humpback Whales in Tonga?

August and September are the best months to swim with whales in Tonga. They start to arrive in Tonga in late June and can be seen through October.

How cold is the water during whale season?

The average water temperature in Tonga during whale season is 75 ℉. Most people swim with a 3mm wet suit. Air temperatures stay in the mid-70s, but it can be windy. On colder, windy days, it is smart to bring a windbreaker, waterproof jacket, or fleece (you don’t mind getting wet) on the whale swim tour.

How much does it cost to swim with humpback Whales?

You can book a humpback whale swim in Tonga in a few different ways. You can join an organized tour or book directly with a certified tour operator, booking flights and accommodations yourself.

Prices vary by location and company, but most day tours range anywhere from $150 to $300 per day per person.

Liveaboard options cost anywhere from $3,000-$6,000 per week, depending on the number of water days and people on each vessel.

Things to know before you go

Humpback whale permits are limited, but I am unsure of the requirements to obtain one. I know people who have had bad experiences on some tours because of the crew’s lack of knowledge. Some tours return after one encounter and pack up to 20 people on a boat.

Regulations in Tonga say only four people plus a guide are allowed to enter the water at a time, and interactions with the same set of whales are limited to 1.5 hours at a time.

When booking a whale swim, it is important to book with a reputable tour operator with a qualified guide and captain who knows humpback whale behavior and the proper way to interact with them to increase your chances of quality swims.

There is a way to spot and approach humpback whales, to observe them without scaring them, and to tell if they want to swim with humans or if they will quickly swim away when entering the water.

Some whales hang around and allow lengthy interactions. If you have a good guide and captain, they will know what to look for to ensure your experience is the best it can be.

Most tours are booked up to two years in advance. Tours are more expensive than booking on your own, but the benefit is, they take care of all the booking from flights, accommodation and transportation. Communication can be hard in Tonga, and wifi is limited, so it can be difficult to get in touch with the proper people to confirm and book flights, accommodation and tours.

They are very exciting to see breeching from the water but swimming up close with them is on another level. If you are traveling all the way to Tonga, I absolutely recommend as much time in the water as possible. Most tours include 5-7 water days. I believe my crew were seasoned pros and made the experience the best it could be, allowing for multiple interactions a day, which is rare.

I met other people who described their crew and days on the water as a “shit show,” which most likely led to them not getting as many quality swims and interactions.

Sunday is Tonga’s day of rest, so no tours operate on Sunday; most businesses are closed, and all the locals go to church. I rode bikes around Ha’apai island on Sunday and enjoyed hearing the choirs belting it out in many of the local churches.

The best humpback whale swimming tour

I did a lot of research before ultimately booking a humpback whale swim tour with Majestic Whale Encounters. I considered booking independently to save money or with other tour operators or influencers. After a lot of back and forth and detailed research, I decided booking with a tour company would be the easiest way to go and ensure I had all the logistics in place.

I looked for the length of the trip, guaranteed swim days, price, accommodation, and availability when deciding what tour company to book with. I also contacted a few companies and judged them based on their response time, kindness, and helpfulness in emails.

One of the problems I ran into while trying to book on my own is the availability of accommodations. Many tour companies book accommodations years in advance, which makes it hard to find availability if you are not with a group. I also had trouble contacting the airline to schedule flights to and from Ha’apai.

I decided to book a tour on Ha’apai island because it was more remote, less touristy, less expensive, and because it is said to have the largest population of humpback whales in Tonga.

Ultimately I chose the Sandy Beach Humpback Whale Swim tour with Majestic Whale encounters and could not have made a better choice. Sarah and Carmen, owners of Majestic Whales, along with Lauren, their on-site representative, were so lovey and always on top of things. They scheduled everything (other than my round-trip international flight), communicated frequently with many updates (my original dates were canceled because of COVID), and were a pleasure to work with.

The resort, Sandy Beach, was a great choice as well. The tour company offered a few different experiences, but Sandy Beach was the right call. The staff was fantastic and personable, the food was good, and the beach bungalows had recently been renovated, which was a huge surprise.

Tonga is remote, with few amenities on the smaller islands, so choosing a location that offers activities, food, wifi, and a comfortable atmosphere can make or break your experience.

I was also traveling solo, and they were able to pair me up with another solo traveler, who is now one of my favorite people! I appreciate companies offering to actively look for a roommate, as group tours can be costly for solo travelers.

I also loved Sandy Beach’s commitment to the whale swims. We had some tough weather, but they never canceled the tours. Other travelers I met at the airport told me their tours were canceled on multiple days because of the wind and rough surf. They left from the same island, so our guides and Captains knew to stay inland where it was much calmer and didn’t pose a risk to our safety. We had multiple interactions almost every day!

What the day tour looks like

I assume most tours operate very similarly. Here is what to expect on a day tour.

Sandy Beach Resort offered daily breakfast and dinner with a to-go lunch on board.

Our whale tour was from 9 a.m to 3 p.m. We were on the water for 6 hours a day. They picked us up from the beach right in front of our beach huts with zodiac boats, max ten people in a boat, including one guide and the Captain.

I wore a 3mm wet suit and brought a GoPro, a mirrorless camera + 600 mm lens, snorkel, fins, sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, and wind jacket on the boat in a waterproof bag.

As soon as the group was in the boat, we started searching for whales. You can spot them when the sun is out usually reflecting on top of the water or by a blow, which looks like a puff of air on the surface.

Once we spotted a whale, the captain took us closer, where we observed the whales to see what their temperament was like. You want the whale(s) to hang around the boat and essentially ask for interactions. Sometimes, the whales took off when we approached, signaling they didn’t feel like human interaction at that time.

Sometimes, the guide would hop into the water solo to get a closer look and decide whether he or she thought the whales would allow for a quality swim. Although there is so much adrenaline and excitement, it is tiring to swim in the Pacific Ocean, and it can be difficult to hop in and out of the boat. It is much better to wait and see if the whale(s) want to hang around before jumping in.

Our boat was divided into two groups. There are only four swimmers and one guide allowed in the water at a time. Once the first group got a quality swim, the next group was cued to hop in. In some cases, the groups switched up to 3 times with one mom and calf.

After 1.5 hours, you have to let the whale(s) rest without any human interaction for the next 1.5 hours.

The boats communicate through radio and share sightings with each other to help everyone get a quality swim with the humpback whales.

On a few days, between whale swims, we went to a beautiful beach for lunch and a few snorkel spots.

The boats do not return early even if the weather is rough (if it is dangerous, they will call off the tour). The tours will launch even if it is windy, rainy, or cold (unless it is dangerous). It is not always comfortable on the boats, so come prepared mentally and with the right supplies.

Our whale day ended around 3 p.m. We had a few hours before dinner to enjoy the beach, go for a walk, share photos from the day, or do additional snorkeling from the beach. We had a 3-course dinner each night at 7 p.m., which was always tasty!

Overall, it was a fantastic experience and one I would absolutely do again! I hope this post gives you more insight on what to expect and what to look for when booking your own humpback whale swim. It was such a magical experience that transcended the soul.

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