Swimming with Whales in Tonga | Ultimate Guide

a humpback whale calf swims beside its mother in tonga
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Swimming with whales is a bucket list item for many, but there aren’t many places in the world where you can. The beautiful island of Vava’u in the Kingdom of Tonga is one of them. From getting there, where to stay, and the essential gear to take with you, this post has everything you need to know about snorkelling with humpback whales.


It’s almost impossible to describe what it’s like to swim with humpback whales. Any time I try I start with a load of superlatives and then end up whispering “magical” over and over. It’s the only word that even comes close.

The indigenous peoples of the South Pacific have a rich culture of stories involving whales. The whales often take on the roles of powerful Gods and rulers. Once you’ve had your first encounter with a whale and felt the power of its presence, it’s easy to understand why.

Jump into an endless deep blue sea, and you might be enveloped by the hopeful melody of a bachelor whale looking for a mate. He’s called a singer, but he’s so much more than that. At the lower frequencies of his song, you don’t hear the notes so much as feel them vibrating through your chest, echoes skating across your skin.

If you’re lucky, there will be a moment where you’re eye to eye with a mother and child. You’ll see them glide up from the ocean depths, surfacing to take a breath before plunging back down. Then you’llou’ll realise that you’ve forgotten to breathe at all.

Planning this once in a lifetime experience can seem daunting. Where should you go? What should you take? When is the whale season in Tonga anyway?

From land-based considerations like where to stay and how to get there, to the gear you’ll need when you get there, you’ll find everything you need in this post.

NEED TO KNOW | Tonga experienced the violent Hunga-Tonga Hunga-Ha’apai volcanic eruption in early 2022, knocking out much of the country’s infrastructure. This occurred in the context of ongoing pandemic lockdowns. Check current restrictions before booking your trip.


A COMPLETE GUIDE TO SWIMMING WITH WHALES IN VAVA’U, TONGA


a diving humpback whale while swimming with whales in tonga
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SWIMMING WITH WHALES IN TONGA TOP TIPS

Allow a week for your trip and plan at least 3 days in the water

August & September are the best months to see the humpback whales

Make sure you go with a licensed operator and advocate for following the rules

Sunday is a mandated holiday in Tonga so no boats operate

Flight connections via Fiji or New Zealand

WHERE IS TONGA?

GETTING TO TONGA

IS IT ETHICAL TO SWIM WITH WHALES?

WHEN IS WHALE SEASON?

GROUP TOUR OR INDEPENDENT TRIP?

RULES FOR WHALE SWIMMING

WHAT DOES IT COST?

IS IT SAFE?

BEFORE YOU BOOK

WHAT TO TAKE

WHERE TO STAY, EAT & DRINK

Where is the Kingdom of Tonga?

The Kingdom of Tonga is an archipelago of more than 170 islands in the South Pacific. If you draw a line from Hawaii to New Zealand, you’ll find Tonga about two-thirds of the way along it, closer to New Zealand.

Tonga’s location just to the west of the International Dateline means that is one of the first places in the world to see the new day. It’s the last remaining Polynesian Kingdom and remains the only Pacific Nation to have never been colonised.

A royal decree in 1978 banned all whaling in Tongan waters, effectively creating a whale sanctuary covering an area the approximate size of Texas.

Where is Vava’u?

Vava’u is not actually a single island, but a group of more than 60 islands that are 250km north of Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu. The island group is known to be one of the best places in Tonga to see and swim with humpack whales.

How do you get to Tonga and Vava’u?

Flying to Tonga from Fiji

Fiji Airways flies direct from Nadi to Vava’u. This is the best option for those coming from the US, as Fiji Airways flies from LAX direct to Nadi. The flight is 11 hours and costs around US$800 in early 2022.

TIP | I recommend flying directly to Vava’u from Nadi as an easier and more reliable route than domestic connections within Tonga, particularly since the pandemic.

Be aware that Vava’u has a tiny airport with few staff. When you’re leaving Tonga, make sure that you’re early for your flight or you might find that you’ll be leaving without your luggage!

Flying to Tonga from New Zealand

If you’re already in the Pacific area, then your other option is to fly with Air New Zealand to Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu.

REAL Tonga, the domestic airline of Tonga unfortunately went into liquidation in 2020 and the government replaced this with Lulutai airlines, which has no flights currently operating in early 2022. There are rumours that it will be sold to Air Vanuatu.

a view of tonga from the airplane window
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the back of a man wearing a t-shirt with an image of humpback whales during a swimming with whales trip in tonga
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Currently, the only connection between the islands is with the Friendly Island Shipping Agency ferry service. Their schedule changes frequently and you’ll need to check it and contact them via their Facebook page.

Getting from Vava’u Airport to your Accommodation

Most accommodation has an airport shuttle you can book, but there were also dozens of local people offering rides into town when we landed. Alternatively, the airport staff were incredibly helpful in calling taxis for people when they arrived.

Either way, you’ll never be stranded in Tonga, as there’s always someone there ready to help you out. Our taxi driver was the amazing Tita, who is a badass lady who owns her own business. She’ll probably rule the world one day. You can reach her on +676 8864586 if you’d like her to show you the island.

Is is ethical to swim with whales in Tonga?

I’m going to deal with this question right at the start.

Just because we can swim with the whales, should we? I’ve done it myself so it would be pretty hypocritical of me to tell you not to. Quite aside from that, I believe that seeing these beautiful creatures in their own environment can spur people into action when it comes to protecting the planet.

a close up of a humpback whale as seen when swimming with whales
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Interaction with wild animals needs to take into account the wellbeing of the animals and their environment. We also need to consider the impacts on local communities.

Any sort of interaction should be both educational and inspiring.

Whale tourism has the potential to do a lot of good both for local communities and to raise awareness for whales. But it also has the potential to do a lot of harm.

Research in Tonga itself showed that mother and calf pairs were changing their behaviour in the presence of swimmers and boats. Similar findings have come out of Reunion.

a mother humpback whale swims beside her calf
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a humpback whale comes up for air
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Familiarise yourself with the rules for swimming with whales in Tonga before your trip. Listen to any instructions from the local guides and do what they say. Don’t pressure your crew into following whales or staying with a whale for longer than the permitted time.

Ultimately, the whales need to be able to decide whether they want to interact with you.

When is Whale Season in Tonga?

Oceanic humpback whales are migratory. They move from their summer feeding grounds in Antarctica to their winter breeding grounds in the Pacific Islands (including Tonga) every year.

a humpback whale calf swims beside its mother in tonga
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That means they’re not in Tonga all year round, so you need to pick your dates carefully. Otherwise, you might find that you’re not swimming with whales at all!

The whales usually start to arrive in Tonga in June and remain until October, with August and September thought to be the best months for seeing and swimming with the whales.

TIP | August and September are the best months to swim with whales in Tonga

Humpback whales mate and calve in the waters around Vava’u, so you’re likely to see a variety of whales and behaviours. On my trip in mid-August, we saw mothers and their calves with escorts, solo male singers and a couple of very memorable heat runs!

a humpback whale shows its stomach as it swims past
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a diving humpback whale
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A heat run is when a group of males pursues a fertile female in the hope of mating with her. It often attracts other animals such as dolphins too.

Swimming with the whales in early September often results in more interactive experiences as the calves are larger and the mothers appear less anxious in the presence of swimmers.

Should you arrange your own Swimming with Whales trip or take a group tour?

The answer to this really depends on how much time you’re prepared to give to organising your trip. Can you be flexible with your itinerary? How stressed do you get without a plan?

I love solo travel and am usually the first to go it alone, but I decided to take a group trip on my first adventure here. It was great not to have to organise anything other than my underwater camera setup!

a pair of humpback whales on a swimming with whales group tour in tonga
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Taking a group tour to swim with whales in Tonga

It’s lovely to step off the plane and know that everything has been sorted out for you in advance. I recommend that you make sure you’ll be staying in locally owned and operated accommodation and heading into the town for some of your meals.

Pros of a group tour
  • Everything is organised, from finding accommodation to booking out the whale watching boat you’ll be using for your stay.
  • You get to go with the same crew out on the water every day. Trust me when I say that watching a 30-tonne whale breaching only metres from your boat is a pretty unique bonding experience!
  • If you opt for one of the many whale swimming tours in Vava’u run by a photographer, then you’ll also get expert advice. That’s great if it’s your first time using your underwater camera setup and you need help.
  • You’re provided with meals and snacks. All you need to worry about is finding somewhere to get any treats and drinks that you want.
  • Most photography tours last for a minimum of a week, which means that you usually have at least 5 days out on the water looking for the whales.
freediving in swallows cave in tonga in the middle of a bait ball
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Cons of a group tour
  • More expensive than an independent trip.
  • There are always going to be personalities in a group, and it can take some getting used to if you usually travel solo.
  • You have less control over the accommodation, food and boat company used so have to rely on the organiser to be checking the right things. Whale swimming boats do have to operate under strict licensing laws, with local guides and skippers, so at least some of your money gets distributed locally.
  • Most tours stick to Vava’u only, limiting your visit to the rest of the Kingdom.
  • If you’re travelling with a group of photographers, then everybody wants the perfect shot which can lead to some jostling for the best angle.

TIP | If you’d like to book a group tour then please get in touch and I’d be happy to give specific recommendations and advice depending on your situation.

Organising your own swimming with whales experience

It’s perfectly possible to organise your own trip to swim with the whales but definitely requires more planning. As there are a limited number of licensed vessels operating they do book out, often seasons in advance. Check out Beluga, Tongan Expeditions, Endangered Encounters, Vaka and Moana and Vave Vave Whale Swim.

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Pros of an independent trip
  • You get to pick the boat you go on, the accommodation and the ‘must-sees’ for your trip.
  • Choose where your money is going and who it’s supporting.
  • Other than Sunday, whale swimming boats go out daily. This means you’re not so dependent on specific arrival and departure days, so can take advantage of good weather or slow days when tours are arriving/departing.
  • If you can’t commit to a full week in Vava’u, you can still experience the wonder of swimming with these amazing animals.
  • You don’t have to go to Vava’u (great if coming from NZ) since operators also go swimming with whales from Nuku’alofa, Eua and the Ha’apai Group.
Cons of an independent trip
  • Unless you pay for a boat to yourself, you’ll be sharing your trip with people you don’t know. Make sure that you find out how many people will be on the trip, as only 4 at a time will be allowed in the water to swim with the whales.
  • Many of the boats fill up a year in advance with group trips. Turning up and expecting a guaranteed spot is likely to result in a lot of disappointment.
  • Communicating with people in Tonga from overseas can be difficult due to slow internet and time differences so booking confirmation can take time.

Rules for Swimming with Whales in Tonga

There are rules in Tonga to protect the whales that migrate through their waters. Unfortunately, enforcement is inconsistent and there have been escalating tensions as swimming with whales increases in popularity.

It’s really important that you know what the rules are so that you don’t inadvertently contribute to harming the whales.

a swimmer with an underwater camera takes photos of a humpback whale swimming past
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Only book with a Licensed Whale Operator

You should only go swimming with whales if you’ve booked through a Licensed Whale Operator as the aim here is to limit the number of boats in the water with whales and ensure that best practice guidelines are followed.

Only 4 swimmers + guide in the water

Tongan law allows for a maximum of 5 people to be in the water with the whales at any one time. Each group must have a certified local guide in the water with them. This effectively means that there will be 4 tourists on each swim or ‘drop’ as they’re called.

No closer than 10 metres

Your boat will be allowed to drop you off 10 metres from the whales but won’t get any closer unless there’s an emergency.

While that sounds like a long way away, there’s this thing called a whale magnet. The magnet pretty much guarantees that you’ll be pulled towards the whales faster than you ever thought possible!

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Time limits

You’re allowed to be away from port for 7 hours. This time limit is strictly enforced, as is that for swimmers in the water with the whales. A single group is only allowed in the water with the whales for a maximum of 20 minutes at a time before you rotate out. If the whales seem calm, then you can repeat this cycle several times.

The only exception to this is with mothers and their calves. Here, there’s a time limit of 90 minutes with the whales before you have to leave. Other boats are also supposed to stay away for at least an hour after this sort of encounter.

No touching or coming between whales

Don’t touch the whales or come between a mum and calf. Adult whales are incredibly good at manoeuvring around the clumsiest or humans, but the calves haven’t quite gotten the hang of where their pectoral fins and tails are. Since humpbacks are covered in barnacles, you’re always going to come off second best in any contact.

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Whales are incredibly protective of their babies and only sleep with one-half of their brains at a time. If they notice that they’ve been separated from their calf, then they get distressed and leave. Not only is that the end of your time with them, but it has potential effects on their long-term behaviour.

Listen to your guide

Your guide will give a rundown of what to do while you’re in the water with the whales and it’s one of the clues that you’re with a responsible operator. They should explain the rules, as well as what behaviours mean that the whales are getting stressed.

Your guide should get into the water first to see how the whales are behaving and whether it’s suitable to swim with them. Don’t be an asshole if they say you need to move on.

I found that it was best to stick to our guide like glue while learning about whale behaviour. That meant I was usually in the right place to have the best view when the whales surfaced.

Trust me when I say that the excitement of your first encounter will mean that you forget every single thing that you were told before you got into the water! Try to remember to stay calm, quiet and close to your swimming group in the water.

How much does it cost to swim with whales in Tonga?

This depends on how many days you decide to take to swim with the whales. Since they’re wild animals, there’s no guarantee that you’ll even find them, let alone be able to get in the water with them.

If you’re doing this under your own steam, then I would recommend that you plan a minimum of 2 days on the water. 3 days is a safer bet to guarantee that you’ll be able to swim with the whales. Remember that boats don’t run on Sunday or in bad weather.

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Prices vary by outfit and change through the years. In 2019 it cost around T$ 450-500 (US$185-220) for one day, including lunch. It’s entirely possible that there will be a significant price increase once Tonga reopens to tourism following the pandemic and volcanic eruption.

For those who would rather have everything included (this is the way I did it, and it certainly took a lot of the hassle out of the trip!) you’ll be looking at around AU$6500 (US$4500) for a week in Vava’u with a photographer. This price includes accommodation, hire of the boat/guides and usually your meals.

Is swimming with whales safe?

In general, yes!

Humpback adults have incredible spatial awareness, and they know exactly where you are in the water. Babies and juveniles have a bit more trouble, and you may have to actively evade the odd pectoral fin.

Every so often you may encounter a ‘crazy whale’, which is the name given to a whale (usually a juvenile male) who wants to get up close and personal with you.

It’s pretty easy for the guides to work out if the encounter you’re about to have is with one of the crazy whales. If you feel anxious about your ability to get out of the way, then it’s best not to get in the water.

I never felt that I was at risk from the whales while swimming. The most significant injury that I got was a massive bruise on my thigh from an errant wave smashing me against the back of the boat as I was getting back on.

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Important things to know before you book a whale swimming trip

Winter weather in Tonga

Although winter in Tonga isn’t harsh, with highs of 27 degrees, the weather is still unpredictable. Rain and storms do happen, and being cold and wet isn’t something that many people enjoy!

Sometimes, the weather leads to trips being cancelled, so it’s wise to factor that in when you’re booking your trip too.

Make sure that you’ve got plenty of warm clothing on the boat so that you can wrap up between swims and change out of your wet gear at the end of the day. The water itself is warm, averaging 24 degrees over the winter.

Of the 5 days that I spent on the water, there were 3 bright and sunny days, 1 that was overcast, and 1 that I can best describe as wild. Rain showers punctuated the day, and rough seas meant that we ended up completely soaked before we’d even had our first encounter with the whales.

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Seasickness

The dream is to be in calm seas surrounded by happy whales, but sadly that’s not always the case. The water can be rough. You might be out in the open ocean for several hours on your mission to find the whales.

Most people know if they’re prone to seasickness and prepare accordingly, but being seasick can be absolutely miserable if you’ve never experienced it before. 

If this is your first time spending significant time on a boat in open water, then make sure you plan for the worst. Simple things that you can do include making sure that you’re facing the front of the boat and either closing your eyes or focusing on the horizon. 

Listening to music may seem totally antisocial but can really help take your mind off your symptoms. Ask your doctor about medication before your trip if you know that you suffer from seasickness.

Do you need to be a good swimmer to swim with whales?

In short, yes.

You might be in pretty rough seas, and you’ll definitely find yourself a significant distance from land at some point in Vava’u. Add a playful whale to the equation, and you’re not going to want this to be your first time in the water.

Some of your encounters are likely to be with sleeping whales (my personal favourite). Those will give you time to hang out on the surface and marvel at what you’re seeing, but others may well be rapid-fire drops into heat runs.

A heat run is a situation where a group of males pursues a female, in the hopes that she’ll mate with whichever of them gets to her first. It’s a crazy experience, and the whales are moving fast. 

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You’ll be getting into the water just before the whales barrel past, with limited time to get into position before they’re gone. Getting some experience with snorkelling before you go is essential. You’ll need to kick as you’ve never kicked before to have any chance of seeing this incredible sight!

There are options for less confident swimmers, as you can get in the water on a noodle-rope that’s towed by your guide. If that’s the only way that you feel confident enough to swim in these conditions, then you should still go for it. Please make sure that you’re clear on your abilities when you make your booking.

Do you need to train for swimming with whales?

I’m not going to lie; this was one of the most active holidays I’ve had in a while. Although I’m a strong swimmer, it had been ages since I’d swum with fins, and it took me a full day to get into the swing of things.

If you’ve got access to an ocean, then do some ocean swims and snorkels in the weeks leading up to your trip. If all you have is a swimming pool, then ignore the funny looks and practice there. Everyone will be jealous when they find out why you’re doing it anyway!

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For those who can’t get into the water in the weeks leading up to their trip, then doing some (any) cardio will stand you in good stead. I did nothing but my usual walks, and there was a moment on the second day when I thought my heart was going to explode. And not just from excitement!!

Humpback whales are enormous, and you will be out in sometimes rough seas. If you’re not a confident swimmer, or you find deep water terrifying, then I don’t think this is the experience for you. 

Where are all the whales?

There’s nothing more disappointing than being on a whale swimming trip and not finding any whales. Obviously, they’re wild animals with minds and lives of their own, and they didn’t sign up for swimming with humans (so far as I know).

In my experience, Tongans want you to have the most incredible experience when you’re visiting them. Your boat crew wants to find you some whales just as much as you want to see them.

The boat captains are in constant contact throughout the day, and they’ll do their absolute best to get you into the water with the whales. Please be mindful of the fact that they have to abide by Tongan law too. Take the day as it comes. Please don’t pressure the crew to put you into the water when you shouldn’t be there.

On my trip, there was a day when we only had a single whale encounter in the 7 hours that we were out. We were, however, treated to dolphins playing in the boat’s wake, and snorkelling on the reef. There’s always something incredible to see. 

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What other animals might you see?

There’s a variety of other marine life in Vava’u at this time of year. You might be lucky enough to swim with dolphins, or even sperm whales. On my trip, we saw both bottlenose and spinner dolphins, which were beautiful to witness playing in the boat’s wake.

There is often other sea life around, especially on a heat run, as everybody seems to want to come and watch the spectacle. Other groups saw false killer whales and manta rays, and there have even been a few whale sharks spotted from time to time.

On the Boat

There’s always a covered area where you can put anything that you don’t want getting wet. I’d also advise bringing a dry bag, as the waves and weather can be unpredictable. In general, don’t bring anything that won’t survive a soaking!

Your lunch will be provided on the boat, as will some drinking water. I always advise bringing your own drinks too. Some of the captains are happy for you to bring alcohol onto the boat to enjoy at the end of the day. It’s always a good idea to ask first.

The crew works hard to make sure that you have a fantastic day on the water. The guide is often in and out of the ocean trying to find whales for you. The captain is in charge of keeping all of you safe. Listen to what they tell you, and bring some cash for a tip. 

Tipping your boat crew when you go swimming with whales

While you may think that the whales are the stars of the show, you couldn’t get there without your crew. Tipping in Tonga seems to be the subject of some debate. There’s a culture of hospitality in Polynesia that some people feel tipping runs contrary to. 

Ultimately, whether you tip or not is up to you. Make sure that if you are tipping, you put it directly into the hands of the crew. That way, the money is more likely to go back into the local economy. 

We spoke to a variety of people in Vava’u about tipping and settled on T$300 per guest. This tip was for 1 week and would be split between the guide and the captain.

If you’re taking a shorter trip, then the suggested tip was 10% of the daily rate.

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What to Take to go Swimming with Whales

I’m just going to come out and say that I think that packing was the hardest part of the whole trip. Depending on the airline, luggage allowances can be tiny. If you’re anything like me, you’re going to be taking a lot of heavy gear.

Either way, this is a trip where you’re probably going to be sacrificing outfit changes for camera and snorkelling gear.

Camera gear

When you’re swimming with whales, you’re going to want to take photos. Lots of photos. Plan accordingly!

TIP | There is a lot of particulate matter in the water in Tonga so you’ll get backscatter in your photos. You can see all the white spots in many of my photos – yours will be the same! The ones without have been thoroughly edited.

I took my Sony A7riii in a Nauticam underwater housing rig with a 28mm f2 prime lens and Nauticam’s 180 wet lens. I definitely appreciated the 180-degree field of view. There were, however, some moments where I’d have loved to have been able to zoom in.

Some people were shooting with both zoom and fisheye lenses. Many also had their GoPro attached to their underwater housing. Something I wish I’d sorted out before I left.

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You’re not going to want to have to change your battery on the boat while your gear is wet. Make sure everything is fully charged and ready to go the night before. Take a test shot before you leave your accommodation. It’s best to find out you’ve left your lens cap on before you’re underwater with the whales!

Because I wanted to capture some topside images too, I took my second camera body, my 50mm prime lens and my 100-400 zoom. If you’re not bothered about getting photos of anything other than the whales, leave all this at home. Instead, take only a 24-70mm for when you’re wandering around town.

How to pack for Vava’u

Honestly, I jettisoned most of my clothing in favour of snorkelling and camera gear.

The weather means that you’ll want to take some warm gear as well as something light for the warmer days. I took 2 pairs of my Kathmandu trousers and a couple of linen tops since they dry quickly.

For on the boat I took a fleece and also a rain jacket. I was particularly glad of the jacket when I landed in the midnight chill of an August in Auckland!

In general, my packing list remains virtually the same no matter where I’m going in the world. I swap out warmer and cooler items depending on the weather I’m expecting.

Essential packing list for swimming with whales

Here are the things that I think are absolute musts to take on this trip

  • Underwater camera setup
  • Lint-free towel
  • Mask and snorkel
  • Fins (and neoprene booties if you have them)
  • Rashguard and leggings or wetsuit. If you tend to get cold in the water, then a 2/3mm wetsuit should keep you nice and warm
  • 2 swimsuits (the weather means you may need a day for them to dry)
  • Fleece and rain jacket
  • 2-3 tops (make sure one has sleeves if you want to go to church on Sunday)
  • 2-3 bottoms (mix of long and short)
  • Hat
  • Reef-safe sunscreen
  • 1 pair shoes for walking and 1 pair flip-flops
  • Weight belt/weights if you have them (I wouldn’t get them just for this trip)

For those of you who are like me and carry a lot of camera gear, consider investing in a photography vest. It doesn’t look cool, but there’s no weight limit on what you’re wearing about your person!

Where to stay in Vava’u

Accommodation was organised for me on this trip. We stayed in a local house where breakfast and most dinners were provided. If you’re on a group tour, then this isn’t something that you’re going to need to worry about. 

The whale swim boats leave from the small boat harbour in Neiafu. It’s best to base yourself somewhere in the area of town. Neiafu is also where most of the shops and restaurants are.

If you’re organising your own trip, here are a few suggestions for various budgets.

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BOOKING YOUR TRIP | If you book your trip via my links I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you, which helps keep me on the road. Thanks for your support – Cat.

Boathouse Apartments | I stayed here at the end of my trip before flying back home. The rooms are clean and tidy, and it’s right next door to one of the best places for dinner. Wifi was free and reliable, which isn’t always the case here! Also, super close to the boat ramp for those early morning departures to hang with the whales.

Flying Annie Moa | Just across the road from the Boathouse Apartments, this place always seems to be booked out. I hear great things about their breakfast, and there’s also free wifi. The accommodation has its own whale swim boats too, which means less organising for you.

Port of Refuge Villas | Owned and operated by a local couple, Yvette and Salesi. This place is basic but full of Tongan hospitality. You’ll be treated to home cooking as well as beautiful views and love from the pet pig!

Vaimalo Fale | Also owned and operated by a local couple. There is a lovely selection of fale here right on the water. You can snorkel from the front of the property, and they’ll cook a local feast during your stay.

Tongan Beach Resort | We came here several times to meet friends and enjoy some cocktails after a busy day on the water. The resort is beautiful and right on the water. They also have kayaks that you can borrow for a fun adventure out to Swallows Cave.

Mystic Sands | Just around the corner from the Tongan Beach Resort. This spot is also quiet and right on the water with a private beach. They have a massage service which you may be glad of after a busy day with the whales!

Where to eat and drink in Neiafu

If you’re staying in a resort, most have onsite restaurants or cafes. For those who are self-catering, there’s an excellent market in the heart of town. You can get fresh fruit and veggies and there’s also a craft market right next door).

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There are lots of grocery stores lining the roads of the town, but these primarily stock imported processed food and drink. They’re an excellent place to get the staples that you need, but the fresh produce is minimal.

Most of the grocery stores sell beer and cider and some stock wine and spirits. If you want drinks, I advise bringing your own duty-free or heading to the duty-free store in the centre of town.

BellaVista is one of the most delicious places to eat in town. Italian themed with a gorgeous view over the harbour, this place is insanely popular in the evenings. You should book ahead to guarantee a table.

Mango is also located on the water, with harbourside views. The food here is more varied with a selection of meat and seafood in addition to the ever-present Italian options. The fish here is particularly delicious.

The Basque Tavern is also really popular. If authentic Spanish tapas on a Pacific Island doesn’t sound intriguing then I don’t know what does!

Money matters and Staying Connected

Money is easy to get hold of as there are a couple of ATMs in town. I’d recommend looking for an account at home that reimburses you for overseas transaction fees.

Let your bank know that you’re going to Tonga so that you avoid any embarrassing moments. Visa and Mastercard are widely accepted, but American Express is not. You can exchange cash at the Western Union in the middle of town – make sure that you remember your passport.

Wifi is not always reliable, and overseas data plans can be expensive to use in Tonga. Purchase a local SIM card with preloaded data and credit in case you need to call a taxi or restaurant at Digicel in Neiafu

If you’re coming from Australia or New Zealand, then you don’t have to worry about adaptors, since they use the same plugs. For Americans, Tonga runs on 240V power and you will fry your fan if it’s only made to handle 110V…

Swimming with whales in the vastness of the South Pacific was truly one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I hope that this guide helps you plan your own fantastic swimming trip with the whales in Vava’u. Leave a comment or let me know if you’ve got any questions or advice for other travellers!

BEFORE YOU GO | Tonga Travel Tips

TRAVEL INSURANCE | Don’t go anywhere without it! I use and recommend Safety Wing.

THOUGHTFUL TRAVEL | No matter where you go, try to always be aware of the fact that travel impacts the place and people that live there. Being a thoughtful traveller is more important than ever. Here are my top tips to make your trip a mindful one.

PHOTOGRAPHY | Love my photos and want to know how to take better shots on your own trips? Then my photography guide is for you. Here’s all the photography gear I use too. Want to buy one of my images? Head to the Print Store.

ESSENTIAL GEAR | You’ll find my travel essentials here, and a complete guide to all my hiking gear here.


a diving humpback whale while swimming with whales in tonga
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