Swimming with Whales in Tonga | Ultimate Guide (2023 update)

a humpback whale calf swims beside its mother in tonga
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Are you dreaming of swimming with whales? Tonga is one of the few places where you can tick this bucket list item off the list! This guide has everything you need to know for swimming with whales in Tonga, from getting there, where to stay, and essential gear to take with you.


Describing what swimming with humpback whales is like is virtually impossible. I end up word-vomiting 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 in the water with a whale and felt the power of its presence, those stories become easy to understand.

Swimming in the endless deep blue sea, 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’ll 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’ll realise that you’ve forgotten to breathe at all.

Planning your trip to swim with whales 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, you’ll find everything you need for the perfect experience swimming with whales in Tonga in this guide.

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

When to go | August and September are the best months to see whales in Tonga

How long to stay | Plan at least 3 days in the water and a week for your entire trip

Choosing a tour | Make sure you’re with a licensed operator and know what the rules are

Getting there | Direct flights from Fiji, Sydney and Auckland

Top Tip | Sunday is a mandated holiday in Tonga, so everything is closed. That means no boats too!


A COMPLETE GUIDE TO SWIMMING WITH WHALES IN TONGA


The features in this post were hand-selected by a picky diva (that’s me) and some of them are affiliate links. If you buy via these, I may earn a commission on some of these awesome recommendations at no extra cost to you. Thanks for your wonderful support – Cat.

SWIMMING WITH WHALES IN TONGA

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

A royal decree in 1978 banned all whaling in Tongan waters. This effectively created a whale sanctuary covering an area the approximate size of Texas, and why I think Tonga is the best place to swim with humpback whales in the world.

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Where can you Swim with Humpback Whales in Tonga?

The humpback whales in Tonga can be found everywhere, but as you may have worked out from my Tonga travel tips, there are some locations that are better than others.

You can arrange whale swimming tours from the main island of Tongatapu. Since flights from both Sydney and Auckland land here, it’s convenient for many visitors.

Having said that, I think the best opportunities for swimming with whales in Tonga are to be found elsewhere.

Vava’u

Vava’u is a group of over 60 islands that are 250km north of Tongatapu. This is where I had my first experience of swimming with humpback whales in Tonga, and it’s definitely one of the best locations for swimming with whales in the world.

The waters around Vava’u are deep, so you’re likely to see the humpback whales in small groups. It’s common to see a mother and calf with their male escort, as well as heat runs.

A heat run is when a single female humpback is being pursued by several males in the hopes that they’ll mate with her. It’s amazing to see, although exhausting to keep up with!

Ha’apai

This is the other place I really recommend swimming with humpback whales in Tonga. This is where I went on my second trip.

Ha’apai island group can be found about midway between Tongatapu and Vava’u. As well as the deep water, there are several more sheltered, shallow areas that are visited by the whales.

It’s common around Ha’apai to find mother and calf pairs resting on the sandy sea beds. This is a great opportunity to swim with the whales when they’re more relaxed, and it’s a very different experience from the fast-paced action further north!

SWIMMING WITH WHALES IN TONGA

How do you get to Tonga?

Flying to Tonga from the USA via Fiji

Fiji Airways flies direct from Nadi to Vava’u. This is the best option for those coming from the US, as Fiji Airways also flies from LAX direct to Nadi.

You can fly direct from LAX to Vava’u four days a week. The flight time from LAX to Nadi is about 11 hours, with a further 2 hours to Vava’u.

TIP | The evening flight from LAX lands in Vava’u either two or three days after your departure from the USA due to the time zone change!

If you want a free day in Fiji, take the Saturday or Wednesday flights, which give you a 26-hour layover in Nadi.

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

They need considerable time to load, and there’s also a weight limit for the plane. If your luggage isn’t on, and that limit is reached, it’ll wait until the next flight out!

TIP | Flying directly to Vava’u from Nadi is easier and more reliable than making domestic connections within Tonga, particularly since 2020.

Flying to Tonga from Australia and New Zealand

If you’re already in the Pacific area, you can fly with Qantas, Air New Zealand or Fiji Airways to Tongatapu (TBU) or Vava’u.

Direct flights run from Sydney and Auckland direct to Tongatapu several days a week, with a flight time of 3 to 4.5 hours. You can also route via Nadi if you’re wanting to fly direct to Vava’u, but this will obviously take a little longer.

Domestic flights in Tonga

I’m not going to sugar-coat it – flying domestically in Tonga isn’t a whole lot of fun.

The flight schedule changes daily, flights get cancelled minutes before they’re due to depart and, as of early 2023, there’s absolutely no way to book online.

Lulutai Airlines are the current domestic airline of Tonga, and you’ll have to email or call them to book your ticket. If you’re heading to Ha’apai then get your accommodation provider to help you out!

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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For other options to get around domestically, check out my Tonga travel tips post.

Getting from the Airport to your Accommodation

The people who live in Tonga know how frustrating it can be trying to arrange anything. As a result, they’re some of the most helpful people you’ll ever meet!

Most accommodation options have an airport shuttle you can book in advance, and I definitely recommend this as the easiest option.

However, you’re likely to find dozens of local people offering rides into town when you land, and the airport staff are incredibly helpful in calling taxis for people if there are none waiting.

Either way, you’ll never be stranded in Tonga, as there’s always someone there ready to help you out.

On Vava’u our taxi driver was the amazing Tita, 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.

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Is swimming with whales ethical in Tonga?

If you’re dreaming of swimming with whales, then you probably also care about the whales themselves. The question around the ethics of animal interactions is never an easy one.

Just because we can swim with humpback 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 natural environment can spur people into action regarding protecting the planet.

a close up of a humpback whale as seen when swimming with whales
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When we’re interacting with wild animals, it’s essential to consider the well-being of the animals, their environment and the impacts on local communities.

Any sort of interaction should be educational, inspiring, and not cause harm to the animals or their surroundings.

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 showed that mother and calf pairs were changing their behaviour in the presence of swimmers and boats. Similar findings have come out of Reunion Island and Hervey Bay in Australia. As a result, some areas now have rules forbidding putting swimmers in the water with mothers and calves.

a mother humpback whale swims beside her calf
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a humpback whale comes up for air
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Tonga has robust guidelines for swimming with humpback whales, and I encourage you to read them 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.

SWIMMING WITH HUMPBACK WHALES

When is the Best time to swim with whales in Tonga?

The best time to swim with humpback whales in Tonga is between July and October.

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

Oceanic humpback whales are migratory, moving 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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Since they’re not in Tonga all year round, 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.

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 too, like dolphins!

Swimming with humpback whales in Tonga 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.

SWIMMING WITH WHALES IN TONGA

Should you arrange your own Tonga whale Swimming trip or take a group tour?

The answer to this depends on how much time you’re prepared to give to organising your swimming with whales 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 humpback whale swimming trip to Tonga. It was great not to have to organise anything besides my underwater camera setup!

a pair of humpback whales on a swimming with whales group tour in tonga
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Pros and Cons of a Group Tour to Swim with Whales in Tonga

It’s lovely to step off the plane and know 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.

In Tonga, this is pretty much a given since there aren’t any big chain hotels here!

Pros of a group tour
  • Everything is organised, from finding accommodation to booking the boat you’ll be taking to snorkel with the humpback whales every day.
  • You get to go with the same crew. Trust me when I say watching a 30-tonne whale breaching only metres from your boat is a unique bonding experience!
  • Opt for one of the many whale swimming tours in Tonga run by a photographer and you’ll also get expert advice. That’s great if it’s your first time using your underwater camera setup and you need help.
  • Meals and snacks are included. All you need to worry about is finding somewhere to get any treats and drinks you want.
  • Most whale swim tours last at least a week, meaning you usually have at least five days out on the water swimming with the whales.
freediving in swallows cave in tonga in the middle of a bait ball
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Cons of a group tour
  • Usually more expensive than an independent trip.
  • Can take some getting used to if you usually travel solo.
  • You have less control over the accommodation, food and boat company used so you have to rely on the organiser to check the right things. Whale swimming boats must 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, 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, please get in touch, and I’d be happy to give specific recommendations and advice, depending on your situation.

Pros and Cons of Organising your own Swiming with Whales Experience

It’s perfectly possible to organise your own trip to swim with the whales but it definitely requires more planning.

As there are a limited number of licensed vessels operating, they do book out, often seasons in advance. Try contacting Beluga, Tongan Expeditions, Endangered Encounters, Vaka and Moana and Vave Vave Whale Swim for more advice.

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Pros of an independent whale swim 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 whole 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 provide swim with whales tours 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 you find out how many people will be on the trip, as only four will be allowed in the water to swim with the whales at any one time.
  • 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 disappointment.
  • Communicating with people in Tonga from overseas can be difficult due to slow internet and time differences, so booking confirmation can take time.
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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 crucial 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 in Tonga if you’ve booked through a licenced operator, as the aim 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 a maximum of five people to be in the water with the whales at any time. Each group must have a certified local guide in the water with them. This effectively means there will be four 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 a weird phenomenon called a whale magnet. The magnet guarantees that even the slowest swimmer in the world will be pulled towards the whales faster than they 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 20 minutes before rotating out. If the whales seem calm, 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 these encounters.

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 of 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’ll always 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, 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 swimming 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 it 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 you forget everything you were told before you got into the water! Remember to stay calm, quiet and close to your swimming group in the water.

SWIMMING WITH WHALES IN TONGA

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

This depends on how many days you decide 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, so more is better!

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.

For the 2023 season, a day trip to swim with whales costs around US $250 per person per day with lunch included.

For those who would rather take a group trip, the way I did, you’ll be looking at around US$4500-5000 for a week in Vava’u with a photographer. This price usually includes accommodation, hire of the boat/guides and your meals.

SWIMMING WITH WHALES IN TONGA

Is swimming with whales safe?

In general, yes!

Adult humpback whales 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’, 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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Know Before You Go | Swimming with Whales in Tonga

Winter weather in Tonga

Whale swim season in Tonga is actually winter! It’s not cold, with highs of 27°C (80.6°F), but the weather is unpredictable. Rain and storms do happen, and being cold and wet isn’t something many people enjoy!

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

Make sure you’ve got plenty of warm clothing on the boat to wrap up between swims and change into at the end of the day. The water itself is warm, averaging 24 degrees over the winter.

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

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Seasickness

The dream is to be on calm seas surrounded by happy whales, but sadly that’s not always the case. The water can be rough. You might be out on the 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 miserable if you’ve never experienced it. 

If this is your first time spending significant time on a boat in open water, then 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 antisocial, but it can help take your mind off your symptoms. Ask your doctor about medication before your trip if you suffer from seasickness.

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

In short, yes.

You might be in rough seas, and you’ll be a significant distance from land at some point. Add a playful whale to the equation, and you won’t want this to be your first time in the water!

Some of your encounters will likely 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 hoping 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 get 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, such as getting in the water on a noodle rope 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 ever had. Although I’m a strong swimmer, it had been ages since I’d swum with fins, and it took me a whole day to get into the swing of things.

If you’ve got access to an ocean, do some ocean swims and snorkels in the weeks leading up to your trip. If all you have is a swimming pool, ignore the funny looks and practice there. Everyone will be jealous when they discover 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 would explode. And not just from excitement!!

TIP | Humpback whales are enormous, and sometimes you’ll be out in rough seas. If you’re not a confident swimmer, or you find deep water terrifying, this isn’t 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. 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 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 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, and 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.

On the Boat

There’s always a covered area where you can put anything you don’t want to get 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 and some drinking water will be provided on the boat, and 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 ensure you have a fantastic day on the water. The guide is often in and out of the ocean trying to find whales for you to swim with. 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 return to the local economy. 

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

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

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SWIMMING WITH WHALES IN TONGA

What to Take to Tonga for Swimming with Whales

Packing was the most challenging part of the whole trip for me!

Depending on the airline, luggage allowances can be tiny. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be taking a lot of heavy gear. This is a trip where you’ll probably be sacrificing outfit changes for camera and snorkelling gear!

Essential Camera Gear for Swimming with Whales

You’re going to want to take photos. Lots of photos. Plan accordingly!

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.

TIP | There’s 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.

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 wandering around town.

How to pack for Vava’u

I jettisoned most of my clothing in favour of snorkelling and camera gear, and I suggest you do the same!

Take some warm gear for those winter rains, as well as something light for the warmer days. I took two pairs of lightweight trousers and a couple of linen tops since they dry quickly.

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

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 expected weather.

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 wear about your person!

SWIMMING WITH WHALES IN TONGA

Where to stay for a Whale Swim trip on Vava’u

My accommodation was organised for me, and we stayed in a local house where breakfast and most dinners were provided. If you’re on a group tour, you won’t need to worry about organising your own.

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, 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.

Mystic Sands | This spot is 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!

SWIMMING WITH WHALES IN TONGA

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 and 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!

SWIMMING WITH WHALES IN TONGA

Money matters and Staying Connected

There are ATMs in the main Tongan towns. 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 Neifau – be sure to 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.

If you’re coming from Australia or New Zealand, 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 TONGA

Frequently Asked Questions about Swimming with Whales in Tonga

Swimming with whales in the vastness of the South Pacific was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I hope that this guide helps you plan your own fantastic trip swimming with whales in Tonga.

Leave a comment or let me know if you’ve got any questions or advice for other travellers!

BEFORE YOU GO | Tonga Travel Tips

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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.


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a diving humpback whale while swimming with whales in tonga
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10 Comments on “Swimming with Whales in Tonga | Ultimate Guide (2023 update)”

  1. Hi there
    I am Dawoon from Korea
    I really liked to read your blog about experience of whale swim in Tonga.
    I have plan to go to Tonga in August 2024
    Do you mind if I ask you which group tour your took it?
    I’d like to get some recommendation from you
    your are the best expert I have ever seen so far on internet!
    I do not have any information. please help me :))))))
    I am looking forward hearing from you soon
    Thank you

    BEST
    Daoon

    1. Hi Dawoon! I’m really happy that you found this post useful. I’ve been there on photography tours with friends so they had already arranged the boat charters. I’ve been with Cassie Jensen to Vava’u and Life Aquatic Expeditions to Ha’apai. It’s a more expensive way to do it for sure, but nice that everything is done for you! If you’d rather arrange your own trip then you can check out Deep Blue Diving, Tonga Whale Swim, Whale Watch Swim, Whale Discoveries and Matafonua Lodge. You’ll have an amazing experience no matter who you go with I think!
      Take care,
      Cat

  2. Hi,
    I really liked your post.
    I plan to go myself but my schedule will allow me to reach there on 1/10. I know it is the end of the season but still should be a good time.
    My plan is also to go to ha’apai and ‘eua.
    Do you think it can be a good option?
    Thanks,
    Guy

    1. Hey Guy! Really happy to hear that you liked the post. There will for sure still be some whales around at that stage, just not in such high numbers as earlier in the season – I’m sure you’ll have a great time regardless! Ha’apai was amazing – I was there about 2 weeks ago and we saw 8 mum+calf pairs in just one morning so I totally recommend it! It’s more of a chill vibe than Vava’u for sure but some really wonderful encounters. I’ve not personally been to ‘Eua, but the guide that we had in Ha’apai said that the whales there can be incredible. There’s pretty much a sheer cliff drop off super close to shore so the whales are right there just doing their thing. One diver even saw whales mating at ‘Eua! If you do make it there please come back and tell me how it was – I do know that the ocean there can be super rough though, that’s the only thing our guide said – sometimes it’s just not even possible to go out safely on the boat. I hope you have the most amazing time! Cat

  3. Thank you for all your insights and information. If I’m planning to visit Tonga I. The fall and only have 3-4 days is it possible to experience the whales? Also would you recommend scheduling a boat in advance or is this something that you can do once you arrive

    1. Hi Frank! It depends whether you’re talking about North or South hemisphere fall. The whales will be in Tonga from July to October, but the best months are definitely August and September. If you’re only going to be there for 3-4 days you’d need to schedule all of those on the water to “guarantee” a whale, since you’re dealing with both wild animals and weather and they’re unpredictable! I would definitely book in advance since many operators get booked up by groups seasons ahead of time. You’ll need to be patient and be prepared to email or call a lot. Good luck!

  4. Hi! Thank you for all the time you have spent writing this very well organized and interesting blog. I am an Italian traveler and right now I am in Bali, Indonesia. One of my dream is going to Tonga, to swimm with those giants. Your blog is full of very precious tips and infos. I am reading that the best time ever is August and September, but the whale are there even in July-October. So, if I go there in the middle of May, in your opinion what are my chances to see the whales? Like 30%? Or there are no whales at all? I will travel alone and because I am traveling since soo many months already, I have to be carefull of my budget. Is the daily trip (around 250 USD) worth it? Or with the daily trip the chances to see the whales are really low? I know that you do not own a magic ball to look inside eh eh eh. Of course I am asking a suggestion based of what you heard. Thank you a lot for your time. I wish you a very good day! Jacopo

    1. Hi Jacopo, thanks for your kind words and I’m happy you found this helpful. I think that you’d have to be very lucky to see the whales in Tonga in mid-May, especially if you’re watching your budget! I’ve only visited in August/September and have seen whales 10/10 days on the water, but only swum with them 7/10 days. And that’s during peak season. I would really recommend waiting and trying to go during the peak time when you’ve got a much better opportunity to swim with them! I hope that’s helpful 🙂

  5. love this blog! It’s super helpful! The five day trips seems to be out of my budget but it’s great to know that there are more affordable options.

    1. I’m glad it was helpful for you! The longer trips are pretty expensive but they do usually include absolutely everything except some drinks and meals so it’s definitely a trade off.

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