Is it Dangerous to Swim with Whales in Tonga?
Swimming with humpback whales in the islands of Tonga is a dream for many, but is it safe? You’d be forgiven for thinking that swimming oversized mammals in the open water evokes some safety concerns, but due to the regulations surrounding whale swimming in Tonga combined with the knowledge of whale swimming operators, swimming with whales in Tonga is considered safe. In this guide, we go over the details of whether it is safe to swim with whales in Tonga, both for the swimmers and for the whales.
Whale Swimming Safety in Brief
Humpback whales are best described as gentle giants. There are no reports of the whales in Tonga being aggressive toward swimmers. However, with some whales being up to 40 tons, they are not creatures that you want to get too close to in case of accidental contact. For this reason, you will never swim too close to whales in Tonga, just enough to observe these majestic mammals in their element.
On the other hand, is swimming with whales safe for the whales? There are laws in Tonga as to how close boats can approach whales and how long they can stay with whales. Only licensed operators can approach whales as close as 10m to drop swimmers in the water but should sit 50m away from the swimmers and the whale during the swimming session. However, some operators in recent years have been reported to flout restrictions, such as the time spent with the whales, which has shown to have a negative impact on whale mothers and their calves according to a study published by the Auckland University of Technology. By carefully selecting your whale operator, you can choose a more eco-friendly tour that operates with the whales’ wellbeing in mind.
For more advice on swimming with whales, check out the The Guide to Whale Swimming in Tonga.
Is Whale Swimming in Tonga Safe for People?
Whale swimming in Tonga is safe for travellers, as long as you are with an operator that is licensed to do whale swimming by the Tongan Government (and you follow their rules for swimming with the whales) and as long as you are a confident swimmer.
Licensed Whale Tours
Each year, the Tongan Government allocates whale watching and swimming licenses to operators. Every whale swimming operator that we mention on Tonga Pocket Guide is licensed unless stated otherwise, which you can start browsing in the 10 Best Whale Swim Tours in Tonga.
Everyone on a licensed whale swimming tour is briefed on the boat while searching for the first whales about what they should and shouldn’t do during their whale swim. These rules are in place not only to keep the whales safe but to also keep you safe. Such rules include:
- Swimmers are dropped off no closer than 10m (33ft) away from whales and 50m (164ft) from whales with calves
- Swimmers can approach whales no closer than 5m (16ft)
- Swimmers are to stay with the guide at all times in the water
- Swimmers are to listen to the guide’s instructions
- Only four swimmers can be in with the whale at one time
- Don’t jump into the water from the boat.
Following the advice of your whale swimming guides and skippers, there is no reason for swimming with whales in Tonga to be unsafe. Whale tours operators will not approach a whale if it is displaying any unsafe behaviour, such as breaching.
Swimming in Open Water
Swimming with humpback whales involves swimming in the open water where swells are present, sometimes quite big and rough. Needless to say, you need to be a strong swimmer to enjoy this experience. Snorkelling gear is provided, including fins and a wetsuit to help you stay buoyant and able to swim more efficiently in the open water.
Is Whale Swimming in Tonga Safe for the Whales?
The other party in whale swimming tours is, of course, the whales. Whale swimming in Tonga occurs during a time when whales have migrated to the South Pacific Ocean to mate and calve. Calves are at a vulnerable stage of their lives, so choosing an operator that takes an ethical approach to swimming with whale mothers and their calves, in particular, or avoids them altogether, is important when deciding an activity operator to go with.
While many whale operators in Tonga run tours with the whales’ wellbeing in mind, unfortunately, not all follow the same mantra. Recent studies in the Vava’u group have shown that some operators do not follow the regulations set by the Tongan Government. The Vava’u Group has some 20 operators for swimming with whales, where some operators have added pressure to provide a good whale swim for customers, especially those doing one day tours. Even the Tonga Pocket Guide team have spoken to customers who felt that operators were “chasing” mothers and calves too much when regulations state to use horizontal avoidance to travel alongside whales – if a whale changes direction, operators should not pursue, for example.
Tips for Picking an Ethical Whale Swimming Tour
To help reduce the chances of picking one of the ethically-questionable operators, consider doing the following:
- Choose an operator that offers multiple-day tour packages, which helps reduce the pressure to find you the “perfect swim”
- Look out for companies that state how they take an eco-friendly approach to swimming with whales, as this typically shows they care
- At present, choose to swim with whales in the island groups of Tongatapu, Ha’apai or ‘Eua where there is less competition
- Look up reviews from customers on review websites, such as TripAdvisor (not the website of the operator) to see if there are any negative reviews concerning the safety of the whale.
Tonga’s Whale Enforcement
In 2020, the Tongan Government capped the number of whale licenses given out each year to not exceed 7 for Tongatapu, 20 for Vava’u, 10 for Ha’apai and 4 for ‘Eua. The Government also has a Whale Enforcement Team inspecting boats each morning to record that the appropriate certified skippers and staff are working on the boats. There is also an on-boat inspection twice a year.