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 with a 40 metric-ton (80,000-pound) mammal in the open water opens 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 generally 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.
While you’re here, don’t forget to bookmark our complete bible on whale watching; The Guide to Whale Swimming in Tonga.
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 (80,000 pounds), they are not creatures that you want to get too close to in case of accidental contact. For this reason, it is against the law in Tonga to swim too close to whales. With licensed operators who observe the whale watching regulations, you will only swim just close 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 10 m (33 ft) to drop swimmers in the water but should sit 50 m (164 ft) 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 been shown to have a negative impact on whale mothers and their calves according to a study published by the Auckland University of Technology.
In addition, the number of operators and boats, especially in Vava’u, has visibly had an impact on whale sightings in the Vava’u Group. Although there has been no recent data published, colloquial evidence has been consistent in showing that whales in Vava’u have left their usual mating and calving grounds earlier into the season, coinciding with increased whale watching tours. In contrast in Tongatapu, boat operators have enjoyed more frequent sightings and encounters since the number of operators dropped after the COVID-19 Pandemic.
By carefully selecting your whale operator, as well as your destination, you can choose a more eco-friendly tour that operates with the whales’ wellbeing in mind.
Is Whale Swimming in Tonga Safe for People?
Whale swimming in Tonga is generally safe for travellers who are with an operator that is not only licensed to do whale swimming by the Tongan Government but the operator also stringently complies with these laws. In addition, it is also important that tour-goers follow the rules for swimming with the whales, which should be clearly outlined by the operator throughout the tour.
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, 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 (but are not limited to):
- Swimmers are dropped off no closer than 10 m (33 ft) away from whales and 50 m (164 ft) from whales with calves
- Swimmers can approach whales no closer than 5 m (16 ft)
- The boat and swimmers should approach the whale from the side; not in front or behind the whale
- Swimmers are to stay as a group with the guide at all times in the water; they should not go in front of the guide
- Swimmers are to listen to the guide’s instructions
- Only four swimmers can be in the water with the whale at one time
- Don’t jump into the water from the boat
- Duck diving is not encouraged
- No flash photography.
As long as you and the operator are abiding by the whale swimming regulations, the risk of an accident is vastly reduced. Whale tour operators will not approach a whale if it is displaying any unsafe behaviour, such as breaching. Nor will they persist in approaching whales if the whales continue to swim away.
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, it is best to be a strong swimmer to enjoy this experience, but some operators with experienced and confident guides may assist weaker swimmers, as well as provide flotation aids – this is assessed on a case-by-case basis. Snorkelling gear is provided, including fins and a wetsuit to help you stay buoyant and able to swim more efficiently in the open water.
Potential Risks From Sharks
Whales have an associated risk of attracting predatory sharks, especially cows and their calves. A research paper by Pepperell Research & Consulting Pty Ltd compiles data on whale species targeted for food by large predatory sharks in Australia and other parts of the Pacific. In Tonga, there has been at least one reported incident of a Tongan whale swimming guide being seriously injured by a shark attack.
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 25+ 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 environmentally friendly and ethical 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 far 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.
For more details on the pros and cons of whale swimming in Tonga’s four main island groups, check out Where to Swim with Whales in Tonga: The Best Islands.
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, 10 for Ha’apai, 4 for ‘Eua and supposedly 20 for Vava’u but at the time of writing, there are 26 licensed operators in Vava’u. 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.
More About the Safety of Whale Swimming in Tonga
That’s it for our guide to whale swimming safety and whether swimming with whales is safe in Tonga. Continue your whale watching research with the following guides:
- 10 Best Places to See Whales in Tonga From Shore
- 10 Tips for Swimming with Whales in Tonga
- 10 Best Whale Swim Tours in Tonga
Finally, if there’s anything we’ve missed, you’re likely to find it in The Guide to Whale Swimming in Tonga.