How to Swim with Whales in Tonga
It’s on the bucket list of most visiting the islands of Tonga: swimming with humpback whales. Every June to October, humpback whales migrate from the Antarctic to the South Pacific Ocean in order to mate and calve. A unique opportunity in Tonga is to snorkel with these gentle giants, observing them in tropical waters. Saying it’s an incredible experience is an understatement, which only those who have had the privilege to swim with some of the world’s largest mammals can understand. Want to understand that feeling for yourself? Let us show you how in this guide to whale swimming in Tonga.
Quick Tips for Swimming with Whales in Tonga
- You can only swim with whales in Tonga if you are with a licensed operator
- You need to be a confident swimmer, as whale swimming involves swimming in the open water
- Take seasickness pills (or your preferred remedy) before your trip
- Take a warm layer to wear for after your swim
- Abide by the rules given by your whale guide to make sure you keep you and the whale safe.
For more elaboration on each tip, as well as more whale tips, take a look at the 10 Tips for Swimming with Whales in Tonga.
The Whale Season in Tonga
The first thing you need to know about swimming with whales in Tonga is when the whale season is. Generally, the whale season is between June and October in Tonga, but the season is actually slightly different between each island group. The seasons for each group are the following:
- The whale season in Tongatapu: mid-June to end of October
- The whale season in ‘Eua: early June to early November
- The whale season in Ha’apai: mid-July to mid-October
- The whale season in Vava’u: mid-July to mid-October
For more information on the whale season and the best time to swim with whales, take a look at When is the Whale Season in Tonga?
Where to Swim with Whales in Tonga
Whale swimming is available in four of the island groups in Tonga: Tongatapu, ‘Eua, Ha’apai and Vava’u. Each island group has a capped number of operators to ensure that the waters are not too “crowded” and whale swimming remains as ethical as possible. You can learn more about the ethics of whale swimming in Is it Safe to Swim with Whales in Tonga?
Whale Swimming in Tongatapu
Tongatapu is the main island of Tonga and the island that most visitors arrive, making it the cheapest destination to get to. The whale swimming here is excellent with only seven operators who work together to make sure each boat gets a fair amount of time with the whales while taking whale swimming regulations seriously. The whale tours here range from affordable to mid-range in price compared to elsewhere in Tonga.
Whale Swimming in ‘Eua
A short flight or half-day ferry journey from Tongatapu, ‘Eua is the island with the smallest number of whale operators making for a good whale-to-boat ratio. The island is home to some of the most affordable whale tours compared to the other island groups. As a destination itself, there’s plenty to do in terms of hiking in some of Tonga’s most pristine forest, scuba diving, cycling and more. ‘Eua has the longest whale season, but some of the roughest waters.
Whale Swimming in Ha’apai
While a little more expensive to get to than the previous two island groups, Ha’apai is where you’ll find some of your most idyllic islands in Tonga complete with turquoise waters and sandy beaches. Again, there is a small number of operators using a large area of ocean, where operators have a good reputation for having an eco-friendly approach to the whales. The waters here are typically calmer than other island groups, but the whale season is slightly shorter than the islands in the south.
Whale Swimming in Vava’u
Finally, Vava’u is the most popular destination when it comes to whale swimming in Tonga. It has up to 20 operators, giving you plenty of choices, however, there have been concerns over some of the operators disregarding whale swimming regulations, which you can learn more about in our whale swimming safety guide. The tours here are amongst some of the most expensive and the whale season is slightly shorter than elsewhere in Tonga. On the bright side, Vava’u often has some of the calmest waters for a more comfortable whale swimming experience.
For a more in-depth review of each destination for whale swimming, take a look at The Best Place to Swim with Whales in Tonga.
Whale Tours in Tonga
The only way you are legally able to swim with whales in Tonga is to do a tour with a licensed operator who abide by a set of regulations in order to keep both customers and the whales safe.
Whale swimming tours typically last about eight hours, as that is the maximum time tours are allowed to operate for whale swimming, but some operators also offer half-day tours.
What Happens in a Whale Swimming Tour in Tonga?
Because of the nature of whale swimming, i.e. involving wild animals, there is no real set structure to tours. Mornings will start with getting geared up with a wetsuit, snorkel, mask and fins before departing on the boat with a skipper and at least one or two whale guides in search of whales to swim with.
During this initial part of your tour, you will be briefed on what you should and shouldn’t do if there is a whale to swim with.
When and if a whale is found, the skipper will determine whether it is appropriate to swim with the whale or not. If so, swimmers will be required to put on their mask and fins quickly and get in the water, four swimmers at one time only. There may be a lot of getting in and out of the water, depending on how fast the whale is moving or if it proves to not be a good whale to swim with and another whale needs to be found.
If the whale does prove to be appropriate to swim with, swimmers will be required to follow their guide during the experience, who is making sure swimmers are an appropriate distance away from the whale (no closer than 5m/16ft). Then, just enjoy the wonderful experience.
It’s typically the case that there are at least eight swimmers on the whale tour, so equal opportunity will be given to both groups of four swimmers. This could be swimming with the same whale, one group at a time, or finding a different whale for the second group depending on the whale’s behaviour. Note that a whale might not even be found to swim with in the morning – nothing is guaranteed with wildlife.
Lunch is typically included in whale swimming tours, usually alongside stopping by an uninhabited island or stopping at a snorkelling spot for customers who might want to do some snorkelling.
Depending on how the whale swim went in the morning and what the customers want to do, the whale guides and skipper will take you back out on the boat in search of more whales to swim with, spending more time snorkelling at an island or coral reef before heading back to base. No two whale swimming tours are the same.
Then you’ll head back to where you departed for the tour to wrap up an epic day on the water, whether it involved swimming with whales, just seeing the whales from the boat, or simply enjoying the snorkelling.
Whale Swimming Tours in Tonga
Take a look at some of our top picks when it comes to whale swimming tours in each island group in the lists below:
How to Get the Best Whale Swim
Knowing that a good whale interaction is never a guarantee, how you can increase your chances for a successful whale swim in Tonga?
First, we recommend booking multiple whale swims while you’re in Tonga. Although this can be pretty pricey, many would agree that’s it’s worth it to have a decent whale swim while you’re in one of the only places in the world to have this experience. If the first swim is unsuccessful, then at least you may have better luck next time. And if you have a good swim on the first tour, then, trust us, you won’t complain if you get to do it again!
Another way to improve your chances of a good whale swim is to simply follow the instructions of your whale guide. Not following these rules may see off the whale, ruining the swim for your group.
Check out more advice on this subject in How to Get the Best Whale Swimming Experience in Tonga.