On our must-do list for Tonga was a whale snorkel experience. Humpback whales come to the South Pacific every August and September, with young calves in tow. Here in Vava’u, it’s common to see whales while in some of the open anchorages or when out sailing around the islands.
Simon and Marg on Margansie did the whale swim with Beluga Dive a couple weeks ago and raved about it, despite its hefty price tag. While many things in Tonga are quite cheap, these whale experiences typically run about $160 USD a person. For us, we had to pay about $180 due to a petrol shortage that Vava’u is experiencing (more about that in future posts). Tonga is one of the only countries in the world that allows you to swim with humpback whales – but only if you have a certified guide.
We picked out shorties and boarded our dive boat with three other people – I think I understood that they were all solo travelers from Asia, who just happened to be staying at the same hotel, and spoke Mandarin in common. It was not their first time out on a whale trip, but they were calling us their lucky charm by the end of the day.
Lately the weather has been gray and rainy. While it was chilly and windy, it was perfectly sunny for our trip, giving us excellent visibility in the water and helping us dry out and warm up between swims.
It took about an hour and a half to motor out of the islands to the sea. The sea state was a little rough, and one of the women decided not to swim because of it. This worked out perfectly, as only one group of four (plus a guide) is allowed to be in the water at one time near a whale.
Very quickly, David spotted the first spout of the day. We spent quite a bit of time observing the whales, and our guides were trying to determine their mood, basically, to see if it would be worth diving in. At one point the two whales surprised our guides by popping up right next to our boat.
Around 9:05, we slipped into the water as the whales were on the move, and just swam along as the whales passed underneath us – a female, her calf, and a male escort. Males fight for the right to escort a female and calf with the hope of mating with her next season.
Back in the boat we watched for them again – out of the water they are easy to lose track of. Suddenly, splash!, the calf breached directly in front of our boat. Our guides called for us to get in and we scrambled with our gear while the calf breached a second time.
Once we were in the water, we spotted the adults down at least 40-50 feet. They rested, mostly horizontally, although the male did rest vertically, head up for a while.
In the meantime, the calf was showing off. The view in the water is spectacular. You could watch the calf swim down to his mom, and then power straight up and breach for us. He beached about four times – on the video, you can see and hear us humans all surfacing with him and shouting for joy.
After his last breach, it was show over – the little guy swam down below mama and hid underneath her. It was a bit like parking a car in the garage!
Despite stopping the huge performance, we were still enjoying watching the whales. The little one would come up to the surface to breath every few minutes, and every 10 minutes or so the adults would rise up to breathe.
At this point other dive boats were joining in, so we had to take turns with the whales. The fifth passenger decided to take a turn, so I sat out on the last swim.
Back onboard it was 11 am – we’d spent almost two hours in the water with the whales. Our guides powered up the boat and took off for land, but on the way a pod of dolphins were spotted, so we all hurried to put our gear back on and hop in. It was a moderate school of about 15 dolphins. They were swimming away from us and didn’t seem to want to put on a show like the whales.
The boat came to rest in Vaiutukakau bay, and with the anchor set lunch was broken out: cold Asian noddles and sandwiches. We snorkeled but there wasn’t much to see under the water. The view above water was phenomenal though, with foliage covered limestone cliffs and a large rock island next to us.
Then we had the motor back to the dock – almost everyone napped along the way, and we were back on Starry Horizons by 2pm.
This was such an excellent day – number one in David’s book, while I’m still committed to my manta rays in the Marquesas. Definitely worth it, and a not-to-miss while in Tonga.
Peak whale season is August and September.
There are a small number of flights directly to Vava’u from Fiji on Fiji Airways. Otherwise, you fly through the capitol, Tongatapu, with multiple flights a day to Vava’u on the Real Tonga Airline.
We highly recommend Mystic Sands Resort. We stayed there for a week and found it very calm and beautiful. There’s a pool as well as snorkel gear, hammocks, and kayaks. The nearby Tongan Beach Resort offers meal service at their restaurant. Both of these resorts are away from the main town of Neiafu.
We booked our tour with Beluga Dive, but there is another tour operator we recommend – Vaka & Moana. Aunofo Havea is a rarity in Tonga – a women captain. She’s also been involved with the Tonga Voyaging Society, helping preserve the native traditions on Tongans on the water.