Tonga whale swim

Tonga Whale Swim

This winter in New Zealand I was looking for somewhere warm to go.  It was my first winter in four years as I had been chasing the sun through the US and Africa.

So when I knew I wouldn’t be able to take four straight months of cold, rainy and dark days I thought it was a good opportunity to visit one of the Pacific Islands as they are a short flight from New Zealand.  I decided to go for a whale swim in Tonga.

Living in New Zealand for 12 years I’ve had a lot of opportunities to visit the islands and I had already been to Fiji, Samoa, Rarotonga and wanted to visit someplace new. That’s when I started researching Tonga and found out you can actually go swimming with humpback whales there. Its one of three countries where you can swim with whales not just whale watch.

tonga whale swim

Tonga Whale Season

The whale season in Tonga runs from early July to the end of October.  Humpback whales are coming to Tonga for the warm, shallow waters to birth their calves.  They then hang around for a few months while the calf puts on weight and gains the strength to swim long distances.

Tonga is one of those places that doesn’t receive a lot of love (except during the Olympics when their flag bearer made headlines) but the small Pacific Island has a lot to offer and is one of the few places in the world where you can swim with humpback whales.

Read my post on the best snorkel gear for snorkeling!

Whale Swims Tonga

As I was talking to people about going to Tonga I found more and more people who had been to Tonga to swim with humpback whales (people in NZ travel a lot) and I was getting so excited for this trip.

A friend recommended the island of Ha’apai because it is less touristy than the main island of Vava’u and she recommended the Ha’apai Beach Resort. This was one of the best decisions I made.

Not only was the quiet island of Ha’apai absolutely beautiful but the Beach Resort was everything I could ask for. I thought this place was such a great value and I loved their ethos about swimming with the whales and the expertise that Matt brought to the experience. And the flights to Ha’apai are cheaper than flights to Vava’u!

swimming with humpback whales

My whale swim experience in Tonga

I arrived on the 7.20 am flight from the main island to Ha’apai which is a direct flight and takes about an hour.  Jodi from Ha’apai Beach Resort met me at the ‘airport’ (it’s a small landing strip on the island) and took me straight to the boat where I hopped on for my first day of swimming with humpback whales.

We headed out in our gear – wetsuit, snorkel, fins. I thought we would have problems finding the whales but honestly that first day there were so many whales it was more of a question of which ones we were going to follow and which ones did we think were going to hang out for a while because believe me they swim fast and there is no way you are going to catch them

whale swim Tonga

The best experience of the day was watching four males showing off to prove who was the dominant one. They were breeching, and blowing bubbles and all around showing off for us. It was amazing to then get in the water with them and watch this.

I still remember this gigantic male swimming below our boat and he was belly up so you saw the bright white of his under belly in the deep blue of the ocean. And he was fast. So fast. And then two flicks of the tale and he breached again. It was an amazing experience.

swimming with humpback whales

Swimming with whales in Tonga

Tonga is one of the few places in the world where it is legal for you to get in the water with a wild humpback whale and swim with them.  You are not allowed to touch the whales and you must stay at least four metres away from the whales but getting in the water with a 36,000 kg whale is an absolutely amazing experience.

I spent six days swimming with whales as they come to Tonga for the shallow, warm waters to birth their calves.  You often see the baby whales first as they have to come up for air more often than their mothers.

Another one of my favourite experiences from the week was a two hour ‘hang’ with a mother and calf.  The mother was just chilling at the bottom of the sea floor while the calf would come up to the top for a breath and then come check us out before returning back to its mother.

It was almost like a ‘beam me up’ moment as the calf goes up and down as they can only hold their breath for 5-10 minutes while the mother can hold their breath for 30-40 minutes.

The calf would also come closer and closer to us each time she came up for air.  Almost playing chicken to see how close she would get.  With the currents we were able to just float in the water and watch and see what she was going to do next.

When the mother finally decided it was time to move on she came up to the surface very slowly and that’s when I realised just how huge she was.  I came eye to eye with the mother calf and nearly cried.  She then gave a flick of her tale and they were off.

Swimming with humpback whales is a definitely a must do experience.



Nicole LaBarge is a travel expert who has been traveling internationally for over 25 years and she has visited over 115 countries all while working a 9-5. She has lived in England, Scotland, Japan and New Zealand. Check out her detailed destination guides and travel product guides.

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