Each year from mid-July to mid-October, Tonga’s serene islands become the resting place for the majestic humpback whales.
North of Tonga’s main island of Tongatapu are the islands of Ha'apai, a safe haven for the migrating humpback whales from the Antarctic. The calm warm waters of Ha'apai offer refuge for the whales to breed, birth and socialise.
Mothers spend time here until their departure, nursing their young and courting a potential mate. It is a very important and sensitive time in their annual cycle and the most exciting time to watch and interact with them. Tonga is one of only a few countries in the world where you can actually swim with humpback whales.
Swimming with the whales is done so with sensible tourism guidelines and experienced guides to ensure minimal impact on the whales and their environment. This goes beyond the water, with properties like Seachange Eco Retreat providing unique luxury beach front accommodation with the lightest possible footprint.
Located on Uoleva Island, part of the Ha'apai Island group, Seachange also operates Ha'apai Whale and Sail, the longest running whale watching/swimming encounter business in Ha'apai. Carmen Ellis of Majestic Whale Encounters brings travellers to Seachange to experience the breathtaking encounters swimming with the humpback whales.
Depending on the weather, mornings at Seachange begin with a healthy breakfast before heading out on the boat in search of whales. Joined by experienced and knowledgeable guides, swimmers are briefed about the importance of respecting the whales in their space to ensure a safe interaction for both whales and swimmers.
Finding the whales and watching them from the surface is exhilarating to start with. They are everywhere in these waters, but there is a lot of water for them to hide in. Adult humpbacks will surface every 20 minutes, expelling the spent air through their blowholes before gulping down fresh oxygen. Known as a ‘blow’, you can spot these some 3km away, a fine mist that rises above the waves.
The boat races towards a sighting and then waits for the whales to surface again. The vast array of interesting behaviors from the whales include a graceful spy hop, powerful fin or fluke slaps to continual full body breaching and inquisitive approaches to the boat. Add to this the use of a hydrophone (waterproof microphone) to listen to the magical whale love songs and the experience above the water in incredible.
When you dive beneath the surface into some of the bluest clear waters, then that experience is emphasized beyond belief. Some could even call it life-changing, as you snorkel towards a resting mother humpback whale while her calf playfully swims nearby. Trying to keep the legal distance from the whales can be challenging, with the young whales often keen to come up and investigate the swimmers. As these beautiful creature glide past you, majestic and curious, it is hard to contain the rush of emotions.
This is an experience that is repeated over the duration of the stay. When not looking for whales, Tonga still has plenty to offer, including snorkeling along the reefs of Ha’apai that are rich in coral and fish, walks around the island and relaxing on the beach or a visit into a local village with an island tour.