The Whale Swimming Capital of the Pacific

Season: June-September

Visibility: Good

Water Temperature: 26-29°C/79-84°F

There is nothing in the world like swimming with Humpback Whales (Image by Inger Vandyke)

“Then the whole world was the whale’s” wrote Herman Melville in Moby Dick.

Staring at an adult Humpback Whale languishing on the surface of the ocean is a bit like viewing the tip of an iceberg.  It’s impossible to gauge their true size.  That is, until you jump in the water with them.

One of the very few places you can do this on earth is the Kingdom of Tonga in the Western Pacific and the centre of whale encounters in the kingdom lies in a small group of islands called Vavau, around 300 kilometres north of the Tongan capital of Nukualofa.  Vavau’s main port town of Neiafu has provided yachties from around the world with one of the best deep water anchorages in the Pacific for decades.  Recently however, the region has morphed into ‘cetacean central’ where strict permit laws now allow a privileged few tourists to get up close and personal with some of the most gargantuan yet gentle creatures on earth.

Flying into Neiafu during peak whale season, it is quite possible to peer out the plane window and see Humpbacks cavorting in the tropical waters of Vavau.  They’ve come here for a tropical sojourn from Antarctica to mate and breed.  Their breaching and diving is visible from the air.  It almost seems they are as excited as you to be here.

The world of Humpback Whales is as vast and complex as a neighborhood of humans.  Parenting occurs alongside singing, dancing, courtship, mating and playing.  To spend  time with them in the water is to experience communing with nature on the grandest scale, where you are the whales’ guests and they welcome you with gentle curiosity.

In the warm waters of Vavau you can bear witness to a myriad of different scenarios with Humpback whales including swimming with mothers and their newborn calves.  From the decks of the boat, it is also possible to hear whales calling.  When engines are placed into idle or completely cut out, the song of the whales can be heard through anything hollow on the boat, including the tubes used to hold fishing rods.

Finding whales involves a bit of island hopping and Vavau has over 50 tropical isles to choose from to stop for lunch or a break, including Euiki or ‘Treasure Island’, a postcard style resort straight out of the set for Robinson Crusoe.  Snorkelling off the beach at Euiki, a few leg strokes will see you hovering over a wall of abundant coral and fish life rivalled by few other reefs in Tonga.  Diving down the wall of boulder and staghorn corals I heard a faint whooping noise in the water.  The whales were calling.  It was time to leave.

Back out at sea the crew came across a Humpback calf practicing his breaching behavior by imitating his mother.  Sliding into the water, swimmers were instantaneously joined by the curious calf who proceeded to twirl, dive and blow bubbles within metres of the group.  On a final dive, the calf reunited with its mother just in time to escape from a group of pursuing male whales that passed by the group like freight trains, giving chase to both the mother and baby.  Suddenly humans were guests in one of nature’s greatest theaters, where the whales gave a swimming ovation.

Neiafu is the second largest city in Tonga after Nukualofa.  It is a warm and convivial place filled with smiling locals and a collection of colourful, ramshackle buildings.  The hub of life in the town revolves around Utukalongalu Market which bursts into life on Saturday, the biggest market day of the week.  Here, Tongans from outlying islands come to trade their wares including woven baskets, tapu cloth, vegetables and carvings.  Wandering around the market, smiling faces and waves accompany either “Hello” or “Malo” in Tongan.  At the first sight of a camera, giggling children will pile up to have their photo taken in front of you while their friendly parents are happy to show you how their baskets are woven or what dishes they use certain vegetables in.  Most of the produce is brought in by locals on colourful boats that moor up alongside a mishmash of other vessels.  Baskets made from coconut fronds transport bananas, taro, beans and other vegetables to and from boats while locals jump on and off Tongan water taxis.

On their trips to the market, Tongans have the blessing of seeing something that people fly thousands of kilometres to see each year.  They share their water taxi journeys with pods of Spinner dolphins, an occasional sea turtle and the whales residing in their waters.

Snorkelling with the Humpback whales in Tonga is an experience that defies words.  Over ten days you get to know certain individuals almost on an intimate level as you may encounter the same group in different spots doing entirely different things.  You may be eyed off, serenaded, played with, rested beside or lost completely in their world.  


International flights from the UK travel via the United States or Asia, then Australia and New Zealand to Nuku'alofa, the capital of Tonga.  From there, connecting flights will take you to Vava'u or Ha'apai.

From September 2015 it will be possible to fly direct from Nadi, Fiji, to Vavau.


Why not combine a snorkelling trip with the whales in Tonga with a diving trip to the soft corals of the Somosomo Strait in Fiji.

You may also wish to dive in Australia on the Great Barrier Reef.



Vava'u is dotted with beautiful islands and secluded resorts (Image by Inger Vandyke)

The reefs of Tonga are quite pretty for snorkelling (Image by Inger Vandyke)

Tongan culture originates from Polynesia so the dances and dress really define a tropical paradise tradition (Image by Inger Vandyke)

A baby Humpback Whale breaches near Neiafu, Vava'u (Image by Inger Vandyke)

Spiny starfish are sometimes found in the shallows of the beaches in Vava'u

Smiling locals in Neiafu, Tonga (Image by Inger Vandyke)

Getting in the water on a 'heat run' where a large pod of male Humpback whales will charge past you is a real adrenaline rush! (Image by Inger Vandyke)

The bustling local market of Utukalongalu in Neiafu is a wonderful place to buy souvenirs including traditional Tongan carvings. As Vanilla is a fledgling industry in Tonga, the air of Utukalongalu is perfumed by it, the smell of coconuts and papaya flowers (Image by Inger Vandyke)

Male Humpback whales will sometime slap their large flukes as a threat to competitor males (Image by Inger Vandyke)

Tonga is well known for its woven products and spectacular tapa cloth (Image by Inger Vandyke)

People sail in colourful boats from nearby islands to the market in Neiafu (Image by Inger Vandyke)

Humpback mothers are very gentle with their newborn calves (Image by Inger Vandyke)

Locals hang their fishing nets to dry on an island near Neiafu (Image by Inger Vandyke)

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