We’d spent more than six incredible hours snorkeling with two adult humpback whales in Tonga. Every time we returned to the boat, the two whales began breaching out of the water, as if they were desperate to see what we were doing. We quickly jumped back in, so as not to offend them. We floated in amazement as the two humpbacks twisted and danced below us, impressing us with their show. After snorkeling with humpback whales in Tonga, my world forever changed. I fell in love and fell hard.
My love affair with humpbacks began in 2008 when I stumbled on some crystal-clear pictures of the whales, taken in the Tongan Islands. I spent the next few years dreaming of a Tongan encounter of my own. There are only a few places in the world where it’s possible to get in the water with them, so in the meantime, I visited both the Silver Banks in the Dominican Republic and Cabo San Lucas in Mexico to snorkel with humpbacks. Although both experiences were worthwhile, I came away without any memorable encounters or thrilling photos. I finally set my sights on Tonga in 2014.
From my very first trip, the experiences didn’t disappoint. I spent over a month interacting with the humpbacks and, to my surprise, got in the water with them every day I went out. The water was clear; the humpbacks were gentle; and the experience was beyond amazing. As someone who spends roughly 300 days a year in or on the water, snorkeling with humpback whales in Tonga is and always will be the best ocean experience of my life. Watching a 40-ton humpback whale dancing and twirling in front of you, or simply floating next to one while it stares at you is incredible. Snorkeling with humpback whales in Tonga is such a singular experience that I began running guided trips there every year, to show other ocean lovers just how amazing these animals are.
Where is Tonga?
The most complicated part of snorkeling with humpbacks in Tonga might be just getting there. The island of Vava’u, Tonga is near Fiji but far off the radar for most people. You must fly via Fiji, Sydney or Auckland — you can’t get there any other way. From one of these hubs, you can either fly to Tongatapu International (TBU) and take a domestic flight to Vava’u or fly direct from Fiji to Vava’u. The latter option is limited to twice-a-week flights however, and they aren’t especially reliable.
What brings the whales to Tonga?
From late July to late October, the whales come to Tonga to mate and give birth. Adult females give birth to a new calf every two years, after a pregnancy that lasts 11 months. A female will nurse her calf for about a year before letting it venture into the open ocean alone. Calves are born in Tongan waters every year, and they enter the world weighing around one ton (900 kg).
What is snorkeling with humpback whales in Tonga like?
Our boats leave at 7 a.m. sharp so that we can be the first ones out on the water. With only about 15 other boats covering 300 square nautical miles, we rarely see them. We might find whales right away, although it can take hours. When we do spot whales, we’ll first observe them and the crew will decide if we can jump in the water with them or not. Some whales are playful right away; some take time to warm up.
We never know what we’ll see — anything from a lone juvenile who’s recently left its mother to 15 whales chasing a female in an energetic heat run. Sometimes a curious calf will roll and play with its mom, staying with us for hours. Early on in the season, the moms are a bit more protective of their new offspring. But later on, when the calves are older, they tend to be more interactive with tourists. They are wild animals of course, so you never know what you’ll get. You might also witness a heat run, when a group of male whales chases after a female whale in heat. From five or six whales up to as many as 20 may roam the waters below you, following the female. Every day is different, and every encounter is different, lasting anywhere from five to 90 minutes.
Only five people — four snorkelers and a guide — can enter the water at once, which keeps the groups small. This also allows the guide to keep an eye on the swimmers. Although some people hypothesize that the whales don’t like swimming with humans, a 40-ton animal can easily leave a situation with a flick of its tail. You can see in the video that they are indeed quite interested, playful and very joyful.
Our boats try not only to be the first ones in the water, but also the last ones out of the water. We decide as a group when the day is over, which could be at 2 p.m. or could be at 5 p.m. We work with the crew and base our decision on how well the day went.
Snorkeling with humpbacks in Tonga is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We’d love for you to join us next year; check out our trips here.