I hovered over the singing whale in the water, the vibrations filling my chest and overwhelming me with emotion. I’d never come so close to something so big with no fences or boats between us. I pinched myself to make sure it was all real. How would I ever come close to topping this?
Swimming with humpback whales will be one of the more life-changing experiences of your life should you choose to do it. It’s moving, humbling, and awe-inspiring. The following information pertains to swimming with whales in Tonga, one of the only countries that allows this magical experience:
Where and when to go
Humpback whales migrate up from Antarctica through to Tonga to mate and give birth. Without any major predators around, the calfs have a chance to grow before making the long swim back to Antarctica.
The whales usually start to show up in late July to early August and stay until mid-October. It’s hard to pick a sweet spot within that timeframe as any week has the potential to have tons of whale sightings, or not. Some days will be packed with whale swims while others might only have one or none. Humpback whales are wild animals and since the boats don’t feed or coax them into interactions, there are never any guarantees.
That said, most trips span a week with 7 hours of each day, with the exception of Sundays, out on the water.
One of the top spots is Vava’u in Tonga, though other islands nearby have whales as well, and fewer tourists.
Booking Whale Swims
How do you know which company is the best to go with? Thankfully the whale boats all communicate with each other and when there’s something exciting to see, there’s a chance that any boat could be there to witness it.
I base my decisions on the trip that aligns the most with my interests – a trip with like-minded people, other photographers, and respectful swimmers.
Spots are limited since only 3-4 tourists can be in the water at any given time with the whales. Most boats take a max of 7 guests for this reason. Permits are limited to only 21 boats per year, so it’s something to book well ahead of time and plan your year around.
What to pack
Most dive shops and whale tours will not provide personal equipment, which means you’ll need to bring your own wetsuit, flippers, mask and snorkel, and weight belt.
The water can be cold and at times it rains, so a wetsuit is essential and a rain jacket is a good idea, too. I wore a 2mm siren song suit and was a bit cold on some days and fine on others. Most importantly, it was super cute in photos!
Here’s my packing list:
- 3-5 shirts or tank tops
- 2-3 bottoms like shorts or skirts
- 1 rain jacket
- 1 pair of fins – long ones if you plan to freedive
- 1 pair neoprene socks
- 1 wetsuit – here’s the one I used, and a cheaper option too!
- 1 sun hat
- Lots of sunscreen
- Weight belt and weights as needed
- Mask and snorkel – try this on in person!
- 1-2 bathing suits
- 1 pair flip flops
- If you want to attend church, which can be a cool cultural experience, bring something conservative and dressier along with you!
Also keep in mind that the airlines have strict weight limits of 15kg for checked baggage and 5kg for carry on luggage. If you have heavy camera equipment, your best bet is to carry your camera around your neck and get your baggage under the weight limits.
How to prepare for swimming with whales
Swimming with the humpback whales can be tiring. It can also be terrifying if being in deep water and interactions with huge, very active animals scares you.
Whales are massive and in many cases, playful and can come very close during the swims. I think this is amazing, but I can appreciate that some would be scared in this situation. Ask yourself if this is something you would genuinely enjoy before diving in head first.
If you’re comfortable in the water, I highly recommend learning how to freedive before heading to Tonga. Snorkeling is still a great way to see and interact with the whales, and in some situations like with a mom and calf, freediving is not allowed.
However during heat runs, which is a steady train of multiple whales pursing a female, or with playful whales, you can freedive down which makes it a way more interactive and magical experience, IMHO.
In closing, swimming with whales is easily one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, and Tonga was a fantastic place to do it!
Want to do the same (but in French Polynesia)? Come with me next September.