Living in Sydney, Australia, gives you no end of whale watching opportunities. Want to see a whale? Just walk along any of Sydney’s coastal headlands during whale migration season (which runs half the year), and if you don’t spot a whale one day, you’ll likely spot them the next. Which is why the idea of a humpback whale watching cruise didn’t excite me all that much.
But I was in Tonga, one of the few places in the world where your whale watching experience includes swimming right up alongside the whales. And I was there in peak whale watching season.
I couldn’t let an opportunity like that slip by.
The best place to go humpback whale watching in Tonga?
If you thought Tonga was just a single, itty-bitty island in the Pacific then you would be wrong; the Kingdom of Tonga is actually a long, stretched-out archipelago comprised of 169 islands, 36 of which are permanently inhabited.
I went on a whale watching cruise from Fafa Island, in the Tongatapu island group (a 30 minute boat ride from the capital city, Nuku-alofa), but it is the Vava’u island group in the north of the archipelago that is the best equipped for whale watching (the Vava’u island group is also the most popular place to go whale watching – meaning: there are likely to be multiple whale watching cruises going out on the same day, and you might have to wait in a queue of boats before being able to swim with a whale).
Of course if you have your own boat you can go whale watching wherever you like.
However, as of 2013, unauthorised vessels are not allowed within 300 metres of a whale. If you wish to get up close to the whales then you’ll need to go on an authorised tour.
When to go humpback whale watching in Tonga?
The best time to go humpback whale watching is from July to October as this is when female humpbacks migrate to Tonga to give birth to their young. Males and non-pregnant females also return to Tonga at this time to participate in courtship and mating rituals.
Humpback whale watching in Tonga – the rules
Tonga has pretty strict rules in place regarding boat operation near whales. Even authorised vessels need to keep 100 metres away at all times, and pilot a course that runs parallel with the whale’s movements (i.e. the boat should not approach the whale from the front or the rear).
How many whales will you see? And how close to them do you really get?
We spotted seven whales on my whale watching cruise, and for three of those whales, this 100 metre protection zone was as close as we got. The whales would breach a few times (humpback whales are known for their predilection for breaching), they might do a few tail slaps, or some spy-hopping (see photo above), and maybe complete a few lazy circles with their fins out of the water, then they would be off, never to be seen again.
But the other whales we saw deliberately changed their course and came towards us. Our captain would turn the boat around so that we were slowly sailing away from the animal, but the whales would catch us up and swim all around us, sometimes swimming right alongside the boat, other times swimming right under the boat.
You could be standing on the edge of the catamaran and the immense blubbery back of the humpback whale would be just a few metres away, glistening like a marble tabletop. Then it would breathe through its blowhole and you’d cop a bucketload of vaporised sea water and whale mucus in the face.
How big are humpback whales?
A humpback whale can grow to 15 metres in length. Which means they are roughly the same size as a typical whale watching catamaran.
You certainly get a feel for the immense size and mass of a whale (adult humpbacks weigh about 30 tonnes) when they are just a few metres away. You grasp that whales are possessive of great strength, and could probably flip your flimsy catamaran over should they wish it, or smash it to smithereens with a few strong kicks of their tail. But they show no aggression, just curiosity, and the inclination to show off in front of an audience.
Swimming with humpback whales
If you are lucky you will even be able to jump into the water and swim over to a whale, or more specifically, to a mother whale and calf.
Swimming with a mother and calf is the safest arrangement for tourists as the mother whale is so preoccupied with her baby that she is unlikely to be bothered by having a few humans in the water nearby.
We did eventually find a mother whale and calf on our whale watching cruise, but it wasn’t until the very end of the day, at which point we were told it was too late to enter the water. Thus, unfortunately, I cannot tell you what it is like to swim with a humpback whale.
To be honest though, I didn’t feel like I’d missed out on anything. We’d seen so many whales, and been so close to them, and seen so many different surfacing behaviours during the day, that my humpback whale watching experience still felt complete.