What to Expect
You will be joining underwater photographer Karim Iliya as he guides you each day to have up close encounters with humpback whales. There is no requirement for SCUBA or Freediving certifications. We will be snorkeling and freediving with the whales. We keep groups small so you will have optimal time in the water as well as a variety of experiences with the whales. For example you may see baby humpbacks with mothers, juvenile whales, singers, males competing for mating rights as well as many other encounters. We will spend time all together, eating, swimming, and staying in a large home. However, if you would like to share a room with a friend or partner this can be easily arranged. The house will vary depending on the trip you have signed up for. Each house will have several rooms, bathrooms, wifi, and several common areas to hang out, work, relax, or exercise.
Below you will find a basic schedule of the trip. Keep in mind that the "rest day" always fall on a Sunday, so the itinerary may vary from trip to trip. We provide transport, food, and housing during your stay. We do our best to accommodate each individual during your stay with us.
Arrival Day - (the first day listed on your trip dates)
Arrive on Vava’u. There will be transport ready to pick you up once landing in Vava'u.
Evening: There will be a brief orientation to the house, your room and what you will need to prepare for the following days. After you have gotten settled in we will have dinner all together.
WHALE SWIM DAYS 5-7 days
Breakfast will be served at the house prior to departing on the boat each morning.
Full day swimming with whales. The days will be around 7 hours in length with lunch on the boat. We have an experienced Tongan captain and crew to assist in finding the whales.
Non photographers and photographers are welcome, there will be optional photo workshops in the evening after returning from the water.
Dinner, as well as all meals are home cooked by our housing host Teresa. There may be times during the trip where we will go out for dinner together which is also included in the price.
This is a free day. In the country of Tonga the locals rest and do not work.
You can walk around the town, visit the local churches to hear the singing, swim and snorkel at a nearby beach, and rest up for the coming days.
*Please note that extracurricular activities are not included in the price.
Departure - (the last day listed on your trip dates)
Depart from Vava’u. Transportation will be provided for you.
Who you will swim with
The humpback whales that visit Tonga during the winter (July- October) are part of the South Pacific population of humpbacks. In the summer, they spend their time feeding around Antarctica coming up to Tonga, Tahiti, and the south pacific to mate, birth, and care for their young, in the warmer shallower, protected waters.
There are few predators out here, but essentially no food and so the babies will drink their mother's milk, while the adults live off their fat reserves.
Adult humpbacks are typically 45 feet (15 meters in length), the size of a school bus, while newborn babies are 15 feet (4.5 meters).
During these months of breeding and birthing the humpbacks display a wide variety of behavior from singing, playing, battling, mating, breaching (jumping) tail slapping, and sometimes interacting with other marine mammals like spinner dolphins. They have one of the most dynamic mating competition which involves a female leading a group of up to 20 males on a chase. Twisting and turning, smashing heads, tails and fins, blowing screens of bubbles and using their speed and agility to keep up with the female.
Humpbacks are incredibly intelligent and dynamic animals. Every interaction is different. They are conscious and aware of our presence, often curious, and the babies can be playful. It is important to remember that we are in their territory. We will respect the whales, and swimming with them will by their choice.
We will be following a set of guidelines followed by all the local boats in Tonga, where they do a great job of protecting their whales. We will typically be 5 in the water at a time (The maximum is 5 including me and our Tongan whale guide who will accompany us), and we let the whales approach us. We move quietly and calmly so as not to disturb the animals. Everything will be on their terms. Humpback whales are extremely agile, and specially aware. They have incredible control of their bodies and will go to great lengths to avoid bumping into us.
There is plenty more information that I will teach you about humpbacks and other whale species while on the trip.
Karim Iliya is a professional underwater photographer / filmmaker based on the island of Maui, Hawaii. Having grown up in 9 countries, Karim continues to live a nomadic lifestyle traveling the globe while focusing on photographing/filming wildlife and marine environments with freediving and quadcopter drones. Karim’s passion is in documenting whales, elephants, big cats, and other threatened animals in an effort to create appreciation in order to help protect our delicate ecosystems on Earth. Karim has been published in National Geographic Magazine across the globe for his humpback whale photography.
At 28 years old, Karim has had over 15 years of photographic experience and puts a heavy emphasis on environmental and wildlife conservation. In Hawaii he spends much of his time underwater and is currently focusing his photography on marine environments and documenting whale behavior. Karim has given photography and drone workshops across the globe to people of all ages and skill levels. He will guide you through the process of learning about whales and underwater photography. Additionally, he will be hosting optional workshops in the evenings for underwater photography, editing, social media, and business.
Karim is currently working closely with The Maui Ocean Center to help bring awareness to people in Hawaii, and across the world about humpback whales. If you are in Maui and would like to see his work in person, stop by the center for an up close encounter with the photographs of humpback whales and to learn more about marine life and conservation.
Where you will Stay
Spot - X: Trips 3-7
Ocean Song: Trip 2
Located near the town of Vava'u. You will share a home with the group. Each person should have a private room for sleeping, unless coming with a friend or partner. It may be necessary for some to share a larger room depending on the dynamics of each group and place. It is not extravagant or luxurious, but it is comfortable, clean, and there will be space to clean camera gear / process photos. Breakfast and dinner will be held at the house most nights, and a packed lunch and snacks will be enjoyed boat side or at one of the many beautiful sandy beaches. You will enjoy a variety of fresh cooked meals prepared by locals. If you have any food allergies or intolerances, please list this on the sign up form and we will do our best to accommodate. You will have access to cleaning clothing, showers, and fresh coconuts!
*Click through the photos above to view Spot X.
Each day we will be meeting the captain at the docks to head out. There will be plenty of space for your gear whether wet or dry. There will be an area of shade on the boat to take shelter from the sun. The sun here is strong so please be aware and plan accordingly. There is storage for your dry gear on the boat, as well as fresh water for rinsing cameras.
Our boat captain will be a local Tongan who has been a captain for many years. He will operate the boat and guide us to the areas with the whales as well as ensuring that both the whales and our crew is safe in the water.
There will be lunch provided each day, which we will enjoy on the boat. There may be days that our captain will take us for lunch on one of the many island or have lunch at a local coral reef to explore.
We will be using one of several different boats. Which means we will not leave anything on the boats overnight.
*Click through the photos above to see more of the boat!
Our Island / destination: Vava’u, Tonga (airport code VAV)
Capital of Tonga: Nuku’ Alofa
Main Island of TongTa: TongaTapu (airport code TBU) THERE
Important: Unless you are arriving / departing on Wednesday’s or Saturdays, booking companies like KAYAK & sky-scanner will not find tickets for you.
If you are coming from North America or USA please note that you cross the international date line.
HOW TO BOOK : DIRECT TO VAVA'U THROUGH FIJI. (recommended)
Saturday, Tuesday’s and Wednesday usually have direct flights from Fiji’s capital Nadi (airport code NAN) on Fiji Airways:
1. Check Kayak / sky scanner and see if your route will take you through Fiji, if not, you will need to fly through the main island.
Tips: Use the + or - 2 days in your search as there is a time zone jump. Tonga is on the other side of the date line than the USA. This means they are 1 day earlier than the USA and north America. Please take into account when booking your flights.
If you do not have a direct flight through Fiji to Vava’u VAV, You will need to fly first to Nuku’ Alofa (Tonga’s Capital) and then take a hopper flight. Follow these instructions listed below if passing through Nuku' Alofa (aka Tonga Tapu, "TBU").
HOW TO BOOK : Tonga Tapu (TBU) through Fiji. (To Vava'u)
Check time of arrival into Nuku' Alofa, Tonga Tapu. (TBU)
Look up flights to TBU (Tonga Tapu, the main island of TONGA)
Go to http://www.realtonga.to/ and find your flights from TBU to VAV
Make sure the time’s / dates correspond (keep in mind dateline is between TONGA and North America)
Send your flight details to firstname.lastname@example.org
IMPORTANT: If you fly through TBU, you will land at the international terminal. The domestic termi- nal is about 5 minutes away by Taxi and will cost 10 Tongan Dollars (roughly 5 US dollars). It is ad- visable to Aquire some Tongan money before the trip as ATM’s are not always reliable.
*Make sure you leave enough time during transit to collect your bags and drive to the domestic airport, a few hours before your flight.
There are no domestic flights (between Tongan islands) on Sundays.
Visas are not required for citizens of the US, UK, Canada, Europe, Russia, Australia and some other countries up to 30 days. Please check https://tonga.visahq.com/ for your country in order to obtain a visa in advance.
If you are having trouble finding your flights or figuring out how to reach the island please contact us so we can assist you in booking.
What you will eat
We will provide 3 healthy, delicious, meals per day. There will be access to snacks throughout the day, fresh coconuts from the garden, and clean water. We can accommodate many food intolerances and allergies, so if you have any allergies or preferences please let us know ahead of time so we may attempt to prepare for your stay. Lunches will also be prepared in the morning to take with us for eating out on the boat.
There may be times where we will have dinner out instead of at the house, which will also be included in the price.*
All meals and additional snacks will be included in the price. However, if you wish to purchase other items, or alcohol at a local restaurant or shop, please remember these will be at your discretion.
*Alcohol is not included