What you need to know
Which trip is the best? What part of the season should I come in?
Every season is different, every day is different, and every encounter is different. We do 5-7 days on the water to get a variety of encounters and see different behavior. Whale behavior differs throughout the season, but there is no set time in which we encounter battles, singers, or moms and calves. We might encounter a heat run, and a baby whale in the same day. There are days with lots of singers, and days with none. There are days that we spend many hours in the water, and days where we spend only a short time. Nature is dynamic and changing, but with 5-7 days on the water, we will have incredible experiences face to face with humpbacks.
How close do the whales come?
Adults typically know their boundaries and will leave some space. They are very careful and controlled with their body movement, highly precise in the water and very agile and quick. Babies sometimes do not know boundaries. Babies will sometimes come within 1 foot of you (30cm), playfully rolling and looking into your eyes. It is one of the most amazing experiences you can have in life. Adults will be close enough to photograph, and though they may come within an arm's length away, will usually stay 1-2 car lengths away. I use a 14mm Super wide angle lens.
Is swimming with whales dangerous?
If you are respectful to the whales and follow directions it is quite safe. Humpback whales are some of the most gentle and considerate animals in the world, despite their size. Whale swimming is done on their terms under the guidance of me (Karim) and our Tongan captain. Unlike many animals humpback whales are very aware and very considerate (even in the midst of battle). It is incredibly rare that a person is hurt by a humpback whale. People have been swimming with whale guides in Tonga for years, and humpbacks are known as the gentle giants. Whales will move their fins and body to avoid you even if you are directly in their path. One might safely say that more people are killed by falling coconuts each year, than have been hurt by humpback whales in the last 100 years. The most dangerous part of the humpback is the fluke (tail), as it is their means of propulsion, and they cannot see you if you are behind them. We will not approach the fluke. Though swimming with humpbacks is considered safe, they are wild animals. You must follow our instructions while swimming with whales, and we will have the final say.
How often will we swim with whales?
They are wild animals. Sometimes they are more playful, other times more reclusive. There is no guarantee on how long interactions will last.
Interactions can be a few seconds to an hour. There are days where interactions will be minimal, and there are days where we may spend multiple hours in the water. It all depends on the whales and how they feel. If they don’t want to swim with us, we move on.
What type of interactions will we likely encounter?
Whales are very dynamic. There is a huge range of interactions we may have that include: Juveniles playing, mother’s resting with their calves (baby whales), large male singers hovering with their head towards the ocean floor, heat runs (whale battles), playful calves, and maybe even whales playing dolphins. Each whale has a different personality, and they vary with age. One of my most memorable experiences was when I didn’t bring my camera into the water. With more mobility, I was able to swim farther down, and look into the whales eye. From a distance, he began twirling and turning and I did the same. Without the camera there was a very different connection between us and it felt like I was doing an underwater dance with the whale. Every interaction is different, and the possibilities are endless.
Is swimming with whales ethical?
Ethics can be discussed in depth for a lifetime, but generally speaking, there is an ethical way and unethical way to do it. Many of us have heard terrible stories of boat loads of tourists flopping around in the water with whale sharks and other animals in Asia, which can cause a great disturbance. We will NOT be interacting with whales in that way. Our boat holds a maximum of 6 guests. We will be split into 2 teams taking turns, which means only 3 people will be with me (Karim) in the water at a time. We stay together, move quietly and completely on the whales terms. If they don’t want to interact with us, they will very quickly leave, or indicate that we should leave. In Tonga they do a great job of making sure that whales are in charge and that interactions do not cause stress or disturbance. Some whales will be unfazed by us, while others may be fascinated, curious, and playful. We will be flexible based on the situation.
Are whales more active at different parts of the day?
Unlike humans, it doesn’t seem to make a difference what time of day / night it is. Whales and dolphins need to surface at regular intervals to breathe, so they can only put half their brain to sleep at a time. Unlike humans, whales might sleep at all times of day or night.
Swimming level and fitness level required?
You must be reasonably fit and able to swim & snorkel. You should be able to swim 200 meters (or a few times back in forth in a pool) to reach whales from the boat, there will be varying conditions such as choppy waters. You will need to be able to swim back to the boat to climb on via ladder or pulling yourself up onto the back. You will need to be comfortable snorkeling and wearing fins. Before the trip, we strongly recommend spending as much time in the water as you can to maximize your experience with the whales. Most people are physically capable of this trip. In addition to providing warmth, wetsuit and lycra shirts provide additional flotation, and is recommended. We will not be wearing life vests.
*Please note: If you are over the age of 60 we will need you to have a physician document stating you are physical fit for intense cardiac activity, and endurance.
Do I need any certifications; SCUBA or Freediving?
Nope! Although it is always beneficial to have diving certifications, there is no need for any formal certifications. We will not be using oxygen nor SCUBA diving. It is forbidden to SCUBA dive with the humpback whales. All you need is a snorkel, mask, fins and a wetsuit. We will only be snorkeling and freediving with the whales. If you would like more information for what gear to bring check out our pack list below!
We will be snorkeling. Scuba diving is forbidden when swimming with the humpbacks. Humpbacks use bubbles in their battles to obscure vision and create bubble screens to hide behind and obscure females, and can be interpreted as aggressive.
How big are the groups?
Our boat holds 6 guests + myself, and crew. We will split into 2 groups of 3 taking turns in the water with the whales. I (Karim) will be in the water with both teams. One of the crew may also join us in the water. So there will be a maximum of 5 of us in the water at any time. When there is a baby we stay close together as a group so as not to disturb the whales. With adults, we are more free to move around.
Is any gear provided?
No gear is provided. You must bring your own snorkel, mask, fins, camera, towel, etc. We will have defog on the boat and basic first aid on the boat. We are happy to advise you on snorkel equipment
How long will be out on the water for?
Our boat will go out in the morning and come back late afternoon so as to maximize our time with the whales.
What is the water temperature?
Water temperature is typically between 23- 27 degrees Celsius (73-81 Fahrenheit) at this time of year in Tonga. For most people, this will seem like warm tropical water, but make note that water strips heat from your body much faster than air. People who get cold easily may want a full wetsuit. I am quite slim, grew up in warm climates and get cold easily. I wear a 3mm full body wetsuit. People who are more resilient to the cold may at least want to consider wetsuit shirt . We are spending all day on the boat.
How is the water clarity?
It is often incredibly clear in Tonga. I have seen visibility more than 60 meters (200 feet). This is not a guarantee and some parts / days don’t have as good visibility, but overall, visibility is much better than in places like Hawaii. Tongan visibility is among the best in the world.
Though it is the end of winter in Tonga (Southern Hemisphere) we are close to the equator so it is tropical) Lows are typically 72 Fahrenheit (22 Celsius) and highs of 81Fahrenheit (27 Celsius) with 12 hours of daylight. Whether can be clear, cloudy, overcast, light to moderate rain, mildly humid. Wind typically 3-14 miles per hour.
How to get to Vava'u Tonga
Airport code for Vava'u is VAV. You will most likely need to fly through Tonga's main airport in Nukuʻalofa (airport code TBU) on "Real Tonga" (airline) unless you are flying on Saturday or Wednesday when there are direct flights to/from Fiji (Nadi international Airport, airport code NAN). If you are transferring through Nuku'alofa, we will arrange your transfer to the domestic terminal when you land. Note: We will help you with flights if need be.
NOTE: You will have to book the final flight to Vava'u directly on REAL TONGA airlines (kayak and skyscanner will show no results
There are no domestic flights on Sundays.
For more information and details please head over to our About page.
How's the food?
Quite good. We will have a variety of meals prepared for us. Breakfast before we go, dinner at night, and lunch on the boat. We’ll be well fed.
What if I have dietary restrictions?
We can accommodate your basic dietary restrictions. vegetarian, celiac, etc. More complicated dietary restrictions like Kosher may be more difficult. Send us an email and we’ll see what we can do.
How’s the accommodation?
It is not extravagant or luxurious, but it is comfortable, clean, and there will be space to clean camera gear / process photos. We will be in a shared living space, some may have our own rooms to sleep in, but there will be some sharing rooms. If you are coming with a friend or partner and you want to share a room, let us know and we can arrange this.
Yes, but remember we are in tonga. Don’t expect incredible speeds. Enough to send photos, check emails, social media, and standard web use.
Is there a rest day?
In Tonga, everyone takes Sunday as a day of rest, including the whales. We will not be on the boat on Sunday. There may be another optional activity like snorkeling or free diving, or you can rest. Most Tongans go to church on Sunday singing beautiful music.
What does the price include?
Note: All prices are in US dollars and includes:
Food & snacks - 3 meals a day (most dietary restrictions can be accommodated at no extra cost)
Accommodation for the duration of trip (private room), laundry, housekeeping & wifi
Airport pickup / drop off
Water, Coffee, Tea
Transport to / from dock
Optional photography workshop (evenings)
Dance with whales T-shirt or Tote
Photo selection from trip
Boat, experienced guide, captain, permits, whale swimming
Not included: Airfare, alcohol, extra snacks, shopping, Sunday excursions (rest day)
I am not a photographer. Can I come?
No matter. This trip is geared towards photographers and non photographers. Many people prefer to go without camera to fully immerse themselves. I have left my camera on the boat at times to not have any distractions and have had incredible experiences. The photography portion / explanation will occur in the evening times back at the house and will be optional.
Will I be provided with photographic equipment?
No, we can only provide advice. If you are doing photography, you must bring your own camera gear.
Things to note:
We will have buckets on the boats with fresh water for your camera
When and who enters the water will be at the final discretion of me, our whale guides and boat captain.
-Mask, snorkel, fins (it is best to get fins that do not require boots, socks are ok)
-Reusable water bottle (we try to minimize our plastic impact)
-Clothing, toiletries, personal medications, etc.
-Reef safe sunscreen
-Personal hygiene items (*see below)
Recommended pack list (*continued)
Wetsuit: Full, Top, Spring suit or Shorty. We will spend long amounts of time in the water, even with water temperatures 23-27 degrees Celsius (73-81F) water can strip your body heat.
Jacket/Sweater for night and after swimming
Rain Jacket. (In case of rain during the day)
Extra snacks for yourself
Backpack/bag and/or waterproof bag for carrying items on the boat (we will have a dry section on the boat if needed)
Thermos for hot tea. This is the best way to warm up if you tend to get cold on the boat.
Headlamp or flashlight
Clothes to wear for dinner in town. (casual)
International Electric Converter (new zealand/australia)
Personal first aide kit (limited access for items)
If you are doing photography:
Camera, Underwater housing, memory cards, laptop, chargers, lens, etc.
Ladies, there is limited access to everyday essentials. There is a small market but it can also be pricey. Please bring needed items with you.
Shampoo/conditioner, shaving razor, extra hair scrunchies, tampons/pads, midol/ibuprofen, etc.
Recommended: Diva Cups. These are one of the easiest and most comfortable ways to swim during your time of the month. :)
It is best to pack light while making sure you have the essentials for the sake of increased mobility while traveling.
What is the local currency?
Tongan dollars, referred to as TOP is about 2:1 to the dollar. 1 US dollar is 2 Tongan dollars.
Are there ATM’s?
Yes there are ATM’s on Vava’u. You may want some cash on hand in order to buy extra snacks, or souvenirs.
There are a few methods you can use. Transferwise, Check, Paypal, wire transfer. We will guide you through this when you sign up.
When you sign up there is a minimum $1000 USD non-refundable deposit required to hold your spot on the trip. We will then guide you through payment, or you can set up a payment plan that fits your needs. The total amount is due by the beginning of March, unless prior payment arrangements have been made.
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.
Vaccines and health?
Please make sure you are up to date on your routine vaccinations. Please check the CDC’s website for further information here:
Do I need insurance?
You must have health insurance and basic travel insurance (typically required by most workshops and organized trips).
We recommend www.worldnomads.com. You will need to sign a liability waiver prior to coming on the trip.
Are there any dangerous animals in Tonga?
As in most places there are few animals that can be poisonous or dangerous to humans. Unless provoked, it is rare to be hurt by animals in Tonga. The best approach is not to touch the marine life. For those unfamiliar with stone fish, when walking through shallow water, you should shuffle your feet though the sand and the stone fish will move out of the way. We will be swimming with the whales via boat, so we will unlikely be walking through shallow water.
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