Tonga is a country composed of a group of islands sitting in the Pacific Ocean, between the more well-known destinations of Fiji and French Polynesia. Not many people have heard of Tonga, let alone thought about visiting it. If you have, it’s likely the reason is because you want to swim with humpback whales. Swimming with these majestic animals is a once-in-a-lifetime bucket list experience, and Tonga is one of the few places in the world where you can do so.
But Tonga isn’t the easiest country to visit. Not only is it extremely far from pretty much everywhere, there’s also little information available online and making bookings for tours, accommodation and transport in advance can be difficult.
If you want to visit Tonga, and especially if you want to swim with whales, read on for some tips to help you plan your trip.
When to visit
The whale season is from June to the beginning of October, with August and September being the best time. During this time, humpback whales swim north to Tonga to mate, give birth and nurse their calves in the warmer waters before heading back south for the Antarctic summer.
Weather-wise, May to October is the dry season and also the coolest period. Weather in Tonga may be cooler than you’d expect so for the best weather and best whale watching, we recommend visiting in September.
How to get there
There’s no denying it, Tonga is far! If you’re coming from Europe, you’ll likely need to make two stops – one in the Middle East or Asia, and one in New Zealand or Fiji. Check Qantas, Air New Zealand and Fiji Airways for flights.
Most international flights will arrive in Tongatapu, although Vava’u does have an international airport with direct connections from Fiji.
Which islands to visit
Tonga has over 170 islands but three main island groups. These are Tongatapu in the south, Ha’apai in the middle and Vava’u in the north. There’s also the small island of Eua, just to the southeast of Tongatapu.
Although most international flights arrive in Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa, on the island of Tongatapu, the majority of whale swim operators are actually on the island of Vava’u. Vava’u was the first island group to offer whale swims and has calmer and clearer waters, which has caused it to become the centre of whale watch tourism. There are 10+ operators here and pretty much all the hotels will be able to arrange whale swimming for you. A smaller number of operators offer tours from the other islands of Tongatapu, ‘Eua and Ha’apai, as follows:
- Tanoa Expeditions (our recommendation)
- Deep Blue Diving
- Kiko’s Whale Swim
- Blue Water Retreat
- Diana’s Resort
- Sea Change Eco Retreat
- Serenity Beaches Resort
- Sandy Beach Resort / Matafonua Lodge
Whale swimming aside, Ha’apai is the best region to visit if you’re looking for gorgeous beaches and a relaxed island vibe. All of the whale swim operators here offer beachfront accommodation on secluded white sand beaches which are exactly what you’d imagine of a Pacific Island destination. The whale operators in Tongatapu, on the other hand, are located in the capital of Nuku’alofa which is actually a pretty busy city with heavy traffic and no real beaches.
How much do whale swims cost
The price of whale swims varies quite dramatically so you’ll need to contact the different operators to compare prices. However, as an example, here are the prices (as of September 2023) of some of the operators listed above.
- Tanoa Expeditions: 650 TOP (~$270)
- Deep Blue Diving: 600 TOP (~$250)
- Kiko’s Whale Swim: 700 TOP (~$300)
- Diana’s Resort: 400 TOP (~$170)
- Sea Change Eco Retreat: 380 TOP (~$160)
Many of the operators will offer a discount if you book 3 or 5 whale swims with them. And in Vava’u many of the hotels offer package options where you get a week’s accommodation plus 5 days of whale swimming for a set price.
What to expect on the swim
Most of the operators listed above only have 8 swimmers on the boat (with the exception of Deep Blue which has more). This is important as under Tongan regulations, only 4 people plus a guide can be in the water with a whale at any one time. So the less people in your boat, the more time you’ll have in the water.
Operators should provide you with all your gear – mask, snorkel, fins and wetsuit. Check this with them in advance and don’t be fooled by any claims that you don’t need a wetsuit. Tonga waters are NOT tropical and it can be very cold on the boat even if the sun isn’t out. If you have a rash vest then wear it. It works as an extra layer of warmth and sun protection on the boat. You should also bring the following:
- GoPro or other underwater camera
- Sun cream
Operators usually provide water, tea/coffee and a basic lunch on the boat, but again, check this in advance.
Once you’re out on the water the driver and guide will be on the lookout for humpback whales. If you’re visiting in prime season then it’s likely it won’t take you long to spot any. However, not all whales are suitable for swimming with. If they’re breaching then you’ll have an amazing show from the boat, but you won’t be able to get in the water.
If the whales stick around once the boat approaches and seem calm enough that the guide decides they are suitable to swim with, you will be instructed to put on your snorkel gear and the first four people will get into the water. You’ll then swim over to the whale, trying to make as little splashes as possible.
Every whale is different and you’ll have different experiences. Some calves are extremely playful and will come up to check out the swimmers, even splashing you with their tail. The mum whale may just stay lower down below, with some mums hanging vertically with their tails sticking out the water whilst their calves swim around. Other whales will swim off when you come close. It really depends on the whale and, as with any wildlife encounter, a little bit of luck.
Getting between the islands
A lot of people fly into Tonga, do a few days of whale swimming on the island they arrived at, and then fly out again with a massive bucket list tick. However, if you want to see a bit more of Tonga and travel around, then you have two ways to get between the islands – ferry or flight.
Eua is the closest island to Tongatapu and the easiest to reach by ferry. However, for the other islands, unless you are extremely flexible and have a lot of time, you’ll likely want to consider taking an internal flight between the islands. Lulutai Airlines is the only airline operating domestic flights in Tonga. They offer flights between Tongatapu and all the other islands. They do have a website which will provide you with flight times, but booking online is notoriously difficult and the website usually doesn’t accept foreign cards. If you want to book flights before you arrive, the best thing to do is ask your hotel in Tonga to help you. If you’re in the country already, go into the Lulutai office. They usually have seats available on flights that are showing as fully booked online and you can pay in cash. Note that you can’t fly directly between Ha’apai and Vava’u, you will have to go back via Tongatapu.
If you do want to take the ferry, check “Friendly Island Shipping Agency Ltd”, “Tofa Ramsay Shipping” and “Estc – Mv Maui & MV Onemato” on Facebook for ferry schedules, but note that these will only be posted at the beginning of the week for the week ahead. Friendly Island usually runs one ferry a week going from Tongatapu to Vava’u via Ha’apai, and back again, whereas Tofa Ramsay sometimes offers a couple of different options per week to Vava’u and/or Ha’apai. Generally, ferries between Tongatapu and Eua run every day except Wednesday.
Where to stay
All of the whale swim operators in Ha’apai listed above are resorts where you stay and swim with them. In Vava’u most of the hotels will also have their own boats for whale swimming.
Whilst there is accommodation listed on traditional booking sites, this is limited, and many places will need to be booked directly either through their website (if they have one), messaging them on Facebook, or calling them. However, you can use the button below to have a look on some popular booking sites to see what’s available.
Other things to note
Tonga is very much a cash economy. Most places won’t accept payment by card and if they do, they’ll charge a fee. Even when paying the equivalent of up to US$300 for a whale swim, you’ll likely be expected to pay in cash.
There are a fair amount of ATMs around, including at Tongatapu Airport. All charge $12TOP per withdrawal but allow you to withdraw up to $900TOP. Alternatively, there are currency exchanges and Western Unions at Tongatapu Airport and in the main towns.
Swimming with humpback whales is one of the most magical animal encounters you can have. Their sheer size is simply incredible to see up close. Sharing the water with these graceful and sometimes playful animals is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Tonga may not be the easiest country to travel to, but one thing’s for sure, after looking straight into the eye of a humpback whale, you won’t regret your visit.
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