With Canon Master, Nature & Wildlife Photographer, Darren Jew
Canon/AIPP Australian Science, Environment and Nature Photographer of the Year 2013, 2012, 2010, 2009, 2007 and 2013 AIPP Canon ‘Master of Photography’. “Having been inspired to explore a career in nature photography by my father’s travels in Antarctica, I now pursue a passion for capturing and sharing the wonder of the natural world.” Join me and the humpbacks on our yearly migration to Tonga! 8 and 10-day trips are on offer in 2015 and 2016, with a maximum of 6 participants on each tour. Swim with these majestic creatures under experienced guidance in the clear, warm waters of the South Pacific and receive expert photo advice–both on and off the water.
2017 Tour dates: FULLY BOOKED
If you’re considering travelling with me to Tonga to swim with humpback whales, please read the following information fully and carefully: The art of swimming with and photographing whales The opportunity to swim with humpback whales is a privilege. The act of swimming with humpback whales is an art. Every day is different on the water, and every encounter is unique. We swim with whales most days, but on some days this may only be briefly. Other days we swim for longer periods. We have known days where we have not swum with whales and that’s the reason we advocate multi-day trips– so that by the end of your tour we expect to have helped you experience a range of encounters with these incredible animals.
Weather and sea conditions
Sitting north of the Topic of Capricorn, Tonga has a maritime climate. Whale season is late Winter and early Spring. There are cloudy days. Sometimes it rains. The wind can blow, hard at times. It can also be sunny, still and hot. We whaleswim in all conditions, the whales don’t seem to mind about the weather. We look for whales over an area of approximately 300 square nautical miles. This is a mix of calm sheltered waterways, areas effected by wind chop and sometimes we are in open sea swells. The areas we search on particular days are determined by the previous days encounters, the weather and sea conditions and sometimes gut instinct. The clearest water is often (but not always) well off-shore.
There will be a maximum of 6 guests on your tour and you will be split into two groups of 3. Each group takes alternate swims, and the group on the boat helps get cameras and people out of the water. This ensures efficient group changes, gives you a chance to catch your breath, to shoot surface activity etc. We aim to ensure everyone has similar experiences across the week. We choose groups of 3+ guide so that there are less arms, legs and cameras to get in the way of your photographs. The whale swimming guidelines allow for 4 people in the water (plus guide) and on occasion (for whatever reason) there may be a fifth person in the water with your group.
We swim with whales in Tonga, we don’t SCUBA dive with whales. Our groups stay close together and in the water your guide will be leading the encounter, in the best interests of the whales–and with your safety in mind. Most of your encounters will be on the surface of the water. On occasion your guide may allow you to leave the surface, but only under their strict direction. Your guide and skipper are the authority both on and in the water and you will be expected to respect the decisions they make, and their directions, at all times.
Our preferred vessel is Dream Catcher. She’s 7 metres long, and offers our skipper great visibility around the whales. She’s powerful and manoeuvrable and allows us excellent access in to and out of the water. She’s marine toilet-equipped, has a spot for a nap up in the bow if you need it, and a small cabin area with some shelter from the sun or rain. Occasionally through the season Dream Catcher will require servicing, and we will have the use of an alternate vessel.
You don’t need to be an elite athlete to take part in a Whaleswim Photography Tour. But you DO need to have a good level of fitness to get the most of your tour. You will be required to swim reasonable distances (+/- 100metres) in sometimes choppy sea, dragging your camera through the water. Sometimes this may happen multiple times in a day. It can be draining. You should start a program of walking or regular swimming to ensure you are ready to get the most out of your trip.
Ensure you are comfortable snorkelling BEFORE you come to Tonga. In most instances you will be in water where you can not see the bottom.
Please test your gear for fit and comfort before you come to Tonga as there are no shops to purchase alternate gear locally. Masks: I prefer a dark-skirt mask which will stop the annoying reflections evident in clear-skin masks. The glass of all brand new masks needs to be thoroughly cleaned of a residual silicone coating left over from manufacture. This is done with toothpaste and a toothbrush. If you don’t remove this layer of residue your mask will fog-up every time. If you don’t like spitting in your mask as an anti-fog treatment, bring sea-drops or similar. Fins: Slightly negatively buoyant, full-foot fins are advised. Fins that require the use of neoprene booties will make your feet float… not the preferred position in the water when photographing, and floating feet tend to splash a lot, which is not good around the whales. Wet suit: The water is ‘warm’ in Tonga (around 24 C in early August to approx 28C in October), but some people still feel the cold. It can be cold when you’re wet up on deck and its windy or raining. You may be in and out of the water all day so you will require some form of wetsuit vest that will keep you warm and protected from the harsh tropical sun. I use a long-sleeved, .5mm wetsuit vest only, so the top half of my body is buoyant and the bottom half has a chance to sink. ’Shorty’ and ‘steamer’ wetsuits are warmer, but the more neoprene you have on the bottom half of your body, the more your bottom half will float, which is not the ideal position in the water when photographing.
The Whaleswim Photography Tours are designed with photographers in mind. We don’t expect you to arrive in Tonga as a whale photography expert, but its fine if you are. If you want to make the most of the tour, we would suggest that you have an understanding of basic photography principles so that the tuition we supply in the limited time we have together can be about things specific to underwater/whale photography. We can, and do, accommodate all cameras from point-and-shoots up to housed full-frame DSLRs on the boat, and caring for equipment is all part of the day’s activities. We respect the whales and the privilege they afford us and we don’t put photographs ahead of the whales’ best interests.
Non-photographers are very welcome and if that is you, you won’t feel out of place. In fact photographers love having you around… it means… less photographers on the boat.
Underwater camera equipment
If you are an experienced underwater photographer used to wide angle lenses and RAW file formats, you probably don’t need to read on. If you are new to this and need to purchase equipment, do so well in advance, do a basic photography course and practice with it (even in a pool) prior to the trip. Please do just not turn up and take a new camera and/or housing out of the box. Underwater photography is a big investment in dollars, time and energy and there are really four options to choose from based on your level of commitment: All-weather cameras; Housed Point and Shoot compacts; Mirrorless Systems and Housed DSLRs. Where you fit in to that range will depend on your budget, your commitment and your ability to physically move your kit through the water .. and through the airports you’ll transit en-route to Tonga. A Housed DSLR system will add an additional 20-25kgs to your luggage, not to mention the hit on your bank balance. A great alternative to a DSLR is a “mirrorless” system (such as the Canon EOS-M) which offer great image quality with out the weight and bulk of a DSLR. The best of the housed compact cameras is probably the Canon G series (which has RAW file capability), but ensure you get a housing that allows full control of settings. All-weather cameras will get photos of whales but aren’t ideal as you are limited to .jpeg files which have limited capacity to be adjusted in post-processing.
Terrestrial camera equipment
Don’t forget to bring your ‘land” camera as well… the whale’s surface activity is sometimes awesome, and the islands are picturesque. If you don’t have two cameras consider a compact point-and-shoot for surface snaps.
I’ll be available to answer your photography questions at all times. Obviously its hard to do complicated tuition on the boat while we’re looking for whales (our main priority) or in the water, with snorkels in our mouths, so we want to get as much of the basics sorted early in the tour and fine-tune things during our afternoon sessions and over meals.
Post-processing and editing time
Each afternoon we return to the house and have a couple of hours before dinner to download, edit and process the day’s images. Guests who want to make the most of this time will have their own laptop and post-processing software. My preferred workflow includes Adobe Lightroom. Please consider purchasing Lightroom and doing an introductory course in its use prior to coming. The techniques I would like to share are particular to underwater photography and participants will get the most out of this editing time if they are already familiar with Lightroom or their chosen program.
Meals and accommodation for the tour
We choose to stay at Talau House, a short 10-15 minute walk from the main town of Neiafu. Our hosts Theresa, Foster and Brian look after us with breakfasts and most dinners and they provide the lunches we take aboard Dream Catcher each day. Occasionally we will choose to eat at a restaurant in town for an evening meal. Talau house has 4 guest rooms, guests share 2 bathrooms, a lounge a breezy deck, a self-contained kitchen and a lovely garden setting. We choose to be in town for the photography tours as the logistics of whale swimming and photography does not always fit with outer -island living with its unreliable power for charging, lack of fresh water for cleaning cameras etc. We also like to determine our search-pattern based on factors other than where we are staying.
On occasion during the season, if weather and sea conditions permit, an amazing day trip to the remote island of Toku, 40 nautical miles north of the Vava’u Group, may be undertaken aboard Dream Catcher. If this remote whale swimming option is realised during your trip there will be a surcharge of TOP$100 (Tongan currency) per person to be paid in cash by each member of the group, directly to our boat operator in Vava’u, to cover the extra fuel costs and staff hours this adventure requires.
Experiencing the Islands of the Vava’u Group
Each day you are on the water you will be cruising a Pacific paradise, and at times you will need to pinch yourself to make sure you’re not dreaming. If you would like to further explore the beautiful islands of the Vav’u Group, we suggest you add a couple of days on to your itinerary and stay out on one of the islands. Tonga is a developing country Don’t expect everything to be terribly orderly in Tonga.
Getting to Vava’u
You need to fly Internationally to Nukuʻalofa on the island of Tongatapu in the The Kingdom of Tonga (airport code TBU). This can be done direct from, or via Sydney, Australia; via Auckland, New Zealand; or via Fiji. You then need to fly with the local, domestic airline REAL TONGA between Tongatapu and the islands where we whaleswim, Vava’u. The flight schedules often have you staying “overnight” (or a few hours between mid-night and 6am) in Tongatapu, I would suggest if it is just a transit, that you stay at the Scenic Hotel near the airport. You can get a room, or you can pay a small charge to hang out in the lobby depending on the length of your stopover. Staying at the airport is not comfortable. The International Airport closes, and the Domestic only has concrete floor and wooden benches. The beds and lounges at the Scenic are much nicer.