Tonga – Swimming with Whales

2013_4334_calf_185The opportunity to swim with a humpback whale is a privilege!

On any given day we will never guarantee swimming with a whale. We are at the mercy of the whales themselves and other influencing factors such as weather and sea conditions. We will never harass a whale to get a swim and we will abide by the Laws of the Kingdom of Tonga in permitted interactions.
We do have very experienced Crew that are well versed in working with the whales and identifying those that may want to interact with us.
It is very important to understand that we recommend that people spend a minimum of 4 days on the water to get the interaction they are hoping to get.
Every day is different and presents new and exciting forms of whale behaviour, above and below the water. The more days on the water the chance of witnessing all the different behaviours.

2013_0416_swimmers_fluke_185The art of swimming with 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.

bad_weather_dayWeather 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.

Group size

There will be a maximum of 8 guests on your tour and you will be split into two groups of 4. 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 and gives you a chance to catch your breath. We aim to ensure everyone has similar experiences across the week. The whale swimming guidelines allow for 4 people in the water (plus guide).

Whaleswimming étiquette

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.

In-the-Water Encounters

Although humpback whales are 12 -15 metres long and weigh about 40 ton, they are gentle animals that are always aware that you are in the water.  They will even drop their 5m long pectoral fin or turn their tail fluke to avoid you as they swim by. The calves are very curious and they seem to love to be around us. The thought of being so close to them may be frightening ­but after your first encounter you will understand why they are known as the gentle giants of the sea.

It is very important for you to know that some of the in-the-water encounters with the whales are in very deep water and away from land; therefore, you not only need to be a confident swimmer and snorkeler, but to have overcome any fear of deep water, wearing a mask, snorkel and fins. This is extremely important, as your level of skill and confidence will determine whether our Guide will allow you in the water with the whales. If you feel that your swimming and snorkeling skills could be improved, we suggest that you enroll in snorkeling lessons, improve your swimming skills and fitness to insure the best encounters possible.

Blue_sky_port_maurelle_2015Our vessel – ‘Blue Sky’

Our fully licensed whaleswim vessel is ‘Blue Sky’. She’s 10 metres long and 3 metres wide catamaran, and offers our skipper great visibility around the whales from the fly bridge which has a canopy for protection form the sun. There is room for 5 people when whale-spotting. She’s powerful (2 x 350 hp inboards) and manoeuvrable and allows us easy access in to and out of the water. She’s electric marine toilet-equipped, has a spot for a nap up in the bow if you need it, a cabin area with some shelter from the sun or rain. The large canopy over the deck protects from the sun and the duck-board and 2 ladders allow easy access to and exit from the water. She is a great boat for whale-swimming!

Fitness Level

You don’t need to be an elite athlete to take part in a WhaleSwim Tour. But you DO need to have a good level of fitness and strength to get the most of your tour. You will be required to swim reasonable distances (+/- 100metres) in sometimes choppy sea. 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.

Snorkelling experience

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.

Snorkelling equipment

Please test your gear for fit and comfort before you come to Tonga as there are no shops to purchase alternate gear locally.

We 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.

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.

jesse_vest1Wet suit or WhaleSwim Vest:
We have a sleeveless 3m neoprene vest for hire or purchase for those who don’t feel the cold! The hire cost is AUD$30 or you can purchase for AUD$70 plus postage – to be sent prior to your departure to Tonga. We do not have stock in Tonga, so if you decide you want to purchase a vest during your time with us, we will happily mail it to you when we return to NZ after the season (30 October).

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.
If you feel the cold – then you may want to consider ‘Sharkskin’ products (Google it for information!)

Important! This is an adventure holiday – there may be times during this expedition that you may be stretched beyond your comfort zone. For some, it won’t be a stretch and for others it will – we ask you to be prepared to go for it!! It can be life-changing.