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That Ha'apai Feeling - Swimming with whales in Tonga

I have a whale of a time in Tonga's friendly islands!

The old man in the sulu listens intently to the announcement in Tongan and then shakes his head slightly at me. The flight is cancelled.

Tonga has one of the nicest domestic airports in the pacific, landscaped neatly with a lawned park and a bright coffee hut. Nice as it is, the point of an airport is to go somewhere else and we’re not going anywhere. The weather has closed in and all 3 of Real Tongas fleet of aircraft are grounded in Ha'apai, the small island group where I should be right now swimming with whales. The airline will reschedule us for a flight, another day when the weather improves. Meanwhile, I'm stuck in Nuku'alofa.

Luckily, there's more to Tonga than whales. The kingdom, the only kingdom left in the Pacific, has an ancient history with royal tombs and monoliths dotted around the islands as well as a proud Polynesian heritage visible everywhere you look. The busy markets are filled with exotic fruits, vegetables and fish as they flow from the town centre down under palm trees to the seafront where fishing boats mix with cargo ships. So I make use of the flight delay by taking more of a look around the capital.

"Now we are on the Democratic"

My taxi driver's dream is to be a full-time pig farmer. Pigs are a sort of currency in Tonga, where it's still tradition to give them as dowry for brides and to the king on his coronation.

Tongans love their king, they respect his hereditary line, but they now vote for their political leaders rather than give the appointment automatically to a king and his Nobles. It's a recent change that's come on the back of some financially un-savvy and culturally unpopular business decisions by a previous king.

The current king, Tupou VI, whose coronation was in June 2015, is the first to be crowned in a democratic Tonga. My driver thinks things are better now Tonga is "on the democratic". His beef was with the ministers and administrators, not the king. Now that they must curry favour with the population to stay in their job, he says they seem to get a lot more done.


Tonga is the epitome of the quiet island life. Things here run peaceful and slow, a bit like the water lapping at the bay and the steady tropic rain dripping from verandahs. "Nuku'alofa" a friend from Vanuatu informed me on a rainy Sunday afternoon in the capital, "makes Port Vila look like New York."

The country is deeply religious. Sunday is for church and sitting at home with family contemplating the good life. By law, shops, cafes, even the Chinese owned supermarkets, are closed and I'd thought they were 24-7. The few tourist resorts and hotels are exempt from closure, so you find a lot of people sneaking off there after church for lunch, a swim and maybe a round of golf.

On this Sunday, Tonga's world cup rugby match clashed with church services. The entire country put its services back an hour to allow people to watch the end of the game. After all, rugby is the game they play in heaven.

Meeting the Locals

On Monday, I decide to take the local bus to do some site-seeing further afield. We crawl around the island at 15kmph past the swimming pigs, three-headed coconut tree, ancient monoliths and other Tongan oddities. It's enough time for the woman next to me to decide to marry me off to her son. Never mind the son isn't on the bus and knows nothing about this. She tries out my new Tongan name and likes the sound of it. She speaks about us all moving to Perth.

It's one thing to meet the locals, but it's another to get married off to them. I decide it's time to get off the bus.

Finally, into the Blue

The next morning I return to the airport, it's not raining which is a good sign. After we board, the pilot steps into the isle, leaning his elbow casually on a seat he gives the safety briefing to the 14 of us on board.

Aerial shot of Tongan Islands

I’m staying on Uoleva Island, just off the tip of Pangai in the Ha'apai group of islands and it requires a boat trip to get there. As we cross the channel I keep my eyes on the horizon for whales. I think I spot the telltale white spray but it's just a surf break. Then, off to my right -. My eyes remain glued to the spot and suddenly a mass of grey erupts from the sea, folds over and white spray explodes into the sky. The whale breaches about 5 more times before it's gone. The two local children on the boat point and shout ‘whale’ at each splash but we’re still too far away to really call this a ‘whale encounter’.

Arriving at the island I wade ashore and my host, Patti, greets me. ‘Finally’ I’ve arrived. My cancelled plane has shortened my trip but she's kindly rearranged my schedule, booking my whale boat for the next day. The rest of today I enjoy kayaking and snorkelling in the crystal clear coral waters.

This is an 'eco' resort. There is no electricity. Sea breezes take care of the hot air while hot water comes from a solar bag jobby that’s lying in the sun. But things are far from basic. My bure is spectacular. A sort of rotunda open to the tropical bushland on each side with glimpses through the coconut trees to the sea. As I pull my whale doona over me, my last thoughts are that tomorrow I will get to swim with the whales.

Patti looks stricken. There has been a mix up with the bookings and there is no room for me on board the boat. Pushing my flight back is out of the question, I've tried several times but the planes are full for the next week, and so are the other 2 whale boats on Pangai. I'm hoping that things will have a way of working out, and, an hour later, Patti runs up me breathless. Someone has cancelled and there is a space in the boat if I can get there in time. So I grab my towel and sprint down the beach.

“Get ready.” Tom, our Tongan skipper, tells us “In 5 mins you’ll be swimming.” Naively, I think he means we’ll be having a warm up swim, a bit of a snorkel around the coral or something, not dropping into the deep blue next to mother whale and her calf. Even though this is what I'm here to do the looming realisation of it being about to happen is immense.

I have a sudden stomach-churning fear of swimming up to a whale in the open ocean. It's one thing to theoretically consider the unique adventure of swimming beside a whale as a bucket-list experience of a lifetime. It's another thing entirely to actually throw yourself into the deep, dark blue. But there’s no time to think as our team of 4 drop over the side of the boat and swim forward. I'm right there with them, of course, there is no way I'm missing this.

A lump of grey appears in front of us and we keep swimming toward it, closer and closer until I’m eye to eye with a baby whale that’s the size of a 2 tonne truck and her semi-trailer sized mother sleeping just below. 5 minutes we will swim with them, our guide tells us, just to see if they like us being there. I don’t bother to ask what happens if they object.


We stay just out of the way observing quietly how the young one moves rising to the surface every 3-4 mins while its mother only needs to rise every 30 or so. Then we head back to the boat exhilarated. The other 3 whale watchers drop in and we’re instantly jealous as mum rises to the surface and the baby tries a breach waving its petrol fins around in the air. After another 5 mins it's our team's turn again, this time for 10 mins. Mum is back underwater but the baby continues to play, slapping its tail on the water for us. After another team swap we leave this mum and calf to have some quality time without half a dozen wet suited weirdos with go-pros loitering nearby.

For the rest of the day, we cruise about trying to spot whales and swimming out to those we find. The whales that don’t want us near them stay just ahead of the boat and we don’t chase them. Each time we enter the water Tom takes the boat away a distance and cuts the motor. We float in the ocean, within viewing distance of the whale, not reaching distance. There are strict protocols around what we can do, how many can be in the water, how close we can get and for how long. The idea is to get close enough to see them, to quietly observe their behaviour without disturbing them.

Ha'apai is one of two island groups in Tonga that do the whale swim. The other is Vava’u, a much more accessible and busy spot for tourists and whale boats. In Ha'apai the ocean is vast, the boat numbers are few, less than a handful, and you may not even see another all day, which not only makes it a better experience for us humans, it makes it a better for the whale as well.

I can't believe I’m floating in the ocean with a pair of whales. Far from being fear-inducing it’s the most peaceful, serene experience. The baby doesn’t go far from its mum, returning after each jaunt to the surface to touch, swim under and nudge. The water is a surreal sapphire blue, only adding to the dreamlike state. I can count the barnacles on the mother as I float here, I’m that close and we are that still. After all humans have done to these animals they are entirely gentle.

As we bob around in the boat watching the other group on their last swim I ask Tom, who is smiling wistfully at the whale, doesn't he want to take a swim with them?

“Oh no,” He laughs, he's happy to watch them from the boat “I don’t like swimming in deep water with large animals!”


Thinking about a trip to TONGA?

WHERE: Tonga is in the eastern south pacific, right up against the date line. It is an archipelago of around 170 islands, less than 40 are inhabited.

GO: There are flights to Nuku'alofa from NZ, Australia and Fiji. From Nuku'Alofa take Royal Tonga Airlines to the islands or go with the cargo by Ferry (yeah, the boat takes a loooong time).

STAY: I stayed at Nerima Lodge in central Nuku its run by a Kiwi-Tongan couple who are super lovely. At Ha'apai I splashed out and stayed at the Serenity Beaches Resort run by Patti who is also very sweet and helpful but honestly all the resort options looked good in Ha'apai and you have to take what you can get in Whale season!

SWIM: 2 Island groups, Ha'apai and Vava'u, conduct swimming with whales adventures. Vava'u has the most boats and visitors. It gets pretty busy on the water. Ha'apai is a much less touristy place with only 3 or 4 operators and not much more in the way of accommodation. BOOK EARLY. Or go to Eua Island where there's whale watching but no swimming.

WHEN: July - Late September

FIND OUT MORE: Destination: Tonga




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