3 years ago, I went to Tonga for one of the most epic experiences of my travel life – swimming with humpback whales – and I ended up suffering my biggest disappointment – there were no whales to be seen. I still had an amazing time in Tonga, exploring its gorgeous landscapes and unique culture, and I promised myself I would come back one day. A couple of weeks ago, when I saw that the whale swimming season was in full blow, I didn’t think it twice, and I booked a flight to Vava’u over Labor Day weekend. As I fly back home, I can’t erase the smile from my face, it’s been such a dream come true.
This time around, I was only going to be in Vava’u for 3 days, so I chose to stay at the Tongan Beach Resort, which couldn’t compare to my previous experience in the idyllic island of Eue’iki, but was the only place that offered a swimming beach while being reachable by car from the airport. It turned out to be a nice spot, and I enjoyed some beach time on Saturday, after landing at 11am, and on Sunday… yep, because of the flight schedules and the fact that Tongans are devoted Christians and don’t operate any business on Sunday, my chances of swimming with whales were reduced to Monday.
When Monday morning came around, the stakes were super high, and I was so excited I had barely slept. My resort had booked me with one of the several official operators out of Neiafu, which charge around $150-200 for about 7 hours, and their boat picked me up at 8am right from our pier. About an hour in, we spotted some blows in the distance, and as we got close, we quickly realized it was a mother and a calf, the most likely pod to encounter, since the whales come to the warm, tranquil waters of Vava’u precisely to give birth.
We jumped in the water several times, but the whales kept diving deep, which is pretty rare, since calves are usually curious and tend to play around in the surface. After a few attempts, we noticed there was also a so-called escort, and his presence might have been affecting the behavior. I got to see the whales a couple of times, it was very cute to see the little calf sticking to the side of his mom – but it was too brief. We eventually gave up and went to search for another pod.
Soon, we spotted a single adult whale, and we jumped back into the water. The following hour was out of this world. We swam with the whale, which would come close to us, flip around, and go deep and back up to the surface. I could perfectly make its eyes, the protuberances in its jaw and fins, the cracks in its white belly. And I could feel its power, getting sucked into the suction created by its dorsal fins, and into a full-on whirlwind created by its tail. It was a huge, powerful and elegant animal, and I couldn’t resist getting too close, and even touching it.
I tried to take in every detail, every movement. Swimming side by side with the whale, staying behind to see it disappear in the blue depth, free diving with it, rolling around myself to imitate it. For a while, I lost track of time and forgot I was with a guide and a group, they had to drag me out of the water. We alternated with another boat, only having 4 people plus a guide in the water at any time – you have to appreciate how Tongans are trying to not overexploit their natural wonder.
After a few immersions, we headed out to try to find a mother and a calf to swim with, but this time we didn’t get lucky. The boat also stopped at some caves where you can free dive, but the rest of the group had already done it, and I was so giddy from the whale swim that I couldn’t be bothered. We were back on the pier at about 3pm, and I immediately crashed into a blissful nap.
On Tuesday, before heading to the airport, I still had a couple hours to enjoy Vava’u a bit more. I went for a run through remote villages, full of laughing children in school uniforms, and kayaked along the shoreline, enjoying the turquoise waters, and cracking up with the infamous “fishing pigs”. Tonga is such a breathtaking and special place, even the views from the plane as you take off are unforgettable. I’m sure I will be back.