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Tonga’s majestic whales

There are few wildlife encounters that allow you to get so up close and personal, while maintaining a respect for the animal and their environment. In Tonga, they have found a way to peacefully interact with the whales while causing minimum impact and stress on them.

Each year from mid-July to mid-October, Tonga’s serene islands become the resting place for the majestic humpback whales and the islands of Ha’apai are just one spot you can experience this. It is a safe haven for the migrating humpback whales from the Antarctic as these calm warm waters of Ha’apai offer refuge for the whales to breed, birth and socialise before making the arduous journey back south.

Tonga is one of only a few countries in the world where you can swim with humpback whales. Here, the experience is carefully managed with sensible tourism guidelines and experienced guides to ensure minimal impact on the whales and their environment.

From Nuku’alofa airport, take a domestic flight out to Ha’apai, just one of the destinations in Tonga for superb whale encounters. A short drive from the airport to the harbour and one very scenic boat ride across the waters and you arrive at Seachange Eco Retreat.

The retreat is located on Uoleva Island, which is part of the Ha’apai Island group, and provides unique luxury beach front accommodation with the lightest possible footprint. Whale swim tours from Seachange go beyond frolicking with whales in the tropical turquoise waters of Ha’apai, with other activities such as relaxing on the beautiful white sandy beaches, snorkelling the coral reefs, reading your favourite book in a hammock, sipping on cocktails as the sun goes down.

Depending on the weather, mornings at Seachange begin with a healthy breakfast before heading out on the boat in search of whales. Joined by experienced and knowledgeable guides, swimmers are briefed about the importance of respecting the whales in their space to ensure a safe interaction for both whales and swimmers.

Finding the whales and watching them from the surface is exhilarating to start with. They are everywhere in these waters, but there is a lot of water for them to hide in. Adult humpbacks will surface every 20 minutes, expelling the spent air through their blowholes before gulping down fresh oxygen. Known as a ‘blow’, you can spot these some 3km away, a fine mist that rises above the waves.

The boat races towards a sighting and then waits for the whales to surface again. The vast array of interesting behaviours from the whales include a graceful spy hop, powerful fin or fluke slaps to continual full body breaching and inquisitive approaches to the boat. Add to this the use of a hydrophone (waterproof microphone) to listen to the magical whale love songs and the experience above the water in incredible.

When you dive beneath the surface into some of the bluest clear waters, then that experience is emphasized beyond belief. Some could even call it life-changing, as you snorkel towards a resting mother humpback whale while her calf playfully swims nearby.

Trying to keep the legal distance from the whales can be challenging, with the young whales often keen to come up and investigate the swimmers. As these beautiful creature glide past you, majestic and curious, it is hard to contain the rush of emotions.

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If you want to experience Tonga’s humpback whales, Where Wild Things Roam Travel have special departures in 2021 and 2022.