Sonny, our driver, was halfway over the boat’s wooden side, pointing at shadows. “Look below you,” he said. The five of us leaned expectantly towards his finger. The sea below was so clear I could count starfish on the bottom. “What do you see?” he asked, as his finger moved slowly along the vessel’s prow. What looked like two charcoal-colored atolls were actually the broad backs of a mother humpback whale and her calf, drifting towards us. The mother exhaled, close enough to shower us with her salty breath.
The Kingdom of Tonga sprawls across the Pacific migration route of these giant beasts and, between June and November, adult females stop here to mate and give birth. From the shores of any one of the country’s 170 islands, you can witness them spouting, flipping and playing with their young. But for the more curious – or crazy, according to some locals – Tonga is one of only two places in the world where travelers can also arrange to meet the whales in the water.
Though the Tourism Board gladly boasts of this distinction, a trickle of tourists has kept the county refreshingly free of over-priced, over-crowded whale-watching barges. There are no package-tourists or eco-hazardous operators, which can and have marred the humpback experience in other locations such as Hawaii and the American West Coast. Sometimes my boyfriend and I were the only witnesses to the creatures’ passage near us and if we did share a sighting, it was never with more than three or four other people.
“As long as you can see the ocean,” one guest house owner told us, “you can see a whale.” Sightings of the gentle giants are so frequent during the season they threaten to become commonplace. Flying Chatham Pacific, on a domestic route between the main island chains of Tongatapu and Ha’apai, their massive broadsides outpaced our plane’s shadow. Later, wedged into one of the rustic ferries that provide a slower route between the chains, we noticed several humpbacks lounging in the ship’s wake. On Sonny’s boat, we caught them quite accidentally, and paid a gasoline fee of only 30 pa’anga, or about $17 US.
It is possible to arrange an informal trip through many of the native-run guest houses in the Tongatapu and Ha’apai chains. A lower price means older life jackets and a dubious motor boat, but it also means the impassioned expertise of a lifelong ‘Friendly Islander’. Or, as we quickly discovered in this developing country, if the guest house doesn’t own a pontoon, someone else in the family inevitably does. Cousin Afi is always willing to show off Tonga’s charms for a few extra pa’anga, and he’s most likely an avid sea conservationist, as well. If you’re a confident swimmer and find a trustworthy relative, this can be the cheapest and most grass-roots way to support the industry.
Otherwise, the majority of whale-swimming outfitters are based in the third island chain, Vava’u. Unfortunately, so are most of the region’s private yachters and wealthy expats. “There is more money up there, it won’t look like our Tonga,” a taxi driver warned us. Prices in Vava’u reflect this clientele, and cater to a more elaborate, comfortable experience. Three-hour whale watching cruises and multi-day snorkel trips can cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Add to these the costs of reaching Vava’u, and it is considerably more expensive than paying a few bucks for a beer, laying your towel in a hammock somewhere and waiting for the whales’ inevitable performance.
And despite the attraction to jump in the drink with them, I was satisfied with leaving the humpbacks alone in their watery home. Especially because every tour operator is fast to explain that your swimming lesson depends on the weather, the waves and the daily movements of the animals. Sometimes, visitors may see more from the shore or from from the seats of a seafaring vessel than down in the depths with them. It’s also important to look at how such offerings affect the island, its people and the whales that call it home for a spell in passing.
Many companies advertise eco-conscious practices and carry a strong reputation on the comments of a number of well-known travel guides, but they tend to be run by Aussies, Europeans and North Americans. The Tongans we met had mixed opinions about how the humpback families, and the islands’ good-luck location, were being used by the international snorkel and dive schools. Taki, who ran the Hideaway hostel on ‘Eua, an island just south of the capital, had been bringing guests out on the hostel boat for about $30 US. A certified German dive instructor started operating whale-swimming trips at a slightly higher rate, creating natural competition for Taki’s business. “It’s good to bring travelers to ‘Eua,” Taki assured us. “But my concerns are for travellers and the whales.” He admitted he’d heard good reports of the German’s safety methods and didn’t doubt his qualifications. Still, it’s important to Taki that guests understand the whales before they jump into the sea, something he seemed to think that a native Polynesian could explain best. While foreign owners are completely within government regulations to protect the whale population – such as limiting the number of swimmers per humpback – they still constitute a relatively new venture for a kingdom that has spent centuries appreciating its natural blessings without much foreign influence. Tonga proudly calls itself the “only Pacific country that was never colonized”. I sensed this was a tradition they wanted to keep.
For the backpackers we spoke with, opinions were unanimous: swimming with whales, however it is done, belongs on a Bucket List. One woman at the Hideaway, a Belgian who had renamed herself ‘Ocean’, described it as one of the most magical moments in her life. “I could tell they were not afraid of me. Look at all the spirit bubbles we shared,” she exclaimed, pointing out the footage on her camera. “It was incredible. I wish I could have stayed with them longer.”
My boyfriend, a Kiwi, also expressed concern for the safety of swimmers. In New Zealand, you can swim with dolphins, and this activity has brought similar worries about the potential threats to animals and humans. Though there have been no reported incidents of disaster in Tonga, this does not reassure some locals. Sonny, our boater, is a man in his 70s, a fisher in a lifelong relationship with the sea. A week earlier he had gone out on the water with a European who entered the water with a mother and young humpback. Minutes later, passengers heard a scream. As the swimmer struggled to reach the boat, blood poured from a fresh wound on his leg.
“The whales might not harm a human, but they attract sharks, barracuda and other big fish that will,” Sonny explained. The event, which ended with the swimmer being air-lifted to the capital of Nuku’alofa, and immediately on to a hospital in New Zealand, changed Sonny’s opinion about the tourist-influenced hobby. He still took visitors out in the boat, but told them to enter the water from shore and at their own risk. “There is so much we do not know about them yet, and they are so much bigger than we realize.”
In the end, my boyfriend booked onboard with Taki, because he wanted to support the island community, and the cost was reasonable. Unfortunately, perhaps, pitching waves and a responsible guide kept him inside the boat. Yet returning, safe and dry, he was excited all the same. “The whales were only a few meters away from the boat!” His photographs would have compared with David Attenborough’s for clarity and proximity. When I asked if he regretted paying for a dip he never took, he said no without hesitation. “Just being that close to them was worth it. I think everyone should be content with that, just to get a glimpse them in their natural habitat.”
For us, catching the humpbacks on their epic journey could not be priced in pa’anga. Whether we glimpsed them from white sands or a wooden dinghy, this is the message that Tongans voiced most often. Next time Sonny took us for a boat ride, we narrowly avoided capsizing from a young adult male who was showing off to his date, and we paid for the whole thing with a box of cigarettes.
Originally posted over on Way Beyond Borders.