Chesney says he’s never seen me so chipper so early in the morning. Usually I’m a troll at this hour (second part are my words, not his, don’t worry). But it’s a special occasion! Today we’re swimming with WHALES! Tonga is one of the few places in the world where this is possible. From July to October every year, families of humpback whales make their way south to Antarctica, passing through this part of the pacific with their new babies.
For 480TOP (300NZD, 220USD) you can spend the day whale watching, and actually swimming with these 30 ton mammals. That’s 10NZD per ton! Pretty good deal if you ask me.
I was a little hesitant when I first heard about it, but also keen to learn more. I’ve participated in enough animal tourism to know that as exciting as it can be, it’s almost never fun for the animals. I decided a while ago that I couldn’t do anymore of it in good conscience. A naive 20 year old me rode an elephant and pet a tiger in Thailand before I learned of the horrific treatment they get behind the scenes, and the camels that carried me into the Sahara were foaming at the mouth and visibly exhausted. Those two experiences will haunt me forever and I don’t even have the desire to visit zoos anymore for the same reason. So why am I cool to swim with whales?
I’ve done some reading about the ethics behind this, which was difficult to do due to the lack of information on Tonga in general, but I gathered enough that I didn’t see any obvious problems. There are rules in place, such as a maximum of 4 people in the water at a time, no touching the whales, and there’s no sort of luring or trapping involved. All of this seemed alright so I saw it as an opportunity to do some more research while I’m here and write about it (…and also to swim with WHALES).
The two of us hop on a boat at 8am and keep expecting to stop off and pick up more people, but it never happens. That’s the BOMB. I’ve never taken a boat tour without strangers before. I ask our guide about it and he says there’s always a maximum of 8 people per boat, and we were actually supposed to have another couple with us but they decided not to come at the last minute (who does that?). Huge win tho.
We squeeze into already wet wet suits, that seem like they’ve seen better days. I’ve never put one of these on before be Jesus they are a pain. But now we’re ready to go and out in the middle of the sea, keeping our eyes peeled for tails, blow holes, and other whale stuff. A couple hours pass and still nothing. We ask our guide about how often people actually see whales but apparently this is the end of the season so it’s less frequent. Some people from our hotel saw them yesterday so I’m hopeful, but it’s looking less and less likely.
Another hour passes. After hours of looking, I am still mistaking waves for whales. Whale?! Nope, definitely wave. Wh?!-Nope. I’m also growing less and less optimistic. When he mentions that none of the boats saw any whales on Tuesday we start to accept the fact that we’ve just blown 300 bucks on an extensive and choppy boat ride.
Then our guide casually slips into his wet suit. He doesn’t say anything, and I don’t want to get too excited, but I think we’re about to see some whales. Nothing happens, then all of a sudden the driver and guide start shouting at us, “get ready get ready! Go go go!” and we’re fumbling around with our slippers and snorkels, jumping off the boat, and into the deep blue abyss of the ocean. We’ve joined another guy who we recognize from our hotel, and his guide (so technically there are 5 of us in the water which breaks the 4 person rule but I don’t see it as too harmful). The water is rough and I can only see our guide intermittently through rolling waves as I swim towards him. Then all of a sudden, a giant tail sweeps up out of the water behind him, and we all submerge ourselves below the surface. A whole entire baby humpback whale is right in front of me. Lookin’ at me.
I get many mouthfuls of water bobbing up and down, not using my snorkel because I don’t trust it when the waves are this high. I’m not a great swimmer in general, to be fair. I think it’s hilarious that no one asked us to sign anything, we didn’t have to prove we could swim, I didn’t have to disclose my epilepsy. We just got on a boat this morning and they just dropped us in the middle of the ocean. I love Tonga.
After 5 minutes our guide leads us back to the boat where I clumsily make my way up the ladder in my flippers. It’s actually not our boat anymore, we’re on the other guy’s boat now, so that there isn’t any crowding around the whales. Another simple protective measure that’s been taken to benefit the animals! From the boat we can still see the baby, now with its mother, breaching and expelling water from their blowholes before diving back down.
We have about 10 minutes back on the boat before we’re hit with another out of the blue “go go go go goooooooo!” and we’re back at it. This time the mother is hanging out and they’re both up by the surface playing around with us. Our guide does a little spin and the baby mimics him. It’s insane how close they are.
The mom has gone deeper and I can see her directly below me. Once I surface, Chesney is so close to the baby that I see him almost gets smacked in the face by its tail. It’s lawless out here. This kind of behaviour clearly means that they want to be here though, which is fun. It’s not like they couldn’t out-swim us in 30 seconds if they weren’t down to hang. They choose to stick around because they’re as curious about us as we are about them!
I don’t know how the guides keep an eye on the whales once we’re in the water; they constantly know where the whales are and where they’re going. By contrast, I am basically disoriented the entire time but catch some cool glimpses of whales in between. I could have become lost at sea at any moment though.
Back on the boat for the last time and heading back to our hotel, I can feel that my face is absolutely cooked. I am roasting. It’s been so overcast for most of the day I didn’t think to layer up on sunscreen, and now it’s too late. What a rookie move! I’m better than this. Chesney and I also thought it would be smart to leave our wet suits unzipped until we got in the water, and now we have big red stripes down our backs. A “narrow cape” as Ches sees it.
I’m now starving after skipping breakfast… a financial decision that I’m somewhat regretting. The constant up and down motion, perhaps mixed with some adrenaline and hunger, is finally getting to me as well. I don’t think I’ll be sick, but I’m not feeling 100%. I try to keep my eyes on the horizon to steady myself.
The guides brought ham sandwiches along which I also expect will help me get it together. It is truly, and I mean this in all sincerity, the worst ham sandwich I’ve ever had in my life. A skinny slice of ham to one side in a long bun, with one cucumber slice at one end and a tomato slice at the other. It was very needed and makes me feel better though so I’m not really complaining. Just happy to be here!
We ride the high of having just swum with ACTUAL WHALES all the way home. Probably one of the most epic experiences of my life. I’ve been whale watching before but you don’t actually realize how gigantic they actually are until you see one right in front of you. Massive.
Overall I think it was an ethical way to experience this. I can’t see any downsides, and I think it’s well regulated. My concern is for what will happen when Tonga inevitably becomes a popular tourist destination, and there’s more demand for the activity. I think then we might start to see some rules being bent and harm could be done to the animals and the water they live in. My hope is that Tonga will be able to look at other countries like Thailand (which has just recently closed Maya Bay because it’s been destroyed by over-tourism), and see the value in keeping their country and the animal’s environment clean.
We’re back to the hotel by 2pm and absolutely shattered, but also have so much more time for activities! We clean up (I wash my hair for the first time in almost a week) and take a walk to the neighbouring village, and try to find a little shop or somewhere we can get cheap food. In a population of 50, that’s definitely not a thing. Lots of cute little baby piggies running around though!
In the opposite direction of the village we follow the trail down to a beach on the other side of the island, entirely sheltered from all the wind hitting the resort. As per usual, the water is crystal clear and we’re the only people on the beach. I’m already used to this. Crowded beaches will never be the same.
We make it back to the resort in time for another 3 course dinner. Tonight we have watermelon and feta salad with prawns (which literally melt in my mouth), medium rare tuna steaks on quinoa, and crêpes with oranges and ice cream. This is the life.
Later in the evening I chat to Sebastian Kennerknecht, who had been swimming with with us and our whale friends earlier today. He’s a conservation photographer, which explains why he’d brought a really crazy expensive looking camera with him. He’s been swimming with the whales every day this week, so I get his opinion on the ethics and sustainability of this activity, but like me, he doesn’t see any major problems as it operates now. We have a nice chat and I also get to see some of the incredible photos he’s taken. He sent me some stunning images of the whales we swam with today and I’m absolutely delighted to keep them as a memento.