If there’s one wild animal encounter you add to your bucket list, make sure it is to swim with whales in Tonga!
Not only was our snorkel with the humpbacks the best wild animal encounter I’ve ever had, but as a quick and easy trip from New Zealand, it was also one of the easiest I’ve ever planned. If you’re in the South Pacific and have a little spare time on your hands, this guide is for you.
Once a sleepy Pacific Island, Tonga has well and truly put itself on the map as being home to the best humpback whale swimming in the world. There are very few places where it is possible to swim with these giants and fewer still where you can do so with any level of consistency.
To swim with such majestical, massive animals in their natural habitat is such a humbling experience that it’s almost impossible to effectively describe.
With that said, this guide will explain the different places in the world where you can swim with these beauties and we’ll also do our best to share our experience, doing it the justice it deserves.
Dive on in to plan your very own Tonga whale swim adventure…
Swimming with Humpback Whales Around the World
Where Can I Swim with Humpback Whales?
There are very few places in the world where you can get in the water and intentionally swim with humpback whales. You will, however, find them in the following locations.
Swimming with Whales Around the World
- Kingdom of Tonga. Widely recognised as the the best place in the world to swim with humpback whales, Tonga has a consistently high number of sightings and a long season. They also offer humpback swims in Tonga at a reduced rate to the other most successful swim site; Australia.
- Niue. By comparison, Niue has a relatively small number of whale sightings each season. Though it is possible to swim with them there, it’s far from guaranteed. Rather than planning a trip there to swim with the whales, we’d encourage you to plan an island holiday that just might happen to include a whale swim.
- Ningaloo, Western Australia. With sightings from July/August until the end of October, Ningaloo, off the coast of Coral Bay and Exmouth is another great place to see humpbacks. Swimming since 2016, they currently, they have a 75% success rate for in-water interactions (approx). You will also pay more to swim with the whales in Australia, than you would in Tonga.
How Does Each Location Compare?
Chance of Seeing Whales
Early July – Early November
AUD230 – AUD440
Early July – Mid Sept
Low – Moderate
Coral Bay, Australia
Early July – Late October
AUD355 – AUD365
Moderate – High
Early August – Late October
AUD325 – AUD550
Moderate – High
Where Is the Best Place to Swim with Whales?
If you are desperate to see whales (as I was), then hands-down, Tonga is the best place to swim with humpbacks.
Although Niue offers cheaper swims, the chances of seeing (and swimming with) whales is comparatively low.
Western Australia provides a high likelihood of swimming with whales, but you’ll still have a better chance of successful encounters in Tonga and will pay less for the experience. When we priced up getting to Exmouth (north of Perth), we also found flights to be significantly more expensive, making for a more costly trip in practically every way.
All of our research led us to the conclusion that, on balance, Tonga offered the best chance of swimming with whales at the most reasonable price.
The Ultimate Bucket List Adventure: Swim with Whales in Tonga
Swimming with Whales in the Kingdom of Tonga
Once you know you’re headed to Tonga to swim with the humpbacks, you’ll need to decide upon which island you want to spend your time.
Each of the three main islands in Tonga offers a different experience to visitors.
To help you decide on the best fit, we suggest you consider the over-all experience you’re after, the cost of the whale swims, the number of people invited aboard at any one time and the distance that each departure point is from the whales.
Each of these Tongan location has pros and cons so it’s important to weigh up what really matters to you.
What is the Difference Between Each Whale Swim Location? How Much does it Cost to Swim with Whales in Tonga?
The main island in Tonga (and the one you’ll almost certainly fly into), Tongatapu is often overlooked by those looking to swim with whales in Tonga.
There are a number of benefits that come with swimming from Nuku’alofa though (the capital and most populated city) so we certainly wouldn’t count Tonga’s busiest island out when you’re tossing up where to go.
Let’s be honest, it’ll likely still be a whole lot quieter than you’re used to at home.
Pros of Swimming with whales from Tongatapu/Nuku’alofa
- Swim straight from the island that you first land on and remove the need for expensive domestic flights.
- You’ll find the most affordable accommodation, food and whale swims on Tongatapu, bringing the total cost of your trip down significantly.
- With a small number of boats in the water at any one time (and a large area for them to cover), you’re unlikely to impact the natural behaviours of the whales.
- Because most people don’t associate Nuku’alofa with swimming with the whales (at least for the time being), it is still possible to secure your accommodation and boat days even on fairly short notice.
Cons of Swimming with whales from Tongatapu/Nuku’alofa
- Nuku’alofa is unlikely to be the Tonga of your dreams. It’s relaxed and lovely but you won’t find any white sand beaches there – not unless you’re willing to drive around the island to get to them.
Quieter than Tongatapu but busier than Ha’apai, Vava’u has the largest concentration of whale swim operators – whether that’s a good thing or not, we’ll leave you to decide.
Pros of Swimming with whales from Vava’u
- Lots of operators means you’ll have lots of choice – base your decisions on price, number of passengers aboard or whomever you get good vibes from – it’s totally up to you.
- Vava’u is much prettier than Nuku’alofa and it still offers a little nightlife (if that’s your jam).
Cons of Swimming with whales from Vava’u
- Vava’u is issued the largest number of permits for whale swimming in Tonga which means that, relatively speaking, they have a lot of boats in the water. Because of this, whales are sometimes ‘shared’ between boats, with strict time restrictions.
- There is evidence to suggest that the impact of whale swimming is not so positive in the busy waters of Vava’u.
The quietest off all of the islands from which you can swim with whales in Tonga, Ha’apai is also the most remote.
Pros of Swimming with whales from Ha’apai
- With fewer providers, your swim is less likely to be rushed or to have a negative impact on the whales.
Cons of Swimming with whales from Ha’apai
- Being remote, you’ll need to pay for additional domestic flights (which come at quite a cost). Because of the flight schedules, you’ll probably also need to add a night’s accommodation on Tongatapu to either side of your visit.
- With limited accommodation on Ha’apai, you’ll find it to be much more expensive than on Tongatapu.
- Accommodation and whale swims are booked out a long way in advance – you’ll need to be really prepared to secure a spot.
Fully inclusive package
Which Islands Offer the Best Whale Swims in Tonga?
Let me start by saying that the following information is a combination of our personal experience and research. We have not swam with the whales on all three of the Tongan islands that offer this experience.
With that said though, we genuinely believe Tongatapu (from Nuku’alofa) and Ha’apai to provide the best overall whale swims.
We enjoyed swimming from Nuku’alofa very much.
We found the crew at Deep Blue Diving to be incredibly hospitable and friendly (especially the incredible Lahaina) and loved that our trip cost literally half of what it would have done had we gone out to one of the smaller islands. Less money spent on this trip means more money to spend on future ones (maybe even a return to Tonga?)
Before we settled on swimming from Nuku’alofa, we investigated doing so from Ha’apai and were very excited about what we saw. We loved the quiet feel of the islands and the fact that the providers generally took out small groups. Fewer people onboard potentially means more time in the water which is obviously a real benefit.
It does cost more to get out to Ha’apai though (and more to be on the island) and you’ll need to book well in advance.
Reflecting back on our trip, Tongatapu was the perfect choice for us. We got a number of amazing swims in without breaking the bank.
Your Practical Guide to Swimming with the Whales in Tonga
When Can You Swim with Whales in Tonga?
Tonga generally sees humpbacks arrive from Antarctica in June. The swimming season itself runs between early July and late October/early November and outside of this window, the whales simply aren’t in Tongan waters.
As you would expect, the start and end of each season can be unpredictable; these are wild animals in their natural habitat.
Keeping this in mind, you’ll want to avoid the very start and end of each season if your main priority in visiting Tonga is to swim with the whales. Though you might get a great swim in, it’s hard to know with any degree of certainty when they will arrive from the Antarctic migration or when they will head off again. Likewise though, they may also arrive in Tonga earlier or leave later!
When is the Best Time to Swim with the Whales in Tonga?
Assuming you visit Tonga during the season, you’re likely to have amazing experiences with the whales!
Though there is not any one ‘best’ time to swim with the humpbacks, there are certain times when you’d expect to have a different experience.
From July through to September, you’re likely to have a diverse swim. In these months, it’s possible that you’ll come across exciting heat runs along with mothers and their calves (as babies are born throughout the season). Though we didn’t visit at this time of year (preferring to do so in October), we have been told that adult whales can be incredibly interactive in the absence of their young.
In October, calves generally grow in confidence and independence, making for a more interactive experience with the babies. Couple this with more relaxed mums and you’ve potentially got an extra awesome inquisitive calf swim on the cards!
How Many People Are Allowed to Swim with the Whales At Any One Time?
Whale swimming is highly regulated in Tonga.
At any one time, only four tourists are allowed in the water, accompanied by one guide.
Should you be in a larger group, swimmers will take turns, entering the water group by group.
Should I Book on a Big Boat or a Small One?
Deep Blue take up to 16 swimmers onboard but also operate smaller boats of 6-10 passengers.
We intentionally requested to be placed on a smaller boat if possible as we wanted to maximise our time in the water.
On the first day, we were fortunate to be placed on the small boat (as a group of 8 + guides/crew) and each group of 4 got offered two great swims. We loved that we got more time in the water but certainly did find that the boat wasn’t quite as comfortable – it wasn’t as stable in the water and it didn’t have an onboard toilet.
On the second day, we joined the larger group on the big boat (where we had 16 swimmers). The visitors onboard got the same number of swims when averaged out but as there were twice as many of us, it meant half the amount of time in the water as the day before. We were incredibly lucky that the swim we did get on the second day was amazing though!
The large boat was much more comfortable than the small one. The seats were comfortable, it had an awesome viewing deck up the top and it sat nicely in the choppy sea.
It’s hard to make a call on our preference of boats because, as we found out, you can have an incredible swim even with less opportunities to jump in the water. Likewise, you find you have a small group and all the time in the world to swim, but you might not find suitable whales to swim with.
Given the choice though, I’d take my chances on the smaller boat. You’re there to maximise your time in the water, after all.
How Long Will My Day Trip with the Humpback Whales Be?
Most providers on Tongatapu leave between 8am and 9am, returning back at approximately 4pm – be ready for a full day onboard.
On the other islands, times seem to vary. Some providers head out earlier (from 7am) and many seem to spend between 4 and 6 hours on the water.
It’s worth checking in with your selected company to see how long they spend out in search of humpbacks.
Either way though, make sure you’re prepared with everything you might need. You’ll be in and out of the water and out on the open sea, so being comfortable is important.
How Close Do You Get to the Whales?
By law, swimmers are required to stay 5m back from these giants.
Occasionally a calf might swim closer to you but our guides did an awesome job of backing us up, ensuring that the whales were left as untouched and respected as possible.
How Long Will I Spend in the Water with the Whales?
As with all nature-based wildlife experiences, this question is near impossible to answer accurately.
On our first day, we had two groups of four (eight swimmers in total) and each group was offered two swims. Our first swim would have lasted 15-20 minutes and the second one a similar length of time. Because some in the group weren’t fussed about jumping in again, three of us managed to sneak another snorkel in. In all, we would have spent just shy of an hour in the water with the whales on our first day.
By comparison, we only got one swim on the second day but it was spectacular! With four groups (of four) onboard, and a slow start to the day when it came to finding whales that were keen to swim with us, our options were limited. The swim on our second day would have lasted approximately 25-30 amazing minutes.
As a general rule, assuming your boat finds whales that are interested in engaging, you’ll get more swim time with fewer people onboard.
With that said, it’s possible that you’ll have a busy boat (as we did on our second day) that will still pull an incredible swim out of the bag! Likewise, you could pay more to be on a small/private boat and find yourself out of luck.
As our guides said, lower your expectations to be safe. Don’t worry though, although they won’t promise anything, you’re almost guaranteed to have an amazing day out on the water!
I’m Not a Particularly Strong Swimmer; Is That OK?
When we jumped onboard our boat, our guides asked right away if any of us were feeling nervous or lacked swimming confidence.
For those that needed an extra hand, there were floaties available (to be worn around the waist), in addition to flotation rings which guests were able to hold on to in the water.
As a general rule, our guides forged ahead to track down the whales, but other staff were in and around the water, keeping an eye on those that needed a little extra support.
Though you’ll enjoy the experience more if you’re somewhat comfortable in the water, it isn’t necessarily a requirement.
Keep in mind that there may be quite a lot of swimming involved and a few false-starts. On the first day, both of our groups jumped in and swam hard in the open ocean, only to find that the whales had swam away from us. The better your swimming fitness, the more likely you will be to enjoy it and have the stamina to go back into the water, time after time.
If you’re nervous or lack swimming confidence, we would encourage you to hold off on booking numerous non-refundable days in a row, at least until you’ve given day one a shot.
Do I Need to be an Experienced Snorkeler to Swim with the Whales in Tonga?
No, you do not need to be an experienced snorkeler to enjoy swimming with the whales.
Feeling comfortable with a mask/snorkel and flippers will almost certainly make your swim better though, so we could encourage anyone with less experience snorkelling to do their best to get some practice time in – even if it’s only at the local swimming pool or even in your bath tub!
Can I Scuba Dive with the Whales?
You may well find yourself in the very fortunate position of swimming with whales whilst you’re out on a diving trip but if you specifically want to swim with them, snorkelling is where it’s at.
It is only on a snorkelling tour that you will specifically look for whales.
As you’re only allowed four visitors in the water with the whales at a time, dive groups are not well suited to these swims. It’s quite likely that your group will be too large for everyone to be in the water with the whales at once and it’s not easy to get divers in and out of the water quickly.
Is it Safe?
With knowledgable guides, swimming with humpbacks in Tonga is safe, absolutely.
Before getting in the water, our guides talked us through all of the possible outcomes and ensured that we understood what different behaviours and signals meant.
Every step of the way, we felt safe with Deep Blue.
Is it Ethical?
Independent studies are being carried out in a number of different parts of the world but there is no little doubt that human interaction (with any group of animals) has some level of impact on them.
Our chosen provider talked very openly about the level of respect that they had for the whales and we saw these ethics lived in all of their interactions. They role-modelled exactly what we would have hoped for whilst onboard and very clearly cared for these gentle giants.
As far as the ethics of whale swimming goes, there are two schools of thought. Some would say that any level of interaction had the potential for harm and because of this, it should be discouraged. Others believe that encouraging ethical interactions between wildlife and humans can do great good – we are, after all, far more likely to care for animals and their environment if we feel a personal connection to them and their care.
However carefully whale swims are run, there will always be some residual effect. Even the best run whale swim operation is still part of an industry driving increasing demand for swims.
On the second day of our swim, we came across to sets of whales (one mother/calf pair and another mother/calf with an escort) and on both occasions, our captain declined putting us in the water with them as the calves were too young.
This is exactly the type of behaviour we would hope to see from an ethical provider.
Choose your company carefully and keep your eyes open to check that they’re showing respect every step of the way.
Is it Scary?
This one totally depends on who you ask.
I didn’t find the experience even remotely scary but I’m a confident swimmer, a scuba diver and I was brought up around water.
Others in our group did find their whale swims to be a little more challenging, describing themselves as feeling nervous about jumping into deep water with such large animals.
The reality is, the way you’ll feel about a potential whale swim will be linked very closely to your own experiences and personal fears.
Swimming with the whales is one of the best things I’ve ever done and, should you be in a position to do it, I’d strongly encourage you to give it a go.
Can Children Swim with the Whales?
Assuming your child is confident in open water, then yes, children are able to swim with humpbacks.
Deep Blue Diving, the company that we chose to swim with, have had children as young as 4 1/2 in the water with these gentle giants (and younger onboard for a day in the sun) but it’s definitely worth checking in with them to ensure that this day trip will suit your child.
Keep in mind that the days we swum, we experienced fairly big swells and were required to swim substantial distances (at speed) to catch the whales. These aren’t conditions that would suit the majority of young children.
Can I Leave my Child Whilst I Go Swimming with the Whales?
If you’re heading over to Tonga with children in tow, but you’d like a child-free day or two out on the water, it is possible to find care.
We suggest you check in with your accommodation. If you’re staying at an Airbnb or personally hosted Booking.com spot, they may very well be able to help organise a family member or friend to support. If you’re staying in a resort, you may be able to book an in-house babysitting service.
Remember also, it is possible to take your children onboard the boat with you for a fun day in the sun, even if they’re not up to the challenge of swimming.
What Is Provided for My Day with the Whales?
Though each company is different, most provide all of the gear required to swim with these beauties in the wild.
Check with your chosen provider to ensure they supply the following items:
- A wetsuit
Should they not provide anything listed above, you’ll need to ensure you’re prepared before you get out on the water. There’s obviously plenty of food in Tonga but if you are required to take your own snorkelling gear, you’ll definitely want to organise that whilst still at home.
Deep Blue Diving even had a photographer accompany us out into the water on each swim – he did an amazing job, capturing many of the photos on this blog post!
Swim with Whales in Tonga (and Chill On Holiday) – A Packing List
Keep in mind that every packing list is individual to the traveller and dependant on how long you’re planning to be away (and how often you’re willing to do washing).
The following is what we recommend you take with you to swim with the whales in Tonga though…
- Togs (bathing suits)
- A good quality bamboo/cotton Turkish towel – these dry quickly and are super comfortable and lightweight.
- A towelie to throw on in between whale swims – a handy addition to our travel kit.
- A sunhat/cap
- 3 t-shirts
- 2 pairs of shorts
- 1 pair or jeans or track pants
- Undies as required
- Jandals (flip flops) or water shoes
- Reef-safe sunscreen
- Insect repellent
- A rash-shirt
- Mask and snorkel
- Reef-safe leave in conditioner – a lifesaver for your tired, salty locks!
- Snacks and cereal – supermarket food in Tonga is pretty expensive so bringing things from home can help keep costs down.
- A waterproof camera/GoPro
- A dry bag for your valuables
Swimming with humpbacks is genuinely one of the best things I’ve ever done.
To be in the presence of such incredible animals, in their natural habitat is beyond compare. They’re huge, graceful and imposing and to know that they’re happy for you to swim alongside them is just amazing.
If you have the opportunity to head over to Tonga to swim with whales, snap it up right away.
We might even see you there on a return trip ourselves!
Love this post? Pin it and go swim with whales in Tonga!
Thank you to David Palfrey for supplying the watermarked photos in this post – they were all taken on our days in the water.
It is worth noting that this post is in no way sponsored or associated with Deep Blue Diving – we just had such an amazing experience that we had to share it with you all. Now you know, so get booking!