I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to the underwater world. I love the feeling of slipping below the surface to an unknown environment, aware that the finned inhabitants of the deep blue are in their comfort zone, while my gill-less body is not.
When I learned that Tonga, only a 3-hour flight from New Zealand, is one of only four places in the world where it’s legal to swim with humpback whales, I became intrigued. OK… maybe I was a little obsessed. I booked my flight without knowing much about the country, like where it’s located (south of Samoa and two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to New Zealand) or the local language (Tongan) or the fact that hot water is not a common commodity. I just knew that I had to swim with the humpback whales as they migrate through this chain of islands from July- October. They swim up this way from Antarctica, where they spend part of their year gorging on krill, so when they’re up in the warmer waters, they’re giving birth, attracting a mate (hello show offs!), and most importantly for tiny humans… not eating!
Humpback whales are an incredible species. These gentle giants continue to amaze me the more I learn about them. A vigilante of the depths, humpbacks have been known to fight off Orcas attacking other species—even defending the carcass of a gray whale calf, killed by the Orcas, from being eaten for 6 ½ hours!
It’s an emotional experience when you have the chance to swim with these graceful giants… and I do mean giants! They grow to be up to 52 feet long, and can weigh up to 50 tons! Their heart alone weighs 430 pounds!
I chose ‘Eua as my whale swim island of choice because it’s less touristy, cheaper, and was recommended by a friend. In order to fully appreciate this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I’ve compiled a list of things to know before you go:
- Wear sunscreen. You’ll spend most of your day in a boat, so protect your skin!
- Bring water and snacks. Depending on the whales’ behavior, you could be on the boat for several hours and a dehydration headache and a hangry attitude is sure to put a damper on the experience.
- Go to the bathroom before you leave. Peeing in a wetsuit is the ultimate snorkeling/diving no-no and you’ll want to focus all your energy on spotting and swimming with these majestic creatures.
- Wear a wetsuit or long-sleeved rash guard. The water is warm (77°F when I swam in August)… but the wind can get chilly! There’s nothing worse than being surrounded by fins and puffs from blowholes, and just wanting to go back to the wharf to get warm.
- Go with Kiko, a Tongan fisherman with a reputation for being somewhat of a whale whisperer. I did three whale swims with two different companies, and from start to finish, Kiko’s tour was the best. From being the cheapest in all of Tonga, to providing snacks and drinks, to educating us on whale behavior, to responsiveness when I tried to book… Kiko is heads and (whale) tails above his competition.
- Patience is key. Because whales are wild animals (and very large ones at that), you want to make sure these guys are in the mood to swim with you. Your guide will be experienced in reading the whales’ behavior, and will try to get the best (and safest) swim possible for you. Much of the day is spent in an ocean-wide game of hide and seek with the whales being the hiders… and with their ability to hold their breath for more than 20 minutes, they’re really good at it!
- Don’t forget that the whale spotting part of the trip is pretty magical. It’s easy to get frustrated if you’re not in the water… because that’s what you came for, dangit!! But to write off the majestic breaching, diving and fin waving as “not what you came for” would be tragic. The feeling of being surrounded by whales as the calm waters are interrupted by puffs from blowholes from all sides is one that’s not easily forgotten.
- Bring an underwater camera. Visions of National Geographic-esque photos danced in my head, and as we set out, I was sure that the whales would pose and preen for the perfect shot as I swam alongside. While the conditions aren’t quite award-winning (You try asking a whale looking for a mate to slow down for a photo op!), you definitely need a camera. These giant ballerinas will twirl and twist in front of you and you’ll want to capture it all to relive over and over again. Note: make sure the camera is on before you hit the water and that it’s recording. In the emotion of getting in the water, a few swimmers on my boat forgot to hit the record button.
- That being said… Say goodbye to the GoPro. It’s easy to get so caught up in recording the perfect footage to share on Facebook or Instagram that you miss the magic of the moment. Once you get some good photos and video, leave the GoPro and camera in the boat… at least for one swim. Your senses come alive as you focus on the experience rather than the recording device.
- Listen to your guide’s instruction. Whales are extremely aware of you… but if you get too close, you’re in danger of being hit by a fin, tail… or attracting the wrath of your fellow swimmers when you end up in all of their videos and scare away the whales.
- Still your breathing to listen for the whales’ songs. Finding Nemo lied to us… I was listening for the whale song I’d heard in movies, but what I heard was something altogether different and almost unbelievable. Our boat stopped at one point to watch for whales and turned off the motor when we heard a noise from below. Check out the video to hear the mooing, motorcycle revving, zipper pulling and squeaking from whales that were too deep to see, but whose vibration was felt in the very core of our bodies.
- Stay aware of your surroundings. Whales aren’t the only animals swimming in the ocean, so when the guide says get back in the boat… get back in the boat.
- Leave your expectations at home. The experience with humpback whales in their natural habitat is an amazing one. It may not look exactly how you expect, so bring a good attitude and enjoy every moment!