Oct 262009

So if I’ve convinced you to book your next trip to Tonga, congratulations!  It’s surprisingly easy to research and book online, and yes, they will eventually return your emails.  Just give them a few days.

Here I’ve put together some advice for prospective swimmers:

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Every day out on the water with the whales was unique, and each of the whale swimming operators who took us out had their own way of doing things.  I can’t say that there is one best operator for everyone, but there is certainly a best operator for the type of experience that you’re looking for.

We went out with three great guides.  Here are some of my favorite things about each of them:

Fins ‘n’ Flukes, Ha’apai: Brian and Sabine will take care of you on their compact boat, the Malolo (or “flying fish”).  They truly share the excitement of each whale encounter, and the small boat size ensures a correspondingly small group.  We had our best swims with a mother and her playful calf, with no other boats or people in sight.  Fins ‘n’ Flukes was well worth the drive from Sandy Beach Resort.

Whale Watch Vava’u, Vava’u: These guys are pioneers of whale swimming, and it shows.  Their guides are professional and great at what they do, not to mention super nice! The boats were comfortable and quiet, with the added bonus of an excellent–if somewhat bouncy–top deck for whale spotting.

Here, I follow the number one rule for whale watching: spot the whales!

Ocean Blue Adventures, Ha’apai:  Ocean Blue has a magnificent catamaran that provides a comfortable and stable platform for whale watching.  The ease of the ladder entry, large deck area and bathrooms makes this a great choice for people looking for an easy cruise.  Unfortunately, on our trip, we didn’t get to sail, but I’m sure this would have been a fun way to spend the morning.

Scuppers, the whale spotting dog, at work on Ocean Blue Adventures’ catamaran. 

Some things to keep in mind if you book your own trip:

  • What is the maximum number of people that can be booked in the boat?  We saw one boat with 14 people! Only 4 people can swim with the whales at a time.
  • How fast and/or maneuverable is the boat?  When you’re close to whales, you have to stay under a certain speed, but it’s certainly nice not to have a pokey boat for the distances in between.
  • How easy is it to get in and out of the boat?  If you’re athletic, the lack of a ladder is no problem, but some people may need more help.
  • Do they have a hydrophone?  It’s really fun listening to the whale song, although it can’t compare to floating in the water above a singing whale.
  • Price (although the ones I found all seemed to be in the same range).
  • Do you get seasick? Do you like to get out of the sun? If so, a larger boat may be ideal.
  • Do you need to rent cameras? Do you need to rent wetsuits?  I get pretty cold in the water, and was happy to have my 3 mm long wetsuit.  A normal person would have been fine in a shorty.
  • Where are the operators?  We had great whale watching in Vava’u, but it’s a different experience from Ha’apai.  There are only two whale watch operators in Ha’apai, and they rarely cross paths.  The benefits to more boats, is that your guides can get tips from other boats about whales in the area.  This is how we found the singing whale (twice!).  However, it is also a very special and peaceful experience to be the only boat out, with the whales all to yourself. 
  • What is the philosophy of the crew?  All of our guides were extremely sensitive to the whale’s behavior, and took care not to harass the whale above or in the water.
  • Also, for the sake of the whales and the long term viability of the whale swimming industry, only swim with a certified guide. 

Finally, a word about the practice of whale swimming.  There is still some controversy about whether whale swimming harasses the whales or alters their behavior.  This is certainly an issue that should be considered before booking your trip.  In my limited experience, I felt that our activities in the water had a minimal impact when judged on a case by case basis.  All of the tour operators that we went out with were respectful and obeyed the regulations.  I know that this is not always the case with every operator.  On the other hand, during our encounters, I always felt like the whales were in charge.  They dictate the terms when they can leave us all behind with a flick of their tail.  I do see the potential for an adverse effect on a cumulative basis however.  In more crowded areas, a whale might spend an entire day being followed by a rotating fleet of boats (although this fact doesn’t change whether you’re just whale watching from a boat, or also engaged in whale swimming).

This issue something that the industry as a whole will have to grapple with.  I think they have done an excellent job at crafting rules of engagement on a whale by whale basis.  Now they just have to ensure that they can protect the whales from the effects of their own popularity.

If you would like to whale watch in Tonga without swimming with the whales in the water, you may want to consider Whale Discoveries, which doesn’t support the practice of swimming with whales.

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