Tonga is perhaps best known for the life-altering opportunities it provides to swim with humpback whales within its archipelago. And when I say it’s life-altering, I am not exaggerating.
I took my first trip to Tonga in 2017 to connect with these magnificent giants of the ocean, and it was without question, the most magical vacation of my life.
I am a professional scuba diver who has seen a plethora of remarkable creatures under water, but I had never felt as moved as witnessing a mother and a calf in front of my eyes. No photographs or words can ever do justice to the emotions that overcome you when you see the whales breaching in the distance, dancing at the surface, or gliding through the water underneath you.
If you don’t do anything else in life, I say go swim with humpback whales. The experience will leave you appreciating the magnitude and grandiosity of life in ways you never did before.
If you haven’t read my other posts, you may not be familiar with my OCD-ness when it comes to researching, planning and organizing trips. I did quite an extensive research for our trip to Tonga, so why keep it all to myself!
This post contains information I gathered and lessons I learned from our 3-week trip to Tonga, including where to go, how to plan and prepare for your trip, and what you can expect from your vacation in Tonga.
Also check out my recommended itinerary at the bottom of this post 😉
Lay of the Land: Where to Go and Stay
The Kingdom is Tonga, also called the Friendly Islands, is a Polynesian country located in the South Pacific, north of New Zealand and east of Australia.
My partner Bryan and I planned a 3-week vacation to Tonga in the summer of 2017. While 3-weeks is not necessary if you just want to get a few swims with the whales, a sufficient time is required if you want to explore Tonga’s archipelago of nearly 170 islands. Our Tongan journey included a stopover in each of the major islands: Tongatapu, Ha’apai, and Va’vau.
Tongatapu is the main island, and home to the capital of Nuku’alofa. The International airport, Fua’amotu (TBU) is located here, so you will likely land on Tongatapu if you are traveling on an international flight.
Most of the accommodations are congregated in the capital, Nuku’alofa, about 30-minute taxi ride away from the airport (a taxi ride will cost TOP $40 or USD $18). In my experience, all the drivers were charging a flat rate – there was no scamming going around, which was a relief.
Bryan and I stayed a few days in the capital of Nuku’alofa, but unless you are signing up for an island-hopping tour, a whale swim, or other activities, you don’t need more than a day to see the island itself.
If you have a day on Tongatapu, you can hire a driver and take a private tour of the island. There seems to be a series of popular “day trip stops” including the blowhole, Anahulu cave, 3-headed coconut tree, Captain Cook’s Landing Place, the Royal Tomb, and the “Stonehenge” of Tonga.
We signed up for a tour of the island, but to be honest, neither of us felt that it was worth the money or the time. Don’t get me wrong, some of the sites were interesting and beautiful – but I wouldn’t go out of my way to stop in Tongatapu for a couple of scenic views that, frankly, you can see elsewhere. We didn’t feel that we got to experience anything authentically local or traditional on Tongatapu.
But if you happen to have a few hours to kill between flights, then check out the island. You can easily see the highlights in half-day.
Where to Stay
If you have a minimum of one night in Tongatapu and some time to explore the island, I would recommend that you head into Nuku’alofa. You will have access to more restaurants, cafes, and shops in town and make your stay more comfortable and enjoyable.
Here are some of my recommendations that are located within walking distance to “downtown”:
If you need a place to crash close to the airport, Scenic Hotel is located less than a 5-minute ride away from Fua’amotu International. They also provide a shuttle service to/from the airport as long as you notify them in advance.
Ha’apai, with its powdery white sand beaches that stretched for as far as you can see, was by far my favorite stop in Tonga! The island is very remote, with local villages and a handful of accommodations occupying the small land. The resorts are spread far and wide, so there is no feeling of being crammed or overcrowded, even in the midst of peak season.
Where to Stay
Bryan and I stayed in Matafonua (to the north of the island) and Serenity Beaches Resort (on the south tip of the island), on opposite ends of Ha’apai. Both resorts offer a very different atmosphere, and I loved Serenity Beaches Resort for their exquisite cuisines (hearty breakfast, healthy lunch and 3-course dinner), eco-operation, and stunning beaches that continued for miles on end.
Serenity Beaches Resort is basic yet thoughtfully decorated and beautifully landscaped. There is no electricity in the rooms. For a shower, you will receive a “pouch” filled with well-water that had been warmed in the sun during the day. For lights, there are solar-powered lamps placed inside your bungalow and outside bathroom/shower. There is a public charging station for all your electronics that is available for several hours throughout the day.
If you love outdoors and adventure, and can tolerate minimalistic lifestyle, then you will love Serenity Beaches Resort. But if you can’t stand getting a bit of sand in your bed or living with a few natives of a jungle, this resort may not be for you.
Matafonua was a bit more “lively” with visitors, including couples and families with children. The most memorable aspects of this resort were the “special dinner” which was home-cooked by the owner, Darren every evening; the seamlessly organized whale swim operations; and the elevated bungalows with amazing ocean views and breeze.
Oh, and don’t get me started on the views from this resort! I don’t even have the words. Just go visit Matafonua website and you will see exactly what I mean.
We joined two whale swims with Serenity Beaches Resort, and one whale swim with Matafonua. We saw plenty of whales on each trip and experienced different interactions each time. Due to only a few operators sharing the sea around Ha’apai, we never had to wait for our turn to get in the water with the whales. Whenever we spotted the whales, we had them to ourselves.
Among the three main islands, Va’vau is known as the most “touristy” destination, where the majority of visitors go to swim with humpback whales. Despite this reputation, Va’vau is not crowded by any stretch of the imagination, perhaps because popular resorts are spread out on various islands.
Where to Stay
Bryan and I headed to Treasure Island Resort on Eueiki Island.
The white sand on this island was the finest, floury-like powder that had ever touched my feet! Combined with the crystal clear turquoise water and whale sightings from the shore, this eco-resort provided some of the most stunning views I had ever seen. The fale (aka bungalow) was spacious and comfortable, and the owners Mark and Veronica were a lovely couple who were hands-on with the resort operation and dined with the guests every night.
The thing that astonished me the most about this resort were their dogs, a mom and a son duo, who could detect the whales in the distance and would start barking before any humans could even see them. When we heard the dogs bark, it was a signal to get out to the beach and wait for the whales to appear in front of our eyes. The dogs’ senses were failproof, and I had never seen anything like it!
While Treasure Island was located on a remote island, one thing I would say is that the channels between the islands were crowded with many operators. Unlike Ha’apai where we had the ocean and whales to ourselves, in Va’vau there were many boats on the horizon, some chasing the same whale(s).
If there is more than one boat after a whale, this means not only do you have to share the whale with your boat-mates but also with guests on other operator’s boats. (Read more about laws & regulations below) You can end up waiting 30-40 minutes before you can enter the water. And if you’re out of luck, the whale can sometimes swim off before you get your turn.
Our swim with humpback whales in Ha’apai was the most enjoyable. The approach and interactions were much more intimate and natural in Ha’apai. My view of Va’vau was that there were too many boats competing to get to a whale, and less time was allotted to interact with the whales in the water.
If you want to head to Va’vau, here are my accommodation recommendations in addition to Treasure Island:
Currency = Pa’anga.
I recommend that you carry enough cash for the trip, as the ability to use credit card was unreliable. Some places did not accept it, or internet connection was so poor that we could not use it.
You can get your currency exchanged at the airport. I recommend the airport because the rate was the same as others in town, and you can avoid waiting in long lines.
Language = Tongans are fluent in English. We did not have any issue communicating with the local people on any of the islands.
Sundays = all businesses close on Sundays to observe strict Sabbath including airports, restaurants, travel tours, taxis, convenience stores and pharmacies. This includes whale swim operators. So if you plan a trip that includes a Sunday stay in Tonga, take a Kindle or other forms of entertainment with you and enjoy the downtime. If you stay on a resort island, you will be able to spend the day relaxing on the beach, snorkeling from shore, or practicing yoga.
Getting around = Except for few flights that can take you directly to Va’vau, most airlines fly into Tongatapu from most international countries. If you plan to visit another island for your vacation, you will need to book a domestic flight on Real Tonga to travel between the major Tongan islands.
On land, you can easily hire a taxi or book a tour in Tongatapu and Va’vau. In Ha’apai, you would need to arrange a private transfer/pick-up with your resort.
If you are interested in a day trip in or around Tongatapu, head over to Friendly Café. They have a fantastic coffee/food in their restaurant, and have an attached travel resource center that provides information and booking services!
Anxious to book your flight yet? 😉
What You Should Know Before You Go
While most businesses will claim that the whale season extends from July to October, whale sightings are not as frequent at the beginning and end of the season. If you want near-certain sightings of humpbacks, go in August to September. When we went in August, there were no shortages of whales. They were breaching everywhere on our horizon.
Due to the short whale season, the rooms fill up very fast. Some of the highly rated resorts can sell out a year in advance. So book early.
This applies to whale swims as well. Due to the limited number of guests they can take, the operators sell only a certain number of seats a day. If you try to “wing it” in Tonga, you may be disappointed.
Law & Regulations
To ensure the safety of the guests, as well as health and wellbeing of the whales, Tonga has issued a law to limit four guests in the water at a time (plus a guide).
Before entering the water, the boat crew and guide observes the whale interaction/behavior from a distance, discern safety, and approach carefully with the boat. Once the guide determines the condition to be safe and optimal to swim with the whale(s), you will be asked to enter the water carefully without splashing too loudly.
You may see a plenty of whales in the water, but it is not always the case that you can swim with them. If the whale/s are moving too fast or they are submerging too deep under the surface, the guide will keep searching for better “swimmable” opportunities.
Your chance to swim with humpback whales is also reduced depending on the number of boats waiting to swim with the same whale (this is common in Va’vau), as well as the number of guests in your boat.
There may also be external factors such as poor weather conditions and mechanical problems that may end up terminating your trip (happened to us on the last day in Va’vau).
#1: Book at least two whale swim trips. Given our experiences, I would say 3-5 trips are ideal.
Not all whale swims are equal.
We were fortunate to have various interactions during our trip. We swam with a mom and her calf, observed a heat run involving seven massive male humpbacks, and danced with two curious and playful juveniles. Each interaction was unique in its own way.
#2: When booking a resort or an operator, inquire about how many guests go on each boat. The larger the group, the longer you will have to wait for your turn.
All the resorts and whale operators provide masks, snorkels, and fins. While it may be convenient to leave these items behind when traveling internationally, I would highly recommend that you take your personal snorkel gear (only if they are broken in already).
You will actively swim to catch up/stay with the whales. You’d be surprised how much you have to work to keep up with them. You would want to wear fins that are comfortable so that you don’t suffer from blisters after the first day.
Also, masks fit differently on people’s faces. You wouldn’t want to miss an opportunity to see the whales because the water kept leaking in or the mask kept fogging.
Sometimes you have just a fleeting moment to swim with humpback whales if they are on the move. You don’t want to miss that moment by fidgeting with a mask that does not fit you properly.
If you have a mask, snorkel, and fin set that you have used before and are comfortable with, take them with you.
It may seem cumbersome to take them with you internationally, but you will thank me later 😉
Budget & Expenses
Swimming with whales is not a cheap experience. The prices are inflated during their short high season, particularly for food and accommodation. When compared to other Pacific Islands, Tonga is less developed. Yet traveling to/within Tonga is far more expensive than other developing countries in neighboring Southeast Asia.
You will likely find that what you get for what you pay in Tonga is less than what you may expect. But, what you pay for is the rare experience to swim with humpback whales – at least that’s what I told myself when we were paying $300/night for a bungalow that would typically cost $30 in Bali!
Since nearly everything is imported in Tonga, western food, snacks, and drinks are limited in supply as well as expensive.
I recommend that you take some snacks with you, and anything that you may require for your dietary restrictions.
Even though my vacation to Tonga was probably one of the most expensive trips I have taken, swimming with the humpbacks was worth every penny.
I would do it again in a heartbeat, and recommend it to anyone contemplating about doing it. As a matter of fact, if you are contemplating, stop and just GO.
Ok fine, stop, save money, then GO.
Even though Bryan and I visited Tonga for nearly 3 weeks across the three major islands, if you are short on time or budget, I would say head straight to Ha’apai!
Here’s my recommended itinerary:
Day 1: Arrival in Tongatapu
If necessary, overnight in Scenic Hotel
Day 2: Fly to Ha’apai
Stay @ Serenity Beaches
Day 3: Swim with Humpback
Day 4: Swim with Humpback
Day 5: Transfer to Matafonua/Relax in the afternoon
Day 6: Swim with Humpback
Day 7: Swim with Humpback
Day 8: Relax: in the house reef, you can snorkel, paddle board, kayak, and kite surf.
Day 9: Go home
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