GUEST ARTICLE: During a short 50minute flight from Tonga’s main island Tongatapu to the island of Vava’u we were filled with nothing but pure elation. In a few days time we were going to fulfill a long awaited dream of ours – to swim with Humpback Whales.
During the flight we passed over some beautiful white-rimmed islands surrounded by reefs and colors so vibrant they didn’t seem real. Vava’u is the second largest island in Tonga which is an archipelago located in the South Pacific Ocean south of Samoa.
After collecting our bags in Vava’u’s little airport we met up with our hotel transfer and after a brief intro we were on our way to the main town called Neiafu. Along the way we drove past some meagre looking communities with island pigs, chickens and stray dogs roaming about. We didn’t see nearly as many people on the streets like we did in Tongatapu. It was more of a rural area and it looked pretty quiet.
The windy road took us by their popular Port of Refuge Harbor. This seemed to be a popular area with the tourists. It had a few little shops and some trendy cafes along the waterfront. Not far from there, down an unassuming driveway we pulled into our secluded waterfront digs for the next 3 nights, the Tongan Beach Resort.
We passed through wooden gates to a gorgeous beachfront area. 12 charming rooms dotted a white sandy beach landscaped with lush palms and flowers. We were shown to the main hut that had a nice little circular seating area, it looked like a great place to chill out and have a cocktail or two. The lovely owner Helen was waiting for us and filled us in on the resort and activities offered.
The rooms were nice and roomy equipped with all amenities (except a TV but we didn’t care). The only fault we could give it was the absent air conditioning. It gets really hot and although it is nice to sleep with your windows open what isn’t nice is being woken up by roosters/people/dogs/rain at hours you’re not accustomed to. It was pretty hot every night and just bearable with a fan. I don’t think I’d want to go through that during the hot summer months. I’m all for getting ‘in’ with your environment but I’m not big on sweaty sheets and the nightmares that come with that uncomfortable state.
Later that evening we grabbed a few wines and sat on our decks basking in our lovely new ambience. The sunset was beautiful casting warm colors across the ocean and sky. It was a great start to an adventure we would never forget.
We had booked our whale tour ages ago to ensure ourselves a spot and they were scheduled to pick us up in a few days time. But on a hunch Rob wanted to see if there might be availability somewhere else for the following morning. We thought it was best to double our chances since it’s not a given you’ll actually see whales. Fortunately we found a company that would pick us up the following morning at 8am sharp.
We were so grateful for the beautiful sunny day we woke up to. After a good breakfast we headed to the jetty with snorkels, fins and wetsuits in hand. The Beluga Diving Company arrived on the dot in a nice big boat. There were 10 of us in all plus 2 guides. The other tourists were a big group of friendly Kiwis whom we quickly became acquainted with.
For about the first half hour we rode across a beautiful serene lagoon that was dotted with little islands with sharp white limestone cliffs. The ride was pretty smooth until we hit the open sea then it turned really rough. But if you want to swim with the big boys you gotta go to their territory.
Oh my god I was soo seasick! I was really kicking myself in the butt for forgetting to take a motion sickness pill – DUH! There were a few others like me so at least I didn’t feel too left out. About 2 hours later our guides spotted some whales. Mentally I was over the moon but my body by this time felt like all the life had been sucked out of it.
We were only allowed 4 people at a time plus the guide so we wouldn’t overwhelm the whales (I didn’t think it was the whales that would have to worry about being overwhelmed!). Luckily for us we were part of that first group. Everyone had scrambled in as fast as they could and I tried to do the same but as soon as I stood up my legs buckled and back I went flat on the deck. The next thing I know hands were helping me up adjusting my now crooked mask and snorkel. I dropped into the water like a dead fish.
I was doing my best to get my spaghetti arms and legs to work but limp they stayed. Have you ever had one of those dreams where you’re trying your hardest to move but it feels like your stuck in molasses, well that was me. If it weren’t for our awesome guide I might have missed my first swim with whales. He gently towed me towards our goal and before I knew it we had come upon the most glorious sight -THREE Humpback whales! A mom and dad and a baby lay silently beneath us.
The water was crystal clear and a magnificent deep blue. We couldn’t have asked for better visibility and thankfully the water wasn’t nearly as cold as we’d anticipated but we were still glad we had on wetsuits. My body being out of that monotonous rocking boat started to gather life again. I was really enjoying the calmness of being underwater and the sight before me.
When I first saw the whales my stomach did a couple flips – being near such mammoths put a bit of fear in me, after all they can grow up to 16 meters long and judging by the mommy she looked to be around just that (females are bigger than the males). But their gentle manner quickly put me at ease and I was left staring at them in pure amazement.
The whales’ bodies were beautifully dark and sleek with huge grinning mouths. We were so close we could even see the barnacles attached to their bodies. I remember thinking to myself how incredible it was to be able to witness them like this in real life rather than by book or TV. At one point the baby rose up to the surface and started splashing around, it was playing with us! It seemed to like our company and happily swam around us while the parents remained calmly below.
Needing to come up for air the two parents slowly began to surface. We actually had to start swimming back away from them they were so ginormous. They were only meters away and Rob at one point had to really scramble and made it just in time with the whale being only an arm’s length away. They blew out big plumes of spray and remained only a few minutes at the surface before taking one last big breath before going back down.
We spent quite a bit of time with them before we were called back into the boat so others could take a turn. I was unhappy not only of having to give up my front row seat but also of having to endure more slow rocking torture.
Thankfully I fared a bit better back on board and managed to get some hot sweet tea and biscuits in me. With my newfound energy I contentedly looked on at the rest of our crew happily swimming with the whales. Appreciating it from that point of view was just as cool, now I was able to fully grasp the whales’ size and our close proximity while in the water. I couldn’t believe that it had just been me in there!
We must have stayed out there swimming with the whales for almost two hours before we headed back in. Not only were we lucky to have seen the whales but we also had them all to ourselves. I’ll never forget that experience, it’s everything we’d imagined and more!
Once we left the open seas and were back on calm lagoon waters we stopped at a two very special swimming spots. The first one was called Mariner’s cave. To get to this cave we had to dive down about 2 meters and swim under a jagged limestone shelf and pop back up inside the cave on the other side. I had never done anything like this before and really had to psyche myself out to do it and to trust our guide.
The guide took us under two by two. Trying to build up courage I stayed last with my trusty rock Rob to encourage me. When it was our turn I relaxed my body as much as I could, took one big breath and dove deep down into the darkness praying I wouldn’t knock my head along the way. Seconds later we popped up into a glorious illuminated cave.
Wow that place was incredible! I would have really regretted not doing it. A massive limestone cave with a towering curved ceiling encased the luminescent blue entry point. The water’s color didn’t seem real, it almost felt as if we’d just jumped onto some marvelous movie set. We all sat on jagged rocks near the back wall taking in our surroundings. After a while we all hopped back in and easily dove under that puny little shelf no probs!
For our last stop we went to Swallows Cave. The water there was truly magical, so clear and a mixture of vibrant blues. And of course What a great way to end the day, we met some good mates, swam in magnificently clear azure waters and most importantly got to swim with some gentle giants.
That was a big 7-hour day and with weary legs we said farewell to our new kiwi mates. Later that night we happily recounted our day with a glass of vino in hand while watching that glorious Tongan sunset again. The next morning we were booked in to do it all over again, tired as we were we couldn’t help but be excited at the prospect of it.
The next morning after breakfast the tour boat we had initially booked picked us up. ‘Totally Wild’ pulled up in a party pontoon!? Surely we wouldn’t be taking that out onto the rough open ocean? We joined two other ladies already onboard then we had to pick up two more people, a mother and her little son, that made 6 of us in all plus two guides.
We had some major trepidation about this trip. Since we had been out the day before and we knew how rough the open ocean was, we really didn’t feel comfortable in our Huck Finn raft. For those of you who don’t know what a party pontoon is it merely a small flat bottom boat with sides made out of poles and flimsy panel. Our guide said that they were in the process of upgrading their boats (yeah right) and that’s why we were stuck in this deathtrap (my words).
As soon as we hit the open ocean a wave crashed through the boat soaking everything on the floor. lucky thing I’d put my thongs up or they would have been gone. The driver said this was normal and would happen throughout the trip. Well obviously Einstein with the platform of our boat being only a about a foot above water! We only had to endure a few more of those waves when we’d had enough. Risking our lives for the next however many hours wasn’t worth it so we asked that he take us back. I’m guessing this wasn’t a one off request because he quickly agreed and back we went.
We were surprised that kind of a boat was even legal to use for whale tours on the open ocean?! I think the rest of the group stayed on and we hoped they at least had sense enough to put on a lifejacket. The guides had pointed to where they were but never insisted upon it (which they most definitely should have).
When we got back we questioned our hostess about it and she said as far as she knew they’ve been running tour boats like that for quite some time. Honestly I’m surprised there hasn’t been any accidents. All it would take is one big wave to come crashing through that square box to flatten it like a pancake. It’s absolutely crazy if you ask me and after looking on the net even manufacturers of those boats highly agree. We did end up getting a full no questions asked refund.
We didn’t mind cancelling, it’s better to be safe than sorry and thank goodness we were able to get on that last minute trip the previous day! We spent the rest of the day lazing on the beach sipping delicious cocktails made by the friendly staff. That night we booked ourselves in at the Mango Café for dinner and a cultural show put on by the local kids.
The café was at the Port of Refuge Marina. The area was really nice with cafes bustling with happy tourists and lively music. That night we sat under the stars overlooking the tranquil waters of the marina while watching a great performance put on by the kids. Their enthusiastic dance was a joy to see and what made it even better was that they were performing to help raise funds for their schooling.
What a fantastic time we had, this experience definitely fulfilled our dreams and then some! If you’re looking for a once in a lifetime experience that you’ll never forget then try this and I guarantee you won’t regret it. Just make sure to give yourself a fighting chance to see some whales and make sure to pre-book yourself on a ‘proper’ boat and go during the peak migrating season that runs from June to October. And if you’re looking for a great place to stay you can’t beat the Tongan Beach Resort, a little gem in paradise!
This travel diary has been written by Machalle Gower, a friend who enjoys taking the road less traveled!