A blog by www.douglasjhoffman.com
Tonga used to be one of the best kept secrets in adventure travel but those days are numbered. The increase in tourism is to a large part related to whale swimming, but not completely. Tonga has good scuba diving, and is famous for sailing and fishing. In the future look for operators there to start blue water adventure tours in January and February that go out looking for bait balls, pods of dolphins, Pilot Whales, Sperm Whales, Oceanic White Tip Sharks, and Sail fish. This could become a new niche industry.
Tonga is an island nation located in the South Pacific, just three hours flight from New Zealand, or an hour and a half from Fiji. An independent kingdom, Tonga has three island groups, and is comprised of 176 coral and volcanic islands, thirty-six of which are inhabited. Nuku’alofa, the capital, is located on the main island of Tongatapu, while the outer islands are more for tourism.
The Ha’apai group is the middle group and contains numerous flat & low lying islands. When the weather is good, this location is wonderful as it is pristine and there are no crowds. When the weather is bad, there is no place to hide and it can get nasty.
The Vavau’ island group lies to the north and features tall hills, volcanoes, jungle, sandy beaches, and plenty of safe anchorages for boats. For this reason, the majority of visitors go to Vavau’. There are a variety of accommodation levels and standards making it a destination with options for those who travel first class as well as economy. There are several restaurants, bars, shops, and an open market that is colorful and fun.
Each year, Southern Hemisphere Humpback Whales leave their feeding grounds in Antarctica and swim to the tropical waters of Tonga to mate and give birth. They like the shallow protected waters between the islands to nurse and the deeper water for mating.
Wisely, the Tongan government see’s the value of Humpback whales in terms of eco-tourism. Income from Charter boat companies, restaurants, hotels, and taxi’s supports local businesses and generates revenue for the government through taxes.
Whales are wild animals and are not dive sites. In an effort to respect the whales’ needs, and keep Tonga as the preferred mating and birthing grounds, guidelines have been established that outline how whale swimming activities are conducted.
For example, there can be no more than 4 swimmers plus a guide in the water at any time. Swimmers must float together with the guide and are prohibited from free diving on mother and calfs. Scuba diving with the whales is not allowed. Whales must be given a 90 minute break between the time one boat finishes and another boat starts putting swimmers in the water.
Fiji Airways and Air New Zealand offer international service to Tonga. In April of 2016, FIji Airways will start offering two direct flights a week from Nadi to Vavau’ Tonga. Contact Fiji Airways for details at
Currently Real Tonga is the only domestic airline in Tonga (www.realtonga.to). They have small propeller planes that seat 16 and 19 people. There is no overhead storage in these planes. Upon boarding most personal items are taken and stowed. The baggage allowance on the domestic flight is 44 pounds for check in and 8 pounds for carry on. The fee for extra weight is supposed to go up in 2016 to about $3 (US) a pound. Be advised Real Tonga will weigh everything including you! Pack accordingly.
There are several different kinds of behavior being exhibited in Tonga. Singing is one of them. When this happens the male will go down to 40-60 feet, get vertical, and start singing. Songs last about 20 minutes. The pitch or tone may change from male to male but the song remains the same.
Tracking is another behavior and as it suggests it is when the whales don’t settle and continue heading to an unknown destination. Heat runs are when when male whales fight for dominance and the right to mate with the female. Watching the battle that happens underwater is incredible with action going on everywhere. If the female has a calf the bulls may well try to separate it so they can mate. The female does not want this to happen, but nature is cruel as well as beautiful, and sometimes it does.
Calm periods occur when the mother whale is resting and nursing. This behavior is what can often lead into mutual interactions. This is when the whales are as curious about us as we are about them. If swimmers stay together as a group and the female does not feel stressed by our actions, she will relax and become very comfortable with our presence. When this happens humans and whales float along together, and the baby gets to play.
Swimming with whales is unlike any other experience on earth. Besides being surreal it is quite humbling. Literally you’re floating next to a leviathan that could crush you easily but instead is gentle and curious. When a whale looks you directly in the eye there is an instant connection that will change your life.
When an extended encounter develops and you float along side a mother and calf its possible to observe incredible behavior and communication between the whales. With subtle movements of the body & fin position, and vibrations from the almost invisible hairs on the whales tubercles, the mother communicates with the calf to lets it know its boundaries. Tubercles are the bumpy things that look like barnacles on the front of the whale.
When the mother is relaxed she might log, which is to hang out on the surface or start what is called breathing cycles. This is where the mom goes down to 25 feet or so and hovers motionless in the water for approximately 20 minutes. When its time to breathe, she will slowly rise to the surface and pack her lungs. If everything is good, she will then descend back down to about 25 feet and hover. Each time the mother surfaces is referred to as a cycle. When the mother is relaxed the calf is free to explore its world and check out the humans. This is when wonderful encounters take place and life long memories are made.
Types of Whale Watching Charters
There are a three types of boat charters for swimming with whales. The first are liveaboards. As the name suggests you live on the boat. Currently there are two that operate in Tonga. The first is the Naia, operating most of the year in Fiji, but spends about 5-6 weeks in Tonga. This is a luxury trip complete with chocolates on the pillow. The boat takes 16-18 people.
The other Liveaboard is owned by Whale Discoveries LTD, and is a 53 foot sailing catamaran. This is more of an eco- charter and takes 4-6 guests on a more intimate adventure. Both are good at what they do.
The second way to enjoy whale swimming in Tonga is to join a open charter boat. This where the boat takes anywhere from 8-12 people on day trips. Open boats are more affordable and cost an average of $200-250 US per day depending upon the size of boat, number of people taken, whats included, and hours on the water. The majority of boats do 6 hours a day and take between 8-12 people. This is perfect for visitors that want to enjoy a few days whale watching/swimming, as well as a few days of scuba diving, sailing, or exploring the island.
Open charters take anywhere from 8-12 people, and must rotate the swimmers in groups. Each boat is different in how they rotate people in and out of the water. Some do it by time, others by interaction, or breathing cycles.
Those that want to be in the water as much as possible are better suited for a private charter. In this style of charter there are fewer people and less rotations. With fewer people on the boat the price will be significantly higher. But, you get what you pay for.
Most often Private charters are organized by marine naturalists & underwater photographers that understand whale behavior and have years of experience. This insight and knowledge adds to the overall quality of the charter. Rather than try to swim with every whale these professionals will look for specific behaviors that might lead to extended interactions. In comparison, a captain of an open boat might put swimmers in the water with whales he knows are on the move just to be sure all of the rotations of people on the boat get at least a glimpse of whales in the water. While the people will see whales, the quality of experience will be very different.
When it is time to swim, it is very important to be as quiet as possible when entering the water. Whales do not like a lot of noise coming from the surface and their reaction to it is to simply disappear. As each boat is configured differently the crew will explain entry techniques that enable participants to get into the water creating as little noise as possible.
Big fin kicks that break the surface and create a bubble wake are loud and end encounters. Depending upon style of fin used it might be wise to swim side-ways in order to keep them underwater. Large fins made popular by skin divers are not needed as they are designed for ascending and descending, not for horizontal swimming at the surface. Open heel fins are great for scuba diving, but not good for whale swimming. Booties are buoyant and tend to keep the feet toward the surface, which is not good for whale swimming. Full foot fins are best.
When in the water always stay together in a group and never swim straight towards the whale. Try not to get so lost in the moment that you get between the mother and the calf, as this causes stress for the mother and could quickly end an encounter. If you do get separated from the group just float and give the boat a signal that you’re OK, but to pick you up. Never freedive on the whales.
Whale Photography Tips
When photographing large animals in the blue, strobes are not used. They create drag and are not powerful enough to light up a whale. So the best thing to do is work with Ambient light. When possible keep the sun behind you and allow it to illuminate the subject. Using a fast shutter speed helps prevent problems like image blur and freezes rays of sunlight bending in the water column. This adds a sense of drama and dimension to the scene. A shutter speed of 1/250th is highly suggested. On days when the sky is dark and overcast turn up the ISO from 100 or 200 to 400 or 800. Set the focus to single, and the drive to continuous low. Shoot short bursts at a time and try to avoid filling the cache.
As or camera mode, select shutter priority. This lets the camera select the f-stop. In blue water work there is not a big issue with depth of field so let the camera do what it wants, as long as it freezes the motion. That said, whales are big and if the camera selects an F-stop of 2.8 -3.5 part of the whale may not be crisp.
When it comes to whales the wider the lens the better. For those that have cropped sensor DSLR cameras the Tokina 10 -17 mm fisheye and fixed 10.5 mm fish eye are the most popular. Full frame DSLR users can use the Sigma 15 mm, Tokina 10-17, (at 16 or 17 mm), 16 mm fish eye, 16-35 mm, 14-24mm lens, 17-35 and other lenses, or 20 mm. There are a lot of choices; just remember when swimming with whales the smaller the port and camera configuration the easier it is to travel and swim with at the surface.
Everyone planning a vacation to Tonga anticipates having a great time. Sometimes however life circumstances beyond your control arise and things change. Boats break, storms arise, people get injured, have accidents, or get sick. For these and other reasons it makes sense that everyone traveling to Tonga should have travel insurance.
DAN, or Divers Alert Network is fantastic. They provide cover for evacuation, and medical expenses due to diving and snorkeling accidents. Their coverage is not comprehensive in terms of medical coverage, nor does it cover trip cancellation, so additional trip insurance is suggested.
I hope you have found this guide helpful. If interested in going on a Private Whale Swim Adventure with me, check out www.douglasjhoffman.com for details or send an email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Top 12 Dive Destinations in Oceania – Part 2
Oceania has a fascinating mixture of well-known romantic destinations and wild, remote dive spots that few people ever get to visit. It is a region of contrasts with enough dive destinations and cultural highlights to satisfy even the most adventurous divers. In part II of 12 great places to go diving in Oceania, we take a deep dive into some of this region’s most famous and little-known islands. Get inspired for your next dive trip to Oceania here.
French Polynesia’s Society Islands have a stellar list of dive destinations, including Tahiti and Moorea. Between them, they offer easy coral reef diving and calm, turquoise lagoons with friendly stingrays and blacktip reef sharks. You can also swim with humpback whales, tiger sharks, lemon and nurse sharks there.
This beautiful nation’s best-known dive spots, Fakarava and Rangiroa atolls, are just a short flight away from the Society Islands. Both of these huge atolls offer exciting pass dives with hundreds of grey reef sharks and resident dolphins.
For a completely different dive experience, visit the Marquesas Islands. This island group is the farthest from any landfall on Earth and has a unique underwater world that hosts unusually large mantas and melon-headed whales.
And if that all sounds like too much effort, go Bora Bora scuba diving instead. This ‘Pearl of the Pacific’ has fantastic diving, and you can spend your downtime relaxing with champagne lunches on deserted islands.
The Solomon Islands
The Solomon Islands are a haven for more than 1000 reef fish species and numerous prized critters, plus dolphins, sharks, rays and six species of sea turtle. Hosting hundreds of wrecks and remote hard coral reefs, there is something for every diver there.
The Russell Islands host some of the best-known dive sites in all of the Solomon Islands. There, you can glide between the walls of a crevasse that cuts through an island, immerse yourself in wreck diving at White Sand Beach, swim through a halocline at Custom Caves, or go in search of pygmy seahorses.
For the best wreck diving, make sure you visit Iron Bottom Sound. This stretch of water hosts around 200 ships and more than 600 aircraft wrecks from World War II. It is a wreck diving mecca that offers excellent tech-wreck dives.
The Marshall Islands
The Marshall Islands is a chain of volcanic islands and coral atolls that few people know about. As the fifth least visited country in the world, these islands offer remote diving among exciting deep wrecks and vibrant coral reefs.
Bikini Atoll is the main dive destination in the Marshall Islands. Made famous by US atomic bomb tests in the 1940s, this atoll hosts numerous deep wrecks that offer incredible tech diving.
As well as some of the best tech-wreck dives imaginable, the Marshall Islands also have thriving hard coral reefs without any dive crowds. There are pinnacles, drop-offs, channels and shallow coral gardens to explore, busy with colorful reef life.
The Cook Islands
When it comes to warm welcomes, it’s hard to beat the Cook Islands. From the moment you arrive, you will be drawn into one of the friendliest nations in the world and won’t want to leave.
This wonderful country is a perfect place to get your Open Water Diver certification or take your family diving. Rarotonga is the main destination for tourism and is a charming island with fresh markets, cafes, restaurants, and resorts tucked away among the palms. There are around 25 dive sites just offshore and gorgeous beaches for laid-back surface intervals.
Nearby Aitutaki has fewer visitors, yet it hosts around 22 dive sites, with many still being discovered. It is a great place to dive among remote coral-covered landscapes and forget the rest of the world exists. Whichever island you choose, the waters are warm and full of colorful reef life.
New Caledonia is one of those wish-list destinations known for its spectacular diving, crystal-clear waters and abundant marine life. Unlike some remote destinations in Oceania, New Caledonia has modern infrastructure that makes it easy to explore at your pace – by car or island hopping with regular domestic flights.
There are over 100 dive sites scatted around New Caledonia, offering a tempting mix of deep drop-offs, thrilling drift dives, wrecks, and easy reef diving. Most diving is conducted at the New Caledonia Barrier Reef, a vast 1500 km-long reef that encloses a UNESCO World Heritage lagoon. Within the lagoon, you can explore coral-encrusted walls, channels, and easy dive sites in shallow waters.
New Caledonia’s extensive marine reserves ensure these dive sites are teeming with life. For the best chance to see mantas and sharks, visit from April until September.
Vanuatu is the perfect place to reconnect with nature, offering untouched rainforests, natural swimming holes and excellent scuba diving.
Pristine reefs abound in Vanuatu, with many dive sites accessible simply by walking off the beach. Million Dollar Point is one of the most unique dive spots and hosts an array of machinery and equipment dumped by the US after World War II. The SS President Coolidge, a former World War II troop carrier, and the 1874 three-masted Star of Russia are excellent wrecks to dive.
The amount of marine life at Vanuatu’s dive sites is staggering. As well as rainbow-hued corals and countless reef fish, there are sea turtles, sharks, rays, and numerous pelagic fish. You can also go swimming with dugongs there.
Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, home to more than 850 known languages and hundreds of different tribes. It is unlike anywhere else in Oceania.
Along with the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea has some of the healthiest coral reefs in the world, including at Kimbe Bay. This special bay was once ranked as the most beautiful reef by National Geographic.
The nearby Witu Islands are a great place to go critter hunting and drift dive among schools of tuna and barracuda. Milne Bay is the home of muck diving and offers excellent shallow muck and reef diving with numerous critters.
There are seamounts busy with reef sharks and exciting walls at Fathers Reefs, and you can dive in the shadow of jungle-covered fjords at Tufi.
Kathryn Curzon, a shark conservationist and dive travel writer for SSI (Scuba Schools International), wrote this article.
Top 12 Dive Destinations in Oceania – Part I
Encompassing over 8 million square kilometers of clear blue waters, Oceania hosts some of the world’s most sought-after dive destinations. There are remote, untouched reefs and wreck diving meccas, countless forest-draped islands, and volcanic landscapes with rich black sands full of critters. With abundant marine megafauna as well, including mantas, whales, dolphins, seals, sharks, and tens of thousands of sea turtles, Oceania is a paradise for every diver. Read on for part I of our round-up of 12 great places to go diving in Oceania.
Drop a pin on a map of Australia’s vast coastline and you will likely land close to some epic scuba diving. There are dozens of places to experience the best of Australia’s rich and varied dive scene.
In the remote northern reaches of the Great Barrier Reef, you can dive Raine Island, a famous coral cay and sea turtle nesting area that hosts more than 60,000 green turtles each nesting season.
A little further south at Cairns, there is classic Great barrier Reef scuba diving, including shark diving, snorkeling with dwarf minke whales, and numerous offshore reefs. It is also one of the best places to get your diving license.
The southern Great Barrier Reef hosts Australia’s best-known manta ray hotspots, Lady Elliot Island and Lady Musgrave Island. As well hosting over 100 mantas, the southern Great Barrier Reef also hosts one of the world’s best-preserved wrecks, the SS Yongala.
There is also excellent diving close to many of Australia’s coastal towns and cities. You can go diving with beautiful weedy sea dragons near Melbourne, go cage diving with great white sharks off Port Lincoln, or hang out with enormous stingrays in Port Philip Bay.
With Ningaloo Reef’s many whale sharks, remote coral atoll diving at Rowley Shoals, and diving with nurse sharks at Fish Rock Cave as well, you’ll be spoiled for choice wherever you go.
New Zealand may be a lot smaller than Australia, but it packs a punch when it comes to scuba diving. With over 600 islands, 44 marine reserves, and the 9th longest coastline in the world, diving in New Zealand is diverse and fascinating.
Sun-soaked Northland is the best place to start your diving trip and features the colorful Rainbow Warrior and HMNZS Canterbury wrecks and the Poor Knights Islands. These unique islands were rated as one of the world’s top ten dives by Jacques Cousteau and offer sub-tropical diving with both temperate species and tropical visitors.
Further south, the Mercury and Aldermen Islands are dotted with white sand beaches and have fantastic warm-water diving. There are enough submerged caves, pinnacles and drop-offs to keep any diver busy. Seasonal visitors include whales, bronze whaler sharks, makos and marlin.
If you love wreck diving, make sure you dive the Mikhael Lermontov in the Marlborough Sounds. This 155-meter-long cruise ship is one of the largest modern diving wrecks and has many of its original furnishings.
Make sure you drive south to Kaikoura if you love whales and sea birds. Kaikoura is one of the only places in the world with a resident population of sperm whales, plus visiting orcas, humpback whales and numerous albatrosses. You can also swim with seals and dolphins there.
Last but by no means least, visit Fiordland – a jaw-dropping 2.6 million hectare UNESCO World Heritage Site. This vast wilderness area hosts spectacular multi-day hikes and has excellent cold-water diving and rare black corals in Milford Sound.
Fiji is a classic dive destination in Oceania, offering a wealth of palm-fringed islands and dive highlights worthy of any bucket list. If you’re looking for a destination that has something for every dive experience level, and plenty for non-divers too, Fiji could be for you.
Viti Levu, the main tourism hub, is famous for its shark dives with bull, tiger and reef sharks. There are also beautiful coral reefs just offshore. Go island hopping from Viti Levu and you’ll be immersed in a world of vibrant soft coral landscapes, with manta ray cleaning stations, thrilling drift dives and fast-paced pelagic action.
If you like laid-back diving, you could easily while away your days drifting over Fiji’s many shallow coral gardens. That said, it pays to go deep and experience Fiji’s famously colorful Great White Wall and Purple Wall dive sites.
On your non-diving days, be sure to explore topside. The friendly Fijian welcome, excellent jungle hikes, lush rainforests and waterfalls are not to be missed.
The Federated States of Micronesia
Micronesia is high on the wish list for many divers and is a tropical paradise destination with over 600 islands. It is best-known as a wreck diving mecca, with dozens of World War II wrecks.
The wrecks of Chuuk Lagoon are renowned among divers as some of the best in the world. This calm, warm lagoon was the site of a fierce battle in World War II that resulted in hundreds of ships, planes and submarines sinking. Today, around 50 of the wrecks can be dived and they are covered in rainbow-hued corals. Diving among the tanks, trucks and airplanes of the lagoon brings history to life in the most vivid way.
Micronesia’s rich waters also host countless shallow reefs, famous manta ray diving at Yap, exciting walls, caverns and drop-offs. If you’re prepared to go off the beaten path, Kosrae has some of the most pristine diving in the world.
Palau is ideal for divers who like to experience a range of dive styles in one trip and encounter marine life large and small.
This picture-perfect destination has diverse underwater highlights, including diving at a natural corner in the ocean, plunging walls, World War II wrecks, and famous manta ray dives. There is also excellent cave diving, and you can swim with millions of harmless jellyfish.
Wherever you dive, you can tick off some of Palau’s 1300 fish species and 700 coral species. Dugongs, Napoleon wrasse and giant clams are some of the more unusual big marine species to find and you can spot rare mandarinfish at Chandelier Caves. Being the world’s first shark sanctuary, Palau’s waters are also busy with sharks.
Kathryn Curzon, a shark conservationist and dive travel writer for SSI (Scuba Schools International), wrote this article.