By Ambassador Grant Thomas
The Kingdom of Tonga, named the friendly islands by Captain Cook, is an archipelago made up of over 170 islands stretched across 740 square kilometers in the South Pacific. Between the months of July and October this Polynesian paradise becomes a popular birthing ground for southern hemisphere humpback whales and consequently has become one of the top destinations in the world to swim with these majestic animals.
The easiest and most common way to travel to Tonga is by flying via New Zealand, Australia or Fiji with either Air New Zealand, Virgin Australia or Fiji Airways. You will arrive in the capital, Nuku’alofa, which is part of the Tongatapu island group and from there you can catch a domestic flight to one of the other two main groups of islands, Ha’apai and Vava’u.
Tongatapu is the main business district of Tonga and offers a number of resorts and accommodation options, however in order to experience a taste of true tropical paradise it is essential to visit the other island groups. Ha’apai and Vava’u are both made up of smaller islands and have more of the typical pacific island delights such as sandy beaches, coral lagoons and mystical underwater caves. The whale encounters in both island groups are equally spectacular with each area offering a variety of different encounters, from new-born calves to bustling heat runs where large groups of male humpbacks compete for the chance to mate.
Swimming with the Humpback Whales
Humpback whales can grow up to 18 metres long and weigh in at an impressive 45 tonnes, so joining them in the water is an exhilarating experience. The first encounters are usually filled with feelings of anticipation, anxiety and excitement, which when combined with trying to concentrate on photography, can be a bit overwhelming. For this reason we focus on taking fewer people on our tours and offering more days on the water to give you the best chance of experiencing a variety of different encounters. We cater for photographers and non-photographers alike during all of our trips.
Along with humpback whales, you will also have the chance to see a whole range of other animals, from tropical sea birds to dolphins, sharks, turtles, manta rays and much more.
Tonga is also home to some of most spectacular caves in the world, both on land and underwater. One of the absolute highlights is Swallows Cave in Vava’u which provides a phenomenal light show late in the afternoon as the sun pierces through a narrow opening between two limestone pillars and projects stunning light beams into a dark, fish filled, cavern.
Also located in Vava’u is Mariners cave, which is a hidden cavern, only accessible through a secret underwater entrance. This magical place is perfect for creating silhouette style shots by using the cave entrance to frame a subject in the blue water. We aim to visit the caves as much as possible during our excursions out on the water, usually stopping off in the afternoon as we make our way back to the harbour.
For any stargazers looking to capture the starry night sky, Tonga also offers a beautiful view of the galaxy, undisturbed from any major light pollution.
Things to Remember
When planning your trip to Tonga there is an overwhelming selection of whale swim operators and resorts to choose from, all with a varying range of standards and reviews. It’s important to always book with a licensed whale-swimming operator, as they will adhere to the rules and regulations set by the government that are in place to ensure the safety of swimmers and protection of the whales. One-way to ensure this is to book with a reputable tour operator. For more information please get in touch at www.GrantThomasPhotography.com.
All images Copyright © 2019 Grant Thomas
Ambassador Grant Thomas left Scotland with a degree in Engineering and a desire to travel. His travels developed into a passion for photography, a PADI SCUBA Instructor certification, and an underwater housing. Since then he's established himself as an award-winning underwater photographer including a distinction as British Underwater Photographer of the Year in 2018. He now works as a freelance photographer and expedition guide, leading tours and workshops to encounter and photograph animals like humpback whales and orcas. Read more...