Tonga is an important breeding ground for humpback whales, which migrate to its warm waters between June and October. They can be seen raising young in the calm reef-protected waters and engaging in elaborate mating rituals. Humpbacks are dubbed ‘singing whales’ because the males sing during courtship routines. The low notes of their ‘songs’ can reach 185 decibels and carry 100km through the open ocean.
Humpback populations around the world have declined rapidly over the past 200 years, from 150,000 in the early 1800s to an estimated 12,000 today. The same predictable migration habits that once made the giants easy prey for whalers nowadays make them easy targets for whale watchers.
As Tonga’s whale-watching industry has grown, so has concern over its impact. At the centre of the debate is the practice of swimming with whales. While it's undoubtedly one of the more unusual experiences you can have on the planet, some suggest that human interaction with whales – especially mothers and calves when they are at their most vulnerable – has a disruptive effect on behaviours and breeding patterns. Taking a longer view, others say that given humanity's historic propensity for slaughtering humpbacks by the tens of thousands, it's time we gave them a little peace and quiet.
In response to these concerns, in 2013 the Tongan government enacted a strict code of conduct for whale-watch operators and noncommercial yachts in the nation's waters, prohibiting unlicenced vessels within 300m of any whale, and banning swimming, diving, kayaking or jet-skiing near whales for anyone other than licenced operators.
If whale watching is a bucket-list essential for you, there are whale-watch and whale-swim operators in all of Tonga’s island groups. Vava'u has most of the operators, but Ha'apai is probably a safer bet: there are only five operators here, which equates to less pressure on the whales. Make sure you go with a licensed operator (ask at the Nuku'alofa or Neiafu visitor information centres) and give yourself a few days to do it so that there is no pressure on the operator to ‘chase’ whales in order to keep you happy. If you feel your whale-swim operator has breached the boundaries and ‘hassled’ the whales in any way, make sure you report this to the info centres.