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Monday, April 22, 2024
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Whale Swimming Tonga: What Was I Thinking?

Whale Swimming Tonga is part of the Bula! Fiji Hub Trip Report.


I have done my fair share of adventurous things. Some were riskier (and dumber) than others (see Wild One: TPOL’s Top Daredevil Activities). Swimming with whales in Tonga is officially at the top of the list for the most reckless activity. It almost did not happen thanks to my irresponsible way of not planning anything in advance.

Booking

I arrived in Tonga in style (see Fiji Airways Nadi to Tonga: The Best Business 737 Experience) with no plans on what to do while I was there. I had read somewhere that tourists could swim with whales. I started searching for it on my phone. I quickly found out that this is the main attraction in Tonga as it is one of the few places in the world where it is allowed. With only one full day remaining, anxiety took over as I tried to find a company that would take me on this excursion. Many of the websites said that they did not do single-day tours. Many said they were sold out. Many had been shut down because they had their license revoked. On TripAdvisor, I read that one company had ‘lost’ a tourist. Too busy trying to secure a reservation, I did not take the time to think about what that meant.

With no leads, I went down to the front desk of my Little Italy Hotel (see Guns & Butter Travel Guide: Tonga) to see if they had any referrals. The woman called someone on the phone and despite not speaking Tongan, I could tell that the news would not be good. She hung up the call and told me that the operator was in the hospital and that he could not take me out. She then gave me a phone number for another operator called Deep Blue Tonga. Armed with only a phone number, I didn’t have much hope that I would connect with someone. Luckily, the number was connected to a WhatsApp account. Within minutes, I received a reply that there was availability for the next day but that the weather might not be ideal. The operator wrote, “Please be aware that the weather forecast is stating that the wind will be strong. Just need you to be aware as boat ride will be rough.” With no hesitation, I wrote, “I can handle it!”

TPOL’s TIP: Contact Deep Blue Tonga via Instagram or WhatsApp at +676 7716268.

Cost

The cost was TOP550 per person ($232). I was told to be ready at 6:20 am and was told to bring a jacket and a towel.

Lost Tourist

With the booking complete, I now had time to do more research on the lost tourist. I was unable to find any information, but suffice it to say I don’t think the tourist went AWOL on purpose. I did not sleep comfortably that night.

Disclaimer

I woke up the next morning anxious about embarking on this adventure. I was not reassured when I read the disclaimer provided by the company:

I, Alexander Bachuwa, hereby affirm that I have been advised and thoroughly informed of the inherent hazards of snorkeling/whale swimming. I understand that neither my instructor, Deep Blue Diving Tonga, nor any of its respective employees, officers or agents may be held liable or responsible in any way of injury, death or other damages to me or my family as a result of my participation in this activity, or as a result of the negligence of any part whether active or passive.

Legal Analysis

I had a similar disclaimer in my bungee jump experience in Victoria Falls (see 3,2,1 Bungee! Bungee Jumping Victoria Falls) where, incidentally, the rope did snap on a jumper (watch Woman survives terrifying bungee failure). I knew, understood, and appreciated the risks that came from jumping off a platform. I did not know, understand, or appreciate the risk that comes with swimming with whales the size of Greyhound busses in the middle of the ocean. It was also off-putting to read that the outfitter could disclaim negligence whether it be active or passive. My thoughts went back to wondering what happened to the lost tourist.

Small Boat vs. Little Boat 

We were supposed to go out in a small boat. Luckily, there was a change of plans and we went on a bigger one.

a boat on the water

A Millonaire’s Yacht

Before setting off in search of whales, we were informed that we would have to make a stop at a mega yacht to pick up a few more passengers. Nothing says disposable income like a mega yacht. I asked the owner how much it costs to have a yacht such as that. He said the price of a car. He did not elaborate. I assume he didn’t mean a Toyota Yaris. a sailboat in the watera sailboat in the water

Safety Instructions

All aboard, we were told to pay attention to the safety briefing. We were told to avoid contact with the whales. In the past, curious whales approached swimmers and did not practice social distancing. If, for some reason, the whale came too close, we were told to get away as quickly as possible. We were also told to wave our hands in the air should we have a panic attack in the open sea.

Procedure for Swimming

The swims would go as follows: the spotter would yell “whale starboard” or “whale port.” The group would then jump into the water and follow the guide while trying not to splash.

Whale Fact

Do you know that whales can hold their breath for one hour underwater? Their calves cannot and must come up every five minutes. Keep that in mind for later.

Whale Season

Whale season begins in July and ends on October 31st. I was there on October 27th. I was also told that since it was so late in the whale season that most outfitters had closed up shop for the year. Those guides typically only go out a few miles from shore to spot whales, finding it cost-inefficient to spend money on fuel to venture further. In addition to the legal disclaimer, I was also informed that it was not guaranteed that we would see whales. This reminded me of the great white shark experience in Cape Town (see Ripoff Alert! Great White Cage Diving in South Africa with SharkLady Adventures).

Egocentric TPOL

We were out at sea for hours. I was losing hope that we would encounter whales, and I was growing bored. I started to think that the universe was against me. First the great whites in Cape Town, the rabbit in Malta (see Guns & Butter: Malta Travel Guide), and now the humpbacks in Tonga! As we sailed on, I wondered why they didn’t rely on technology like the dude from Ace Ventura.

You see those blips? That’s a Norwegian whaling fleet. I’m sending them new
directional coordinates. They’ll find Jimmy Hoffa…before they find any whales.

Then I recalled how my guides in Kenya were able to spot animals with nothing more than their bare eyes, something that I would struggle to do in a gym (see Maasai Mara: Day 1 of SafariAmboseli National Park: My Second Beautiful Safari). As we drifted further and further away from land, I began to accept that we may not see whales today.

a group of men on a boat
The captain and lookout crew.

Group 1 Ready!

All of a sudden, the guide yelled “Group 1 Ready! Starboard!” Group 1, of course, were the millionaires. They scrambled to the back of the boat with their fancy snorkels and fancy wet suits and prepared to disembark.

people on a boat with people on the water
Group 1

I went to the starboard side and took a photo of the gigantic whale. I have seen humpbacks in Maui but never this close. Words, photos, and videos cannot describe these creatures.

a blue ocean with waves
Can you see her?

Group 2 Ready!

The guide then said, “Group 2 Get Ready!” As I was rushing to the back of the boat, I was told to hold off. The whales had disappeared again. Gloom took over once again.a whale swimming in the ocean

Group 2 Ready! (Again)

The whales were spotted again and once again we were told to get ready. I jumped in the water. It was shockingly ice cold. I began to follow my guide. The other members of group 2 were hastily doing the same. I was kicked in the head by a flipper and was struggling to keep up with the guide. I was out of breath and exhausted. Meanwhile, waves were crashing down on top of me filling my snorkel with water. It was at that moment I came close to removing my snorkel, coming to the surf, and waving my hands in desperation. It was at that moment that it dawned on me that I was in the middle of the freezing cold ocean with relentless unyielding waves attacking me from all angles. And it was at that moment that I questioned why none of us were wearing life jackets. Instead of continuing to hyperventilate through my snorkel, I removed it from my mouth, reminded myself that I knew how to swim, and ignored how out of control this situation was.

a person swimming in the water

I got about fifty-feet out and then suddenly the great beast appeared before me. I tell ya he was ten stories high if he was a foot. As if sensing my presence he gave out a big bellow. I said, “Easy big fella!” . . .  I could see directly into the eye of the great fish!

[interruption]

Mammal.

Whatever.

Greyhound Bus

While I was no longer scared of becoming the next lost tourist, it did occur to me that this animal the size of a Greyhound bus was going to have to come up for air soon. It was probably not the best idea to hover much longer. My guide then ushered everyone back to the boat. It was quite a sight to see a bunch of humans fluttering around trying to get back on the boat while nature had its way with us.people swimming in the oceana person swimming in the oceana person swimming in the ocean

The Adventure Continues

We went out a few more times after that. Each time the waves seemed bigger and bigger and the danger ever more clear and present. Within that chaos, I found calm, focusing only on getting more quality time with the humpbacks.

a group of people in scuba gear in the water

Time to Head Back

We were supposed to take one more swim with the whales but the guide said the water was too rough. You can imagine how bad it must be if, in my opinion, the waters were already treacherous. I asked the guide how far out we went. She said 30 miles.a boat with waves in the water

Videos

Our guide had a GoPro and captured videos of the adventure. I also purchased videos that she had taken in what I presume were more calm times.

Versus my swim:

Overall

When I wrote, Wild One: TPOL’s Top Daredevil Activities, I was looking for thrills that were not artificial, manufactured, or man-made. This was it. Nothing will compare to this experience. It was everything wrapped into one: thrilling, death-defying, stupid, holistic, sadistic, and, dare I say, optimistic. Can you believe that these whales come back every year to Tonga to have their calves? Nature is still in business. Swimming with whales was incredible, even if it meant putting myself in harm’s way.

a man sitting on a boat
Happy to be alive.

 

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Your experiences tops it all. I thought the trip I took with trackers in Rwanda communing as best I could with the mountain gorillas was my pinnacle travel adventure. Yours is breathtaking and ticks all the boxes. Thank you so much for sharing. Joann

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