Swim With WHALES tour: TONGA
Tonga 2020 tour:
Tour 1:July 29-August 5 (space available)
Tour 2: August 5-12 (limited space available)
Tour 3: August 12-19 (space available)
Tour 4: August 19-26 (limited space available)
Tour 5: August 26-Septemper 2 (space available)
Do you want to swim with wild humpback whales?! There are only a few places in the world where you can make this dream a reality... Tonga is one of them. Scroll down for more information about the trips!
The Kingdom of Tonga is a group of islands located in the South Pacific. Humpbacks migrate to the calm, warm waters for breeding and calving all the way from Antartica! Tonga is highly regulated in regards to interactions amongst swimming with the whales for their best interest. Humpbacks travel through other islands of Tonga, but Vava'u is the best location for calmer waters as the islands block the incoming winds.
Where we stay:
The Pineapple House
The Pineapple House is located just outside of town in a beautiful home with views of the water. It is a short 7 minute taxi drive from the main town, and a quick walk to some of the most stunning beaches you could even imagine.
We will be staying in the upper half of the house, as the lower portion will be occupied by our dear friends Tim, Isa, and Thomas who own the house. They will be cooking meals for us and are available to help with anything we might need. We have access to four bedrooms; two of which with full beds, and two of which with twin shared. We have one bathroom available for use 24/7, and a second bathroom available for showers after a thrilling day on the boat.
*There is no WIFI in the house for everyone to use. There is a phone store in town where you can purchase an international sim card for your phone and purchase data, or you can purchase a MiFi box for WIFI as well. Both have good connections*
Our hosts are incredible and welcome us into their home, and cook us the most delicious meals that we have tasted! Meals can be catered to unique needs, but please let me know if you need special accommodations as soon as possible. Our meals consist of a mix of local Tongan dishes, as well as dishes that you would find in England
The Numbers & The Boat
We will have nine people total on board: six guests, an advanced skipper who has been navigating these waters for years, a trained whale swim guide who is extremely knowledgable with whale behavior, and me, Cassie Jensen.
We will split the six guests into two groups of three that will alternate drops, and Cassie and the guide will accompany the guests in the water every time. Our number one priority is respecting the whales, and it is the captain's and guide's discretion when we get in the water, and how we can interact with the whales.
This trip is designed for everyone! Photographers, bucket listers, adventurers, and dream chasers.
*Please note - while we want to cater to everyone, you MUST be able to communicate fluently in English for your safety and the safety of others.
We will be cruising each day on the Sea Dog. She is a 26' catamaran with twin engines. The boat has protection from the sun, and there is space to gather out of the wind and rain if necessary. It is the perfect size and speed for our group and is fast enough to keep up with the heat runs we will hopefully encounter!
In the water
We snorkel with the whales; we do not scuba dive with them. Usually we remain on the surface of the water with limited diving down. Occasionally when the timing is right, and with discretion of the guide in water, it is permitted to dive down but ONLY with permission and certain circumstances. Many guests think taking free diving courses will help them during their trip. Although it can help in understanding personal ability and techniques with swimming, the objective of the trip is not long breath holds and deep diving. Again, we mainly float on the surface and in rare circumstances can dive.
There are opportunities to dive deeper when exploring the local caves or swimming among the reefs during lunch breaks.
Typically we are on the water from 7:30am-2:30pm daily and will arrive at the dock 20 minutes before departure. Each interaction will vary regarding time spent in the water. For instance, if we have a relaxed mum and calf, we could spend 15-20 minutes per drop with them before switching so the next group can drop and get a turn. We can switch groups a few times but the whale's best interest always comes first so it will depend on how each whale interaction is. Another example is a heat run. Those can be extremely fast paced and each drop can last less than a minute as the whales travel so quickly. Once we climb back on board, the skipper will continue on course and we will prepare to drop the next group. Although the interactions are brief, the number of drops could be more being the whales travel for long distances and for quite long periods of time. It is not uncommon for heat runs to last several hours! On the other hand, some days there might not be very many interactions with the whales at all. These are wild animals and we cannot guarantee long swims every day.
2020 cost: $3,550 USD per person
Group discounts available
*A nonrefundable deposit of $1000 USD is required to reserve your spot on the tour.
*The remaining balance of $2,550 is due 90 days prior to your tour start date
Payments can be made via PayPal, wire transfer, Venmo, Zelle, etc.
If paying with PayPal in the United States, there will be a fee of 2.9%
If paying with PayPal internationally, there will be a fee of 4.4%
*Transportation from airport to The Pineapple House (unless you arrive early or depart late).
*Transportation to and from the boat daily
*Accommodation at The Pineapple House
*All meals - Daily: breakfast consisting of eggs, toast, jam, cereal, juice/tea/coffee. Lunch on the boat. Afternoon tea and cake. Dinners. (Except one meal out in town and Sunday lunch).
*Five full days of snorkeling on the water
*Transportation to the airport from The Pineapple House
What's not included
*Travel interruption insurance [strongly recommended]
*Travel health insurance [mandatory]
How to get there
There are several options of how to get to Vava'u.
If you are flying from the United States, it is advisable to fly via Fiji Airways from: LAX->NAN->Vav. This is the best option as Fiji offers a direct route to Vava'u. Air Fiji offers flights twice a week. Saturdays and Wednesdays. *They have recently added additional days to their flight routes. Our trip is Wednesday to Wednesday. If you would like a few days extra on the island, it is advisable to fly in the previous or post Saturday to our tour.
The other option is flying Air New Zealand. If flying NZ, you must fly an additional leg. Your route would be: international flight from Los Angeles to New Zealand, to Nuku'alofa/Tongatapu (TBU), then a domestic flight with Real Tonga onto Vava'u.
**Please be advised that if flying from the United States, it takes an additional two days to travel there.**
*^^This means if you depart Los Angeles on August 13th, you will arrive in Fiji and continuing onto Tonga on August 15th^^* Always before booking, call your airline and talk to them about flight numbers to ensure you arrive on the correct day.
If you are flying from Australia or New Zealand, flying Air New Zealand or Virgin Australian is the best route.
If flying from other countries than those listed, we can discuss other options for best routes.
*It is recommended to confirm flying time, flight days, and baggage allowance with each airline to ensure arrival to Tonga is as expected!*
Here is an example of baggage between two people. We flew Fiji Airways and are allowed one checked bag of 23kg (50lbs), a small carry on bag of 7kg (15lbs), and a personal item. Baggage is difficult as every airline is different and most are very strict for weight restrictions.
During the 2017 season, I received many emails and messages regarding how to pack. Here is what worked for me:
*Main checked bag: wetsuits, fins, mask, snorkel, clothes, toiletries (double bagged), small camping fan, extra chargers, jackets, etc.
*Carry on bag (not weighed. I use a backpack): Laptop computer, charger, external hard drives, camera batteries, memory cards, camera lens, headphones, book, anti-bacterial wipes, hand sanitizer
*Small duffel bag/personal item (weighed): Camera body inside the main housing, dome port. For me, this equaled the max weight.
Once closer to travel, you will receive an itemized packing list as suggestions of what to bring.
Vava'u has ATMs (limited amounts), and banks and a Western Union to exchange cash to Tongan Pa'anga. It is necessary to exchange money there, or prior to arrival, as the markets and stores for snacks/ drinks only accept cash. The restaurants in town accept cards.
What to wear on the boat & in the water
Fins: There are many different fin styles available for snorkeling. It is *mandatory* to bring full foot fins that do not require neoprene boots to wear (they make your feet float and makes photographing still whales challenging). Do not bring split fins (they cannot provide enough propulsion for the amount of swimming we do).
Free diving fins are allowed. It is recommended to buy good quality fins as there can be strong currents and we can swim long distances. If you are wondering what kind to get, I can help you.
Snorkels: A good snorkel can make or break a dive! I have used many different ones and ONLY recommend the Riffe Stable Snorkel. There are none as comfortable or easy to use as these.
Masks: there are no recommendations regarding masks besides finding one that fits your face properly. This means going to a dive shop and having staff help you fit one to your face. Every person's face is a different shape and size, so it is mandatory for getting one that fits. It must seal on your cheeks and above your eyebrows on your forehead. Please try to use the mask a handful of times before coming to Tonga to ensure it fits properly and does not leak or fog. If you get a mask with tempered glass, you must get the clear film off the inside of the mask that is put on during manufacturing. Purchase mask cleaner or toothpaste with beads in it and scrub vigorously several times. You will not be able to see the film come off. If mask is still fogging, the film is still present and I recommend burning the film off with a lighter. If you are unsure how to do this, YouTube directions, ask a staff member at the dive shop, or I can help you.
Wetsuits: Everyone has different comfort levels in the water. I recommend bringing a 3mm full body wetsuit. The water is nice and warm while swimming - you don't feel the mid-70s(F) temperature. However, once getting back on the boat in between drops or while searching for whales, it can get very chilly. A few friends have worn different styles of wetsuits on the boats. From my observation, they only wore their half shorty wetsuits on the warmer days forecasted with no wind. The majority of the time though, full length wetsuits are recommended! No more than 3mm is advised as it will make you float too much and make swimming more difficult.
*Note - there are some wetsuits/ masks/fins available to wear at the shop. However, it is recommended to bring your own as your size might not be available.
Jackets: It gets cold on the boat. Many people think it is warm in Tonga, but it is winter and the winds can be strong and cold, and rain can accompany them. Hopefully we will have still, warm weather but that is not always the case. I recommend bringing a few different options. I originally brought an iDive boat jacket which does help. But once wet, it is very heavy and thick, making it almost impossible for it to dry overnight before the next day on the boat. I brought a jacket made of neoprene this last year, and it worked very well. Friends who also had the jacket loved it! I suggest bringing a windbreaker to wear as a layer as well.
Wind and sun protection is essential on the boat! While this is not the most fashionable accessory, it helps a lot! Bring a neck gaitor for the boat and you will be much happier. For one, it protects your ears, hair line, and neck from the sun. It also protects from wind burn. You won't realize you have wind burn until after a full day on the water. After getting back to land, you will feel the effects from both the boat moving added with the wind and sun that makes for a sore face!
Bring sunglasses and sunscreen, of course as well!
Physical fitness: it is imperative that you are capable of swimming a considerable far distance and that you are comfortable treading in open water. It is highly recommended to start swimming or partaking in physical activities several months at least before your tour. Sometimes swimming with whales can be very relaxing and stagnant. Other times it can be downright grueling and physically taxing. One of the worst things would be to overstress muscles that aren't used to physical activity or pulling a muscle.
Is swimming with whales guaranteed every day we are on the water?
The simple answer is NO. These are wild animals who allow us to interact with them in the water. That is one of the reasons why swimming with them is so special... they choose to interact with us! Sometimes we might see whales on the surface, whether we see their blows, flukes, fin slaps, breaching, or traveling whales. This does not mean we will necessarily get in the water with them. The skipper of the boat has many years of experience in the industry. We will watch them from the surface and observe their behavior. We will attempt to drop with them once the timing and situation is right.
We could see whales within 10 minutes of leaving the dock, or spend hours searching for them. It varies day to day and no day is ever the same in Tonga! During times of searching, you can take a cat nap, relax in the sun, dance on board, come up with a whale call song (yes, we have some amazing ones!), and we can stop at some islands for a nice swim among the coral or go for a gorgeous swim in the local caves as well.
A typical day:
*6:45am: Leave the house via taxi
*7am: Arrive at the dock
*7:30am: Leave dock and search for/swim with whales and snorkel among reefs and caves!!
*Mid-Day: Lunch in between islands. Opportunity for snorkeling if we have a break in whale sightings
*2:30pm: Return to the docks
*3-6:30pm: Free time. Usually once we get back we shower, download images to computers and hard drives, and plug in batteries for the next day. There are options of napping, editing photos, going to town, heading to a beach to relax, or exploring other parts of the island.
*During free time or after dinner we can have sit-down sessions and organize, process, and learn how to edit photos
Wednesday - Arrival day
Thursday, Friday, Saturday - On the water
Sunday is rest day
Monday and Tuesday - On the water
Wednesday - Departure day
Sundays are no work days in Tonga and no monetary value can be exchanged (except for a small amount of places). What do we do on Sundays?
*Visit a local church service and listen to the gorgeous Tongan hymns
*Visit and swim at private beaches at various locations
*Hang out and relax at a local resort (enjoy a refreshing cocktail too!)
It is not required to bring anything to take photographs, but it is highly recommended! We will experience incredible things, and bringing home photos and videos to remember for a lifetime is worthwhile. It doesn't matter if you bring a big camera rig with a DSLR inside, an iPhone, or a GoPro.
*Make sure to bring appropriate batteries, extra batteries, multiple SD cards, and recommended to purchase an external hard drive of some sort in order to store images and videos. It is also suggested if possible to bring a laptop with you in order to see, organize, and edit your photos while on your tour.
Please understand that drones will be allowed on the boat and only allowed to fly in certain circumstances. It is often too windy to fly them. Be prepared to possibly skip a few drops because of drone preparation and putting it away. Drones will be discussed in more detail with Cassie individually. Please do not bring a drone if you are new and inexperienced flying it. There are new regulations on drones. Please make sure you are familiar with them before bringing your drone.
What can we do if we arrive early or stay late?
There are many things to do around the island if you want a few extra days to explore.
*Hike Mt. Talau, Vava'u's tallest peak
*Head over to one of the resorts for a day of relaxing or kayaking at the beach
*Take a walk around town and see the local people, local dogs and micro-piggies
*Take a swim at some of the private beaches
*My favorite: Rent a go-kart and explore the island and stunning cliffs!