Vava’u, a tropical paradise, strewn with deserted beaches, coral reefs, shimmering clear lagoons and luscious vegetation welcomes the travelers. The physical beauty of the islands alone, is enough to satisfy most looking for that perfect escape. But I came here for something else, something unforgettable.
In the Kingdom of Tonga, between August and October, Humpback whales appear in various numbers to mate and give birth. In the deep blue oceans of the South Pacific, these giants frequent the sheltered waters surrounding the islands of Vava’u. The giganticness of these creatures is often unfathomable until you get in the water and you are up close and personal. There is nothing more fascinating than spending time with a Humpback whale. I absorbed every second, knowing that each encounter is a special moment. Only snorkeling is allowed with the whales as they don’t like divers‘ bubbles, and it’s hard to keep up with whales on SCUBA.
Beneath the surface, there was stillness, vastness, silence. There was the saturated cobalt blueness of the Tongan waters, and there was a mother humpback whale 50 feet below, resting with her calf tucked under her.
The sight was both familiar and alien. I’d seen countless humpbacks on television but now I was floating above a 40-ton, 50-foot-long animal with a beating heart and a mind full of unfathomable instincts and impulses. The white edges of her pectoral fins and fluke glowed bright aqua. The rest of her was a massive charcoal shadow, suspended in space.
Tonga, officially Kingdom of Tonga, is a Polynesian country in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. It consists of some 170 islands divided into three main island groups: Tongatapu in the south, Haʿapai in the centre, and Vavaʿu in the north. The total population of all the Tongan islands is only around 100,000 people. Tonga is the only nation in the South Pacific region never to have been colonized and because of this travel to Tonga provides a very authentic cultural experience.
Kiss the tourist hype goodbye – and say a warm Malo e lelei (hello!) to the Kingdom of Tonga.
Tonga is not one of the South Pacific’s most storied destinations, but the upside to its obscurity is that it is relatively unspoiled.
There’s no huge hotels, and there’s no white coated waiters and cocktails by the pool. The boats are still small, and the experiences are still very personal. Resolutely sidestepping flashy resorts and packaged cruise-ship shtick, Tonga is unpolished, gritty and unfailingly authentic. Life here ticks along at its own informal pace: church-life is all pervasive, chickens and pigs have right-of-way, and there’s nothing that can’t wait until tomorrow. You don’t have to seek out a cultural experience in Tonga – it’s all around you!
Once you’ve shifted down into ‚Tonga time‘, you’ll find these islands awash with gorgeous beaches, low-key resorts, myriad snorkelling, diving, yachting and kayaking opportunities, hiking trails, rugged coastlines and affable locals (especially the kids!). Gear up for some active pursuits, then wind down with a cool sunset drink to the sound of waves folding over the reef. In Tonga, there really is nothing that can’t wait until tomorrow.
In the harbor of the main town, Neiafu, white yachts float at their moorings while small fiberglass boats put-put among them, people from outlying islands crowding the bows and perched on the roofs on their way to shop or pick up their kids from school. Storefronts offer day trips to go reef diving and sport fishing. Waterfront cafés like the Mango and Aquarium have pleasant decks for afternoon beers and hearty pork or seafood dinners. In the evenings, hymns waft from the churches, only to be drowned out, at sunset, by a roaring chorus of cicadas.
As undiscovered as Tonga remains to most people, whale swimming is drawing a growing number of visitors – from a few hundred annually in the early 1990s to more than 3,000 a year in the past decade. That might not sound like a lot, but as with any other tourism enterprise built around encounters with wildlife, whale-swimming companies must balance a desire to spread the gospel of conservation with the risk of intruding on the animals and disturbing their habitats. Australia, the Dominican Republic, and Tahiti are among the few countries besides Tonga that allow operators to put customers in the water with humpbacks. To its credit, Tonga has regulations in place to protect the whales – limits on lengths of swims, mandatory breaks between encounters, prohibitions on harassing the whales, and caps on the number of swimmers allowed and boat licenses issued – though these are largely self-enforced.
By 1966, when the International Whaling Commission instituted a worldwide moratorium on killing humpbacks, only about 250 remained in the area around Tonga, down from an estimated original population of 10,000. Nevertheless, subsistence whaling persisted until the king ended it by decree in 1978. By 2010, the local whale population had rebounded to between 1,500 and 2,000, prompting some Tongans to argue that the ban should be lifted. At the moment, however, a reversal seems unlikely, given the economic boon of whale swimming and the public outreach the whales have been doing on their own behalf.
What to Do in Tonga
Fly from Sydney or Auckland, New Zealand, to the Tongan island of Tongatapu. From there, Real Tonga Airlines flies to Vava’u twice daily, except Sunday.
Fiji Airways also offers a direct flight to Vava’u from Nadi, Fiji, twice weekly.
Arrival: FJ 275 From Nadi to Vava’u, leaving 8:00am, arriving 11:10am: Saturday and Wednesday
Departure: FJ 274 From Vava’u to Nadi, leaving 4:00pm, arriving 5:20pm: Saturday and Wednesday
Schedules are subject to change.
The options below fly you into Fuaʻamotu International Airport (TBU)in Nuku’alofa, Tonga. From TBU you can get a domestic flight to Vava’u on Real Tonga http://realtonga.to – yes that is their website!
VIRGIN AIR VIA SYDNEY, AUSTRLIA
Via Nuku’alofa To Vava’u, Virgin Australia (Virgin Blue) To Tonga
From Sydney to Tonga (Monday & Wednesday): VA143 21:45 – 05:10 (Arrive next day)
From Tonga to Sydney (Tuesday): VA182 16:45 – 19:30, VA178 06:00 – 14:30, VA178 & connecting flight VA8005 06:00 – 17:30
The capital is Neiafu, which is the second largest city in Tonga
The fjord-like Ava Pulepulekai channel
‘Ene’io Botanical Gardens, Tonga’s only botanical garden
Spectacular dive sites like Swallows Rock
Swim with whales – the waters of Vava’u are a safe haven and nursery for Humpback Whales with their babies
When booking your whale watching and/or swimming tours use only Licensed Whale Operators. As they have sustainable practices, fully trained tour guides and correct equipment. You can check the list here: http://www.tongaholiday.com