The tiny Kingdom of Tonga, 176 islands and 100,000 people, in the clear blue, coral seas of the south Pacific is one of only two locations in the world where swimming with humpback whales is officially permitted. Whales in the southern hemisphere feed in the rich waters around Antarctica and travel north as days get shorter to mate and breed in tropical seas. Humpbacks arrive in July and congregate in the sanctuary of islands around the Vava’u group. A whaling nation until 1979, these annual visits are so important to Tonga that whales are now mentioned in 80% of tourism promotions. Studies estimate that a single humpback returning every year could generate US $1 million in whale-watching revenue over the course of its lifetime.
In contrast to the Sanctuary for Marine Mammals of the Silver Bank of the Dominican Republic, (location of the other legally sanctioned and managed swim with whales program) Tongan whales are much closer to shore and can be experienced on a day trip. Twelve licensed Tongan operators run programs and while this is more than in the Dominican Republic where only three permits are in effect, a smaller number of people (just 4) can enter the water with whales at any time. Rules regarding approach distances and being sensitive to signs of distress are similar and cautious. Given the much smaller number of animals this is important, around 500 whales are thought to winter in the Vava’u island group compared to mid-range estimates of 5,000 on the Silver Bank. Continue reading