Swimming with Humpback whales, Tonga

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Responsible tourism: Swimming with Humpback whales, Tonga

Environment

There are approximately 8,000 Humpback whales that migrate to the 3 island groups of Tonga each year, (Vava'u has about 70% of the whales population in their waters). During our days on the water, we endeavour to allow as many in-the-water encounters as possible without harassing the whales. Some days we may only witness surface activity other days we may experience in-the-water encounters, as weather and tides are believed to effect the behaviour of the whales and where they 'hang out'.

We ask you to fully appreciate that to have an opportunity to swim with humpback whales is rare, very unique and a precious gift. We strictly abide by the Whale-Watching Regulations therefore there is always only four people plus the guide in the water with the whales at one time.

When whale-watching:
Cease contact at any sign of whales, particularly mothers and calves, becoming distressed or alarmed
Allow the whales to control the nature and duration of the encounter
Whales may leave an area if continually disturbed
Respect the marine environment
Do not throw rubbish or other objects into the water
Dumping rubbish, particularly plastics, can kill whales and other sea life through accidental swallowing or entanglement.

If whale-watching from land, remain within established footpaths and lookout points, protect the environment, e.g. don't trample vegetation, minimise noise levels & don't swim to the whales from the shore

Community

To only work with local suppliers who strictly adhere to the 'Whale-watching Guidelines of Tonga - that cause little or no negative impact on the humpback whales in the area.

To encourage our guests to interact with the local families during their time in Tonga and offer opportunities such as Tongan-owned and operated accommodation, attending feast and dance nights and on any village visits or events where this is possible.

To donate a portion of the profits generated by WhaleSwim Adventures each year to 'Friends of Prince Wellington Ngu Hospital' in Neiafu Tonga for much needed supplies for their diagnostic laboratory. Some of our guests generously donate to this cause also.

To ask our guests to bring vital educational and stationery supplies, such as books, pens. pencils, calculators, etc for the Vava'u Library Fund for underprivileged 'bright' students in Vava'u and childrens reading books, crayons, pencils colouring books etc for the English speaking kindergartens. Instead of 'tipping' staff at resorts/restaurants etc, we ask guests to donate to the Laboratory at The Prince Ng Wellington Hospital in Vava'u - information about this worthy cause is given to to guests on request.

We ask our guests to bring discarded eye glasses from family and friends for the people of Vava'u as there are no opticians or eye doctors available locally.

Reviews of Swimming with Humpback whales, Tonga

You can trust Responsible Travel reviews because, unlike many other schemes, reviews can ONLY be written by people who we have verified have been on the holidays.

I am reborn! Simply the best holiday I have ever been on
Some great stories to tell the grandchildren. Would recommend to a friend
Very enjoyable
It was OK
A bit disappointing really

Reviewed on 17 Sep 2014 by

1. What was the most memorable or exciting part of your holiday?


Swimming with a playful calf was one of the many highlights, and seeing an adult female whale breach multiple times was incredible. We saw whales everyday and this year there were more whales than ever in the area, something which may get better and better as the population continues to improve. So you won't be disappointed.

2. What tips would you give other travellers booking this holiday?


If you don't swim in the ocean regularly I'd practice with the snorkel and fins just to get yourself used to them again and definitely take an underwater camera as the photos and footage you can get are amazing.

3. Did you feel that your holiday benefited local people, reduced environmental impacts or supported conservation?


The island of Vava'u (and the rest of Tonga) only has tourism for 4 months out of the year so it is a much needed source of extra income for the local people.
I felt the whale swim tour companies worked together in finding whales but also had strict rules when it came to observing them in the water, for example only a certain number in at one time and only for a restricted time overall so the whales are made to feel comfortable. This kind of tour encourages both tourists and locals to get excited about seeing whales in the wild.

4. Finally, how would you rate your holiday overall?


I thought it was an amazing trip, we spent most of our days on the water so it was nice to return to our lovely resort after an incredible day of whale swimming, with my own beach room. I could even see whales passing by from my porch and I could hear them in the evening on one occasion. The staff were all lovely and the food was nice and fresh. It is something I would like to do again in the future.

Reviewed on 10 Oct 2008 by

1. What was the most memorable or exciting part of your holiday?


Would definitely be the first time that you slip in the water and your eyes take in the huge picture in front of you that is the humpback whales. Phenomenal, breathtaking, hard to describe to anyone who has not seen it.

2. What tips would you give other travellers booking this holiday?


I would definitely give yourself a day or two to be on the island of Vavau to make sure that you don't miss anything. I had the unfortunate experience of having a flight ticket for the morning of the beginning of the tour but my name was not on the manifest. Even though I had checked 3 times in the week leading up to it with the local operators. I missed a whole day of swimming with the whales. However, Rae at the tour operator dealt with the situation to the best of her abilities (which were awesome) in a 3rd world country and we were able to make up for it at the end of my journey.

3. Did you feel that your holiday benefited local people, and minimized impacts on the environment?


Without a company like this, there would not be much that an island like Vavau would have to offer the unsuspecting tourist. The chance to have this experience brings people to the area who then become pleasantly surprised by the people and the relaxing atmosphere. There is also not a lot of impact on the environment since you are simply observing not touching.

4. Finally, how would you rate your holiday overall?


This holiday was a solid 10 out of 10. Like I said before you can't describe the experience with words, you just have to go and do it for yourself and you'll be changed forever.

Reviewed on 30 Sep 2007 by

1. What was the most memorable or exciting part of your holiday?


Getting into the water for the first time with the whales. I really didn't think that we would be so close so to see a mother and calf just hanging in the water right in front of us was truly amazing. It was an honour to be allowed to enter their world and to get just a glimpse if them in the wild.

2. What tips would you give other travellers booking this holiday?


The accommodation varies a lot from quite luxurious to very rustic and quite basic. Check out carefully where you are staying and make sure that you know exactly what the 'resort' is like.

3. Did you feel that your holiday benefited local people, and minimized impacts on the environment?


Didn't think it really had an impact on the environment in fact we travelled a long way to get there so I felt a bit guilty about that. We were asked to take gifts and basic medical supplies for the locals which we did, plus the travel company we booked through used mainly locals for their on the ground activities.

4. Finally, how would you rate your holiday overall?


Fantastic, a true once in a lifetime trip. Tonga will change over time and with the increase in tourists so go there while it is still unspoiled.

Reviewed on 18 Aug 2006 by

1. What was the most memorable or exciting part of your holiday?


It was all deeply satisfying to me. I had been longing for turquoise waters, sandy beaches, coral, colorful fish, an idyll. Then, on top of all that was the amazing adventure of interacting with the whales. Also, learned a lot from Annah and Rae about the local culture - so was very educational. Had opportunities to interact with locals that also gave me a feeling for the culture.

2. What tips would you give other travellers booking this holiday?


Do everything that Rae says to do. Bring what she says to bring and follow the safety instructions. Motionease, which she recommended, kept me completely seasickness free. As Lonely Planet says, don't come with too many stereotypes about the Tongan people. As I learned, they can, indeed, be very friendly, but in their culture it is a sign of disrespect to make eye contact with strangers - so don't expect it unless you have been introduced. Do NOT dress scantily as it is really offensive in their culture - Rae made this very clear to us in her instructions.

3. Did you feel that your holiday benefited local people, and minimized impacts on the environment?


I feel we benefitted the local culture by spending our money there. I spent $99 Tongan at a small Tongan Bookstore in Vava'u and the lady was so, so grateful. She said, "It was a blessing for me today that you came into my store." We went to a feast and Kava ceremony that Tongan friends of Rae put on for tourists. The children danced and sang and we donated money for their educational needs as their government does not provide paper, pencils, etc. for them. They were very appreciative. Also, many people bought the native craft work - baskets, carvings, which supplements the livelihoods of many of the Tongans. Also, Rae refilled our liter and a half plastic water bottles every night, so we were not adding empty plastic bottles to the refuse. We also were discouraged against tipping as it is not a custom in Tonga, but encouraged to bring gifts of medicine or educational supplies - which most of us did.

4. Any other comments?


A five star experience for me. I have great respect for Rae and her team. They perform a difficult job in coordinating a tour in a third world country where plans fall through regularly, and it is clearly a lot of work. But their love for the country and for the whales shines through and they made it a really special experience. Responsible as well as inspiring people.

Reviewed on 06 Oct 2006 by

1. What was the most memorable or exciting part of your holiday?


Seeing Humpback Whales in their element

2. What tips would you give other travellers booking this holiday?


Be prepared for a lot of time on the boat and short, but very exciting encounters with the whales underwater. There can be blank days, but these seem to be rare. Also some good opportunities for snorkelling and lazing on the beach.

3. Did you feel that your holiday benefited local people, and minimized impacts on the environment?


The accomodation is suitably low key and locals benefit from employment. The demand to see whales and resulting tourist revenue provides a economic alternative to allowing any whaling. The whales are not "hassled" by the boat operators and are treated with respect.

Reviewed on 20 Oct 2006 by

1. What was the most memorable or exciting part of your holiday?


The whale experience. I was lucky to swim with whales for 6 out of 7 scheduled days!

2. What tips would you give other travellers booking this holiday?


The trip says all expenses paid, but people will try to get you to pay again when you're there - make sure you tell them all it’s already paid for (but know what is paid for in advance to be sure!)

3. Did you feel that your holiday benefited local people, and minimized impacts on the environment?


Not really minimised impacts on the local environment nor did it benefit the locals, in fact many of them seemed like they didn't like the way the trips were run (Rae is a good business woman, and was using the locals to make more money - which understandably upset them a bit!)

4. Finally, how would you rate your holiday overall?


I would probably rate the whales as 5 star, but the rest of the trip 1 star - I forgot to mention that there was no toilet on the boat, and you are out on the water all day from 8am - 3pm! (not good for most females!) Overall, it was all about the whales. The food was terrible for vegetarians - even with advance warning they kept forgetting to take meat out of food (and I'm happy with seafood, but they still forgot for the 10 days I was there!). Accommodation was of a very low standard, except for 2 days on Treasure Island. There was also very little support for singles who stay outside the tour time.

Read the operator's response here:

1. Yes – our company has a great record of whale encounters – we only work with operators who know care about the whales and the environment and know their stuff around the whales. A little patience goes a long way.

2. We had a couple of guests this year inform us (after the fact unfortunately) that one of our accommodation providers was charging for lunch on leisure days when it was supposed to be included in our package. We have taken this up with the provider. It shouldn’t have happened and we were embarrassed by it when we found out. Our company has offered reimbursement to any guests that have let us know about it. We are not aware of any other incidences of this kind.

3. We have realised from this feedback that we should perhaps make more of a point of letting people know about the various ways that we work to minimise impact and improve the way tourism affects Tonga. We only work with operators that care about the whales and are respectful of them. Our pre-tour briefings include information about the preciousness of the pristine environment, the need to be mindful of that, no rubbish overboard, recycling water bottles (we refill them with filtered water each night in order to reduce the amount of plastic waste, use of lunchboxes instead of plastic wrap and bags, a lot of information about respecting local culture and supporting genuine local craftspeople.

I’m not sure what Nicole meant about not benefiting locals. our company brings a significant amount of business (generally interested and supportive people) to Tonga. We take people to numerous locally owned restaurants, stay at locally owned accommodation, charter boats that employ local skippers and crew, and take our groups to village craft markets and encourage them to purchase souvenirs directly from local craftspeople. We also have several special projects that we (and most of guests) are passionate about, The WhaleQuest Foundation; donating 10% of our profit each year - raising funds for overseas tertiary education for young Tongans, School Education Program; bringing books and education equipment into homes and schools and our Vava’u Hospital Project; organising appeals for Infant Panadol (which always seems in short supply) and eye glasses as there are no optometrists in Vava’u.

We love Tonga and its people and take great joy in sharing that joy in its culture and beautiful environment. We became aware this year of one of the boat crew who had a bit of resentment about what he perceived as ‘rich’ foreigners coming and taking advantage of the country. This was not something that he ever bought up with me, but one other person did mention to me that this charter staff member did not seem to be happy with his employers. I’m not sure how to deal with this, except to make sure that he feels a part of the Our company team when we are with him. He seemed to be quite happy with our staff and most of the customers, and he was well appreciated by our guests. I’m not sure whether workers at other businesses have similar issues, but reports from our business associates are that they, and their staff enjoy our groups being there.

4. The adventures with the whales is definitely the focus for what we do, but we also want to give people the chance to understand and share in Tongan culture and experiences. We aim to provide the best that we can given the limited nature but relatively high cost of accommodation and tourist services in Tonga. It is a third world country with a fledgling tourism industry, and very little idea of what the average western visitor expects from a ‘resort’. We make no false claims and are clear, both on the website and in our tour information, about the fact that some things are very basic. We invite people to step into an adventure, and make it as comfortable and as authentic, but comfortable as we can.

The Tongan culture doesn’t really have a vegetarian awareness and it is difficult to provide a range of options - it’s taken us a while to get the message across, but we have made some headway (gluten-free is another challenge!). I have checked up on what happened with Nicole’s vegetarian request however, and it seems that the lunch provider was having a bad week. We had been using him all season and he was pretty good, but he let us down on this occasion. I will send him a copy of this email and discuss the matter with him – definitely a lesson to be learned here.

I’m not sure what sort of support might have been sought with regard to support for singles outside of the tour. We are always willing to offer advice as to other options are available when the tour is finished, and do provide that sort of information. We help with booking extra accommodation and are happy to make personal recommendations, but our services are limited by the fact that we are a small in-bound tour business and not a travel agent.

5. The toilet on the boat is definitely something we need to address. There is one on the boat, but it is basic and because most people opt not to use it seems that the crew don’t let people know. I’ve spoken to my team and to the charter operators about this and they have promised to be more helpful. Suitable ‘licensed’ whale watching vessels are at a premium and we charter the two best boats available.

In conclusion, it is very disappointing to hear a one star verdict. It’s not a verdict that we have heard before, maybe we have been deafened by the stream of accolades up until now. It would make things so much easier to sort out and fix for people if they would tell us at the time. Nicole was glowing in her praise of the tour and I had no idea that she was less than happy. I just wish that we had been given the chance to address these things with her while the tour was happening. We have had such good feedback from our guests this season, it was a terrific season with the whales, and I felt that we had moved ahead again in our relationships with locals and business owners and with our commitment to being of service to the people and environment when sharing our love for these beautiful islands and the precious humpbacks.

Reviewed on 23 Sep 2005 by

1. What was the most memorable or exciting part of your holiday?


Swimming with humpback whales is a life changing experience. We were so close to them - they were so curious and gentle.

2. What tips would you give other travellers booking this holiday?


This holiday ran like clockwork. It was so well organised and yet there was so much flexibility in what we could do. Pack lots of sun tan lotion!

3. Did you feel that your holiday benefited local people, and minimized impacts on the environment?


Yes. We dined with locals. We used re-cycled water and kept re-filling our plastic bottles. We took stationery for the local kids to use at school.

4. Any other comments?


A humbling and unique experience.

Reviewed on 07 Oct 2005 by

1. What was the most memorable or exciting part of your holiday?


The most memorable and exciting part of our trip was seeing a humpback whale mother and her calf while snorkelling, for the first time. We ended up seeing the whales under water every day of our trips, 7 days in total, but that first time / image has great staying power! Our trip was a "Swim with whales" adventure so our first sighting was naturally quite fabulous and profound! A very unique and once-in-a-lifetime experience. We loved it!!!

2. What tips would you give other travellers booking this holiday?


Tonga is a 'developing country', very rural with different standards. For example, while it didn't matter to us much, we stayed at 'resorts' (and that means a certain standard in the USA) which in Tonga, doesn't necessarily mean hot water is included. Some of us experienced some sickness due to heat, food and rough waters but all of that subsided after a day or two. Tonga us not a glitzy place, which I certainly appreciated; it's perfect for someone who is flexible, interested in different cultures and up for an adventure. It was a well organised trip and the staff were very attentive to any issues tour participants had.

3. Did you feel that your holiday benefited local people, and minimized impacts on the environment?


Good question. Our tour leader was very astute at pointing out which stores on the main street in Neafu (?) were owned by Tongans, and she often recommended we go to the fruit market (stocked by local Tongan farmers) so we could our $ locally. All restaurants that we went to employed Tongans, but most didn't seem owned by locals. The two island resorts where we stayed, interestingly to me, were owned by German / Tongan mixed couples and they employed Tongan staff. The boat was skippered by a Tongan; the guides were from Australia and the boat company was owned by a British man. The drivers in any taxis or tours we took by can were Tongan. We all brought books, paper, and supplies for a elementary school, and our team leader let us know that we could do more, once at home (she gave us the address to send more books). In terms of the environment, our tour leader was also very effective. She took note of the fact that in the past, many plastic bottles were being utilised inefficiently by her groups. In response she has set up a system to reuse bottles, and minimise new purchases. She was also very careful to make sure we were fully aware of laws created to minimise interference with the whales themselves. For example, our skipper was great at staying within the appropriate distances and making sure other boats followed the rules as well. we were only allowed in the water in groups of four at a time, and we tried to be quiet (a tough thing to do when thrilled at seeing a whale breech!). She also gave us web sites and other information about whaling practices and ways to advocate to help save them from being killed off for industry. Thank you Rae!

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