A Guide to Swimming With Humpbacks In Tonga

The Kingdom of Tonga is one of the most picturesque countries in the Pacific Islands and boasts palm-fringed islands, vibrant colorful reefs, and deep blue waters teeming with marine life. Tonga is a place that has attracted travelers for a long time. There is a wide variety of things to do in this friendly and hospitable country, but the most popular has to be seeing humpback whales! We have put together a guide of everything you need to know if you are hoping to go whale watching or swimming with humpbacks in Tonga.

About Tonga

Situated over 2000 miles (3218 km) to the west of Australia and southeast of Fiji, Tonga consists of 170 islands spread over 200 miles of deep blue Pacific Ocean water. Tonga is divided into three regions:


In the south of the kingdom, the capital Nuku’alofa is found on the island of Tongatapu, which has the highest population density and is where the majority of tourists will arrive. This island has the royal palace for the King of Tonga (King Tupou VI) and is also the home to the main ports. Due to the remoteness of the nation, imported goods are hugely important to the smooth running of day-to-day life here.


Moving further north, the island group of Ha’apai is situated right in the middle of the kingdom and is renowned for having healthy reefs with idyllic white-sand beaches and palm-topped fales (pronounced far-lay). Fales are traditional-style Tongan homes and are perfect for a relaxing Pacific vacation.


At the very north of the kingdom is Vava’u, often referred to as the jewel in the crown of the Tongan kingdom, with a large cluster of lush green islands supporting sheltered lagoons and healthy coral reefs. Many of the islands have secluded beaches and caves dotted amongst their coastlines.

Want to see more of the Pacific Islands? Here is: Scuba Diving in Vanuatu: All You Need to Know

When to go swimming with humpbacks in Tonga

Tonga is a haven for all kinds of marine life, but it is the presence of one animal in particular that draws visitors from all over the world: the annual migration of humpback whales. These gentle giants swim from Antarctica to Tonga to give birth and raise their young or to look for mating opportunities. 

Humpback whales are found in the waters around Tonga from the end of June well into November. The official season for whale watching and swimming with humpbacks in Tonga is from July to October. This is also a great time to go diving in Tonga, as these months offer the best visibility, which reaches well over 100 feet (30 meters). 

Be aware that Tonga has a cyclone season from January to March. Check with your preferred dive center and the World Meteorological Organization for current information if you plan to visit during that time of year. 

Want to see bull sharks in Fiji? Check out: SSI x Edges of Earth: Diving with Fiji’s Bull Sharks

Whale behaviors you might get to see

Watching humpback whales from the boat is spectacular and a huge amount of behavior can be witnessed, with breaches being the number one thing that people hope to see. It has been estimated that an adult whale doing this may burn more calories in a single breach than a human being running a marathon! Calves are just as active in this regard and often will breach or head slap continuously for many minutes, learning from their mothers.

Another beautiful surface behavior is tail or pec slapping, which can be incredibly loud! You can often hear this at night while sleeping in your beachfront accommodation. The whales also roll at the surface and spyhop. Spyhopping is where a whale lifts its snout straight up and often exposes an eye to look at the boat. 

The whales even go ‘sailing’, which is where whales rest motionless and vertical in the water, with their heads pointing down and their flukes out of the water. This is a spectacular but bizarre sight to see on the ocean.

Surface behavior is incredible, but Tonga is one of the few countries that allow in-water interactions with humpback whales. Regulated since the mid-1990s, Tonga has put in place marine laws to ensure the whales can continue their natural behaviors in peace, while we watch in awe.

READ MORE: 8 Best Places to See Whales in the Wild

If you are lucky enough to go swimming with humpbacks in Tonga… expect to have your mind blown! You can witness bubble blowing, pods with multiple whales, territorial behaviors and mom and calf interactions.

Vocalizations are always audible but incredibly pronounced if you find a singing male whale (the air in your chest will vibrate intensely). One of the best feelings you can have in the water is when these ocean giants look at you. 

Imagine having a whale look you up and down so closely you can see the colors on the iris. It is a humbling experience.

Aside from these incredible moments when swimming with humpbacks in Tonga, you might also get to see dolphins, marlin, mahi mahi, sharks, and numerous fish and bird species.

Get prepared for the trip of a lifetime

Whale watching and swimming with humpbacks in Tonga involves long days on the water, sometimes in choppy conditions. Visitors are advised to have plenty of seasickness medication, as well as adequate exposure protection for the weather. 

Strong winds can make your days at sea chilly, so a good quality jacket is essential to stay warm and stave off the spray or rain. If you are going to be in the water, a good quality full-length wetsuit is essential. 

Air temperatures can be 23-26°C (73-79°F), with water temperatures just slightly lower, so most people will wear a 5mm wetsuit when they swim with humpbacks in Tonga.

Summer is coming and you might be planning a getaway. Get inspired by: SSI Explores the Best Places to Dive in June

Make sure you are comfortable using a mask, snorkel and fins in the water. It is a good idea to practice before you get to Tonga to make the most of your time with the whales. Often, the environment where whales will be found is in the open ocean with no visible seafloor, so being mentally prepared for that is also important. 

Regulations dictate that you are only allowed four swimmers in the water with a guide at any one time, so groups are small, and interactions are very personal. You will be advised by your guide on how to act in the water around the humpback whales, but it is important to maintain a distance and show respect at all times.

How to get to Tonga

Tonga is a long way from many nations but is well-served by international flights. There are options from Australia via Auckland, Nadi in Fiji, and New Zealand. Fiji is also a huge hub for many flights in the South Pacific and has a direct service from Los Angeles for visitors coming from North America.

Given the distances being traveled, it can be useful to combine the trip with additional layovers to break up the crazy travel schedules. There are ferries in Tonga that operate between all the islands, but they are often much slower and less frequent than flights (no concerns about baggage weight though). 

Lulutai is a government-owned domestic airline that flies between all three main regions of Tonga and between the islands in each region. Make sure you have a day on either side of onward travel to allow for any delays in travel plans.

So there you have it, that is all you need to know to go swimming with humpbacks in Tonga. It is a truly life-changing experience!

Love whales as much as we do?

Then check out SSI’S Marine Mammal Ecology Diver course and indulge your passion for these ocean giants: