Port Macquarie local Emma Siossian describes the sights, scents, sounds and experiences of beautiful Tonga, including swimming with the whales …
> Travel location: The Kingdom of Tonga, a beautiful archipelago of 176 islands, many of them uninhabited.
> Flights with: Pacific Blue has direct flights from Sydney to Tonga on Mondays and Thursdays. Internal Tongan flights are with Chathams Pacific.
> We chose Tonga because … I travelled with my mum and it had long been a dream of ours to swim with Humpback Whales. We love to watch them off our coastline and had previously heard their haunting, moving song from whale-watching boats.
Tonga is one of only two places in the world where it is legal to swim with the whales, and every year between July and October, about 200 Humpback Whales make the annual migration from Antarctic feeding grounds to breed and give birth in the warm waters around Tonga’s northern Vava’u group of islands.
It seemed the perfect location for our ‘swim with the whales’ holiday.
> We stayed at the … Mounu Island Resort – a small, remote eco-resort located on a pristine 6.5 acre coral atoll in Tonga’s northern Vava’u group of islands. The resort only has four fales (traditional Tongan style cabins), ensuring peace and seclusion, and the island is a true tropical paradise, with a white sandy beach and crystal clear lagoon. The resort also runs its own whale watch / swim trips and was an excellent base for our holiday.
The resort is run by Allan and Lyn Bowe with help from their daughter Kirsty, and the family were the first to run ‘swimming with the whales’ trips in Tonga in 1993.
> The most amazing experience on my trip was … Swimming very close to Humpback Whales in the wild! It is a surreal, humbling and awe-inspiring experience to be in the water close to one of the ocean’s most intelligent, and surprisingly trusting giants. Despite their enormous size, once in the water we felt no fear, only an overwhelming sense of peace and joy.
On more than one occasion we swam with a trusting mother whale and her robust two week old male calf. We felt touched and privileged to watch the caresses between the mother and her calf, which often nestled beneath her pectoral fins or lay across her body to rest.
Other times the calf was playful and inquisitive and repeatedly swam straight towards our group, clearly fascinated by the strange humans. More than once we had to move out of the calf’s way as it made a bee-line for us, and it was a delight to experience such close interaction.
As if showing off, the calf also treated us to an acrobatic display of underwater somersaults and back-flips, before splashing us with repeated surface tail and pectoral fin slaps. His mother meanwhile stayed patiently nearby, resting about 10 metres below the surface.
During our final swim with that mother and calf, they hung just below the surface, napping. They stayed there for minutes, eyes closed and bodies relaxed, as we floated alongside them, utterly captivated by the sleeping whales.
Another day we experienced a much shorter encounter with three adult whales, two males and a pregnant female (often the males will ‘escort’ a female, waiting until she is ready to breed again). After entering the water, we gazed down waiting for the whales to resurface. After a while they seemed to materialise out of the blue depths just below us, the three of them gliding upward, moving in a graceful unison as if in slow motion.
Swimming with the whales was a special, once in a lifetime experience, which will never be forgotten.
> The food was … The food on the island was fresh and delicious.
Breakfasts featured a tropical fruit plate, home-made bread and a choice of cooked meals.
Lunch was anything from a simple chicken salad roll served on the whale swim boat, or home-made pasta with crayfish served at the island restaurant.
The dinners were all three courses and started with home-made coconut crisps, served with drinks on the restaurant’s outdoor deck. Entrees were usually light and fresh, including Tongan fish ‘cooked’ in lemon juice and served in coconut cream (a personal favourite), followed by a delicately flavoured main course often featuring freshly caught Tuna, Coral Trout or Wahoo.
Desserts and cakes are Lynn Bowe’s specialty, and we enjoyed many delectable indulgences, including Mandarin Pana Cotta and warm apple cake.
> A big surprise on our holiday was … Just how close the whales came to us in the water – the ‘swimming with whales’ experience certainly exceeded our expectations!
The other surprise was the truly unspoilt beauty of Tonga, which remains a refreshingly low-key travel destination.
> If I could give one tip to anyone travelling to Tonga, it would be … If you are travelling there to swim with the whales, then be prepared to put in plenty of ‘whale time’ (days out on the boat) if you hope to experience a special, ‘up close and personal’ whale encounter. As with any wildlife experience, there are no guarantees, and finding any whales to swim with can be a bit like finding a needle in a haystack, requiring time, patience and a guide with a sharp set of eyes.
There are also many rules governing the practice of swimming with whales in Tonga, to ensure the animals are not harassed. That means that if whales are sighted but are travelling fast, or are clearly not interested in hanging around, you aren’t allowed to attempt to swim with them. Whale operators are also not permitted to ‘queue’ near a mother and her calf, and groups of only four swimmers, with one guide, are allowed in the water at any one time.
We experienced a number of unsuccessful whale trips (i.e. we either didn’t see whales or didn’t locate any we could swim with) before we hit the jackpot, finding a very calm, patient mother and her very inquisitive calf.
> Thank you guys.