Tonga: underwater adventures in the Polynesian archipelago

Photographer Jo Jackson swims into the waters of Tonga in search of humpback whales

Humpback Whale. Vavau - Tonga

I’m a normal person who spends her whole day working at a laptop. I’m not into climbing mountains or sleeping in tents or any of that stuff. But when I hear from a friend about these small group trips swimming with whales in Tonga, I know I have to go. The journey there is epic, but the destination makes it worthwhile. Tonga is an archipelago that’s not touristy like Fiji, but it is just as astonishing, with those dreamy white-sand beaches, unique shades of turquoise water, and a surprising number of pigs. 

Neiafu local kids swimming and fishing after school. Neiafu, VavauUta, Tonga
Mystic Sands ladies in local patterns and smiles! Utungake, Neiafu, Tonga

After a day to acclimatise, we head straight out onto the water at 6am. You have to get out before the boats that take the day trippers as there are lots of rules about being in the water with the whales. We set out from the main island into an ocean that is its own kind of blue. The water in Tonga is not like Brazil, or the Caribbean, or like Italy. It’s different. The visibility is incredible: you can see 20 metres down. 

Preparation routine for The Encounters. 7 am, Neiafu, Vavau
Dinner for the day after 9 hours on water with the whales. Neiafu Pier, Vavau Island – Tonga

It only takes half an hour on the water until our captain spots a humpback. Our local expert goes in first. He’s just wearing goggles, shorts, flippers. He checks it’s OK then signals to us. We slide into the water and swim and swim and swim and swim. Eventually, we reach him. And then you start to see it, the shape of the whale below you, the size of a school bus. It seems like it’s on the ocean floor, miles away. We can see the shape of its tail. If you hold your breath and dive under the surface, you can feel the sound and the vibration of the water on your body. It is like something from ET, only very, very loud. Then she emerges. I see her huge eye looking at me. It’s an incredible encounter with another intelligence. 

Tonguean boat crew. Mid of south pacific ocean. 18.87016° S, 174.13870° W
The wait. Tongan crew spotting whales that are willing to interact. Vavau – Tonga South pacific Ocean 18.73996° S, 174.04205° W
Humpback Whales – Mother and calf spotted before diving to the bottom. South pacific Ocean – 18.72596° S, 174.15613° W Vavau – Tonga

We spend seven days on the water and have many encounters like this every day. Single whales. Whales that want to be left alone. Whales that want to play. We see mothers and calves, but keep our distance. The calves are very curious but they’re clumsy. On the water you are in constant contact with nature. Pods of dolphins and turtles swim past, birds fly overhead. There are moments of high anxiety when you can’t see the boat. You can’t see land. Your head is full of thoughts of sharks. And then you hear a shout and you have to swim hard, your body full of adrenaline. 

17.79606° S, 177.13772° E South Pacific Ocean near Solevu, FIji
Playfull Humpback – probably a calf. Vavau – Tonga

But every difficult moment is worth it to be with these incredible animals. They have such a calm intelligence and a strong female energy. There is nothing like feeling their big eyes looking at you, indifferent but also respectful. For me, Mother Nature is definitely a whale. 

Humpback Whale. Vavau – Tonga
Humpback Whale. Vavau – Tonga

Jo Jackson joined photographer Karim Iliyaon on this Dance with Whales trip: dancewithwhales.com/vavau-tonga-trips

Karim Iliyaon is a photographer and filmmaker specialising in whales, threatened wildlife, and delicate ecosystems on Earth. Karim is responsible for the Dance with Whales Trip. dancewithwhales.com

Images: @karimiliya

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