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wildlife & nature • 8 days, 7 nights

Swim with the Singing Whales of Tonga

Tonga
wildlife & nature • 8 days, 7 nights

Swim with the Singing Whales of Tonga

Tonga
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  • Group Size 7 People Maximum
  • Activity Level
    Moderate
  • Travel Style
    On the Water

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from $6,970 USD per person
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Trip Overview
Overview

Humpback whales are among the most seasoned composers of the sea; stringing together long, drawn-out notes to make complex melodies, they sing to attract a curious listener—more specifically, a mate. Alongside a small group of Atlas Obscura and Tastemade travelers, you’ll have the chance to dive into the waters off the coast of Tonga in search of these ethereal whale songs. Guided by a marine mammal biologist, we’ll spend five full days having swim encounters with adult humpbacks, learning about their behavior and habitat, listening to their melodic calls, and capturing recordings and photographs that directly contribute to ongoing conservation research. In the evenings, we’ll relax on the main island of Tongatapu, learning about the culture and history of the Happy Isles.

Highlights
  • Safe, ethical swims with adult humpback whales
  • Expert marine mammal biologist guides
  • Whale song acoustics
  • Local cultural events

Itinerary

Itineraries and daily schedules are subject to change. We expect to do everything listed in the itinerary, though the order may be rearranged based on weather or other local conditions.

Trip Leaders

Dave Donnelly
Dave Donnelly is a marine mammal researcher with over twenty years field experience and a broad background in marine science including eco-tourism, oil and gas, documentary film making and research. He has worked for six universities on a range of scientific projects. He has been part of the Antarctic Blue Whale Project since January 2012, runs the Australian Orca database and is an experienced tracker of singing Humpback Whales. Dave brings extensive experience to the team as a highly-skilled marine fauna observer, small boat operator and safety diver.
Vanessa Mignon
Vanessa Mignon was born in Brittany, in the West of France, and spent most of her childhood on the beaches of that wild coast. In 2003 she moved to Australia, got her first SLR camera and travelled to remote locations to witness amazing wildlife spectacles including Humpback whales in the Kingdom of Tonga. Vanessa is focused on sharing the beauty of the world and playing a part in protecting it. She is a member of the Ocean Artists Society and an Ambassador for the Undersea Soft Encounter Alliance. She was also awarded the 2015 International Fund for Animal Welfare Animal Action Award as Marine Photographer of the Year.

Additional Info

 
Pricing

The listed price of the trip is per person based on double occupancy.

Traveling Solo?

You’re in good company. Solo travelers typically make up about half of our small groups. With curiosity at the center of our experiences, there’s a natural camaraderie that develops over the course of a trip. 

Private Room: Have your own room, subject to availability, for a supplemental cost of $675. When booking, please select the single room package option.

Arrival & Departure

Schedules for flights into Tonga for August 2023 have not yet been published. Flights are limited, and we have planned the 2023 departure dates of this trip based on schedules from previous years with flights typically arriving on Tuesday afternoons and very early Thursday mornings (around 1 a.m.).

Note: The dates of the trip are subject to change in the event that flight operations into Tonga require us to shift the itinerary by a day or two to accommodate the limited flight options.

Your trip officially begins with our first swim on Thursday morning (Day 2), but guests arriving on the Tuesday flight can arrange for an extra night at the hotel and meet their guides for an optional welcome dinner on Wednesday (Day 1). Guests arriving on the Thursday morning flight will be transferred to the hotel to get some rest before meeting the group for our first swim on Thursday morning. The trip concludes after breakfast on Day 9. Depending on the time of your departing flight, there may be an opportunity to head into town and visit one of the island’s many cozy cafes.

Activity Level & Swimming Ability

You don’t need to be an expert swimmer to participate in this trip; however, you must be able to swim unaccompanied for prolonged periods of time. We don’t chase after the whales—they come to us—but while in the water, you’ll constantly be moving. We’ll also be on our boat or in the water for the majority of the day, for five full days of the trip. This trip is not recommended for people who experience severe motion sickness or who are not comfortable in the water. 

Vessel Amenities & Equipment

For five full days, you’ll be out on the water for about seven hours (per day) aboard one of the island’s best vessels. The seas aren’t always completely calm, and while it can get a little cold in the wind, there will be plenty of room to get away from the chill. Water temperatures tend to be around 75°F, and you’ll be equipped with hot drinks and wetsuits, fins, and snorkels to use throughout. 

Our boat holds 8 passengers, so the group is a maximum of 7 travelers plus one trip leader (one of the leaders highlighted above).

Animal Safety & Ethics

The World Cetacean Alliance’s Global Guidelines strongly recommend against swimming with cow-calf pairs of any cetacean. In order to ensure safe and ethical interaction with the whales, we will not be swimming with cow-calf pairs. Tonga is a critical breeding area for a small subpopulation of humpback whales, and research has shown that excess interaction with boats and humans can adversely impact the survival and health of vulnerable calves. Additionally, we will not be swimming with heat-runs, when a group of bulls chase a female in heat. Swimming with heat-runs is against Tongan regulations and can be extremely dangerous. We may witness a heat-run from the safety of our boat. 

We operate a risk assessment strategy that uses researched behavioral cues to monitor whale activity. We remove swimmers from the water if our marine mammal biologist guide observes signs of any significant negative change in animal behavior. 

If you have questions about our approach to animal and human safety, please reach out to trips@atlasobscura.com

Included
  • Accommodation throughout the trip at a comfortable hotel
  • All meals as described in the itinerary
  • Transportation throughout the trip, including arrival and departure airport transfers
  • An experienced wildlife guide to accompany you for the duration of the trip
  • Admission to all proposed activities, locations, and events
  • A curious group of fellow Atlas Obscura travelers!
  • 24/7 emergency assistance during your trip, provided by Global Rescue (terms apply)
  • Special access to unique places and extraordinary experiences.
  • 5 days private group charter of a fully-licensed and comfortable whale swim vessel
Excluded
  • Transportation and flights to and from Tonga
  • Pre- and post-trip accommodations
  • Travel insurance (recommended)
  • Additional meals and drinks outside of Atlas Obscura offerings, including most alcoholic beverages
  • Passport and visa fees, if applicable
  • COVID-19 testing requirements
  • Customary gratuities for wildlife guide
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Trip FAQ

Over the past years, our partners have collected data on the number of hours on the water, distance covered, the number of pods encountered (and number of animals in each), and duration of encounter. They are the only operator who documents this, so we can be confident about what this trip will deliver for you. We average between 4.6 - 7.2 encounters per day (whale sightings from the boat). This doesn't mean it's the same every day or every week. In 2017, the whale encounters per day ranged from 1 - 11 and were below 4 per day for a third of the days. So how many encounters to get a 'really good swim'? Of all the whale 'encounters' only a proportion result in a 'swim' and many of these are fly-bys. If we consider a 'really good swim' as 40 minutes or more, it's about 25% of our encounters. But this varies year on year. You need four encounters a day, on average, to get a swim but some days we get more, some days fewer. It takes 2-3 days to get one of those 90-minute swims 'of a lifetime' - usually about twice per trip. The data also demonstrates our commitment to whale welfare, as all data collected is submitted each year to the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium.
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  • Aug 2–Aug 9, 2023
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  • Aug 16–Aug 23, 2023
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Choose your own private trip dates
Inquire now about a private departure for friends and family. Trip cost may vary based on group size and travel dates.

Choose your own private trip dates

Inquire now about a private departure for friends and family.

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