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Whales in Tonga...advice appreciated


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#1 Ladygodiver

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Posted 07 February 2009 - 05:45 PM

Hi everyone.

I'm hoping to get to Tonga later this year to video Humpbacks. I'd really appreciate any advice/hints/warnings/etc that people who've been there can offer me.

Thanks

Edited by Ladygodiver, 07 February 2009 - 05:46 PM.


#2 deepsea

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Posted 07 February 2009 - 06:08 PM

The Humpback Whales begin to arrive in July and the whale watching season normally begins around the 2nd week, the whales are here through to October, with the peak season being August and September.

The juveniles and single whales are generally the first ones we see, with lots of surface activity as well as underwater activity, the mother and calves typically come in closer to the islands from early August onwards, however there is never any guarantees.

If you are wanting to shoot video my advice is at least 5 days, there are with any wild animals days where they just don't want to have the boats near them or weather may make it more difficult for entering the water safely and also shooting video/photo. Most people who are shooting we advise 7-10 days, to really get the best of encounters.

You want to check with your operator that you chose the type of trip that you do, there are 2 ways, you can either join as a single person which means you would take turn in the water with the others on the boat, or you can charter the whole boat and bring a group with you of people you want to share this experience with.

There are some operators who will queue on the whales, which we believe to be both harmful to the whales and not productive to the trip you have paid for. In our mind we want people to have both a great experience whilst we are taking care of the whales and not harassing them.

The rules in Tonga state 4 people plus the guide can enter the water at once, when I worked in the Silverbanks it was 8, 4 is better because you get a much better view and interaction with the whales.

October there are less whales around however from end September onwards the mother and calves can be more settled and relaxed and can give better encounters. It again goes back to how the operator approaches and studies the whales you are trying to interact with.

You need to book in advance, as well as sort out flights and accommodations as many places fill up early. It is a great place and the encounters when you have them are amazing, with a lot of time islands in the background making for some fantastic shots.

Vava'u offers the most protected waters of the Tonga islands, it lies 130 miles north of the main island of Tongatapu, the domestic airline flies daily between Monday and Saturday, there are no flights both domestic and international on a Sunday.

If you would like more information please contact me via email.
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#3 deepsea

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Posted 07 February 2009 - 06:11 PM

Sorry couple of other things

All trips are only on snorkel, there is no diving with the whales.

It is winter time here, water temp is around 75F.

Thanks

Karen
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#4 Mary Malloy

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Posted 08 February 2009 - 08:54 PM

Hi everyone.

I'm hoping to get to Tonga later this year to video Humpbacks. I'd really appreciate any advice/hints/warnings/etc that people who've been there can offer me.

Thanks



The local airlines are extremely unreliable. I have been there twice and been caught out twice. Everyone I know who has been there has been caught in some way. So give yourself a spare day either side of your dive days.

From Australia Virgin fly there Mondays and Thursdays. Give yourself two weeks, my first trip was one week and we couldn't get out to the whales due to weather. It gets expensive going back.

Ask questions, some operators don't allow duck diving. Other do but don't have weight belts. Especially for video you want to get off the surface for steady shots.

Decide how many people you want to share the whale with, then ask operators how many do they take on the boat.

I know my advice sounds like the travel is all doom and gloom but the whales are worth it.

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#5 danielandrewclem

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Posted 09 February 2009 - 10:11 AM

My wife and I went for about ten days at the end of August/beginning of September of 2008. I'd been a Peace Corps volunteer in Ha'apai for two years back in 1999-2001, so we decided to go there and skip Vava'u, because I never cared all that much for Vava'u other than its outer islands and superior amenities. So, we went to Ha'apai and went on one whale cruise with the lone whale/dive operator there, which is called both Happy Ha'apai Divers and Ocean Blue Adventures, I believe. They use a catamaran for their whale trips, and they sail as much as possible when conditions permit. The weather was terrible most of the time we were in Ha'apai, and it kept us from getting into the water with the 3-4 humpbacks that we saw just off of Foa and Ha'ano. In fact, only one quartet of divers got in the water at all, but the mother and calf swam off and that was that. And some of those people had already been out 3-4 days, and hadn't had much luck on those trips.

The operator is very conservative and cautious with the whales. The are definitely one of the operators that doesn't allow weight belts or swimming without a wetsuit. (They want to make sure everyone stays at the surface.) In general, the vibe on their boat was kind of like 'we're doing whale research and you, the paying customers, are just along for the ride.' The boss literally told us to think of the cruise as "a nice day's sail, and anything else would be a bonus." I really hated that attitude. (Don't tell me how to think or feel about an excursion for which I'm paying the equivalent of two weeks' salary for most Tongans!) And I also didn't like that the only Tongan employee of the entire operation seemed to be this one guy from Foa whose job was to deal with moorings and do all the heavy lifting on the dive boat. He was physical labor, and nothing more. The rest of the crew was made up of Kiwis, Aussies, and Brits, none of whom were particularly interested in the customers. They couldn't even pronounce the name of Ha'apai's main town, Pangai. (It's pahng-AI, not PANG-ai.) After a day on the dive boat—very nice sites, but a very crowded boat—the phone lines were down and we couldn't call a cab to pick us up and take us down to Pangai. After taking our money for the dives, the operators basically just wished us luck as we lugged our gear down the road. Five minutes later, that lone Tongan employee rode by on his rusty bike, on his way back home in the nearby village, and he asked me why we were walking. I explained, and five minutes later he was loading us and our dive/photo gear into our van for a ride to Pangai. The operators could learn a thing or two about service from that guy. He was making about $20 a day, yet he seemed more interested in hospitality then his bosses.

Anyhow, as in Vava'u, it's hit or miss whether you'll see whales or get in the water with them in Ha'apai. On the other hand, the whales can be seen right from Ha'apai's leeward, and the beaches are much more accessible in Ha'apai. If you're absolutely set on seeing whales, you might look into a trip on the Nai'a, which comes over from Fiji for Tonga's whale season. I think it's about US$5000 for a ten-day trip, but they seem to have better luck with the whales, and obviously you'd be dedicating more time to it.

We flew Chathams Pacific and had no problems. Again, if your focus is the whales and you don't want to risk being stuck on the main island b/c of plane issues, you might want to get on the Nai'a. It leaves from Nuku'alofa and heads all over Ha'apai, including out by the big volcanic islands, Kao and Tofua, which are spectacular.

If you need to kill a day or two on Tongatapu, Maka Paradiso is a nice place to stay. The owner, Paki Maka, spent most of his life in New Zealand but wanted to retire back in his home country. He's got a very nice new place, gated and secure, that's outside of dusty Nuku'alofa. And he will pick you up from the airport and give you rides to town. Hot showers, a/c, and fresh fruit and bread for breakfast.
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#6 photovan

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Posted 09 February 2009 - 03:05 PM

From my experience guiding whaleswim photo trips in Vava'u during the 2001, 2002 and 2008 seasons, I would suggest deepsea's comments about the current scene in Vava'u are spot-on.

I can only speak of my experiences in Vava'u, so I think it's worth pointing out that I DISAGREE STRONGLY with the following statement from danielandrewclem

...... Anyhow, as in Vava'u, it's hit or miss whether you'll see whales or get in the water with them .....


If you plan your trip - go at the right time, have plenty of consecutive days on the water, be on a boat with a good skipper and a small group, you will get some great in-water encounters. On the other hand if you approach your trip with hit and miss planning... well maybe the results won't be so reliable.

Having said that, no wildlife experience can be guaranteed 100% and there will be the occasional story where really bad weather and a lull in whale numbers coincide to make it difficult. That is where the "many days" approach is the safety net.

Regarding airlines... yes they have a long history of being unreliable, so close connections while attractive, should be avoided.

It's a great experience, maybe we'll see you in Vava'u this season!

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#7 WanderingBob

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Posted 15 February 2009 - 01:10 PM

Hi everyone.

I'm hoping to get to Tonga later this year to video Humpbacks. I'd really appreciate any advice/hints/warnings/etc that people who've been there can offer me.

Thanks



Thanks for this post. I traveled to NZ and Brissy recently and read an article about swimming and photographing humpies in Tonga. I see you can also do the same in the Carribean at the Dominican Republic. But, I want to visit a bit more of OZ.

Thanks for this thread. Hoping to learn more.

I am interested in underwater camera case suggestions for Nikon D2x, D300 and or D700. ANy suggestions would be appreciated.
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#8 vazuw

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Posted 15 February 2009 - 01:40 PM

My wife and I went on the naia about 10 years ago. At that time they had near exclusive acesses to an area south of the main tourist area. They were very experienced at finding whales, and fascilitating encounters. As mentioned above, there were very strict rules on the number of people in the water, and the interaction. All I can say is the experience is worth any trouble to get there. We saw alot of surface action by the males. I had several close encounters. At that time there was diving, but not with the whales. My understanding was if they came to you it was ok. When we dove we could hear them singing the whole dive. I got a couple of close shots, free diving ,on slide film with a wide angle lens. See my flickr site at vazuw/flicker/photos. My all time most memorable photo.

Edited by vazuw, 15 February 2009 - 02:12 PM.


#9 Ladygodiver

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Posted 19 February 2009 - 04:50 PM

Thank you to everyone who has taken the trouble to reply.

Your info is most helpful...and very appreciated!!