Dancing With Whales in the Kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific

We’ve all heard about whale watching from boats or shore, and a few companies are now offering the possibility of actually swimming and snorkeling with whales in the wild. Is this a good thing?

Some whale watching operators in the Kingdom of Tonga, South Pacific
islands, advertise the possibility of swimming and snorkeling with
humpback whales during the cetaceans annual migration from July to
October. This activity sounds appealing, yet there are a number of things
to consider.

To drop clients off within snorkeling distance of a whale, the swim boats
must come closer than the 30 meters laid down in Tongan government
guidelines in 1997. Engine noise from a maneuvering boat can startle a
whale, and repeated disturbances can lead to the animals changing their
behavior and even abandoning their traditional habitat. The nursing and
resting routines of the pods can be disrupted, potentially threatening the
health of the whales.

This high-risk activity is not covered by most travel insurance policies.
The humpback whales of Tonga are wild animals with powerful fins, and
swimming near one always involves some risk. The movements of these huge
creatures can be fatal to a human swimmer, either accidentally or if the
beast feels threatened, and a nursing mother with calf can be especially
unpredictable. Swimming into the path of a whale greatly increases the
danger.

In Tonga, sharks are known to frequent areas where there are whales,
especially calves, and at least one shark attack on a Tongan guide
swimming with whales has been recorded. A tragic accident involving
tourists seems to be only a matter of time.

Most whale encounters occur in deep waters where unperceived currents and
wave action can soon tire a snorkeler and possibly lead to panic. For
these reasons, responsible whale watching companies do not offer snorkeling with whales.

Of course, the demand is there, and pressure has come to bear on the
Tongan Government to revise its guidelines to allow boats to come within
10 meters of a whale. Several new whale watching licenses have been issued
recently, raising the number of commercial operators in this small area to
about a dozen, and vessels often have to queue to drop off swimmers. Cases
have been observed of boats approaching to within five meters of whale
pods, and of mother humpbacks and calves being pursued out to sea.

Visitors should be aware that by purchasing such an excursion, they could
be adversely affecting the noble creatures they came to see. It’s a good
idea to discuss these matters with the operator before booking your trip,
and to avoid those who seem most interested in maximizing their own
profits at the expense of the whales.

Even if you decide to book such a tour, be aware that only 10 percent of
swim-with attempts are successful and there are no refunds. These concerns
only apply to attempts to actually swim with whales, and whale watching
from a boat at a safe distance is no problem.