Notes from my EPIC ADVENTURE with the Tonga Tribe Laura Stegeman
“Once a year go someplace you’ve never been before.”
This quote, attributed to His Holiness The Dalai Lama, has long been one of my personal mantras, especially since I started traveling more in groups after starting my company, Get Out There Tours. And very recently, as the years begin to creep up on me, I have added two additional mantras: Every Year Do Something Epic and Live This Life (the latter having a very specific and special meaning and it pays homage to my late Mother, Marni – a great adventurer herself).
Ever since my days at a huge, worldwide travel company where I was introduced to the South Pacific on a large scale through a partnership with an airline serving that route, I have been mesmerized by the idea of traveling to Tonga. I have been asked where Tonga is, so for those of you who don’t exactly know, the Kingdom of Tonga an archipelago sitting on the Tongan Trench in the middle of the South Pacific and is made up of 170ish stunning, mostly coral islands. The islands are covered with tall hills and volcanoes, dense jungles, and white sand beaches. Most are surrounded by flourishing coral reefs. In other words, paradise! I made it to Fiji and New Zealand a few times, but Tonga eluded me. Then five or so years ago, an old friend named Denny posted photos on Facebook of her whale swims with the Humpbacks of Tonga. This became my biggest dream, or Bucket List item as some would call it.
The polynesian Kingdom of Tonga and the “Tongan Tribe,” a group of an estimated 900 or so Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) that migrate the unbelievable 3,100 miles there every winter (July-October) from Antarctica to mate and breed, developed into an obsession. My dreams became plans when I came across Nadia Aly’s photography on Instagram and found her company Humpback Swims. She puts together “legal” swims at different price points every year, beginning in July and ending in October. Naturally, this is a trip you need to save up for (in my case for a year), but is absolutely doable, because I believe we can do anything we make up our minds to do. Once I made my deposit and realized I was actually GOING TO SWIM WITH WHALES, a new level of gratitude seeped into my soul and my outlook on things began to change exponentially. Obviously booking my dream journey was not the only factor in this shift, but definitely contributed. It is a big deal and I realized this from the moment I booked my flight.
I’ll touch on the logistics later, let’s get to Tonga!
I arrived in the afternoon on the main island of Tongatapu, where two-thirds of Tonga’s 100K inhabitants live, so I had an overnight there in order to catch a morning flight to Vava’u, Humpback Swim’s base for their trips. From the moment I got into my rickety taxi, I began to experience the friendliness of the Tongan people. Exhausted from my travels, I went on a mission to find an adaptor for my chargers and an ATM, passed an hour in a nice traveler’s cafe called Friendly Cafe where I had a pretty amazing iced coffee, grabbed a pineapple Fanta and some ramen at the local market (that’s really about all they had), and went back to my basic hotel (which included a kitchenette and electric kettle with instant coffee and powdered creamer). Sleep was not a problem, even though I was amped about heading off to SWIM WITH WHALES the next day.
My flight to Vava’u, a cluster of 41 small islands, was on a very small 36ish seater, prop plane, one of just 2 aircrafts operated by Real Tonga Airlines. The adventure was already beginning. My heart was pounding as we started to descend through the clouds and I could begin to see the idillic tropical islands surrounded by aquamarine water and sandy shores. The landing was perfect, even though there was a bit of rain (the only substantial rain during my time there) and I was met by Steven holding a note sized bit of paper with my name on it. We got my bag into the less rickety van we waited for the next flight from Fiji carrying my two housemates/ boatmates Alex and Lee. Steven and I became quick friends while we waited. He told me about his life and family and I discovered he was Mormon, as were a great number of Tongans. Faith is a big deal in Tongan and virtually all of the missionaries made it to these islands. (With everything closed on Sunday except the couple dozens of churches, I attended the Catholic Mass the following day for a spectacular experience with an amazing, other worldly, choir.) The boys’ plane finally arrived from Fiji and we headed to our house for the week, Ocean Song, a spacious place on the water with separate living spaces and a common area and lanai.
After a literal “day of rest” on Sunday, it was soon Monday morning and time to board Kalo our boat for four out of five of the next days on the water. We had various skippers and guides throughout the week and I’ll only talk about Vili as there is just too much that is a blur due to adrenaline intoxication, because he was one of the definite, stand out memories of my experience in Tonga. Four are allowed in the water at a time with six on a boat, so rotation is necessary. Our group was three and we were lucky to only have two days were we had to take turns in the water when day trippers joined us (the last day, it was just the three of us). We left the Port of Refuge Harbor just after 7:30am and I immediately began to feel the swells (apparently the water had been like glass the week before). Before I completely succumbed to the sea sickness, we all spotted two whales breaching off the port side. It was like they were saying “Welcome to Tonga, humans!” That was an incredible welcome and beginning of our encounters.
Rarely getting sick past nausea, I found myself in the boat’s tiny bathroom for a good part of the morning; the rest of the time I was curled up in a ball in the hull. Vili and Paki (our guide that day) were awesome for checking on me as were my housemates. All I could do was hope to feel better and sleep. I think it was something I ate. Regardless, it was torture hearing the guys being told to Go. GO. GO! By the crew and imagine them in the water with their first whales. By noontime I was feeling good enough to make my way up on deck and soon after we were being told to “get ready.” It all happened so fast, but in a flash we were in the middle of the South Pacific and my eyes focused (I became mesmerized) on my first whale! He was about 15 feet below us and slowly moving up to breathe. It was fast (I think); he surfaced about three feet away and dove down again very quickly. Our fist day or two were full of encounters just like this, sometimes requiring us to swim quite fast and quite far to keep up with the whales. It’s a lot of in and out of the water, and a lot of swimming in rough, open seas. And a lot of magic.
Over the course of the next few days we would have almost every type of encounter you hear about – adrenaline invoking heat runs, whales breaching and performing Spy Hops in front of us while we were in the water, hearing a male singing his mysterious song, playful and inquisitive interactions – seemingly all but the elusive mother/calf encounter. Sadly, we would miss such an experience on our boat, however our friends also touring with Humpback Swims and staying at the Mystic Sands on an 8-Day Tour would have numerous visits with mothers and calves. During all of the encounters, Vili kept an eye on me (the oldest by more years than I want to mention), and in some cases picked me up and drove me back for me to drop in again. He was more sorry than I about not finding a mother and calf… I was okay because I knew that our experiences those five days were exactly the way they were supposed to be.
Each day we’d go back to our house and regroup in time to get some dinner with new friends and then go back to our rooms to either edit photos or turn in early. Every night I’d try to formulate some words to use in posts or texts to adequately describe my experience, and honesty, even today, two weeks after my last swim, I am having an impossible time describing my encounters. I can just say that looking a Humpback in the eye, or watching one gracefully swim past you in either seemingly ultra slow motion or super fast forward such as during a heat run, is the most magical experience I have ever encountered. My heart was at once thumping from a healthy, right sized fear and feeling of intense emotions of wonder and awe. Each morning I’d find myself jumping past a hefty dose of anticipation of the unknown (sharks, whales, rough seas) back into the blue abyss where my new friends were waiting. Waiting to teach me more about our amazing planet and God’s handiwork – and most assuredly, more about myself.
I’m forever changed by this experience, or monumental expedition, I undertook with nothing more that an epic dream and a small dose courage to see it through. I’m so grateful to Nadia Aly of Scuba Diver Life and Humpback Swims for her daily support and recon missions for SIM Cards and whatever else we needed from suggestions on where to eat to the making of reservations for dinner. She and her staff in Tonga are top notch and beyond professional and I couldn’t imagine doing this experience without her. She has put together quite a support team who were a huge part of my experience, mostly Julie, the house manager, Lopolo, my story- telling Tongan friend who cooked us breakfast and cleaned up our rooms each day, and of course, Captain Vili.
As I’ve said over and over since I left Vava’u, I went to Tonga for the whales, but I’ll be back for the people. (And the whales. I don’t think I’m finished with this story.)
Whale swims are closely monitored by the Tongan Government (one of only four nations worldwide legally allowed to have whale swims). Only a couple dozen licenses to boat operators are issued each year, and only when these licenses are revoked for misuse or not adhering to the strict precautions to protect the whales, can another operator obtain a license. So there is a waiting list. Since only six people are allowed on a boat at a time (and four in the water with a whale or group of whales at a time), whale tourism in Tonga is fairly safe from getting out of control. As of today, the regulations are strictly enforced. I am elated that the government changed direction in the 1960s from being a nation depending on whaling for survival to an international leader in the education and protection of Humpbacks. I and my company, Get Out There Tours, only promote Responsible Travel and operators who mirror our environmental and humanitarian views and firmly stand by our motto of “TAKE NOTHING AWAY, LEAVE NOTHING BEHIND.” Whale swims in Tonga will continue to be monitored and should things change in any way which would negatively impact the Humpbacks or citizens of Tonga, we will update our audience.
For more information on how to book a Humpback Swim Adventure, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll reply with all of the contact info for Nadia and help you get there. Otherwise, check it out for yourself at https://humpbackswims.com/ or follow them on Instagram @humpbackswims and don’t forget to follow us on both platforms as well @getouttheretours.