Thinking about Tonga, Rob and I fantasized about a remote paradise filled with exotic fruits, animals and nature. Reality was not that far from the truth. The tiny country has 176 islands (most are uninhabited) and a population slightly over 104 thousand people. We wanted to see the oldest island of Tonga called Eua and go swimming with it’s annual visitors – the humpback whales! And so we did.
The whales start to arrive in Tonga in June after a journey of more than 6,000 kms. The annual migration of humpback whales from their summer feeding grounds in the Antarctic to their winter breeding grounds in Tonga is one of the largest and longest animal movements in the world. The best time to see the whales is from July to the first week of November with October being the tour guides favorite month. It seems that the calves gain confidence at this time and become much more playful. Be aware that this is also the coolest time in Tonga. Therefore the weather can be unpredictable with rain and cloudy skies being more frequent during this period. In September and October the water temperature is quite warm at 24 degrees C.
Approximately 4 planes land on the main island of Tongatapu per day. The airport is a 30-40 minute drive to the rustic capital which is near the ferry terminal. Timing is key if you want to get to Eua as soon as you arrive.
The domestic airport is a 10 minute walk from the international one. You can also take a cab. The only airline that flies into Eua is Real Tonga. The flight is one of the shortest commercial flights in the world. Depending on weather and wind it can be as short as 5 minutes or as long as 15. The planes range from a 4 seat one to as large as 18 seats. Think of an SUV in the sky and you will get the idea.
There are usually 3-4 flights per day and none on Sunday. On the day of the flight one should call the airline to ensure that the lift off time has not been changed or cancelled. Be prepared to be weighed prior to boarding. Allowed luggage is 10 kg with a carry on of 5 kg. Our recommendation is to book your flight back from Eua at least a day prior to your international flight out of Tonga.
There are 2 ferries from Tongatapu to Eua. The fast ferry (45 min to 1 hour) and the slow ferry (2.5 hours to 3 hours). Ferry schedules are decided every Monday morning although they are subject to change at any time. On our flight there was a Finish couple who arrived at the dock only to be turned away. They were told that the crew were in Australia. It is best to coordinate ferry schedules with your accommodation contact on Eua.
Accomodations and Food
Eua is as primitive as it gets. There are a few guest houses on the island and that is it. After reading all the 5 star reviews about the Hideaway we quickly decided to spend our time there. If you are looking for a resort, then Eua is not for you. For us, the Hideaway provided such serenity and peace. Located right on the water with a westerly view of the whales and the mainland, I felt transported to nirvana. Sitting on the whale watching platform and marveling at the natural and tranquil beauty of this hamlet we were in paradise and needed nothing more.
So lets discuss the meaning of primitive. Does Eua have restaurants? No. Is there a bakery? Surely there has to be a bakery! Nope. Is there a grocery store with fresh produce? Sorry, no. There are a few Chinese run stores with a limited selection of processed, canned or packaged food items. Sometimes they may sell some apples or oranges. And if you are really lucky they may have baked something to sell.
Each guest house provides some food for their guests. Our Hideaway compadres who had stayed at other accommodations on the island emphatically stated that it has the best food. This is especially true for vegetarians or vegans like me. Breakfast is half an apple, a few pieces of an orange, 2 pieces of toast, a little jam or peanut butter with butter (if you eat it). Instant coffee and tea is provided as well. Dinner is delicious but is quite small. So, if you can I would highly recommend bringing extra non processed food with you. Delicious and clean rainwater is provided.
Now, lets talk about wifi/data reception. Be prepared for very spotty connectivity at best. Texts, small emails and phone calls will go through but not much more.
The Hideaway is 10 minutes by car from the ferry and the airport. As there are no taxis or public transport on Eua it is best to arrange for the resort to pick you up.
Choosing a Tour Operator
I could sit on one of the loungers on the whale watching platform at the Hideaway for hours. The water shimmers in the sun and whales breach, frolic and flap their tails. It is pure magic. There were days when it looked like I was watching tennis. My head turning left, right left right to get the full 180 degrees of the whale show.
Most people come to Eua to actually swim with these majestic creatures. There are 2 operators on the island to choose from. For us the decision to go with Ovava Tree – Deep Blue Diving was an easy one. First of all we wanted to make sure that our swim would not harm the whale in any way. We also wanted to ensure that we would be safe on the open water and were traveling with a reputable operator.
At the Hideaway, the sense of community and sharing of information is much like being at a hostel. Some of the travelers were repeat customers staying for a month to swim with the whales. Speaking with these experienced folks it was clear that Ovava Tree – Deep Blue Diving ticked all of our eco and safety boxes.
Things to Consider
- Do you get sea sick? Consider bringing some ginger water to drink (fresh ginger crushed up in hot water). Bring the ginger from Tongatapu as I did not see any on Eua. A Sea Band worn 24 hours in advance and during the swim may help. If you really get sick there are prescription drugs that may help. Some people feel better after they throw up – I did not. Or you may consider sitting this experience out. 5 hours of feeling sick is a long time.
- Are you a strong swimmer? The boat will be out in open water. Yes, there is a guide, but the depth and waves can be intimidating,
- Do you want to swim in the morning or afternoon? There are 2 swims per day. 7 am pick up or 12 pm. We went in the afternoon and were on the water for almost 5 hours.
- The maximum number of patrons per boat are 8. To protect the whale, Ovava Tree has a strict policy of allowing only 4 people to enter the water at any given time. We were told by numerous people that the other operator on the island allows all 8 people to be in the water at the same time.
- Wet suits, fins and masks are provided. I swam with a full suit and was happy that I did. Rob was given a shorty and got quite cold sitting on the boat between swims.
- Bring some water with you. A jacket or towel is helpful if you get cold.
- To bring the GoPro or to focus on the experience? Up to you.
- Cost was 320 TOP per person which at the time was $138 USD.
Swimming with Whales in Eua, Tonga
We went out in the afternoon on a beautiful sunny day. There were 7 of us ready to enjoy the water and the sights. Within about 45 minutes there were whales all around us.
Rob went out with 3 other swimmers and a guide. As soon as he put his head in the water he saw a mom and a calf. And then they were gone swimming to the other side of the boat. Since Rob and I were taking turns, I got an amazing show from the boat. Whales were breaching and jumping all around us.
Our small boat continued bobbing and powering forward. More whales. It was my turn to get in the water. We swam as fast as we could but the whales had turned in a different direction. It was Rob’s turn to enjoy the show from above.
After I got back in the boat the sea sickness hit me hard. Our friend Yao offered me some ginger tablets. I gratefully took 2 and immediately felt better but the motion sickness returned. More whales and dolphins! Wow! Miraculously I could throw up off the side of the boat and still try to look at these majestic creatures.
As the sun started to set behind us there were 20 whales around our boat. It was pure magic! Breaching, jumping, flapping their tails. They wanted to play with us. Even though I felt quite ill, I could not have asked for a better experience.
Our friend Yao who was so generous to give us some ginger earlier on the boat ride filmed this underwater footage in these waters a few years back. We hope you enjoy his beautiful work.