The Vava’u whale swimming operators are set up around the realities of life… Tourism is really the only significant industry in the Vava’u Group of islands and it revolves around the two main groups of visitors. Those who come to swim with or watch the whales and yachties.
While the yachties spend a reasonable amount of money in the shops and restaurants while they are in town. The whale swimmers and whale watchers spend much more and are very much the main game! Plus, because the whale season is relatively short, from around mid July to the end of October, there is not much to do outside of those months.
So the operators obviously want to maximize their revenue when the whales are there. And, while visitor numbers are increasing, the number of operators is controlled by the licenses issued by the Tongan Government.
Vava’u Whale Swimming Operators
The number of licenses and how they are issued is somewhat of a mystery… But in 2019 there were apparently a total of 40 licenses granted for all of Tonga. With 22 in Vava’u, 8 in Ha’apai, 7 in Tongatapu and 3 in ‘Eua.
Overall, the ownership of those businesses was 52.5% foreign and 177 people were employed in those enterprises.
What this all means is that there are a limited number of companies with licenses to take tourists out to swim with the whales. And… holding on to those licenses requires compliance with the Tongan whale watching regulations.
Over the past 3-4 years there has been increasing evidence that not all the operators are following the rules. This came to a head in February 2020 when Tonga’s Ministry of Tourism announced that the number of licenses in Vava’u would be reduced from 22 to 20!
Clearly there are “issues” with the whale swimming operators in Tonga. Something that has been described very well by Kirsty Bowe.
Kirsty is the daughter of Allan Bowe, who arrived in Tonga in 1992 and started Whale Watch Vava’u the following year with the first whale swimming license issued by the Tongan Government!
Vava’u Whale Swimming Operators – Boat Pressure
My personal experience in Vava’u was that those rules were followed. But I have heard many other stories that indicate my experience was not typical!
The general term used to describe the overall impact of this behavior on the whales is “boat pressure”.
Whereby too many boats are trying to get their guests in the water at the same time. Greatly stressing the whales in the overall process.
Google “whale watching in Tonga” and you will find pages of companies all offering fantastic experiences. Clearly though that is not the case and it all boils down to who you use. Plus, to compound it all, Tonga is not the easiest place to operate from.
And there are very significant logistical challenges in running a business that involves taking people out on the water to swim with large marine creatures. All of which add up very quickly.
So don’t go to Tonga for the whales and expect to do it on the cheap. Because your chances of success will be minimal…
A Quality Experience – Here’s How it Works…
I went to Tonga because it had been on my bucket list for a few years. Basically I really wanted to be in the water with the humpback whales and get some good photographs.
Sounds kind of easy – right? The Tongan Government seems pretty chilled about these things and lets you in the water. The whales are there, the boats take you out – next step, the front cover of National Geographic!
Trust me, it’s not that easy… If you want a quality experience the first thing you need is a guide. One who really understands the humpback whales and respects their behavior. Secondly, and most importantly, that guide is working with one of the operators that has all the logistics worked out!
Finally, and of profound importance, both the guide and the operator must follow the rules. Which also means that you, as the paying guest, must follow the guide’s instructions.
I did a lot of research on who I should use for my trips to Tonga and was happy with the results. You can contact me if you would like some advice on that.
Back To: Humpback Whale Swimming in Tonga