To swim alongside humpback whales in the sheltered waters of Tonga (one of the only places in the world where you can do this) is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience! We are thrilled one of our adventurers was willing to share his awe-inspiring experience with these amazing creatures.

flying in plane to tonga

In late September of 2018, we packed our snorkel gear and headed off to the Islands of Tonga to join Wilderness Travel’s Swimming with Humpback Whales adventure. After spending one night in Tongatupu, that capitol of Tonga, we took a “puddle jumper” flight to the Ha’apai Islands. I took this photo right before we landed in Ha’apai.
beach in tongaThis beautiful tropical island was our home for the next seven days. We stayed at an island resort set on the beach and enjoyed wonderful access to the crystal-clear water right from our bungalows.
humpback whale fluke in TongaOn our first day out, we encountered humpbacks within the first hour. It was almost as if they were excited to see us!

humpback whale pectoral fin in Tonga

I couldn’t wait to jump in and see these amazing mammals up close. I’ve been a scuba diver and underwater photographer for the past 30 years, but this would be my first encounter with humpback whales. I had my camera ready and was totally psyched to get in the water. From our boat, it was almost as if this whale was saying to us, “come on in, the water is fine!”
humpback breaching in tongaWith our mask and fins on, we slipped off the side of our boat and headed toward the whales.
humpback whale near surface in TongaAs I entered the water, the humpbacks came right up to me. It seemed like they were just as interested in looking at me as I was at them!
humpback whale eye in TongaThis whale’s pectoral fin came so close to me, almost as if he wanted to shake hands.

humpback whale swimming alongside calf in Tonga

At this point, I was nearly “freaking out” and could barely keep my composure and steady my camera to take a photo. What an amazing experience!
vertical humpback whale in TongaThis humpback stayed with us for at least one hour and showed off all of his acrobatic skills. As a former competitive gymnast, I gave him a 10.0 for his routine.
diver and humpback whale in TongaThis photo that I took on the first day really shows how close the whales would come toward us and their amazing size in comparison to a human. The swimmer in this photo is our marine biologist guide, Ben Vieyra.
swimmer and humpback whale in TongaOur amazing trip leader, Jon Imhoof, having fun with this humpback whale.
humpback whale diving in Tonga
Five of the seven days in Ha’apai, we were out on the open water looking for Humpbacks. We had truly great encounters each and every day of this trip.

humpback whale swimming in Tonga

My goal as a photographer was to try and capture the sense of amazement that we experienced here in Tonga. In this photo, I was lucky to get a shot of my wife, Anne Vexler swimming face to face with this young whale.

humpback whale mama and calf in TongaEach year, female Humpbacks journey from Antarctica to Tonga in the Spring to give birth to their calves. By October, this baby whale has no problem showing off his swimming skills. In the shallow waters of Ha’apai, the calves stay close to their mothers for guidance and protection.
humpback whale mama and calf swimming in TongaThere is also this incredible emotional attachment between mother and baby displayed here in this photo. This young whale would “cuddle” with its mother for at least 20 minutes in this position.

After 30 years of scuba diving all over the world, I have to say that this was truly the best underwater experience of my life. Many thanks to Jon Imhoof, Ben Vieyra, and Wilderness Travel for all your hard work and dedication to make this trip a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

—Text and photos by 7-time WT adventurer Norman Vexler, Swimming with Humpback Whales. Be sure to check out Norman’s blog post from our New Zealand: Off the Beaten Path trip.

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