Matt Draper - Tonga 2018

Each year, between June and October, the Southern Hemisphere Humpback whales migrate from the icy, krill-laden depths of Antarctica to their breeding and birthing grounds in the northern tropics of Tonga. The arrival of the whales completes a remarkable cycle as newly born calves learn how to swim in the exact same waters they were conceived in only 11 months earlier.

Vava’u, Kingdom of Tonga is a very unique island group that consists of over 50 islands within a small area. Tonga is one of the very few countries in the world where it is possible to have the life changing experience of swimming with Humpback whales in their own natural and undisturbed environment.

With the help of social media, there has never been more individuals showing such a positive interest in the preservation of our oceans and the life force that inhabits it. Matt has noticed an ever growing number of people reaching out with questions regarding the marine life he interacts with and the photography equipment he uses daily. For this reason, he couldn’t think of a better time to start sharing his love for the ocean and photography by running exclusive Tonga whale swim opportunities.

2018 will be Matt's fifth year returning to the great migration and third year of operating tours.



Neiafu, Vava’u - Kingdom of Tonga.

Southern Hemisphere.


Two extra (earlier dates) have been added, please scroll down for details.

Group 1 - Mon 3 Sep to Sat 8 Sep 2018

Group 2 - Mon 10 Sep to Sat 15 Sep 2018

Group 3 - Mon 17 Sep to Sat 22 Sep 2018

Group 4 - Mon 24 Sep to Sat 29 Sep 2018

Group 5 - Mon 1 Oct to Sat 6 Oct 2018

Group 6 - Mon 8 Oct to Sat 13 Oct 2018

Group 7 - Mon 27 Aug to Sat 1 Sep 2018

Each tour runs for 5 days but is held over a 6 day (Monday to Saturday) window. This means Matt and his team can plan around and/or allow for a change in weather conditions or even utilise a day of rest in the middle of the tour depending on each group. Matt does aim to run each tour from Monday to Friday, but having the 6 day window is a great way to ensure we are on and in the water during the absolute best days possible. 

How many people will there be on each tour?

Each tour group is made up of only 4 paying customers as well as one advanced skipper, one trained Humpback whale guide an 'Ocean Advocate' and photographer Matt Draper. Matt is one of only very few operators who offer such a unique and intimate experience as most other boats consist of at least 8 paying customers plus their crew creating a sometimes 'crowded' experience. Limiting each tour group to 4 means more one-on-one time with Matt and potentially more time in the water with the Humpback whales.

What is an 'Ocean Advocate'?

There is a possibility that your tour group will be joined by a very important 'voice' for the ocean. This person might be another prominent underwater/wildlife photographer, an active conservationist, marine scientist or even actor/musician. This is to help create a more unique environment, while sharing story with an inspirational individual who can help communicate and educate on various ocean related subjects.

An example of this would be world leading Whale shark biologist, marine conservation scientist and underwater photographer - Dr Simon Pierce joining the the group for 3 days during the middle of the tour.   


Nonrefundable deposit to be paid upon booking - $500.00 AUD

Second payment to be made before 31 December 2017 - $1000.00 AUD 

Remaining balance to be paid in full between 1 July and 7 July 2018 - $1500.00 AUD

Total cost of tour per person - $3000.00 Australian Dollars (AUD).

What is included?

Transport from your accommodation to the boat each morning - as long your accommodation is based in or around the town of Neiafu.

Transport from the boat to your accommodation each evening - as long your accommodation is based in or around the town of Neiafu.

5 full days (no nights) aboard a vessel in search of Humpback whales to photograph and swim with.

Time spent at Mariners and Swallows caves.

Lunch, and drinking water.

Mask, snorkel, fins and wetsuit.

Photography tuition and advice from Matt Draper.

What is not included?

International flights.

Domestic flights.

Airport transfers to and from your accommodation.

Travel insurance.


Food and drinks outside of tour times.


Where is Vava’u Tonga?

Tonga is an archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean, directly south of Samoa and about two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to New Zealand.

The Vava'u Island group is a spectacular tropical island paradise. It has a year-round climate suitable for swimming, snorkeling, diving and sailing.

Our boat will be launching each day from a private location off Fatafehi Rd, which is roughly a five-minute drive from Neiafu town, which is where we recommend you book your accommodation.

How do I get there?

We suggest arriving in Tonga a few days before your tour commences.

Firstly, you will have to book yourself an international flight to the main island of Tonga, which is Nuku'alofa/Tongatapu (TBU).

For people flying from Australia or New Zealand, both Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand offer flights from Auckland (AKL) Brisbane (BNE) and Sydney (SYD) to Tonga.

Once in Nuku’alofa/Tongatapu (TBU) you can then fly to Vava’u (VAV) with Real Tonga Airlines.

For people flying from most other countries you might find it easier to fly to Nadi (NAN) Fiji with your preferred airline, from Nadi (NAN) Fiji you can then fly internationally to Vava’u (VAV) with Fiji Airways. For example: If you live on the West Coast of America you can fly directly from LAX to Nadi and then from Nadi to Vava'u.

Please make sure to check all airline’s currency and luggage requirements and restrictions before booking your flights.

Do I need a visa?

Please check with your own country's travel requirements for Tonga.

Only use the following for 'basic' guidance as this information may have changed: 

You do not need a visa prior to arrival if you are a citizen from one of the following countries: Australia, Austria, Barbados, Belgium, Brazil, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Cook Islands, Cyprus, Denmark, Dominica, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Finland, France, French Polynesia, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kiribati, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Malta, Marshall Islands, Monaco, Nauru, Netherlands, New Zealand, Niue, Norway, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Portugal, Russia, Samoa, Seychelles, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Spain, St Kitts & Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent & the Grenadines, Sweden, Switzerland, The Bahamas, Turkey, Tuvalu, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States of America, Vanuatu.

Where should I stay?

You will receive an email with accommodation recommendations over the coming weeks.

Vava'u is a very small island. Most accommodation is 3 star, in which you will be greeted by friendly staff who care about your Tongan experience. 

Don't expect hotel options of islands like Hawaii or Fiji. 

What is the weather and climate like in Tonga?

Tonga has a hot and wet season from December to April with temperatures rising up to 33 degrees Celsius (91 degrees Fahrenheit). The country's 1600mm (average) of annual rain usually falls during this humid season, which is also cyclone season.

The cool, dry season is from May to November with temperatures ranging between 17 and 22 degrees Celsius (63 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit).

What is the water temperature of Vava’u?

The average water temperature in Vava’u is around 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit).

Is Tonga a safe place to visit?

Yes, Matt has visited Tonga a number of times and has found it to be a safe and very welcoming.

What is the local currency?

Tongan Pa’anga. Local banks can exchange funds at the rate of the day.

At the time of writing this there are three banks a Western Union office, plus ATM machines and credit card facilities located in Neiafu, Vava’u.

What languages are mainly spoken in Tonga?

Tongan and English, all public offices and tourist bureaus speak good English.

Is there Internet?

Yes, Neiafu has several Internet cafes with broadband connections, although speeds are often much slower than overseas. You can also buy a local sim card for your phone, which data usage can be added to.

Most accommodation has WIFI, connection speeds depend on the overall usage and daily weather conditions.

How do I get to the boat every morning?

We can arrange pickup and drop off each morning and late afternoon depending on how close to the town of Neiafu you stay. As tourism is seasonal in Vava’u most taxi services are operated by everyday residents in their private cars. Your safety is paramount, although such a small island means you could find yourself riding on the back of a ute or small truck, most vehicles travel at very slow speeds on the island.

What time will be leaving and returning each day?

We try our best to be one of the first boats to leave in the morning and one of the very last to arrive home. A normal day on the water will be from 7am to 4pm or 8am to 5pm.

Early mornings can mean low light, but the chance to find the first whales of the day. Late afternoons are the best time to explore the two caves as the setting sun (depending on cloud cover) can create an amazing array of light rays, which pierce through the water.

Expect to be on the boat for around nine hours per day.

What kind of boat will I be on?

The boat is a 10.5m (34ft) custom built fiberglass Mariner built by Viberg Marine and launched in Auckland, New Zealand

It features a six-person life raft, life jackets, EPIRB, flares, fire extinguishers, V.H.F and S.S.B radios with some of the latest electronics including G.P.S. and 24-mile Radar.

For your comfort there is a large cockpit with shade cover for protection from sun and rain.

Inside is a Stove, with tea and coffee making facilities and a fully functional toilet.

The advantage of this boat is our skipper will be operating from a second level giving him a much better field of view to spot Humpback whales and other marine life, this coupled with a more than adequate cruising speed gives us one of the better chances of finding whales.

Feel free to click here to view an image of the boat.

Do I need any previous boat experience?

No, although if this is your first time on a boat you may get seasick.

Will I get wet and/or cold on the boat?

Our skipper will do his absolute best to ensure each person remains as safe and dry as possible throughout the journey. The boat has a large cockpit with shade cover for protection from sun and rain. At times it is expected you will get wet and we highly recommend bringing a wind and water proof jacket to keep warm and dry in-between whale swims.

What if I get seasick?

It is recommended you bring your own trusted seasickness medication or relief (even if you are a seasoned waterman/woman) as stocks deplete very quickly on the island during whale season. Our crew will try their best to ensure your comfort, but we will NOT be returning back to land for seasick people.

Will it be rough?

As Vava’u is a tropical island, conditions are usually fair to good. If it is safe to launch the boat and the weather conditions are favorable we will head out to look for whales. Swell, strong winds and heavy rain are some of the main contributing elements that can could cause the boat to be cancelled.

Is there a toilet onboard?

Yes, your boat is one of the very few that has a private (boat sized) fully functional toilet.

What shall I wear on the boat?

Matt usually starts the day in his wetsuit ready for the first whale swim opportunity, adding warmth with a jacket and beanie on top. You won’t need shoes onboard the boat although it is recommended that you bring footwear if we decide to set foot on a nearby island. It is recommended you bring a bag with a change of light clothes and a towel. Sunglasses a hat and sunblock are a good idea when the warm sun makes its way over the horizon. Lunch and water is provided but feel free to bring any of your favourite snacks and a drink bottle. You will be spending a total of 5 whole days (no nights) onboard so you can leave your diving equipment on the boat each day. A waterproof case for your camera and dry bag for your personal belongings is a good idea. We do try to travel light to keep as much available room onboard as possible.

Do I need any free diving experience or diving certifications?

No diving experience is needed, although you must be able to swim and have a moderate to good level of fitness. Individuals who don’t hold a recognised free diving certifications will not be permitted to use weights while diving the caves.

No weight is permitted to be worn while interacting with the Humpback whales.

Do I need my own camera and water housing?

It is highly recommended you bring your own camera equipment. The whale swim tours are catered for anyone from the novice photographer who uses a point and shoot camera to the most professional photographer who has years of experience. This amazing opportunity is for anyone who wishes to swim with Humpback whales, with or without a camera. 

Although Matt is confident in his skills, he isn't an expert on every camera make or model meaning knowledge of your own camera menus and functions is a priority.

Do I need my own diving equipment?

We (depending on availability and sizing) will provide mask, snorkel, fins and a wetsuit. We highly recommend bringing your own equipment if possible, especially if you own a wetsuit.

What credentials and experience does Matt have?

Matt is a self-taught photographer. He has been practicing underwater photography since 2014 and is very confident in his skills. As a photographer, Matt wants to do the best he can to help others learn. Matt is an advanced scuba diver and an Apnea accredited free diver who has spent his entire life around the ocean. He has certificates in advanced resuscitation, emergency life support and senior first aid. Matt also holds a bronze medallion credited by the Australian Lifesaving Academy.

What are some of the photography subjects that will be covered while onboard?

Matt’s main priority is to ensure that each person onboard has the absolute best underwater whale interaction possible, while keeping everyone safe. He will cater for each photographer no matter what their experience level and is happy to run through basic to advanced tuition and answer any photography related questions when the time is made available.  

You will be encouraged to choose and set your own exposure settings before entering the water.

Is there any research conducted onboard the boat and I can be part of it?

Yes, each season many encounters with Humpbacks will be photographed by tour operators and their passengers. Some of these photos can provide potentially useful scientific information and currently represent an untapped source of important data.

Current studies involve the development of a catalogue of Humpback whale tail (fluke) photographs that have been collected by many people throughout the world and you can contribute to this. 

Will I 100% definitely see and swim with a Humpback whale over the 5 days onboard?

Vava’u is a spectacular tropical island paradise that is well known for its abundance of marine life. Searching for wild animals means there is never going to be a guarantee of seeing any one particular animal or species. Vava’u is known as the best place in the world to have an underwater encounter with a Humpback whale. Some days you might be extremely fortunate and find yourself swimming with two different mother and calves (over the day) for close to an hour at a time. Other days might be a lot slower and much harder to find whales, some swims could be short and interactions very minimal. Each day is very different and can not be predicted. If anything, this experience will give you a much better insight of what it is like to be a wildlife photographer.

Your skipper, whale guide and Matt are all very experienced and will try their best to ensure as many interactions as possible, but your crew are not whale whisperers or wild animal mind readers.

How do the whale swims work?

After coming across whales your skipper and guide will assess the whale’s behavior, positioning of the boat and water conditions before placing you in the ocean. You will be ready with all of your diving equipment on and camera in hand, you will then be helped into the water and encouraged to follow your guide and Matt’s instructions.  

Who will be in the water with me?

Tongan rules and regulations allow 4 people plus 1 trained guide to be in the water with a Humpback whale at anytime. The boat will be split into 2 groups of 2 people, each group will be accompanied by both Matt and your whale guide.

How long will I get in the water each time?

It all depends on the behavior of the whale/s. If we happen to have a relaxed mother and calf that wants to hang around for the morning, each group will take turns in the water for up to 25 minutes at a time. If we happen to be following a large pod or an intense heat run (a large group of males following a female) the skipper will position the boat accordingly and have the first group ready. Once the first group has done a drop the process will be repeated to allow the second group a turn. Most other operators will have anywhere from 8 to 10 customers onboard with 3 groups. We have designed this tour to be as safe and personal as possible ensuring maximum whale interaction and photography tuition for each person onboard.

Whales are shared amongst other boats as most operators work together in good faith - meaning patience is an absolute necessity.

Can I dive down to get closer to the whales?

No, Tongan rules and regulations don’t allow people to dive down as this can disturb the natural behavior of the whales, especially if a newly born calf is present. Most Humpback whales are very curious and will swim right up.

Can I touch the whales?

Strictly no touching of whales or any other marine life we interact with.

What other marine life might I see?

Other marine life you might see include Spinner dolphin, Pilot whale, Whale shark, Minke whale, Sailfish, and even False Killer whale.

Will I be able to get in the water with the other species of marine life?

Yes, if the opportunity presents itself and it is safe to do so.

Do I need to worry about Jellyfish?

Depending on the wind direction and ocean currents there could be small Jellyfish present in the water. Wearing a thin wetsuit will help stop any uncomfortable stings. Generally speaking this isn’t an issue and both Matt and your guide will have an understanding of the water conditions each day.

Do I need to worry about sharks?

If you have been following Matt’s work closely you will be aware of his goal of Replacing people’s Fear with Fascination regarding sharks and other apex predators. If you are fortunate enough to see a shark while in Tonga the situation will be quickly assessed by both Matt and your guide After assessing the situation you will have the choice of being safely escorted back to the boat or staying present to witness natures beauty. If you decide to head back to the boat you may even be able to leave your camera with Matt who will happily photograph the shark so you can remember the moment.

What will be served for lunch?

Lunch will consist of various foods to make sandwiches and/or panini breads, fresh fruit, biscuits and other snacks, water and juice. We will do our best to feed everyone accordingly while being respectful of dietary requirements. Vava’u is very small and most food supplied is what is in season or currently available, since you will be spending a lot of time in the water you will need a good source of energy without overeating. We do recommend bringing any of your favourite snacks onboard if it will make your experience more enjoyable.

We ask in advance for individuals to respect all others dietary choices while in Tonga. 

Do I need to be able to swim and what medical conditions could limit me?

Yes, you will need to be able to swim and feel comfortable treading water in open ocean. A good level of fitness is required and if you have any of the following medical conditions we recommend contacting your local practitioner to discuss your trip to Tonga with the whales.

It is also highly recommended you contact your local travel doctor to discuss any possible vaccines that might be required before you leave your country.

We must be informed of any transmittable diseases before taking your booking and will address this in a professional and discrete manner.

Please contact your local doctor before booking if you suffer from any of the following medical conditions:

Headaches and/or migraines.

Visual impermanent.

Loss of Hearing.

Asthma or respiratory problems.


Heart disease.

High or Low Blood Pressure.


Joint or muscular problems.

Chronic disease.

Severe seasickness or motion sickness.

Poor Fitness.

Difficulty with understanding instructions and/or English.

Do I need travel insurance?

Yes, you will be required to obtain travel insurance before travelling to Tonga including emergency evacuation cover.

Do I have to pay a deposit to secure my place?

Yes, your place will not be secured until your submission form has been completed and your deposit has been received.

Why is there a non-refundable deposit?

The non-refundable deposit is what is needed to secure the boat and dates for Tonga.  Last year Matt’s Humpback whale tours sold out overnight and this year he has had close to triple the amount of people interested.  

If I decide not to come and have found another paying customer to take my spot can I transfer the trip into their name?

This will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

What if there is a day of bad weather and I don’t get to go on the boat?

In the very unlikely case we can’t launch the boat (on the day) you will be refunded a day price of $300.00 AUD

What if I don’t pay any of the remaining costs by the due dates?

This will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

In most cases, your spot on the tour will be forfeited and your $500.00 deposit will not be refunded.

Any other payments that have been made will only be refunded if your position can be filled by another individual in time.

What if I cancel after paying in full?

This will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis as Matt will have to try and resell your spot with limited time. 

Your $500.00 deposit will not be refunded.

What If I do a 'no show' in Tonga?

Your position on the tour will still be held over the 5 days, but you will not receive any refund.

Communication is key!

If you are having trouble making a payment please let us know as soon as possible (in advance of due dates) and we will do our best to accommodate your situation. 



Name *
I Can Swim *
I Can Understand English *
I Will Acquire Full Travel Insurance Before Arriving In Tonga *

Please Click on the Desired Group to Make Your Booking

Group 1 - Sold Out

Mon 3 Sep to Sat 8 Sep 2018

Group 2 - Sold Out

Mon 10 Sep to Sat 15 Sep 2018

Group 3 - Sold Out

Mon 17 Sep to Sat 22 Sep 2018

Group 4 - Sold Out

Mon 24 Sep to Sat 29 Sep 2018

Group 5 - Sold Out

Mon 1 Oct to Sat 6 Oct 2018

Group 6 - Sold Out

Mon 8 Oct to Sat 13 Oct 2018

Group 7 - Sold Out

Mon 27 Aug to Sat 1 Sep