Tonga 2017

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.

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 to him 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.

Matt is doing his absolute best to include as much (unbiased) information to this page as he possibly can. Please don’t be overwhelmed by all of the details, they are listed only to benefit you before making your booking. Please feel free to keep returning to this page as Matt will be adding more info along the way.

BASIC DETAILS:

Location:

Neiafu, Vava’u - Kingdom of Tonga.

Dates:

Group 1 - Mon 18 Sep to Sat 23 Sep 2017

Group 2 - Mon 25 Sep to Sat 30 Sep 2017

Group 3 - Mon 2 Oct to Sat 7 Oct 2017

Group 4 - Mon 9 Oct to Sat 14 Oct 2017

How many people will there be on each tour?

Each tour group consists of 6 paying customers, one advanced skipper, one trained Humpback whale swim guide and photographer Matt Draper.

Cost:

$750.00 nonrefundable deposit paid upon booking.

$1500.00 remaining balance to be paid in full via bank transfer (New Zealand bank account) between 1 July and 14 July 2017.

Total cost of tour for one person - $2250.00 Australian Dollars (AUD).

What is included?

Transport from your accommodation to your boat each morning.

Transport from your boat to your accommodation each evening.

Six full days aboard a vessel in search of Humpback whales to swim with.

Time spent at Mariners and Swallows caves.

Lunch, and drinking water.

Mask, snorkel, fins and wetsuit.

Photography tuition.

What is not included?

International flights.

Domestic flights.

Airport transfers.

Travel insurance.

Accommodation.

Food and drinks outside of tour times.

DETAILED INFORMATION:

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 (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.

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

Do I need a visa?

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 upon making your booking.

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 safe and welcoming.

What is the local currency?

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

There are three banks and Western Union offices, 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 speak good English.

Is there Internet?

Yes, Neiafu has several Internet cafes with broadband connections, although speeds are often slower than overseas. You can also buy a local sim card for your phone that comes with airtime.

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, but 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 low setting sun creates an amazing array of light rays piercing 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 Humpbacks, this coupled with fast cruising speeds gives us the best chance of finding whales to swim with.

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 job 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, in saying that 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 won’t be heading back to cater 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 cause the boat to be cancelled.

Is there a toilet onboard?

Yes, your boat is one of the very few that has a (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. 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 up. Lunch and water is provided but feel free to bring any of your favourite snacks or a drink bottle. As you will be spending six whole days onboard 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 any recognised free diving certifications will not be permitted to use weights while diving the caves.

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 GoPro to the most professional, in saying that we have also priced the experience for anyone who wishes to simply swim with the whales without a camera. Matt will provide his own camera and water housing that w will be using. Although he is confident in his skills, Matt isn't an expert on every camera model meaning knowledge of your own camera menus and functions is a priority.

Do I need my own diving equipment?

We (depending on availability of sizes) 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 for just over two and a half years 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 get each person onboard the absolute best underwater whale interaction possible, while keeping everybody safe. He will cater for each photographer no matter what experience you have and is happy to run through basic to advanced tuition and answer any photography related questions when the time is made available. As mentioned above - although he is confident in his skills, Matt isn't an expert on every camera model meaning knowledge of your own camera menus and functions is a priority. You will be encouraged to choose and set your own exposure settings before entering the water.

Some of the subjects Matt would like to go over are as follows:

Shutter speed.

Aperture and depth of field.

ISO.

Light meter and metering mode.

Custom white balance and presets.

Auto focus mode.

Focal points.

Drive mode.

Animal behavior.

How to better your animal interactions.

Water housing set up and dismantle.

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. 

Will I 100% definitely see and swim with a Humpback whale over the six 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 - in saying that we can definitely increase our chances. 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 three 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, swims could be short and interactions very minimal. Each day is very different and can’t be predicted, if anything this experience will give you a much better insight of what it is really 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 four people plus one trained guide to be in the water with a Humpback whale. Your boat will be split into two groups of three 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 30 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 eight to twelve customers onboard with three 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.

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 within a few meters of your face.

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 dolphins, Pilot whales, Whale sharks, Minke whales, Sailfish, and even False Killer whales.

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 stop any uncomfortable stings, but generally speaking this isn’t an issue and both Matt and your guide will have a very good 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 know of his goal of changing people’s fear to 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 and 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 can even leave your camera with Matt who will happily photograph the shark for you 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.

Angina.

Heart disease.

High or Low Blood Pressure.

Arthritis.

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.

What is the cost?

Australian dollars (AUD).

$750.00 nonrefundable deposit paid upon booking.

$1500.00 remaining balance to be paid via bank transfer (New Zealand bank account) between 1 July and 14 July 2017.

Total cost of each tour - $2250.00.

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 received.

Why is there a non-refundable deposit?

The non-refundable deposit is what is needed to secure the boat and dates for Tonga next year.  Last year Matt’s Humpback whale swim tour sold out overnight and this year he has had close to triple the amount of people interested. The boat, crew and dates Matt has worked on are some of the best, ensuring your whale experience is one like no other.  

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

Yes, this can 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 you will be refunded a day price of $250.00.

How long do I have to pay the remaining costs?

$1500.00 remaining balance to be paid in full via bank transfer (New Zealand bank account) between 1 July and 14 July 2017.

What if I don’t pay the remaining cost by the due date?

Your spot on the tour will be forfeited and your $750.00 deposit will not be refunded.

What if, for some unlikely reason the whole tour is cancelled?

In the very unlikely event of cancellation you will be refunded in full, minus any booking fees.

What if I cancel after paying in full?

If (and only after) Matt can resell your spot in time you will be refunded $1500.00. Your $750.00 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 six days, but you will not receive a refund.

Why is there a booking fee of $25.00?

Booking fees are placed by Matt's website. He uses Stripe for all online payments. Stripe is an easy and very secure method for purchasing products online. We do not store any of our customer’s credit card details.

Your final payment is to be paid by bank transfer only.

PLEASE FILL OUT THE MANDATORY SUBMISSION FORM BELOW IN ITS ENTIRETY THEN MAKE YOUR BOOKING BY CLICKING ON THE DESIRED DATES.

YOUR BOOKING CAN NOT BE CONFIRMED UNTIL YOU HAVE FILLED OUT THE SUBMISSION FORM AND PAID YOUR DEPOSIT.

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