Tonga, officially known as the Kingdom of Tonga, is an archipelago Polynesian country located in Oceania, directly south of Samoa and about two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to New Zealand. Tonga comprising 169 islands, only 36 of which are inhabited.
The archipelago are divided into three major groups:
Nuku'alofa group: the capital, is located on the main island of Tongatapu and is the most developed of the islands.
The Ha'apai group is in the center, and contains numerous flat, low lying islands.
The Vavau' island group is home to most of the tourism. The islands feature tall hills, volcanoes, jungle, sandy beaches, and safe anchorages for boats.
Tonga enjoys tropical climate with a distinct warm period (December–April), during which the temperatures rise above 32 °C, and a cooler period (May–November), with temperatures rarely rising above 27 °C.
Humpback Whale Season & Location
Each year during July to October, the Southern Hemisphere Humpback Whales migrate more than 5000 km from their feeding grounds in Antarctica and swim to the tropical waters of Tonga to give birth, nurse, court and mate:
Pregnant whale mothers arrive first in mid-July to give birth in warm, shallow water, which is easier and safer for newborn babies as it’s free from the main predators of baby whales, orcas and big sharks. Sometimes the mothers are accompanied by male escorts who are hoping to mate with her that season or the next.
By the end of July the season is in full swing, with the maximum number of whales present throughout August.
By mid-September the whale population is beginning to thin out as individuals begin the long migration back to the feeding grounds. While some humpback whales do remain in Tonga well into October.
Most of the whale watching is done in the Vavau' island group. The islands have volcanoes and hills which provide shelter from wind and waves. The Ha'apai group is made up of a group of flat, low-lying islands. It is idyllic in perfect conditions, but when there are storms there is nowhere to hide and it can gets a bit nasty. Very little whale watching is done from Tongatapu.
Liveaboards in Tonga for Humpback Whale Watching (Non-Diving)
Since the 90', the Fiji based liveaboard - Nai'a has been offering trips in Tonga during the Whale seasons, offer guests "Snorkel with Humpback Whales" liveaboard program.
During the liveaboard trip guests will enjoy two distinct types of encounters :
One type will occur on the surface as you enjoy the spectacle put-on by rowdy males as they aggressively compete for the attention of the females by breaching, slamming into one another, lob tailing, spy hopping and fin and tail slapping. Needless to say, these activities can only be safely observed from a reasonable distance in the tenders.
The other type of encounter will involve entering the water wearing mask, fins and snorkel to observe less aggressive and often curious groups and individuals. Whales considered to be approachable in the water include mother, calf and escort male trios, solitary females and sleeping whales. Sometimes the whales are curious and cooperative and sometimes they disappear in a flash.
The Whale Commission does not allow scuba diving in the Whale Sanctuary. Marine mammals view bubbles (scuba) as a sign of aggression and the Whale Commission wants to avoid any chance that divers and whales meet.
APPROACHING THE WHALES
Liveaboard operators will ensure all the guests will not be excessively intrusive or disruptive toward the whales. The way the whales are approached makes a big difference in how close you can get : Swimming quickly, aggressively, and loudly will scare away even the most curious whale.
Whales are very intelligent and social. Often individuals will come close to check us out several times over, providing we are calm, patient and cohesive in the water. It is crucial that we carefully nurture their trust and inquisitiveness, not scare them away.
Don't harass the whales. Wait until they come to you. A key to successful encounters is to choose the right whale. Some are protecting calves, some are in a hurry to get somewhere, some want peace, and some are curious and playful.
Remember you will be there during their breeding cycles. Humpback whales are giant, non-aggressive creatures. They are aware of our presence, however, if you get too close; remember that an accidental bump could injure you.
Whale Photography tips
When photographing large animals in the blue, strobes are not used. They create drag and are not powerful enough to light up a sharks, school of dolphins, or whales. So the best thing to do is work with Ambient light. When possible keep the sun behind you and allow it to illuminate the subject.
Using a fast shutter speed helps problems like image blur from ruining portraits and can help overall image composition by freezing rays of sunlight that dance in the water column, adding a sense of drama and dimension to the scene.
Speeds like 1/250th and 1/320th work well. On days when the sky is dark and overcast turn up the ISO from 100 or 200 to 400 or 800. Todays cameras make it possible to set the ISO much higher than ever thought possible without noise issues.
Select shutter priority. This lets the camera select the f-stop. In blue water work there is not a big issue with depth of field so let the camera does what it wants, as long as it freezes the motion.
Set the focus to single, and the drive to continuous high. Shoot short bursts at a time and try to avoid filling the cache. Even though high shutter speeds will minimize camera shake swimming and moving in the water has an effect. Shooting in bursts provides an opportunity to create a crisp image as the first and last image might be soft as a result of motion, but the frames in the middle are sharp. Short bursts are written to the card in less time than a sustained burst.
As for lenses the widest the better. Any of these will do the job. Canon 15 mm, Nikon 10.5 mm &16 mm fish eye, and Tokina 10 -17mm fisheye.