MY HEART WAS POUNDING. I had finned as hard as I could for around 50m after being dropped off the duckboard of the boat. Under strict instructions, I had followed the swim guide with three other snorkellers, hoping to get a glimpse!
As the mass of swim-kick bubbles cleared, two dark blue shapes appeared out in the deep-azure water. I shook the bubbles that had accumulated on my dome port, and the camera’s auto-focus struggled to find something on which to home in.
I kept shooting as the two giants glided past us, their swimming effortless compared to our unwieldy splashing efforts. As they passed, they turned on their stomachs, and we were blinded by the sunlight reflecting off their white undersides.
Twenty seconds later, they disappeared into the blue. This was whale-watching Tonga style!
Between June and October each year, hundreds of humpback whales migrate to the Kingdom of Tonga. They come from their feeding grounds in the Antarctic to this tropical isolation to breed and calve.
It is estimated that several thousand came to the islands in the 1800s, but by the time commercial whaling stopped in the 1960s that number had been reduced to a few hundred, with today’s figures up near the 700 mark.
Given recent publicity surrounding Japan’s “scientific” whaling in Antarctica, and efforts by Sea Shepherd to stop them, the destructiveness of man has been brought home to everyone.
Whale tourism is on the increase in Tonga, however, with official figures indicating that around 2500 “whale swimmers” visit the Vava’u island group annually.
The initiative is still in its infancy, and the government has set strict guidelines for whale interactions to make sure that the creatures are not adversely affected by the eco-tourism. The rules embrace boating and in-water swimmings.
Of course, the whales don’t know the rules, and I have heard a few stories of them swimming up to divers – what can you do

WHALE DAYS ARE NO-DIVING DAYS, and the time is spent steaming around the island group in the hope of sightings.
Usually the boat stops at Mariners Cave on the way in. The entrance lies under water, and the cave is a large airspace behind the wall of the reef. It’s around 10m in and 3m down, so take a decent breath.
Once inside, the blue water and sunlight glows from beneath. On passing swells the pressure increases and the air turns to a thick fog, which passes as quickly as it came!
Vava’u, the main hub of all the activity, is one of the more northerly island groups in the kingdom.
The town of Neiafu lies at the top of the lagoon, and although choice is limited you will find supermarkets, Internet cafes and sunset-orientated restaurants there.
A variety of accommodation is available, much of it designed for backpackers and other “budget-aware” visitors, but we stayed at the Tongan Beach Resort, set up further down
the coast on the causeway-linked Utungake Island.
It has a coral-sand beach, thatched fale bar and a convenient jetty, from which we were picked up for our day-trips every morning at the very reasonable hour of 9.30.
Despite the leisurely start, we rose early with the dawn church service and choir-singing – a pleasant way to wake up to island life!
We had booked four days with Dolphin Pacific Diving, which runs both dive- and whale-watching boats. The visibility on the dive sites is amazing, and the highlight dive was Chinatown, real name Tu’ungasika Island.
We started in a large cavern where we spotted a lonely whitetip shark that seemed none too impressed by our intrusion into his mid-morning nap.
Turning seaward, we finned over colourful sponge and coral gardens. The tactic of staying at the back to take photos didn’t pay off this time, because the leading divers found a large sleeping turtle which, after the group got all excited, swam off to find somewhere more quiet.
However, we spotted some Napoleon wrasse munching on the coral in the distance, and then two eagle rays in the other direction.
Low on air, half the group surfaced, but I elected to hang around for another 10 minutes and saw nothing more. Topside at the same time and not far away, I was told, a whale had breached. So it seems you don’t always have to be last out to see the good stuff!
The sheltered harbour also holds another gem of a dive site. The Clan McWilliam wreck foundered there after its cargo of copra caught fire on Christmas Eve, 1927. The captain tried to beach the ship, which now sits upright in the upper harbour in 40m.
We reached the top at around 25m, to find the vis down to a silty 5-10m, and the water a murky green. This added to the atmosphere, however.
With 200bar fills on 11-litre cylinders our dive time was limited, but staying around the deck we managed to get up to the bridge area.
There the wreck was heaped with encrusting life, and some nice patches of bubble coral.
We were escorted by batfish, which continued to keep us company on our return up the shotline. This great wreck deserved a few more dives, but time was against us.
Split Rock was another Vava’u highlight. We dropped in to around 20m to skirt the reef, looking at the gorgonians and featherstars along the way. Moving up to around 15m, we
were shown a giant cavern. As we lost the daylight and looked back, that azure water streamed in through the entrance – what a sight!
Twenty metres back in the cavern, four juvenile whitetip sharks called a sandy knoll home.
Lazily they swam round in a circle, disturbed by our bubbles.
Out of the cave and turning up the reef, we headed towards the end of the dive and its namesake. The rock was around 15m tall, with a long crack through the middle, as if someone had struck it with a giant axe.
Decompressing at this convenient point, we could hear whale song in the distance, but the wished-for dark shape failed to appear.
From Vava’u we took a short flight to the Ha’apai group, as we still had a few days left for exploration. Ha’apai is much smaller and more rural.
We were picked up by Boris, owner of the Sandy Beach Resort, and bumped our way over the airport runway and along the road past churches, small villages and palm trees, eventually crossing a causeway to Foa, a picture-postcard tropical island with blue water, blinding white sand and a big terrace overlooking the sea.
We were welcomed with a recently fallen coconut to drink and showed to our comfortable fale.

WE HAD BOOKED TWO DAYS’ DIVING and one day’s whale-watching with Happy Ha’apai Divers and the shop was no more than 50m from our fale, with the boats moored just off the beach. In the morning the small RIB would take all the gear out to the boats.
Most dive sites are within 30-minutes’ boat ride. A bit further south from Vava’u, the water temperature here was down to about 23°C, and we were glad of our 5mm suits, especially during the surface interval if the wind was up.
One couple had brought 3mm shorties and lasted only a short time in the water.
The wind was picking up, so we managed to visit only a couple of the closer sites, the highlight being the Ha’ano Island tunnel, an area of reef with many swim-throughs, caves and cuts.
With a full boat, the divers were split into smaller groups, kitting up separately and making staggered entries, which prevented queuing when going through caves. The reef was vibrant, with lots of coral, fish, anemones, gorgonians and numerous nudibranchs. The dive culminated in a 60m-long bell-shaped crack in the reef, and with the sunlight filtering down this was a spectacular end to the dive.
Tobies Reef was a deeper dive and a drift that took us past numerous soft corals and a sea pinnacle called Akoteu, which hosted a resident shoal of striped barracuda.
Hot topic on our trip was the visiting shark, however. The new divemaster claimed that it had swam right up to him, and was 4m long.
I enquired further, and it turned out that a great white shark had been tracked by an Auckland university
from New Zealand to Tonga, possibly following whales or the afterbirth from the calves.
The group had been swimming on the reef when it approached, eyeballed them and disappeared. I don’t think they realised what a once-in-a-lifetime experience they had had, as they laughed it off!
That night we were treated to a traditional Tongan dance by the local villagers. Tradition here is that the girls oil themselves up so that people can stick banknotes to their skin as they dance.
There were also male war dances and group efforts with various costumes and decorations, with a choir and guitarist providing the music.

OUR WHALE-WATCH CAPTAIN for the last day was unwell, so I elected to have
a final shore dive from the resort, the sandy beach giving way to 6-8m-deep coral bommies with sand in between.
This gentle dive, armed with a macro lens, was a great way to pass 90 minutes.
Later a guided bush walk revealed more about the local culture and farming, and we got close to some of the native spiders that spin bright yellow webs, but are quite harmless.
On the east coast, the prevailing wind batters the reef and is the start of the Tongan trench, which reaches 10km down in places. It is seldom dived and might be very interesting.
We took a couple of bikes to the main part of town to look around the market and other sights, followed everywhere by kids shouting “hello” and “bye”!
Another short hop back to the main island of Tonga’tapu, and we had time to kill before our flight out.
The taxi-drivers offer you the chance to hire them for a day of sightseeing – blowholes on the coast, the Maui monument and even Captain Cook’s landing spot are on the itinerary. It’s much better than sitting in an airport with minimal facilities.
Tonga is very laid-back, not overly touristy and a little basic in places.
This isn’t a place of fancy resorts or crowds on the beach, but it is a real bucket-list trip.

GETTING THERE: Fly west from the UK via Los Angeles and Samoa with Air New Zealand. A 30-day visa is automatic on a full passport.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Vava’u - Mystic Sands Beachfront Accomdation,; Dolphin Pacific Diving, www.dolphin;
Dive Vava’u, Ha’apai - Sandy Beach Resort,; Happy Ha’apai Divers,
WHEN TO GO: Year-round, May-November best for diving.
MONEY: Pa’anga, or Tongan dollar.
PRICES: Return flights to Vava’u cost £1200-1400. Hotels cost £50-140 a night – Mystic Sands charges £80. Dolphin Pacific Diving provides a two-tank dive for £60-65, while a day’s whale-watching “with the opportunity to get in with the whales if they are happy to have us around” is £90-95.