whales and tonga adventure

I think I have to start this article off with the profound and simple fact that I went on an adventure that is unlike anything I have ever done, and probably ever will do again.

About five years ago I read about an island where people could go swimming with humpback whales. Of course, an adventure like that immediately grabbed my attention, but what stood out to me even more about this trip was the experience that the writer had. She talked about how looking into the eye of one of these magnificent creatures touched her on a deep and indescribable level. This writer left the trip changed and inspired – it was evident from her writing — and she came back home, quit her job, and started a new company with something she always wanted to do.

However, my goal is not to tell her story. It’s to tell mine.

tonga water

After reading that article I’ve since researched everything I could about that kind of trip: how to do it, where it is, if it’s safe, how much it costs…everything. I knew I had to go on a similar adventure. And if you’re like me, look no further. I will tell you everything you need to know about how to swim with humpback whales.

Now first, logistics. There is a population of humpback whales that migrate every year from Antartica to an island in the South Pacific (think somewhat near Fiji) called Tonga where they go to have their calves. Thousands of whales come here from about mid-July to the end of September to enjoy the warm water and the many reef systems of the islands for protection when giving birth. Here, the mothers (cows) train their calves on everyday whale activities – think of it as a school for breaching, tail slapping, swimming, and singing. There are a handful of companies around Tonga that do these whale swim trips, but I would have to say that the most eco-friendly one is Blue Water Explorers, through a company called Wildiaries. What I love about this company is that “they love whales enough to leave them alone.” This means that they only take their group out to swim with whales that are “in the mood to swim with people,” and they never target cow/calves for swimming.

… I went on an adventure that is unlike anything I have ever done, and probably ever will do again.

Most other companies are not only targeting cow/calves (something that stresses out the mothers) but research shows that this kind of tourism might be playing a role in the decreased population of humpbacks in the area. The skipper of the Blue Water Explorer, Dave Donnelly, is extremely knowledgeable about the whales, and has spent his life researching, filming, following, and protecting these amazing animals.

humpback whale

I flew to Tonga by way of Auckland, NZ and booked it through Wildiaries so that I could be sure to have the most eco-friendly experience. It’s a week-long trip where myself and five other curious travelers stayed together in a large home with our own private local chef to cook us meals. We were out on the boat for five days swimming with whales, the other days we spent exploring the island and relaxing on the beautiful beaches of the surrounding islands. Anything we needed was easily accessible in the nearby town (a bike ride or a walk away), it was safe, the water was warm, and the staff leading the trip was always around to help us with anything. The people of Tonga are kind and the entire island has a pre-commercialism, old-school Hawaii vibe. To put it tritely, it was gorgeous.

But let’s get to what’s important here: the whales. Everyone from home said, “You must be crazy to jump in the water with such enormous creatures!” or “What if they eat you?”

I will certainly admit that the first time the whales came up to the boat on my first day out, I was instantly regretting my decision to do this. “You want me to get in the water with them? …Right now?!” There was a minute of hesitation, but after another moment’s pause, there was no more time to think. Before I knew it, I was over the side of the boat and looking directly into the eye of a gigantic whale.

That’s when TIME STOPPED.

swimming with whales

Everything instantly transitioned from the chaos of the choppy ocean, the fear, the skipper telling me to jump in, my own heart racing and taking a deep breath, to suddenly being submerged into a silent underwater world where NOTHING else mattered — nothing except for the mutual curiosity of you and the magnificent giant next to you. It is nothing short of life changing. You suddenly lose everything you never realized took up space in your brain – insecurities, worries, fears, social media, to-do lists, technology — everything is gone and there is a feeling of being present unlike anything else I can describe. Watching a whale pirouetting around you in circles is almost celestial; it’s something that fills you with wonder, confusion and appreciation all at the same time.

This world is so huge and wonderful. I realized next to a whale not only how small I am, but also how big the ocean is. Even whales looked small in the blue. It felt like a shared feeling of like-minded smallness. Maybe this whale and I have nothing in common except for the fact that we’re both only a small part of something so much bigger, and we could connect with each other despite of it.

Even whales looked small in the blue. It felt like a shared feeling of like-minded smallness.

Needless to say, the first time you look into the eye of a whale and the whale looks right back at you, something happens. Could I ever in a million years describe it? Probably not. But I think back to reading that one article all those years ago; I finally get it. When you find yourself caught in a single moment where, as cheesy as it may sound, you’re stripped to your most natural self and you recognize that your heart is beating with the heart of the world, you realize EXACTLY how amazing life is.

Would I suggest anyone going on this trip? Absolutely. Even if it takes you five years like it did me. When I came back, I convinced the team here to team up with Wildiaries to do our very own DARLING LED Whale Swim Trip in Tonga for September of 2017. Please, do NOT think twice about it. I cannot encourage anyone enough to book this trip.

swimming with whales travel accessories

And please feel free to ask me questions with any reservations you may have – I’m happy to answer them. We are only going to be opening it up to a VERY limited number of spots, so I would encourage you all to think seriously about it. Stay tuned to Darling’s email and social media channels as we will be offering up tickets to this trip sometime in the coming month! In an effort for us as women to continue adventuring together, I sincerely hope you take a step out of your comfort zone to do something thrilling and bold with us next year!

This trip was sponsored by two brands that Darling partnered up with to bring along. The first was The Fifth Watches. This brand is unique in the industry because it releases only five new styles of watches for sale on the 5th of each month. Are you checking your calendar? It’s coming up, so make a note on the 5th of September to head to their website and be the first to get one of the new Tokyo line. It’s funny how when you travel and you take a break from technology plus a break from having a phone on you all the time, a watch becomes incredibly important – especially for catching a ferry home from the island you got dropped off on!

The second brand Darling partnered with was Bekekoa. Bekekoa is a socially and environmentally-conscious hair care brand that was incredibly necessary for me on this trip.  I brought along their Tamanu Oil for my hair and after long days on the boat with wind, sun, and loads of salt, it was the long-awaited hydration and replenishment my wiry hair needed. I looked forward to coming home each day and putting a few drops on my hair and running a brush through it (something most would have deemed impossible had they seen they seen my tangled mess of a head on the boat). The all-natural, fair trade hair products from Bekekoa are all handmade and the healing properties in the oil also helped with bug bites and my wind-chapped skin! Also, the word Kekoa means courageous and bold, so very appropriate on an adventure of this magnitude.

Images provided by Kyle Wood

3 comments

  1. I would love to participate in the 2017 trip (or at least look into it)! Is there a place where we can get more info?

  2. This was an amazing article. I myself love adventure and have recently told myself it’s okay to be a daydreamer. I love exploring new paths, towns, islands, and listening to people’s stories. And then do it over again! Thank you for sharing your trip. I enjoyed every sentence you wrote so delicately. This is the first time I’ve ever read about swimming with whales. I joke around with my husband that someday I want to live with the whales but I didn’t know that was close to possible! I would love to experience how you felt when you said “Watching a whale pirouetting around you in circles is almost celestial; it’s something that fills you with wonder, confusion and appreciation all at the same time.” Not sure if I can join in 2017 because my husband and I are planning a trip to Greece next year (never been, really excited about it). But I would love to be considered for this! Keep on sharing! Thanks again!

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