Plan a visit to the Kingdom of Tonga between June and October for a chance to see humpback whales. 

Tropical Tonga


The Kingdom of Tonga has had a hard time of it recently, from the pandemic that closed the borders for nearly two years to the violent undersea volcano that erupted in January 2022 causing untold damage. This is partly why my son Theo and I chose to visit last winter; we wanted to support Tonga’s tourism industry as it got back on its feet.

There was also a less altruistic reason – we’d always dreamed of swimming with humpback whales.

After a handful of days on the main island of Tonga Tapu we headed for the Ha’apai group of islands, 129 kilometres north of Nuku'alofa.

Tonga aerial INP

Tonga is a tropical island paradise.

From the moment we entered the domestic terminal, our outer island adventure began. The departure lounge was little more than a handful of chairs. With no café or refreshments on offer and two-hours to kill, we wished we’d bought provisions.

Onboard our 15-seat plane, we were impressed to see a woman carrying an enormous cake. The iced work of art looked dangerously precarious perched on her lap, but she must have been used to transporting ornate baked goods as it survived the trip.

Once airborne, our attention turned to the azure ocean below. Dotted with unspoiled, uninhabited islands, tan sands fringed with coconut palms, it was like a postcard come to life. Theo, with his younger, sharper eyes, even spied whales.

Having landed on Lifuka Island, one of 51 in the Ha’apai group, a boat whisked us to Uoleva Island, the home of Kitesurf Tonga. This sublime off-grid hideaway was built by kitesurfing couple Glen and Karen Duncan. As soon as our bare feet met the soft sand, we knew we’d been wise to go that extra mile.

Tonga Theo beach INP

Theo enjoys the sunset. Photo by Elisabeth Easther.

Without pause, we settled into island life. Our fale, simultaneously rustic and refined, was one of just five right on the beachfront. Beds with mosquito nets and solar-powered lighting kept us comfortable, and the big bamboo-lined bathroom was charming. Meals were a thrice daily treat – culinary wonders whipped up by ex-pat Kiwi Jeremy, served at one convivial table. Much of the produce was grown onsite by Glen, while Karen garnered respect with her baking.

Waking on our first morning, the weather was deemed ideal for whale watching so it was all aboard Glen’s 8.5m vessel Tropic Bird. Of course, whales can’t be guaranteed; nature doesn’t make appointments.

Tonga whale INP

Seeing humpback whales in Tonga is a bucket list experience.

But we were in luck! Seeing humpbacks in the wild was as magical as we’d dreamed. Searching for their vast bulks just a few hundred metres from shore, I was struck by the contrast between our joy in spotting these precious creatures and the motivation of whalers past. As we scanned the horizon, pointing and exclaiming when we thought we saw a spout, a fluke or a tail, time stood still.

My heart ached to picture those mariners who’d come before us, armed not with snorkel gear and goodwill, but harpoons. As I gazed in awe at mothers with their calves, I marvelled at their majesty and silently apologised to their ancestors.

We enjoyed two ideal days of whale watching and, when the wind blew, our fellow guests headed to the tip of the island for kitesurfing while Theo and I explored the island. Other times, we snorkelled on the reef right on our doorstep, where crystal blue water teemed with aquatic intrigue.

On day four we motored back to Lifuka Island for Agricultural Day, an impressive annual event we were fortunate to witness. In honour of this celebration of abundance, the island’s dusty streets were lined with cabbages as big as bowling balls. Our arrival at the local sports ground coincided with King Tupou VI and Queen Nanasipau’u Vaea on a royal walkabout. Accompanied by a sizable entourage, the regal party trod on paths of woven mats, the island equivalent of red carpet. Stopping at various stalls to admire plants and produce, artwork and edibles, the nobles were full of praise for the long avenue of tables groaning with fish of all species, everything from sharks to rays, stonefish to marble fish, even a Napoleon wrasse.  

Tonga fish INP

The enormous display of fish at Lifuka Island for Agricultural Day. Photo by Elisabeth Easther.

While we found the sheer mass of fish confronting, we also understood the need to celebrate following the privations of the pandemic and the eruption. We had heard many horror stories from those bleak times. The sonic booms, the towering plumes of ash, the sun so dimmed that terror struck the heart of every living creature. On the main island, as panicked people drove to higher ground to avoid the tsunami, windscreens and headlights became so coated with thick layers of ash there were countless collisions, with drivers unable to see more than a few inches ahead on the road.

Today though, The Kingdom of Tonga is back on track. We came home recommending to anyone who would listen that they book flights, pack masks, snorkels and fins – and time a visit to Tonga between June and October to increase the chance of seeing humpback whales on their annual migration. For us, the experience of doing so, in such an idyllic place, was a dream come true.


Story by Elisabeth Easther for the Autumn 2024 issue of AA Directions Magazine. Elisabeth Easther is an Auckland-based freelance writer who regularly contributes to AA Directions magazine. 

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