Whale watching in Tonga goes extreme when Jane Jeffries hops in with the cetaceans.

On the high seas in Tonga, we are honking along at 8 knots, sailing to the most distant island in the Vava'u archipelago, Eueiki.

We are visiting Tonga in August, to swim with the humpback whales as they migrate from Antarctica to the warmer waters from July until November each year, when they birth their calves.

It is our first morning and there is high excitement as we spot a whale close to the boat. While I fumble for my camera, it breaches in front of us exposing its white and indigo belly before flicking its tail and descending deep into the water. Disappointed, I'm sure I have missed a moment in a lifetime, but it does it again.

This was the beginning of a week of whale watching.


Tonga is one of the very few places in the world where it is possible to swim with whales. Needing a certified guide to swim with these beauties, we hire Alan for the day, a scruffy, bearded Kiwi. He says he has been getting up close with whales for 23 years and believes they know him.

Cruising around the Vava'u archipelago we spot a whale and Alan gets as close is allowable, without infringing on its space.

Four of us get in the water with goggles, snorkels and flippers and swim towards the whale as she slowly begins to descend.

Feeling completely overwhelmed alongside this incredible 40-tonne mammal, we eye each other up. She doesn't seem to mind my curiosity and I feel a flicker of emotion for this mother-to-be with her barnacle-encrusted head and parasitic fish clinging to her back.

In our next encounter, we sidle up to a mother who has already calved. We are warier as we know she will be protective of her offspring. We see the calf and can't help notice its smooth black skin, unlike the bumps and barnacles on its aged and wise mother.

Alan says the young calves drink 100 litres of rich milk a day, gaining an unbelievable 3-5kg an hour at their peak. Meanwhile, the mother loses condition, not eating until they migrate back to Antarctica where she will feast on krill.

Drying off, back on the boat, there is little time to rest. Alan shouts, "There's a heat run on." With that, we are off again in dogged pursuit of more whales.

Alan spots more activity 400m away as the whales "blow". Surfacing, they exhale air through their blowholes creating a light mist of water vapour, giving their location away. Several bulls are pursuing a female.


There are restrictions about pursuing the whales and Alan feels we have had a fair share and we agree. He delivers us back to our catamaran. We are not only much better informed about humpback whales but we have experienced what most people only dream about.

As we head off to our next destination, with the fishing lines out, we are hopeful for a marlin or tuna.

The men have been trying fruitlessly for several days and have completely failed to deliver on the hunting and gathering. But have an idea.

With four couples on board, I gather the girls for a strategy meeting.

"I know the answer to catching fish," I tell them conspiratorially.

Having read a handy but slightly eccentric hint about fly-fishing many years ago, I figure it is worth a shot. Either that or endure gnawing hunger and painful displays of male ego under threat.

Emptying the contents of an Earl Grey tea bag into the sink, we ever so inconspicuously sneak away to the bathroom. Stifling giggles, we each snip a tuft of hair from beneath our togs, generously stuffing the empty tea bag with our contributions. Sealing it, we nonchalantly walk back on to the deck, secure the tea bag to the lure with duct tape and let the line out.

"The rod is ours for a couple of hours," I say, and the men eye us suspiciously.

Within 20 minutes the line rips and it is all go.

The men appear from nowhere in disbelief. All hands to the pump as the sails are taken down. Struggling to reel in the line we ask for some muscle. Anxious moments pass as the straining rod is taut enough to snap.

Then suddenly, out of the water leaps a whopping great tuna. We net it and bring it on board.

Fish for tuna in the waters off Tonga. Photo/ Jane Jeffries
Fish for tuna in the waters off Tonga. Photo/ Jane Jeffries

Ecstatic, we stifle our snorting laughter and tell the men folk about our unorthodox fishing lure.

With the prized tuna on board, we fillet it into healthy slabs and stow it in the fridge. Our bellies are still aching from the laughter. We drop anchor at a secluded and uninhabited bay at Eueiki Island and prepare our lunch of sashimi.

Like the velvety softness of the tuna skin, the pink flesh is pliable and tender. We cut slithers and plate up the decadent quantities of fish. Sitting back with a glass of bubbles we feast in the heat of the midday sun.

As the tuna slips down our throats, we notice a man with a bare torso paddling towards us on a surfboard. Where did he come from?

Approaching the yacht, he stays on his surfboard. He tells us he is solo on the island for a week and would like to charge his cellphone. A little nervous, we decide we could deal with him, eight to one, as long as he isn't lying on a machete.

We welcome Mike on board and find out he is a film producer from Malibu, US. To celebrate his 60th birthday he is reliving his youth, having visited the islands 40 years ago. With a chilled Heineken, he joins us for lunch.

Living off the sea, Mike is knowledgeable about survival and impressed with our tuna. Spotting the lure, with the remains of the teabag and duct tape, he asks, "What's that?"

With a few little sniggers, we fess up and relive the tale of the one that didn't get away.

Soon it is late afternoon, time to say goodbye to our new friend and find a mooring before sunset. As Mike prepares to paddle back to the island, we present him with a small parcel - a secret fish lure, carefully wrapped in a paper towel tied with flax twine.

"Oh," he says, blushing. "What will my wife say?"

We assure him she will be delighted. He is going to eat well for the rest of the week.

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies directly to Tonga daily, except Sundays. Domestic flights are available to the Vava'u Islands from Tongatapu.

Sailing: Sunsail Charters is based on Vava'u Island, the main island in the Vava'u Archipelago, near Neiafu.