Visitors to Tonga have been treated to close encounters with 36-tonne humpback whales and their calves during the mammals' annual five-month sojourn in the Pacific.

Herald photographer Richard Robinson was in Tonga's Vava'u Islands getting up close to take shots of the whales underwater. A selection of his pictures are featured in today's centerspread on pages A26-27.

"It's pretty spectacular to watch," Robinson said. "We don't swim towards them. We just wait for them to come to us. They're curious as well."

Some photos were taken as close as half a metre away from the whales, which can be up to 16m long.


"You're watching mum come up to get a closer look and you suddenly see the little one swim right around you.

"They're very aware of where you are in the water."

Humpback whales use the warm waters around Tonga as mating and calving grounds from July to November, before migrating south.

They spend summer feeding near Antarctica.

Robinson said the animals were special for Kiwi. "We really identify with them."