The Bucket List Family

Vava’u, Tonga

Swimming with Humpback Whales

August 2015 — Young family of 4, we decided to sell all of our belongings and venture around the world. You can track our photos on Instagram, our videos on YouTube, and our stories right here :)

It was 1 year ago when I came across a photograph of a National Geographic explorer free diving with humpback whales. He was in the water!! With humpback whales!! I couldn’t believe it. Whales are my favorite and I have been on a number of whale watching tours where I board a boat with a crowd of other tourists and we set out to see whales breach from a safe 100–300 yards away. I thought that those tours were special, but this photo was opening my mind to a whole new level. How was this possible?? Where was this possible??

“okay, google..”

I was able to find out who took the photograph..even when and where. Vava’u, Tonga was the place and there was only a short window each year when the whales would be present.

“Perfect!”, I thought, “That gives me 1 year to make this dream a reality.” I then continued to research everything I would need. Equipment? Skills? Moneys? Let’s do this!

The Basics

WHERE : Vava’u, Tonga. There are only a small number of countries where it is legal to get in the water with humpback whales. But Vava’u is where a high number of whales go to have their babies because the waters are so warm and protected.

We were flying from Hawaii so our route was:

Honolulu, Hawaii > Nadi, Fiji > Nuku’alofa, Tonga > Vava’u Tonga

Best route from the U.S. (from LAX or SFO) is via Nadi, Fiji.

WHEN : June — October. Babies are born starting in mid-June. Mother whales nurse them for a few months until the calves are old and strong enough to make their ways back to the cold where they then teach them how to eat.

Before You Go

EQUIPMENT : Really you can show up with nothing and experience all the wild adventure. But here is a list of items I decided to take along to enhance the experience and capture these special moments:

  • Professional grade camera. I use a Canon 7D.
  • Underwater housing. I use an SPL for my Canon 7D.
  • Over/Under water shot lens. I switch between a fisheye and a super wide angle.
  • GoPros. I use a Hero 4 Black and a Session. Still shots with my Canon and then video with my GoPros.
  • Drone..this was total experiment for me. My first ever. I use a 3DR Solo.
  • Fins. I use Dafins. (also your boat has fins you can use)
  • Back up everything. Memory cards. Chargers. Batteries. I use GoalZero equipment and it saved me almost daily.
  • Friends. They aren’t equipment but they make everything better. Travel with friends. They’re awesome ;)

..again, the experience can be just as magical without all that stufff. At least 1 dive a day, I would leave the cameras behind, and just strip down to my speedo and fins. Those were usually my favorites.

SKILLS : Kinda like the optional equipment, you could probably not even know how to swim and still hop into the water with your floaties and see a whale. But, here’s some skills I worked on for the past year in attempt to make the most of things:

  • Underwater photography courses. At first I would just hound my favorite underwater photographers online. Most every single one of them were so kind about getting back to me with tips and advice. Once I had trained myself to a half competent level, I got together with Jake Marote of Hawaii for some 1 on 1 expert time. Game changer.
  • Free diving lessons. You aren’t allowed to duck dive when calves are present. But for the times when we were in the water with adult humpbacks, it was an incredible skill to have.. one that I hope to get much better at! Free diving is a skill that needs a lot of practice once you know the basics. Most of it came down to practice and time in the/under water. Not super easy while living in the deserts of land-locked Utah..but fortunately we had a community pool. I simply made it a goal to hold my breath under water for 7 minutes a day..then 12. Not all at 1 time crazy..but just as long as I could until I reached my daily total goal. I’m pretty bad. It took me a really long time before I could pass the 1 minute mark but it finally came. But, time is only half the game. DEPTH! This was also very difficult for me. Luckily, the month before Tonga I was in French Polynesia and Hawaii. Both these places have beautiful warms waters that make it ideal to calmly practice new depths.

Both these skills aren’t crucial for whale watching. But they most definitely enhance the experience. For me personally, I wanted to feel ready..but perhaps more importantly I wanted to feel worthy of these special experiences. You can buy an experience or you can earn an experience.

Vava’u Tonga

Vava’u is an incredible place. Like nowhere else I’ve been. I thought it would be similar to Tahiti with the pristine beaches and clear waters, but, the major difference is in the people. French Polynesia has done a fabulous job of creating a vacationers paradise. Like nowhere else in the world. You can sip a pina colada from your over-the-water-bungalow as your room service is delivered via canoe. Not in Tonga. The people of Vava’u are incredibly friendly but it seems they could care less about tourism or money. They welcome you into their land but don’t bother to change their land for tourism sake. I love it.

Vava’u is raw. There was little to no internet. Little to slow internet ;) So the sooner you except that you’ll be without communication with the online world the better. That will probably change someday soon..but hopefully not.

There are pigs, cows, dogs, chickens, and goats everywhere. And bats! Lots of spiders too. But never did we feel in danger. Tonga feels incredibly safe inside the water and out. I would recommend bringing a lot of mosquito repellent..bastards.

Our kids loved it there. Although they weren’t able to go out with the whales (they stayed home with our travel-nany)..there was a lot for them to do back on land. They loved going for walks and seeing all the pigs and other animals. They loved playing on the dock and looking into the clear waters at all the fish and starfish. And 1 day we did take a break from the whales and took the kids out on a snorkeling boat. They’re not old enough to snorkel but it was fun for them to get out and visit some other beaches and play in the water.

Here are some favorite shots from our Tonga adventure and a short video to share some of the stories behind the photographs:

Jessica with a baby calf.

Garrett with 2 male escorts.

Baby calf.

Humpback coming from the deep.

Mother, calf, and male escort entering shallow waters.

Jessica and her favorite baby calf.

Thank you Vava’u for letting us experience your wonderful land. You are a blessed people.

At very least, these videos and photographs will be something for my family and I to always cherish. But also, perhaps I’ll be able to return the gift and inspire someone else the same way that National Geographic explorer inspired me..


Garrett Gee