Samoa & Tonga: Swimming with Humpbacks

Introducing the Tongan Tribe

Brad Climpson|November 29, 2017|Blog Post

Brad Climpson is a marine biologist who spent the last 20 years living on the edge of Australia's Great Barrier Reef. His passion for the underwater realm has taken him to Fiji, Indonesia, Bermuda, and the Maldives. Here, Brad shares his enthusiasm for one of his favorite marine mammals: humpback whales.


Humpback whales are a special breed, one of those rare marine mammal species that are able to draw people into their world; so much so, that many people often make the effort to travel to remote areas where they can find humpbacks readily, in the hopes of interacting with these massive leviathans.

The Tongan Tribe is a group of humpback whales who summer in Tonga, and are members of the broader Oceania group. It is believed that their numbers were in excess of 10,000 individuals before whaling—and were reduced to as little as 250 by 1966. The King of Tonga banned the traditional hunting of whales in 1978, when he realized the population was in danger of not surviving. The population of humpbacks has increased ever since, and today, the only interaction between humans and whales in the Kingdom of Tonga is a very peaceful form of ecotourism.  

Humpbacks by the Numbers

On Zegrahm’s upcoming Samoa & Tonga: Swimming with Humpbacks expedition, we plan to bring you up close to this special group of humpbacks. They migrate and reside in the South Pacific between June and October each year for the females to give birth, while the males and juveniles get to avoid the extreme cold of the Antarctic waters. Our hope is to interact with a variety of whales while snorkeling, and the chances are near certain that we’ll hear the beautiful song of male humpback whales. There are many theories on the origins of the song; some say it’s used to impress potential females for courting and mating. Whatever the reason, it is truly a remarkable experience to hear this beautiful vocalization.

On many occasions, I have been out of the water marveling at the acrobatic ability of these animals. To see a 30-plus ton whale launch itself out of the water while breaching is almost incomprehensible. Much like the singing, the purpose of their playfulness—including spy hopping (when whales pop up out of the water, vertically, and raise their heads to look around), and tail lobbing (when their tail comes out of the water and slaps down on the surface repeatedly)—is not fully understood. Regardless, all are stunning entertainment for those lucky enough to witness it.

To be in the water, however, alongside one or more humpback whales is to be in a completely different league. On our trip, we will be lucky enough to be in our own private boat with local Tongan guides, who have been interacting with their regional whales for many years. Their understanding of the movements of these humpbacks is second to none; when we find potential ‘swimming friends,’ they will brief us on how to make the most of our encounter, while respecting the whales and their space. We will have the chance to see calves playing around their resting mothers, interactions between adult whales of both sexes, and maybe even groups participating in a heat run. A heat run is when a male is escorting a potential female mate and is challenged by another male, who is often followed by even more male humpbacks. The males chase the escort male, and challenge it for dominance hoping to take its place as lead escort.

Zegrahm’s trip to the Kingdom of Tonga, as well as American Samoa, Samoa, and Fiji, is a not-to-be-missed expedition! The opportunity to spend time in the water alongside one of the most impressive cetaceans in our ocean is reason enough to make the journey, but there’s so much more—cultural experiences, walks through beautiful national parks, and, another of my favorite activities, snorkeling along coral reefs among myriad beautiful fish. There is truly something for everyone on this trip; our special encounters with the smallest and least understood population of humpback whales, the Tongan Tribe, is the icing on the cake.


For more information, visit Samoa & Tonga: Swimming with Humpbacks.

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