Whales and a Whole Lot More
Tonga is famous for whales. Each year, Southern Hemisphere humpbacks venture north from Antarctica to mate and give birth in the warm waters of Tonga. This provides a rare opportunity for human interactions, which center around the Vava’u island group. Swimming encounters employ mask and snorkel, but there is ample reason to pack dive gear as well when visiting. Seascapes around the islands include colorful soft coral growths reminiscent of Fiji and walls and slopes covered in hard corals. Abundant fish life and invertebrate-filled shallows round out the dive roster, while the islands' friendly people and magnificent scenery add an additional dimension to dive vacations.
- Best for: Whales, reefs, walls and soft corals, with sites suitable for all experience levels
- Best season to visit: Year round, July to October for whales
- Weather: Cooler and drier from May to October, with air temperatures in the 70s to low 80s. Warmer and wetter from December to April, with daytime highs into the 90s
Things to Do
About Diving in Tonga
The majority of diving activity takes place in the Vavau' island group, but Ha’apai also offers similar conditions. Both areas include a number of uninhabited satellite islands surrounded by coral heads and fringing reefs that lead to walls and pinnacles. Divers can expect rich, colorful growths of hard and soft corals similar to Fiji, along with abundant macro life, sharks, open-water drifts and unique underwater landscapes riddled with tunnels and caverns. Water temperatures are in the low to mid 80s in summer but can drop into the mid 70s in winter.
Diving in Tonga Tips
Dive centers in the Vava’u and Ha’apai island groups are usually reached by commuter flights from the international airport on the main island of Tongatapu. As an alternate, divers can connect from Fiji directly to Vava’u, which is a convenient way to piggyback the two destinations.
Best Places to Dive in Tonga
Humans and humpbacks come face to face at Hunga Magic. Be ready for anything that appears out of the blue waters surrounding Pelagic Pinnacle. Shafts of sunlight reflect from the silver scales of schooling fish in Swallows Cave. The coral-encrusted Clan McWilliam wreck is a haven for batfish, snapper and small tuna. Sharks patrol the coral gardens at Lafa Lafa, and the schools are definitely in session at Kau Vai Point, which teems with reef sharks, large dogtooth tuna, and hundreds of blue trevally.
What to Pack for Diving in Tonga
If you plan to swim with the whales, opt for full-foot fins with plenty of kicking power. A camera is a must, and for whale shots opt for a compact unit with a wide lens but no additional strobes, which add drag and won't do any good in blue water. Bring a light for the caverns and tunnels on the reefs.
Diving in Tonga
The 176 islands of Tonga are clustered in three primary groups, with the capital and most of the population on the southern island of Tongatapu. Some 200 miles to the north is the Vava’u island group, and the Ha’apai group lies in between. Humpback whales migrate to these warm waters every year between July and October to mate and give birth. Most whale encounters take place off Vava’u, where the volcanic hills of the island block provide shelter from wind and waves, creating ideal conditions for mother whales to nurse their young. All encounters are free swims using mask and snorkel. Whales are only one aspect of the diving scene in this island group, which includes more than 40 small islands. Surrounding the maze-like cluster of islands are miles of shallow lagoons loaded with coral heads and intricate reef structures, as well as steep outer reef walls that are washed in some of the clearest waters in Oceania. With only a few dive operations and light diver traffic, there is little pressure on dive sites, many of which lie less than 20 minutes from shore. Reefs blend the hard coral profiles of the islands of Tahiti with the colorful soft corals of Fiji, which lies some 450 miles to the west. Many sites are also noted for intricate underwater landscapes that include networks of caverns, caves and tunnels. These recesses and wrinkles in the reef create abundant habitat for small marine life, providing ample opportunities for macro life enthusiasts. Signature finds include mandarin fish, seahorses, pipefish and several hundred species of crustaceans and nudibranchs. Sites on the edge of open water add spotted eagle rays, schooling jacks, barracuda and tuna, pods of dolphin and a variety of sharks. Neiafu Harbor is home to an excellent wreck dive, the Clan McWilliam. This 425-foot freighter caught fire and sank in 1924, and remains upright and intact in depths from 60 to 120 feet. Now covered in nearly a century of growth, this iron reef swarms with fish and hides shy creatures such as Wobbegong sharks. Less visited than Vava’u are the islands of Ha’apai, which offer near-virgin diving on sites that include everything from coral bommies to offshore pinnacles, along with reefs riddled with swim-throughs, tunnels and arches. A unique site is the Hot Spring Cavern, where a hydrothermal vent fills a submerged cavern with volcanically-heated water.
Passport and/or Visa Requirements
Entry/Exit Requirements: All U.S. citizens are required to present a valid passport that must be valid for 6 months beyond the date of entry into the country. Proof of onward or return ticket may be required. Your passport should have at least 1 blank page for Entry Stamp. No visa is required for stays less than 30 days. The international departure tax is approximately $25 U.S. and should be included in your international ticket.
No immunizations are required for entry into Tonga. We always advise checking with your doctor and the Centers for Disease Control on recommended vaccinations for travel at cdc.gov.
Culture and Customs
Tonga is the only remaining Polynesian Kingdom. King Tupou V is the current heir to the throne, but the country is governed according to a constitution set down by his great grandfather. Tonga's people retain the friendly and welcoming traditions of their ancestors. The pace of life is relaxed and easy going, blending elements of traditional hospitality with conservative Western values brought by Christian missionaries. Family comes first, and observance of the Sabbath a close second. But these are not somber people. Tonga is renowned for its musical and dance traditions, but pop music is equally enjoyed. Islanders have a friendly greeting for everyone who passes by, and young and old will stop what they are doing to run outside to celebrate the cooling waters of a passing rainstorm. English is widely spoken, but you will still hear snatches of the Tongan language on the streets and when visiting more remote locations. As in Fiji, the Kava ceremony s a central tradition, and something every visitor should experience at least once. The islands themselves are a diverse mix of high volcanic peaks and low-lying limestone ridges that cluster around turquoise lagoons. The economy remains centered on agriculture and fishing, but tourism is beginning to make contributions as well. Resorts are mostly small and subtle affairs that nestle into palm groves set against white sand beaches.
Electricity, Phone and Internet Access
Electricity in Tonga is 240 volts, 50 cycles, so an adapter will be needed for U.S. visitors. The outlets have 2 flat pins in a V shape. The country code for Tonga is 676. Check with your cell provider for international plans for text, data and voice, which can connect through Tongas 2 telecommunication companies with fiber broadband. Some hotels offer WiFi.
In the main resorts and cities, Tongan tap water is chlorinated, but as different bacteria may be present that you might not have immunity for, bottled water is recommended.
Language & Currency
Tongan and English are the official languages and the local currency is the pa’anga (TOP), locally referred to with the symbol T$. Check the current exchange rate here.
Tonga utilizes Tonga Time or TOT which is 13 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (+13 GMT).Tonga does not observe Daylight Savings Time and they are located west of the International Dateline.
Location, Size and Population
Tonga is located in the Pacific Ocean and is comprised of 170 islands, many uninhabited. Tonga is east of Fiji, south of Samoa and north of New Zealand. The total land area is approximately 290 square miles. The main island of Tongatapu, where some 70% of the population lives, is approximately 100 square miles.
The population of Tonga is approximately 106,326 (2016).