Vava’u, Tonga, with its beautiful little main town, Neiafu, is a gathering spot for a small number of people from all over the world to watch and swim with humpback whales every summer.

Humpbacks, which are divided into two groups (Northern and Southern Hemisphere), migrate up to sixteen thousand kilometers every year to feed in polar waters, but give birth and live off their fat reserves in the tropics and subtropical regions.

The whales visit Tonga each summer from June until approximately mid-October. They can reach over 15 metres in length and 40 tonnes in weight.

Every minute spent with whales is unbelievable, every animal magnificent. As with other species and elsewhere, every animal is different, every animal exhibits different behavior, and the animals also experience different moods.

Some of the whales are reserved. Some are easily scared. Some of them are sociable and playful, come close to swimmers and interact with them. Sometimes they act crazy (they have been known to rush people and, exceptionally, even lift them out of the water!). Occasionally the same whale willact completely differently at different times of day or from one day to the next.

Hence, we never know what to expect when we enter the water with the humpbacks.

In the summer of 2019, Hussain Aga Khan went to see humpback whales in Mo’orea, another location that has become famous for them. Other cetaceans in the area include rough-toothed dolphins, pilot whales and, less frequently, spinner dolphins.

Mother and calf or mother, calf and escort (a suitor to the mother who stays with her calf and her)

These are the most touching and beautiful of our experiences.
Some of the calves are extremely curious and playful.
Some of the mothers are much stricter, more protective or nervous than others.

Mother and calf ready to rise

August 2015

The rays of light shining into very deep water are beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that I occasionally just shoot the rays themselves—or the dark blue spot they converge to below you. The calf in this image was fairly large, so it was not one of the youngest ones. Younger calves are very small (adults can reach 15 metres in length!).

Bumping into delightfully curious humpback whale calves

August 2015-2017

Some calves, whether by nature or in response to their mother’s behaviour, just rise and descend away from swimmers and directly above their mother.
Others are thrillingly curious, confident and trusting.
Despite their significant size, being bumped by a calf is usually not painful. The water helps absorb the shock, and their skin just feels like hard rubber.

The mother humpback that turned directly towards me, spreading her immense pectoral fins as she hovered vertical.

September 2017

Her eye was wide open, and I could feel the connection, sense her thinking.
At times, it’s easy to wonder whether whales and dolphins can peer into your soul.

Two rough-toothed dolphins swim with humpback whales off Vava’u

August 2017

Pilot dolphins! Dolphins swimming with whales is a fairly common occurrence—and always a wonderful thing to see. In this case the smaller animals might as well have been pilot fish!

Humpback calf

August 2017

Humpbacks keep their eye on you even as they roll.
Sometimes you notice them staring at you at the most unlikely time… and when you think they’ve got over you, having long accepted you as a strange dolphin or fish.
Protective mothers in particular pay close attention to you, their eyes staring straight at you even when they’re rolling in the opposite direction.


August 2018

Swallows Cave is one of the most popular spots to visit in Vava’u.
Only about a twenty minute ride from the main town, Neiafu, it is famous for its resident school of little fish, the large hole underwater you have to swim through to enter and exit it, and its varied topography.

Pilot whales swimming through the light.

Summer 2019

They stayed closer on one or two of their descents, allowing for nice photographs in sun rays; On one drop they slowed down a bit and allowed for swimming next to them for a couple of minutes. Twice they hung, resting, immobile at the surface for a few minutes.
One of the most incredible sights…