Respecting the Locals: How the Cultural View of Whales in Tonga Has Shifted - Week 4 in Tonga

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Another busy week is whirling by, filled with bouts of spitting rain and random bursts of sunshine. The sun is always teasing us, staying out just long enough to dry our crusty towels and salt-stained clothing before it ducks behind a cloud and leaves us running around frantically collecting our laundry before the next downpour.

Island weather, it turns out, is a fickle friend. And I love it! Some nights it’s a bit chilly and we’re bundled up in blankets, drinking mulled wine and nibbling on our sacred stashes of dark chocolate while watching movies. Other nights, we’re sweating and draped on top of our bedsheets, wishing for the soft whir of a fan next to our ears and some sort of reprieve from the hypnotic buzzing of the mozzies.

The unpredictability adds to the intrigue and keeps me on my toes, especially on the boats. I’m sure our guests don’t necessarily enjoy the rain and wind that abuse our faces and other bits of exposed skin, but for me, the challenging sea states and squirrelly weather sparks a feeling of epic-ness and leaves me with a taste of adventure. We have to work harder for our whale encounters, constantly peering through the mist and squalls, scanning the horizon for the towering blows of our cetacean friends.

Working with Our Own Eiki-Vaka - Chiefs of the Boat

With more time on the water as the season progresses, I’m getting to know our Tongan skippers a lot better. We call them Eiki-Vaka, or the gods/chiefs of the boats. The ones in charge! I’m enjoying their stories and insights, especially those of Tomasi, who has been skippering in Ha’apai for years and years. He seems to know exactly which reefs to linger over when we’re waiting for a mom and a calf, and which sheltered islands are favored by resting whales.

Taufa is a bit younger, full of spunk and filled with his own stories and experiences at sea. Every single day brings different scenarios, and I love the unpredictability of it all. Will we swim? Will we watch? What insight will I gain from the skipper today? Will we find a great snorkel spot? Will we see whales doing crazy things I’ve never seen before? Will we see a hammerhead shark (like we did yesterday!)?

I enjoy all of this time spent enjoying whales as an observer, but I often stop to think how the human relationship with these massive mammals has changed in a very short period of time. I find it particularly interesting how the Tongan view on humpbacks has shifted. The shift from whale worship to whale hunting to whale swimming has been rapid over the last few centuries. And now, in the last decade or so, the growth of the whale tourism industry has been so dramatic that the sustainability of the whale tourism industry in many parts of Tonga is being questioned.

When I sit down with my journal at the end of the day and reflect on what wonders of nature I’ve seen, I find my thoughts swirling around the idea that less than half a century ago in Tonga, people were still chasing these whales with harpoons and hungry for the money that came out of the whaling industry. So how did things change from a predator-prey relationship to a watch-and-observe relationship?


The Worship of Marine Mammals

When you look back throughout history, you’ll find that humans have always had a fascination with whales and dolphins. Numerous myths and legends that date back thousands of years show how indigenous people have revered these animals. Humpbacks were probably one of the most widely encountered whales in the South West Pacific when the Polynesians were settling in the area, so it makes sense that many of their myths were inspired by them.

One legend tells of Paikea, the god of sea monsters, who represented strength, endurance, and the ability to survive in wild seas. The Maori name for humpback whales in New Zealand is paikea, maybe in reference to the incredible ability of these whales to migrate thousands of kilometers every single year – an insane show of endurance. Many Maori tribes on the east coast believe their ancestors arrived in Aoteoroa thanks to the god Paikea, who rode on the back of a whale from eastern Polynesia.

Apart from these stories of reverence and worship, there is also evidence that whales and dolphins provided a source of protein for the early Polynesians. This might not even have involved hunting, as whale strandings might have been regular enough to provide a significant contribution to the early Polynesian’s diet.

The Start of Whaling

It wasn’t until early European and American whalers started venturing into the South West Pacific in the late 1700s that local whaling industries were started. The foreign whalers were drawn into the area by the lure of the mighty sperm whale, but once these large toothed whales were decimated, their sights turned to the abundant humpbacks.

Tongans saw the demand for whale meat grow rapidly and eventually, starting in the late 1890’s, a few built their own boats to cash in on this lucrative industry. At the height of the industry in the middle of the twentieth century, it is estimated that between ten and twenty humpbacks were taken each year (nowhere near the numbers that were taken in other areas of the South Pacific by the Soviets or the Europeans). This continued in Tonga until 1978, when King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV declared a moratorium on all whaling within the Kingdom’s waters.

From Hunts to Swims

What could’ve inspired this moratorium? It doesn’t seem like it was foresight of the money-making potential of the whale tourism industry. In 2008, the Princess Salote Mafile’o Tuita said “What motivated my father to ban whaling was responsible stewardship of Tongan resources, not the income they could generate, and this included the whales. When Tonga banned whaling, we did not know what we would benefit at all in terms of tourism income.”

So although the thoughts of tourism and economic growth were not at the forefront of this decision to ban whaling, the industry has since become the second largest provider of revenue for Tongans. It had humble beginnings, starting more than a decade after the 1978 whaling ban. The first tourism license for whale watching was issued in 1993. Now, there are over 30 operators in the Kingdom and thousands of tourists coming to the islands each year to see these gentle giants in their natural habitat.

The industry certainly benefits the Tongan economy. The local airline enjoys the steady stream of tourists, as do various accommodations, taxis, restaurants, and other tourist operations. But as I’ve discussed in my most recent posts, at what cost to the whales is this all occurring? Are there too many operators, too many swimmers, too much boat traffic on the water that they are trying to reproduce in? For those of us that are trying to actively promote the conservation of these and other marine mammals, how can we protect them and knowingly support an industry that is beginning to over-exploit the natural environment? Ick. Certainly it’s better for the whales than hunting them…but there are still impacts.

Luckily, in 2013 the Tongan government enacted a strict code of conduct and set of regulations for those involved in the whale watch industry. This is definitely progress, but enforcement of these regulations is lacking and many operators do not abide by all of the guidelines. For some, the need to please guests might outweigh the operator’s desire to protect the whales. But maybe what we need are different expectations of what a “whale swim” in Tonga is like.

I am very happy that I work for Sea Change Eco Retreat, an operator out of Ha’apai. This island group is a much less trafficked area, with only a handful of operators, and we are very cautious and patient when we approach whales to assess their behavior and suitability for a swim. It pays to do your research before you book a tour in Tonga, as unfortunately, not all operators put the well-being of the whales first. If you do want to come out to the islands, give Sea Change a shout! Our skippers and guides are very mindful of this beautiful marine ecosystem and the whales that call it home for the winter, and we’ll help you have a blissful day on the water.


From worship to hunting to swimming with them, the Tongan culture has always been tied to humpback whales. It’s the type of tie and the intricacy of the knots that are linking humans and whales that is changing – and as those involved in the industry, we need to be ready to adapt.

Learning from the Past to Benefit the Future

When we look to the future of marine mammal conservation, it’s important to also glance back at how we got to where we are today. It’s fascinating to see how with a little bit of education and insight, an industry can be completely changed from one centered around killing to one focused on learning and admiring. It’s just a matter of managing tourism operations carefully to ensure that we are more focused on connecting with the natural world than building economic growth.

Is there anything in particular you’re curious about regarding Tonga, whales, living off-the-grid, or life as a whale swim guide? Please, please comment below and leave your thoughts! I want to have these conversations with you.

Living life as a permanent student,


Swimming with Whales in Tonga

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