Even the name sounds exotic, and the more than 170 islands that make up the South Pacific's Kingdom of Tonga don't disappoint above or under water with the purity of their tropical bliss. Every year from July to October, humpback whales come to Tonga to calve and mate in the warm waters, and in water encounters are possible through licensed tour operators. The diving, which takes place off the four main island groups of Tongatapu, 'Eua, Vava'u and the Ha'apai, features a hard coral seascape with clownfish, eels and lots of glittery tropical flitting over the reefs. Pinnacles and drop-offs, walls and coral gardens are found off most islands with many sites rarely visited or still undiscovered. There is also the opportunity to gain certifications, such as completing the PADI Cavern Diver course, which you may need to dive certain sites. Between dives Tonga is like being awake within an island dream of blissful, untouched beaches, a traditional Polynesian culture and friendly, welcoming people. In the Niuas at the remote northern corner of the island nation, the people live unspoiled lives not very different than their ancestors. Traveling there is like a step back in time to experience an authentic South Pacific civilization.
When to go:
Marine Life Seasons:
Humpback whales migrate here during their calving season (late July to mid October).
What to Pack:
3/2 mm wetsuit, sunscreen, mosquito repellent, comfortable shoes that can get wet for hiking, DAN card, long sleeved lightweight shirts, long trousers for cool nights, a light jacket for cool evenings, small medical kit.
Seasonal averages: 25°C/76°F in winter and 30°C/86°F in summer.
Seasonal averages: 22°C/72°F in winter and 30°C/86°F in summer.
Pa'anga (TOP); Credit cards are widely accepted.
Valid passport; check with local immigration office for visa requirements.
Included in your airfare.
What to Eat:
Every Tongan feast has a roast suckling pig that is slowly turned over an open fire. The pig is accompanied by items that are cooked in an underground oven called an umu, including lu (meat, fish, shellfish or chicken wrapped in taro leaves and smothered in coconut milk), root crops - taro, sweet potato and cassava, and usually breadfruit. All this served with 'ota ika (raw fish and vegetables marinated with lime and coconut cream) and a variety of fresh island fruits. No one goes hungry in Tonga.
What to Drink:
With a large meal, you may get to try 'otai - a blend of water, coconut cream, shredded coconut, and any variety of grated tropical fruits. Kava drinking is very common in Tonga, but usually only by men at the local kava hall. Matamaka is the beer brewed in New Zealand for Tonga.
When you're not diving, you can sea kayak, fish, trek on 'Eua through cave-filled rainforest; explore ancient ruins and sleepy villages in Tongatapu; hike up Mt. Talau in Vava'u, and even enjoy a homestay dinner with a local family.
Customs and Culture:
Captain Cook called Tonga the "Friendly Islands" and it shows in the warmth and hospitality of the people. As a religious nation, Tongans dress conservatively - dress modestly while in town and save beachware for the dive boat or outer island resorts. The Tongans also love rugby and have some of the best players in the world.
Heilala Festival in late June through early July; Regatta Vava'u in September.
Electricity and Internet:
240V/60 HZ; Internet common in hotels and tourist areas.
Drink the water?
Bottled water is recommended.
Tongan; English is widely spoken.
Amazing Marine Life
This enormous baleen whale, growing up to 15 meters/50 feet in length, feeds on small plankton, and migrates annually to breed in warm waters. They show up from July to October.
Banded Sea Snake:
This vividly striped sea snakes prowl the reefs and can be seen napping in caves along the shore.
Banded Coral Shrimp:
Tend to hide during the day, but come out in great numbers at night, this barber pole colored shrimp always makes for memorable photos.
Distinctive bands of white and orange mark these fish, which are often found sheltering among the tentacles of an anemone.
These frilly, brilliantly colored invertebrates can be found on most dives.
Fields of healthy, hard corals dominate the seascape.
These predatory fish are often seen on the reefs.
Spotted Eagle Rays:
Seen most frequently outside the barrier reef.
Hawksbill and green turtles can be found swimming in leisurely fashion or napping under ledges on most reefs.
Especially prevalent along walls and drop-offs.
Top Dive Spots
Hot Spring Cavern, Ha'apai:
For those with appropiate certifications, this massive cavern beneath Ofalanga Island has its entrance at 23 meters/75 feet. A hydrothermal vent percolates hot water into the cavern.
Arch of Ofalanga, Ha'apai:
The coral arch of Ofalanga, 20 meters/66 feet wide and 15 meters/50 feet tall, is one of the most mystifying dive spots in the South Pacific. Look for huge lobsters clinging to the roof and sides.
Eden Rock, Ha'apai:
A series of huge coral outcrops on the reef wall create gigantic canyons falling away to the abyssal depths. Here you'll find canyons, caverns and a proliferation of coral. The drop-offs attract barracuda, grey reef sharks, turtles, grouper and snapper.
Clan MacWilliam Wreck, Vava'u:
This virtually intact 130-meter/430-foot freighter caught fire and sank here in 1927. Resting at 30 meters/100 feet, the wreck is now home to a variety of small schooling fish hard and soft corals.
China Gardens and Split Rock, Tu'ungasika, Vava'u:
This small cliff-bound island is surrounded by untouched coral gardens, with drop-offs of 27-36 meters/90-120 feet, patrolled by small tuna and mackerel. A number of large caverns surround the island where it is possible to find white-tip reef sharks. One cavern is adorned by golden sea fans and clownfish. It's obvious when you get to Split Rock - a huge fissure with just enough room for divers to swim through single file. Look for lionfish hiding in cracks in the wall.
Swallows Cave, Kapa, Vava'u:
Begin either inside the cavern (its ceiling is filled with nesting swallows at certain times of the year giving it its name) or on the outside wall. A side tunnel leads in and out of the cavern, where dramatic shafts of light highlight the walls and fish. On the shear wall, follow bream and tuna as they chase the baitfish and look for a variety of nudibranch species.
The Aquarium, 'Euakafa, Vava'u:
This relatively large uninhabited island boasts pristine corals. Divers circle a nearby reef of multihued hard and soft corals, attended by a proliferation of reef fish species, just like diving in an aquarium.
Shark's Tooth, Kitu, Vava'u:
This mammoth, multi-chambered cavern offers tunnels and swim-throughs. Just outside the cavern is a garden of sea fans measuring up to two meters/ six feet across, and beyond that a perpendicular drop-off with fish and soft corals.
Coral Garden Reef, Vava'u:
Start this dive among flourishing sea anemones teeming with the clownfish. Continue on to a hard coral garden featuring individual corals measuring up to 4 meters/12 feet across, and an amazing display of colorful reef fish.
Hunga Magic, Vava'u:
A short trip out through the beautiful Vava'u Islands to the playground of the humpback whales during their calving season (late July to mid October) leads to Hunga Magic, an undulating landscape dotted with gardens of leather corals, pastels of yellow browns, blues and greens. Strange little pimples of coral rock are underlined with carnation corals of vivid crimson. Green sea fans transform into brilliant red under a dive light.
Cathedral, ? Eua:
A breathtaking experience in a huge cavern with an amazing light show as beams shine in from various holes in the top and sides. On the outside, look for reef sharks, groupers and schools of fish. Peer over a drop-off full of numerous species of hard coral and reef fish.