Words and photos by Garrett Gee.
Tonga holds a special place in our hearts. It was the very first country we visited when we first sold everything to travel the world and I loved it so much that I had to return again two years later. I discovered it years ago when I had seen a photo of someone free diving with a Humpback whale. I immediately put it on the top of my bucket list and started researching where it was taken.
The place is in Tonga on a small island called Vava’u. It’s super small and everyone seems to know each other. Tongan people are amazing, so kind and so generous. They seem to really value family time more than anything and they love the beauty of the island they live on. They are very welcoming to visitors and will say hello to you as you pass them on the street.
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Vava’u is an extra special place because it’s where many Humpback whales visit to mate and give birth. They are attracted to the island’s clean, warm ocean waters and spend a few months there nurturing their young before traveling back north or south to find food.
I’ll never forget my first time in the water with a Humpback. I was with a mother and her calf. They were about 60 feet below the surface while we waited on top for them to surface.
When they finally started ascending, it was as if a giant airplane was coming right at me — I wish could put into words how incredible this experience is. The whales are absolutely massive and they immediately give you a deep love and respect for the creatures.
These days in Tonga have been of my favorite ever. I wake up before the sunrise, eat breakfast and hit the gym. Right as the sun comes up I meet the boat on the dock to head out for the day on the water.
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The days are often very long. There’s lots and lots of searching and waiting. But as soon as you see a water spout, a fin or a breach, things go from zero to one hundred very fast. I take off my Teva Originals, throw on my fins and mask, and grab my camera, and the boat captain drops us in the water right next to the whales. Sometimes the encounters are very brief, but sometimes the whales hang around. We called this guy Hopper because he spent about 45 minutes spy hopping and hanging out on the surface. He let us get really close and posed for some amazing shots.
After a long day on the water, we walk back to our house, hang out with some of the locals along the way and then I spend the evening going through all the footage and pictures I took. We always catch the sunset and go to bed early, ready for whale adventures the next day.
Vava’u is not easy to get to: Los Angeles to Fiji to Tonga to the island. The days are long and often times you get sea sick, tired and discouraged if you don’t find any whales. But I plan to come back here every year if possible because each day and each whale encounter is so unique, it never gets old. Those moments spent with these gentle giants are some of the most spiritual experiences I’ve ever had. To me, this is the ultimate bucket list experience.