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History and context
The Kingdom of Tonga is a small island nation in the middle of the South Pacific. In 2006 its estimated population of 100,000 people was spread out over 36 inhabited islands, with two thirds concentrated on the main island of Tongatapu1. Although the country has many agricultural exports, from the 1990’s onward, tourism has become an increasingly important source of income, estimated to account for 15% of the economy in 20061. In 1994, this tourism included two operators who took tourists to see, and sometimes swim with humpback whales that feed in Antarctica, and come to the tropical protected reefs and Atolls around Tonga and other South Pacific islands to mate, give birth and nurse their calves. By 2008, this number had increased to 14 operators, involving over 3,000 individual tourists in whale watching tours each year2 – with most tourists engaging in multiple whale watching tours during a single visit - an average of three tours per visit1. The industry was estimated to generate a combined direct and indirect income of just over 2 million USD for Tonga in 20082.
The humpback whales visiting Tonga are part of the Oceana breeding stock, designated breeding stocks E and F by the International Whaling Commission3. This population feeds in Antarctic Area IV during the Southern Hemisphere summer, and breeds in Tonga, New Caledonia, Fiji, Samoa and Niue during the Southern hemisphere winter, from July to October. Following intensive whaling in the Antarctic, this population was estimated to number as few as 250 whales in 1964 and is now estimated to be in the low thousands4 with limited exchange between the different islands of the region5. The population is still designated as Endangered by on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species6.
Today there are between 35 and 50 licensed whale watching vessels in Tonga. Of these, roughly 20% are completely Tongan owned, but many included foreign managers or owners7. The majority of operators are on the island of Vava’u which has an international airport and is the centre of whale watch tourism, but a smaller number of operators offer tours from Tongatapu, ‘Eua and Ha’apai.
Vessels are generally smaller than 10m in length and target the sheltered waters on leeward sides of islands where they can offer guests the opportunity to enter the water and swim with whales in calm, sheltered waters. Swimmers enter the water in groups of no more than four, accompanied by a snorkeling guide. The preference of tours for these sheltered areas, results in the frequent targeting of mother whales with their calves, which also make use of the calm waters for nursing, particularly toward the end of the season7.
Although the whale watching industry grew at a rate of just over 15% per year between 1998 and 20082, a number of factors are considered to limit the potential for further growth1. These include the limited capacity for air travel to the remote island nation, the limited number of hotel beds on the islands, and, perhaps most importantly, concern for the impact that the industry could have on this endangered population of whales1.