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Tonga

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Extent of whale and dolphin watching 

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.  Humpback whales that feed in the  Antarctic during the Southern Hemisphere summer, come to Tonga to mate, give birth, and nurse their calves during the Southern hemisphere winter, from July to October.  During this time, they are the focus of an increasingly popular whale watching industry that includes the opportunity for snorkelers to experience in-  water encounters with whales.  One of the few countries in the world to permit swimming with whales, possible in part due to the existence of sheltered areas with calm and clear waters, the activity draws tourists from all over the world.

Target species, peak times of year and locations:

While various dolphin species can also be observed during whale watching tours, commercial whale watching in Tonga focuses almost exclusively on one species, and is thus limited to the months that humpback whales are present in their tropical breeding grounds.  Today there are between 35 and 50 licensed whale watching vessels in Tonga.  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.  

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Species

County/region

Towns or harbours

Platform (motorized boat, swim-with, aerial)

Peak time of year to observe

Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)

Vava’u, Tongatapu, ‘Eua and Ha’apai. 

 

 

Boat, swim with

July-October

Spinner dolphin (Stenella longirostris)

Vava’u

 

Opportunistic

Present year –round but tours only run July-October

Common Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)

Vava’u

 

Opportunistic

Present year –round but tours only run July-October

For more information about whale watching in Tonga consult:

http://www.tongaholiday.com/things-to-do/whale-watching/

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Regulations and guidelines

In 2013 a comprehensive set of guidelines was formally ratified by the government, recognizing the Ministry of Tourism the authority to issue licenses, to limit the number of licenses issued each year, and to only issue licenses to those operators that can fulfil certain conditions, including: proof that the intended activities will not harm or jeopardize the whales; proof that the operator and its staff have sufficient knowledge and understanding of the whales and their conservation needs; and proof that the operator and its staff have the “required skills and knowledge to provide valued services to customers” (Ministry of Tourism, 2013).

The guidelines set forth clear approach guidelines for boat, helicopter and air-based whale watching as well as in-water interactions. Some of the key stipulations of the guidelines applicable to swimming with whale include:

  • No more than four clients plus one trained local guide per certified vessel may be in the water with any one pod of whales at a time;
  • Only one certified vessel under license may put swimmers in the water with any one pod of whales;
  • Each licensed service provider is solely responsible for determining whether the conditions for clients to swim with whales are safe;
  • Vessels with swimmers in the water shall fly the a special flag provided with their permit;
  • If a second service provider arrives, the approaching vessel shall make contact by VHF radio (Channel 74 – low power) and stay outside 100 metres;
  • No swimmer shall approach any whale closer than 5 metres and no vessel shall approach any whale closer than 10 metres for the purposes of dropping off or picking up any swimmer except in an emergency where the safety of a swimmer is at risk.
  • no person shall make any loud or disturbing noise near whales;
  • no person shall use Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA) for diving or swimming with whales or use artificial light sources around whales;
  • Only licensed whale watching providers are allowed to approach whales to within distances of less than 300m, and  only swimming providers are permitted to put swimmers in the water with whales.

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Research on whale watching in Tonga

  • Research conducted in 2009 and 2010 attempted to assess the likelihood that the same individual whales would repeatedly be exposed to whale-watching or swim-with whale operations in Tonga. They determined that whales were not likely to be sighted in the same area for more than three days in a row, and that therefore their exposure to the whale watching activity was likely to be brief. None-the-less, they urge caution – particularly as mothers and calves are most frequently targeted for swim-with-whale operations, and repeated disturbance to their essential nursing activity could render calves less fit for the migration back to Antarctic feeding grounds2.   The 2013 regulations provide some extra protection for mothers and calves by determining that they should be off-limits to any whale-watching activities after one provider has spent the maximum of 90 minutes viewing/interacting with them. 
  • Research conducted in 2009 and 2010 provided some insights into practices that were more or less likely to elicit behaviour changes in the whales.  The study determined that any boat approaches closer than 30m resulted in a significant increase in whale surface activity and advised that vessels dropping swimmers with whales do so from a greater distance. The study also determined that splashing swimmers elicited a stronger reaction than ‘quiet simmers’3.  The 2013 regulations stipulate a need to refrain from loud noise around the whales, but still allow vessels to approach to within 10m to drop swimmers and do not contain any language to prohibit/minimize splashing.

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Références

Afficher / Masquer les références
  1. O'connor, S., Whale and dolphin watching in the pacific islands region phase 2: country case study. Whale watching tourism in the Kingdom of Tonga—a report for the international fund for animal welfare and Operations Cetaces., E.a.L. Associates, Editor. 2008, IFAW. p. 32.
  2. Kessler, M. and R. Harcourt, Management implications for the changing interactions between people and whales in Ha'apai, Tonga. Marine Policy, 2012. 36(2): p. 440-445.
  3. Kessler, M., R. Harcourt, and G. Heller, Swimming with whales in Tonga: Sustainable use or threatening process? Marine Policy, 2013. 39(Supplement C): p. 314-316.

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