The Ultimate Gear Guide for Whale Swimming Trips

A pod of humpback whales off the coast of Vava’u, Tonga during a heat run.

A pod of humpback whales off the coast of Vava’u, Tonga during a heat run.

 
 

SWIMMING WITH WHALES

Swimming with whales can be one of the most emotional and life changing experiences with wildlife you can experience. As long as it’s done responsibly and with great care and patience, this unique activity can help provide support for the continued protection of whales and help people build a personal, genuine connection to these highly sentient animals.

Swimming with whales is only permitted for tourists in specific locations around the world, and protocol should be followed at all times as to not scare or disturb the whales. Currently, top locations for whale swimming trips include Tonga, French Polynesia, Mauritius, Sri Lanka, and Norway. Humpback whales also gather in significant numbers in Hawaii, the Cook Islands, the Azores, Samoa, Comoros, Madagascar, South Africa, Dominica, and Canada amongst other places, but securing appropriate scientific or media permits is necessary to enter the water with them in most cases.

It’s vital to be prepared both mentally and physically for swimming with whales. Having the correct gear, clothing and equipment can go a long way in helping you have a successful and enjoyable swim, while minimizing disturbances to the whales.

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WHAT TO PACK

Snorkel, Free-diving and Swimming Gear

Mask— this is one of the most important, if not the single most important piece of gear you will need for enjoying your whale swimming experience. How to know if a mask is right for you? A good mask should fit your face snugly, should maintain a suction to your face while you breathe without the strap on, should not constrict the bridge of your nose, and should be comfortable. With masks, you get what you pay for.

I also recommend black sided/framed masks, as the clear-sided masks may result in light leak, causing your view to become obstructed with reflections.

It’s a good idea to try on your mask before buying it, or buy through Amazon well ahead of your trip, so if it does not fit well, you can return it. If using a new mask (glass lenses), be sure to use toothpaste or a lighter flame to remove the thin factory coating on the inside of the mask before use.

Here are some mask suggestions:

Snorkel— I recommend using a bare-bones free-diving snorkel for whale swimming. A snorkel with a drain at the top is fine, so that splashing water will not go down your snorkel and into your mouth, but the more complex the technology, the more chance of it presenting problems. As a general rule of thumb, keep it simple, and it will not fail.

My recommendations include:

Fins— It is important to have good fins so that you can move the water quickly, quietly and cover distance. The most important thing is that your fins are comfortable. They should ideally be negatively buoyant so your fins stay beneath the surface when moving to not disturb the whales. Splashing at the surface can easily scare them away. Do not get fins that require booties; thin lycra socks are fine if they are slightly too big or uncomfortable on your feet.

Free-diving and or spearfishing fins are excellent, assuming you are already comfortable using them, as they are very long and can cause extreme leg cramps if you are not used to using fins this size. If in doubt, use a pair of medium length fins that strike a healthy balance between speed and ease of use.

Fins should be bendable and fit snugly on your feet; cheap, stiff plastic fins with back straps are not recommended. I recommend the following:

Wetsuits, Wetsuit Tops, Shorties or Spring Suits— Whale swimming typically requires several jumps in and out of a boat and a lot of searching in open waters for whales. You can expect to spend prolonged periods of time in the water and sitting on a boat drenched. Despite tropical temperatures and warm water, most people get cold going in and out of the water all day long, and many of your boat towels will end up becoming too wet to use throughout the day.

Most people will want a wetsuit top, shorty, spring suit, or some type of wetsuit that keeps your torso warm. People who get cold very easily may want a 2-3mm full body wetsuit, and with that comes the added benefit of flotation. Even if you don’t wear a wetsuit, it is good to have one on hand incase of rain or cloudy weather.

If you decide to purchase a wetsuit online, keep in mind many of the manufacturers are from Asia and the sizes run small— meaning that it’s best to order a size or two bigger than you normally would.

Some options to look into include:

Weight-belt and Weights— if you plan on free diving with the whales (appropriate except when you are with a mother and calf, as free diving can easily be seen as threatening to them), you will need a weight-belt and weights to help counter buoyancy (caused by your wetsuit and your body itself). Depending on your free-diving experience and how buoyant you are, you should bring enough weights to aim for neutral buoyancy between 10-20 metres in depth.

Anti-fog drops or baby shampoo— extremely useful for de-fogging your mask. One of the best and cheapest solutions is to simply mix baby shampoo and water and use that solution to clean out your mask before rinsing it out with sea water. Otherwise, you can bring along anti-fog drops or spray.

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Clothing

  • Rash Guard

  • T-shirts

  • Towel and beach towel

  • Swim suits

  • Shorts

  • Hat or bandana for sun protection

  • A pair of pants for indoor activities

  • Sarong (women)

  • Light jacket or windbreaker

  • Sandals, flip flops, or water shoes

Medications, Toiletries & Miscellaneous

Underwater Photography Gear

  • Underwater housing for DSLR cameras

    • Nauticam— highest end gear, reliable, top of the line products, extremely expensive.

    • Ikelite— good quality at mid-range prices.

    • Sea Frogs— most affordable underwater housings, work well up to 40 metres. Good value.

  • Dome Port for underwater housings

  • Wide angle lens (typically when taking photos of whales underwater, you will want to shoot between 11mm and 30mm). Whales are massive animals and you will tend to get very close to them on a good swim.

  • Housing grips

  • GoPro HERO 7 Black or HERO 6 Black make good, easy to use, substitutes for a full underwater DSLR kit, depending on the quality and use you’re going for. The HERO 6 and 7 Blacks do very well underwater for whale shots.

  • Cleaning kit

  • Extra towel or two for the camera

  • Store your camera in a large bucket of fresh water while on the boat, and be sure to fully flush the buttons and housing exterior with fresh water after each day in the sea.

Electronics

  • Adapter

  • Camera batteries and charger

UPCOMING WHALE SWIMMING TRIPS


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