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The whale swim industry in Tonga offers people two options. The first is designed for the general tourist industry. These share style boats take 8 or more people and rotate groups of four in the water. Since whales are wild not everybody gets an equal amount of time in the water.
This kind of trip is affordable, but is more about letting all the people get a glimpse of whales in their environment. The mindset of the captain is to find whales that he can drop the swimmers in the water with so that they can see the whales. Once the whales pass by the swimmers are collected and the boat repositions itself in front of them and drops another group of swimmers in the water. Note these operations do not just motor up and drop groups directly in the path of the whales,as that is harassment. Rather, they will get a head and drop swimmers on a diagonal line that allows the whales a lot or room to continue on their course. I have been on a few of these boats and while I did not get the time in the water I would have liked, I felt the operators did a good job of letting all the people see the whales.
As a conservation photographer I prefer the second style of boat trip, which is a private charter designed for small groups of 4-5 people. Most often chartered by researchers, professional and amateur photographers and film makers these boats provide a better experience but at a much higher cost.
The captains mindset on this kind of trip is to seek out whales that are logging, and that might be open to passive interaction and observation. Particular behaviors such as mothers interacting with calves, nursing, playing, resting, and teaching the young are desired.
Once found swimmers enter the water and float and observe the whales. When comfortable with the swimmers presence often the whales will come by for a look. This is when great interaction happens.
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