Tonga

No Binoculars Necessary: Whale watching in Tonga

Up close and personal: whales show off in TongaSonny, our driver, was halfway over the boat’s wooden side, pointing at shadows. "Look below you," he said. The five of us leaned expectantly towards his finger. The sea below was so clear I could count starfish on the bottom. “What do you see?” he asked, as his finger moved slowly along the vessel’s prow. What looked like two charcoal-colored atolls were actually the broad backs of a mother humpback whale and her calf, drifting towards us. The mother exhaled, close enough to shower us with her salty breath.

The Kingdom of Tonga sprawls across the Pacific migration route of these giant beasts and, between June and November, adult females stop here to mate and give birth. From the shores of any one of the country’s 170 islands, you can witness them spouting, flipping and playing with their young. But for the more curious - or crazy, according to some locals - Tonga is one of only two places in the world where travelers can also arrange to meet the whales in the water.

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 Full name: Kingdom of Tonga

 Population: 106,146 (CIA, 2012)

 Capital: Nuku'alofa

 Largest city: Nuku'alofa

 Area: 747 sq.km. (288 sq. mi.)

 Major languages: Tongan, English

 Major religions: Christian

 Monetary unit: Pa'anga

 GDP per capita: US $7,500

 Internet domain: .to

 International dialling code: +676

 Source: CIA World Factbook