Tonga with Whales Underwater

September 07, 2016 8 Comments

I’ve just spent the past month in the beautiful archipelagos of Vava’u, Tonga, where I had the awesome opportunity to work alongside Canon Master Darren Jew, and host an awesome group of people on the experience of a lifetime. It’s just crazy how some things happen..

I met Darren at the Tales By Light premiere in early 2015, an exclusive event hosted by Canon Australia and National Geographic about the inspiring stories of Australian photographers that capture some of the worlds most iconic and breathtaking images. Canon had invited me to the event after I had opted in to an offer to test and review some of Canons latest gear. I consider myself an outgoing and socially comfortable person yet still found it rather nerve racking to go up and introduce myself to Darren, whom I consider one of the best photographers in the world and unmatched in the field of whale photography. Nevertheless, after the show had subsided, I took a deep breath and went and said hello.

A few months passed and to my excitement the opportunity to host a boat with Darren arose and I was honored to take up the offer and join the Whales Underwater team for a season. After a long and anticipating wait, Tonga finally arrived and needless to say, my mind has been blown.

 Tonga Island Escape

The experience was truly life changing, having spent most of my life in and around the ocean, I’ve encountered many of its inhabitants but nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced on this trip. I love shooting the waves of the ocean and have done so for such a long time, in fact I’d suspect anyone who knows my work would refer to me as a ‘surf photographer’, but after spending time pursuing an image of a subject like the humpback whale, something deeper than just waves began to stir in me.. But enough on that for now, back to Tonga! Tonga is not only renowned for its pristine seas, its island vacation vibes, friendly hospitable people or beautiful culture, but it’s actually a meeting place where thousands of humpback whales migrate north to each year to breed, give birth, nurture their young and spend the winter in a warmer and more peaceful environment.

Whales Underwater with Thurston Photo

The island itself is beautiful, and the hospitality that Darren and his team of Tongan hosts provided was an extremely welcoming and accommodating environment that made us feel right at home. We’d arise each morning, get a good brekky in, head to the boats, and set out to the open seas, eagerly keeping our eyes peeled for those puffs of golden mist that would illuminate against the morning sunrise. Our skippers Cam and Ali were always first to spot the whales but it was fun yelling out “Whale, 3 O clock!” when we each saw one! Everyone was just so excited to be there!

Humpback whale breach

Island life in Vavau

“Man if I was a humpback, Tonga would be the place that I would choose to spend my winter vacation.. It is just beautiful.”

Once we had spotted the whales, our skipper would navigate us to the perfect spot and we’d slip over the edge of the boat and quietly swim towards an encounter with these beautiful animals. Depending on the type and the mood of the whale, we’d generally, more often than not get a very exciting and intimate moment with them.

 Getting close swimming with humpback whales in Tonga

At first I honestly felt a little intrusive, but after a few swims I began to realise just how welcoming and peaceful these whales really were and just how stoked they were to have us around! We were so fortunate to come across so many different personalities of humpbacks, all behaving in their own unique and wonderful way. Often they would dance and twist and twirl and even breach for us, and basically just perform for us. One of the things that really fascinated me about that was just how spatially aware they were, how they could maneuverer there 30-40 tonne frame around, come within inches of us and yet, the entire time, still make us feel incredibly safe and reassured in their presence.

“They are just such trustworthy and majestic creatures.”

 Making art with humpback whales Thurston Photo

One of the most memorable moments for me, was when a little calf, probably only a week or so old, built up the courage to venture out from its harboring mother and curiously and clumsily swim towards me, and there was this precious moment where it looked me directly in the eye as it swam around me before returning to the safety of its mother. The calf, being only a few days old, hadn’t really had the time to learn about interacting with humans and the potential dangers that we as humans can unfortunately impose, yet instead it had this beautiful natural instinct to trust, accepting us, and being kind to us, as it exercised the protection of its mother. That to me, was a beautiful thing to experience.

Humpback whale and calf

“I’m just so glad that they are a protected species, they are increasing in number and we are able to still have this wonderful opportunity to experience them and interact with them in the wild.”

Another impacting moment was when we found a singer, oh man, the singers.. A singer is when a male humpback would float suspended about 10-15m down and send out these otherworldly sounds that resonated on a far deeper level than what our ears can usually pick up. It was a sound that you felt, a sound that rumbled every fiber in your being and sent pulses through your spirit. I truly hope I get to hear that song again; it was like being in the presence of an eternal being, a timeless voice. It was an indescribable experience.

 The Whale Song

Being a travelling ocean photographer, over time I’ve realised that photography has a beautiful way of connecting people and places, this trip I met so many incredible people from all walks of life, I really hope that with my photography I can inspire and encourage people to follow their hearts desire and go after that dream, no matter how big it is, because it will lead you into experiences that will change your life forever and make you a better person for both your life and for the lives of those around you.

I like to say; “There is seven days in the week and someday isn’t one of them!” I just want to see people break that routine and book that ticket, and go on that adventure that enriches your life and reawakens your spirit to how beautiful it is to be alive in such an opportune time as today. It’s the encounters that we personally have that answers our questions, not the news we hear or books we read, but the encounters, the moments that we ourselves cannot explain.

Swimming into the light Swallows Cave

Before I share with you the gear I used I briefly want to share this little lesson I’ve recently learnt:

One night at the dinner table, I was asked why I was chosen to host the trip by one particular fellow and I jokingly reiterated the question to Darren, in which he replied. “Cos you’re a nice guy.” We laughed and that became the answer but the moral of that little story is that skills, profession and profile aside, it’s character and attitude that will take you places in life, skills can be learnt and profiles can be grown but the way you treat and serve others is in my experience the best attribute you can have when it comes to being an asset to a team, and living an enriched and fulfilling life that expands beyond where talent alone can take you.


Gear I used:

On this particular trip I was happy to see that Canon was a very dominate force, being my preferred brand of camera, the Canon 1DX and the 5D Mark III were probably the most popular of cameras there. I was using my surf setup; the Canon 7D Mark II with the Canon EF 8-15mm lens which I had a zoom gear for that I could change from 8-15mm quite easily inside my AquaTech Elite 7D2 housing. The 7D2 being a 1.6x cropped sensor though, made the focal length more equivalent to about 12-24mm which I found a very useful range in capturing the whales. On the full frame censors I found the Canon EF 16-35mm lenses to be most popular, although 16mm is wide, I do stress to never under estimate the sheer size of these animals, a lot of the time my 12mm wasn’t even wide enough to fit these things in frame! Let’s just say at times the subject can get close.. real close!!

If you want to learn more about the settings used and how to capture great whale images, then I suggest looking into booking a trip with the team at Whales Underwater, it’s a photography orientated trip that is very educating as well as inspiring and it’s a very easy process to make happen. It may seem expensive at first but after doing it, I found it’s an extremely good deal for what turned out to be an adventure I truly could not put a price on!

Thanks for reading! If you haven't already, grab a pack of popcorn and check out the 10 minute documentary on the trip below..

- PT



Dancing Humpback Whale

Clear shot of a humpback whale

8 Responses


June 05, 2021

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July 20, 2018

Thanks for bringing to life what my daughter has described in her emails. Renee sold all her possessions, including her house and car and took a leap of faith to go to Tonga. She is on Vavau and loves it. Quite different than Tyler,Texas!

Valerie Ventura
Valerie Ventura

December 30, 2016

So very incredible, thank you for your beautiful work and sharing the adventure!


September 13, 2016

Love your work mate. I caught up with my old salty old mate Matty Blakers and he was telling me about both your adventures chasing slabs.

Mindy Lou
Mindy Lou

September 09, 2016

Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing so much beauty with all of us. So impactful.


September 08, 2016

powerful photography- the whales are the ballerinas of the sea – thank you for sharing the footage

John Goodridge
John Goodridge

September 07, 2016

Absolutely wonderful article, astonishing and inspiring. Excellent on every level :) having only ever taken photos of humpbacks from a boat I need to get in the water. Got my name down for 2018 with DJ, lots to learn till then. Ace photos!


September 07, 2016

Beautiful described beautiful captured and yay the clip was just what I needed to count down my last days of excitement , thank you Phil

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