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Rise and fall of Vava’u Whale Watch industry

Mounu Island, Vava'u

Humpback Whale. Port of Refuge, Vava'u, Tonga.

By Kirsty Bowe

Each year the Humpback Whale migrates from Antarctica to the warm waters of Tonga to mate and calf. In times gone by, their arrival meant it was time to pull the kumala from the fertile soil. Nowadays it is a dollar sign for the kingdom.

1993 saw the first operators in Vava’u, second only to the Dominican Republic, start swimming with the Humpbacks. With leisurely starts, heading out to swim a few times with the whales and stop for a snorkel at Swallows or Mariners Caves on the way back – a four hour day. A life-changing event, spiritual in so many ways.

The whales would come close to the inner channels of Vava’u – often swimming right up into the Harbour of Neiafu – where locals and tourists would line the waterfront to watch the whales frolic between the boats. Although I suspect many would have preferred to feast on them - it had only been 25 years since the late King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV had declared by Royal Decree to cease hunting whales, as they were close to extinction.

NGO’s from around the World were enraged that Tonga was swimming with the whales. My father, Allan Bowe, had seen the potential of the Industry for the kingdom. He attended whale conferences worldwide, often turned away as he had no scientific background. In his desire to learn more, he invited leading scientists to join him in Vava’u. This saw the beginning of a respectful, sustainable whale swim industry, which brought a flux of income to the community of Vava‘u. The local carving industry, accommodation, taxis, restaurants, tour guides all felt the roll-on effect from this new line of revenue.

Early licensing

In 1996 the first whale workshop was hosted by IFAW, Whales Alive and SPREP and guidelines for the Industry were drafted. IFAW provided guide course certification by Filipe Tonga.

In 1999 SPREP recommended a cap of licenses in the industry of 7-9.

HRH Princess Pilolevu is the Royal Patron of the Whales.

2013 Whale Watch regulations were set, and it looked as if Tonga would lead the world with its approach to conservation and sustainability as new countries were catching the Swim with Whales bug.

In 1996 an estimated TOP$3.5 million (Vava’u alone) of revenue was generated directly and indirectly. (In 2019 an estimated TOP$9 million was generated for the whole of the kingdom.

In 2017 with all Island groups in Tonga becoming involved in the whale watch business an Industry Empowerment Division was established by the Ministry of Tourism to address the growing concerns within the Industry, and again plan for sustainability.

Until his death in 2017, Allan had been a huge advocate for the protection of the whales and of the sustainable development of tourism in the Kingdom. Allan was recognized for his services to the Kingdom with a medal from King George Tupou V in 2006.

Cap on licenses

With increasing pressure from the conservation groups, in 2004/2005 Government passed a cap on licenses to no more than 13, allowing for each operator to run two vessels.

In 2017 Government issued 18 licenses (36 boats on the water – 2 per license).

From 2004 - 2017 it became a race to be out on the water first, increasing pressure on the whales with more boats, and operators who continually disregarded government recommendations. Licensed boats not suitable for the intended purpose of whale watching were overloaded with passengers, many without the proper safety equipment required for survey, without adequate seating, shelter or toilet facilities, which are required under law. The rise of the “Inbound tour operator” occurred with advertised trips from dawn till dusk, dealing with one price paid and another for guaranteed swims. This led to on-water fighting, manipulation and bullying of staff, swap-out of staff on boats and a total disrespect of the whales.

The spiritual promotion of this activity has been taken out and replaced with the current “selfie” infatuated/adventure tourist that visits. Photographers pushing, for that “magic shot".

Instead of having a nice cold drink at the bar at the end of the day to exchange stories, guests now show off bruises from where they were hit by the whales. The skippers and guides on boats not being actively run by their owners have no control over pushy clients. Many non-active operators just want their staff to “get them a swim”.

Lax regulations

Many of the current boats and pending boats applying to be licensed do not meet the required law of the Shipping Act Tonga 2016 to carry passengers, which is criteria under the 2013 Whale Watch Regulations.

In Vava’u there has been an on water death, a shark attack, swapping out of local guides for foreign guides, overloading of boats, more people swimming in the water than recommended, people being left behind in the water to be collected by another company and returned to their original boat, people put into the water in unsafe conditions, manipulation of 3rd party insurances, nonpayment of fees, incorrect information given in applying for a license. Skippers and guides passing courses when they have no clear understanding of what is involved. No one has been fined.

The whales are moving offshore being displaced from their calving grounds. Fewer are being seen year after year around the inside of the Vava’u island group. The whale’s behavior is also changing due to the extreme boat pressure being put on them, becoming more evasive to boats each year. This is not only in Vava’u, many other countries are seeing the impact of tourism based whale activities – and many of those are non-swim operators.

Pressure to reduce licenses

The 2017 International Whale Conference was hosted by Tonga in Nuku’alofa, a huge recognition for the Kingdom. Attendees from around the world, representing governments, NGO’s and local stakeholders, discussed the future of the industry and ways forward. There was huge pressure to reduce the number of licenses. Again more licenses have been issued.

The Industry Empowerment Division that was set up to address the issues that are being faced, revoked issuing licenses to some companies in 2018, only to have those operators seek higher powers to have their licenses reinstated.

With a new Minister of Tourism every few years, seeing this industry as the avenue for more revenue, it's easy overlook the fact we are at breaking point in the industry. In 2019 licenses in Vava’u had blown out to 22 licenses and six pending.

The Industry Empowerment Division has been successful in gathering much needed data by working with other government departments - by monitoring vessels, with on-water observation vessel a couple of times a month and offering a whale guide course that is recognized worldwide. They are dedicated to ensuring that there is a sustainable future for the industry.

Moving forward – a standard of vessel for the purpose of whale watching to be used that Marine and Ports/Tourism are aware of to ensure quality control for surveys. Ongoing yearly training of skippers and guides (old and new) will ensure that better safety and customer service is provided. Fairness and transparency with all fees, applications, licensing, and finally cracking down on those who continually operate outside of the wheel of sustainability/ conservation of the whales.

Urgent problem

Currently, our newly appointed Minister of Tourism has the fate of our industry in her hands. Maybe, this year eyes and ears only will be open to the urgency of the problem.

The whales have been coming to Tonga since the distant past, they were almost wiped out during the hunting years. Numbers are climbing back. But for how long can we maintain the fragile balance of tourist and whale? Vava’u cannot sustain more boats out on the water. Will this new and current Minister of Tourism be the tipping point or the way forward to a sustainable Industry?

On 25 February 2020 the Ministry of Tourism published by Gazette Order that there would be a reduction of licenses in Vava’u from 22 to 20 licenses. A small step in the right direction for ongoing sustainability. Nuku’alofa license numbers were to be capped at 7, Eua at 4 and Ha’apai Group at 9. This was celebrated by a majority of those in the industry. 
Late on 28 February letters to operators were sent denying a majority of the Palangi operators in the industry of their license – no grounds were given for this. The confusion and reactions were huge. All contact was to be directed through CEO of Tourism Sione Moala who, conveniently, was out of the country in Germany for the DEMA trade show

In 11 November 2019 Sione Moala sent a letter to all existing operators outlining the preparations for the 2020 season he said that among other things, your performance in 2017, 2018, 2019 will determine whether you will have a license for 2020. A checklist for applications required a Seaworthy Certificate – Marine and Ports Survey,  Masters Certificate, Guide Certification, and 3rd Party Insurance.

  • However, now licenses are being issued to operators with no vessels. Licenses have been issued to operators whose performance in 2017 would have had an instant revoke of license.
  • There are a number of operators, who have not paid their fair share of tax in the kingdom – Customs and Revenue are aware of those operators, while others who have paid their taxes have been declined a license.
  • Boats that clearly meet the requirements of the Shipping Act of Tonga, which were purpose built specifically for the Whale Watch Industry have been revoked a license. Vessels that do not meet the Shipping Act have been approved.

There are sales of licenses behind the scenes, after being told by the Ministry that licenses are not transferable when brought to their attention again is ignored.
  • There are no proper background checks for whale watch applications.

 Those with no history of breaking any of the guidelines set for the industry have been revoked of a license. Those with a repeated history of breaking guidelines have been approved.

  • Those without boats are asking palangis if they can rent their existing boats and pay them a fee.
  • New applications this year have been granted after the cut off date in 2019.

Lost investments

People [with revoked licenses] have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars, time and effort to develop the industry, employing local staff, contributing to the economy and now have to walk away with nothing. A majority call Tonga home.

There has been no consultation and with CoVid-19 pandemic the whale watching issues have been pushed under the carpet to be forgotten. An already fragile industry has removed operators who have a proven track record to open up to the Chinese with no experience in the industry.

I resigned from the Whale Watch Association in Vava’u on 23 July 2019 after witnessing disgusting behaviour on the water where four vessels at a time chased (10 boats all up that day) and spent all day with no rest with cow and calf. Complete disregard to the Whale Watch Regulations. This I relayed to the Ministry and again no action was taken. The end of year report from Ministry 2019 stated there was one complaint for bad behaviour on the water for the Vava’u group. I submitted three and can provide video evidence of this as well. No action was taken and complaints are ignored.

Where is the commitment from government for a sustainable industry and conservation of the whales?

Tonga should be leading the world with its approach being the first country to set “swim with” operations. We are lagging as there are no repercussions for bad behaviour, you can be approved a license for doing so. In these times with CoVid-19 and an unsure future for the whole of the tourism industry it is very hard to have any hope or faith in the Ministry when there is no transparency.