I want to see a whale. More than that – I want to swim with a whale. That was my one and only reason to travel to Tonga, an island state in the South Pacific that is one of the few places worldwide where it is possible to do exactly that. And now I am standing on this boat in the middle of the ocean with nothing around me but water. I repeat, nothing.

We left the harbour of the capital Nuku’alofa three hours ago and haven’t seen even the slightest sign of a whale ever since. At one point it felt so close! Our skippers rushed us to put on our swim vests and hop into the little side boat. We took off towards the horizon, going left and right with the Tongan crew rapidly speaking into their walkie-talkies the whole time. After twenty minutes, they shrugged their shoulders: no whale after all.

Have you ever heard about Tonga? This little island in the South Pacific is a prime whale watching destination - find out more!

Whales have always been my favorite animal and coming to Tonga was the equivalent of a last resort. I have tried to see the friendly giants in Canada, Tahiti and South Africa; but no matter where I went, all the flukes I thought I could see turned out to be waves.

Tonga as a travel destination is not very common. It is less popular than its neighbours Samoa and Fiji and only accessible via Auckland. Flying in over the main island Tongatapu (Tonga consists of 176 islands and atolls with only 40 of them being inhabited), I am not surprised by the lack of popularity. Everything looks flat. Most of the land seems to be covered with huge palm plantations and from my little plane window the beaches don’t nearly look as white as in the brochures.

With a little bit of disappointment in my heart, I exit the airport. This is the first time I get the feeling that the magic of Tonga cannot be captured by a postcard bought at a gift shop.

Outside are three little boys, obviously waiting for me with my name written on a piece of paper. When they figure out it’s me, they run to their mother screaming excitedly. While she hugs me as if I am a long lost friend, the children’s screams become even more animated. I am not the only person they came to pick up today – their dad arrives from a trip to New Zealand.

Have you ever heard about Tonga? This little island in the South Pacific is a prime whale watching destination - find out more!

While Tonga holds approximately 100.000 inhabitants, many more Tongans are living outside of the country, with most residing in New Zealand or Australia. That is why regular flights overseas for family visits or business are common among all Tongan families. “But I am always happy to be back,“ says Ryan while we are all climbing into the Minibus.

The drive over the island to the family hotel, the Ha’atafu Beach Resort, is long, interesting and loud. Along the streets are simple houses, Asian shops selling drinks, little vegetable stalls and countless dogs, cows and pigs. Once we are in the resort, the Tongan family experience continues: more hugs, smiling faces, happy children and a deep blue ocean that glints through the trees between the main building and the beach.

The hotel offers everything guests of Tonga could wish for – local food that consists mainly of freshly caught fish, coconut cream and vegetables, one of the best surf spots of the whole island right on their doorstep (one of the two sisters that manage the place is a former surf professional), and Vei.

Have you ever heard about Tonga? This little island in the South Pacific is a prime whale watching destination - find out more!

I meet this proud Tongan who shows tourists his home island and always wears traditional clothing on my second day. He seems to be one of those people who were created to show what a life without stress and anger can do to you. The only wrinkles in his face are coming from his constant smile, as he seems to be genuinely happy about every single visitor.  

When I ask him what he likes about Tonga, his answer is simple:  “Life is beautiful, life is peaceful. Why would I want to live anywhere else?“ This satisfaction is something I can see on every corner of the capital city.  Pretty students on their way home from school, relaxed saleswomen in the central market (they smile when they see me as though it doesn’t bother them whether I buy something or not), no poverty and almost no other tourists.

Tonga is clearly in the hands of the locals and they don’t care whether somebody looks different. As a result of this inclusivity, I never felt insecure or judged during the whole time I stayed in this country.    

Have you ever heard about Tonga? This little island in the South Pacific is a prime whale watching destination - find out more!

On our way back, Vei shows me one of the main attractions of the island, the Blow Holes, in Tongan Mapu’a ‘a Vaca. At this part of the coast, high waves hit rugged rock creating immense water fountains. “You never know when the next one comes out,” says Vei. “That’s one of life’s rules:  it always surprises us.“

Have you ever heard about Tonga? This little island in the South Pacific is a prime whale watching destination - find out more!

He is right. I didn’t swim with a whale. Instead I found a country full of heartwarming people for whom tourists are not a necessary evil, but rather a reason to be even happier. And on my very last day, my host calls me out to the beach. “Look!“ he cries.

And there they are:  two humpback whales swimming along the coast in front of the hotel. I almost can’t see them anymore when one of them spins out of the water, strains his white belly towards the sky and falls back in the water with a giant splash. Tonga gave me my whale after all.  

This is a guest post by Stina Bebenroht.

Stina is a journalist, filmmaker and travel blogger from Germany. She fell in love with foreign countries and the stories their people can tell when she first set foot on a different continent, Africa in 2003. She lost track of what she loves during completing her Masters in Economics but traveling around the world on her own three years ago brought everything back.                        

Last year she decided to take an unusual path: She left her well paid job and went to New Zealand to learn more about the art of filmmaking. Now she lives in Wanaka, doing an internship with a cameraman. Find out more about her travels in New Zealand and the film industry on her  Instagram @einbebendroht and her blog www.einbebendroht.com.