• overview
  • geography
  • history
  • fauna & flora
  • further reading


Explore Tonga and the South Pacific

Known widely as the 'Friendly Islands' since the friendly welcome given to Captain James Cook on his first visit there in 1773, the Kingdom of Tonga is the only island nation in the region to have avoided formal colonisation. Cook's impression of the friendly natives was coloured by his arrival during a festival which was invited to join in. Legend tells that unbeknown to him, the only reason he departed unscathed was because the chiefs could not agree a plan on how to kill him! Today's visitors however are welcomed with genuine enthusiasm, particularly as the tourist industry is now recognised as an important part of the economy. It is interesting to note however that the nation which is home to just over 100,000 people has for economic reasons, more than twice that number living in other countries, mainly the USA, New Zealand and Australia.



The Kingdom of Tonga is an archipelago of over 170 islands of which some 36 are inhabited. Scattered over 700,000 square miles, these islands are divided into three main groups. The largest island is Tongatapu where most of the population of just over 100,000 lives and the capital Nuku'alofa is located. The islands are comprised of two chains which run in parallel. The western islands which make up the Tongan Volcanic Arch are all volcanic in origin. These islands have only limited coral reefs. The islands to the east are non volcanic and are either low coral limestone or sand cay islands. These islands are surrounded by reefs which have supported human habitation since the first recorded people arrived sometime around 900 BC.

Tonga's climate is tropical with a distinct warm period between December and April. During this time the temperatures rise above 32 degrees C. In the cooler period between May and November, temperatures average around 27 degrees C.



Not much is known about Tonga before European contact because there was no written language. It is thought that the original inhabitants arrived in the oldest town Nukuleka about 900 BC and the first Europeans the Tongans encountered were sailors on the Dutch vessel Eendracht in 1616. Since as far back as 950AD, Tonga has been ruled by a hierarchal system of monarchy similar to that in Europe. British Captain James Cook, spent two months exploring and charting Tongan waters in 1777 and his accurate charts were used up until recent times. Spanish navigator Don Francisco Antonio Mourelle discovered Tonga's northern group of islands in 1781 and claimed them for Spain. Another navigator to sail Tongan waters was Captain William Bligh of the infamous HMS Bounty. The famous mutiny took place just off the volcanic island of Tofua.

Tonga remains the only Pacific Island nation to have never been colonised and so has never lost its unique indigenous governance. In 1845 an ambitious young warrior united the islands as the Kingdom of Tonga and 30 years later declared a constitutional Monarchy and British protectorate. George Tupou I then became the first king, adopting the Western royal style, emancipating the 'serfs' and limiting the power of the chiefs. Later came the much loved Queen Salote, who to this day remains famous for her choice to sit in an uncovered carriage in the pouring rain at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II as a mark of respect for the new British sovereign. In 1970 Tonga abandoned protectorate status and joined the British Commonwealth whilst still preserving its unique Polynesian monarchy. In 1999 Tonga became a member of the United Nations.



Between July and October, Tonga is witness to the annual migration of Humpback Whales which draw many visitors, particularly to the warm waters of the Vava'u group of islands. Besides colourful tropical reef fish, other animals to watch out for around Tonga include dolphins, flying fish, porpoises, Hawksbill Turtles and Banded Sea Krait. Marine fish unique to Tonga include the Blackfin Damselfish Amblyglyphidodon melanopterus, the Swallowtail Fangblenny Meiacanthus procne, and the Tongan Spiny Basslet Acanthoplesiops naka.

Birds found nowhere else include the Polynesian Megapode or Malau which uses warm volcanic mud to incubate its eggs, and the Tongan Whistler. Lorikeets, Koki Parrots, Pacific Pigeons, Kingfishers, Musk Parrots and various tropical seabirds abound. Reptiles include the Eua Scaly-toed Gecko Lepidodactylus euaensis, a recently described skink Emoia mokolahi, and Crested and Banded Iguanas which are thought to have arrived in Tonga on floating vegetation from South America. One unique species found in Tonga is the famous peka or flying fox (fruit bat). Other endemic creatures include jumping spiders, halcotropis insularis and Sobasina magna, and six species of land snails.

Verdant hibiscus, frangipani, bird of paradise and other flowers create colour in the coconut groves, pandanus and banana plantations. Vascular plant species occurring naturally only in Tonga include a fan palm Pritchardia pacifica which has also been introduced to Fiji and a recently discovered orchid Robiquetia tongaensis.



Bain, Kenneth. The New Friendly Islanders: The Tonga of King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1993.

Ellem, Elizabeth W. Queen Salote of Tonga: The Story of an Era 1900-1965. Auckland, N.Z.: Auckland University Press, 1999.

Marcus, George E. The Nobility and the Chiefly Tradition in the Modern Kingdom of Tonga. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1980.

Coleman, Neville. Tonga: World of Water Wildlife Guide. Neville Coleman's Underwater Geographic Pty Ltd, 2008.


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