Swimming with the Whales

Vava’u, Tonga

By: Kerry


The mother humpback whale floating below us had been feeding her calf around 200 litres of high fat, high protein milk per day for the past month, during which time her boisterous, one-tonne, three-metre-long newborn had put on about half a tonne, grown a metre… and she herself hadn’t eaten a thing.

So it was easy to imagine her looking a little weary as she rolled on her side and took a long, lazy look at the five swimmers treading water a few metres above her.

But while she lay languidly suspended, Junior just wanted to play…

One of the main reasons we’d chosen Tonga as our first cruising destination was the opportunity it presented to swim with humpback whales, which migrate annually north from Antarctica to the warm, clear waters of Vava’u to mate, calve and feed up their young’uns to be strong enough to make the 6000 km trek back to the ice.

Unfortuntately for us, this year Tonga introduced a new law forbidding cruising yachties to swim with the whales: now, you are only allowed to go whale swimming with a certified whale watching company. It’s been a point of contention this season, especially since some of the commercial operators appear to harass the whales far more than any sensible cruiser would, and especially when the commercial operators charge $300 a head, with no guarantees!

We have seen lots of whales throughout the season – breaching, blowing and fluke slapping – and on a couple of occasions they’ve swum right through the anchorage we’ve been in, coming within a stone’s throw of the boat.

Approaching the end of the season, we still haven’t been in the water with them, so we bit the bullet, signed on the dotted line and went out with the longest-established commercial operator in Vava’u.

The morning started with us floating above a ‘singer’ – a male humpback, lying completely still at about 15m below the surface and ‘singing’ his little heart out in a range of whoops and squeals ranging from baritone to pipsqueak.

Whales ‘sing’ through their belly and chest, not their throat, and their complex songs can be heard across great distances. We had been woken in the night on several occasions by whale song reverberating through the hull of the boat, and had free-dived down to hear the eery distant sounds of whales communicating with one another. But we’d never been in the mosh pit at the concert, until now.

We hovered above this singing whale and dived down to get a closer look. It was incredible to hear – and FEEL – the song. We hung out for about 10 minutes and then he slowly, slowly rose up – just kind of floated to the surface, rolled on his side, took a look at us and then slowly swam away.

There was a mother and calf nearby, but there were already a couple of other boats waiting to swim with them, so we headed down south – a lot of open ocean for a lot of time and not a lot of sightings (turns out it was a slow day for whales – we only saw a couple of whales whereas a couple of days earlier they’d seen 19 in a day).

So we headed back up north into ‘Whale Alley’ where we have regularly seen whales blowing and breaching, and found a mother and calf, who were just hanging out. We jumped in the water and swam towards them. I think Mum was having a well-deserved nap, since she didn’t take any notice of us. But Junior came directly toward us. We thought we were supposed to try to get out of his way, so we were back-peddling as he came closer…and closer…. so close to me, nose to nose, that I could have touched him. I wriggled side to side and he did the same, then he swam away a bit to take a breath or two, swam down to cuddle up to Mum, then he came back up for another look at us and actually swam between us, splitting the group of four divers and our guide.

Then I think Mum decided she’d had enough: she rolled – wearily, it seemed – on her side and looked straight at us, eyeball to eyeball only a couple of metres away. Then she slowly turned and swam away. I could so easily have touched her tail as she turned – could see all the details of the barnacles – and we felt the wash of her tail as she swam away from us.

It’s hard to describe what it feels like to be floating above a 15-metre, 40-tonne whale. Her bottle-shaped bulk looked bloated and lethargic, but when she moved, it was effortless: sinuous, graceful and massively powerful. It was exhilarating and – literally – breath-taking (I think I was squeaking into my snorkel with excitement by this stage).

We climbed back on the boat and followed her briefly until she stopped again, and the two of them were fluke and tail slapping. We jumped back into the water and the calf came up to us again, wanting to play, but then Mum started swimming away.

This time she didn’t stop, so we let her go.

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La Paella

Vava’u, Tonga

Even more hilarious than the Faka Leiti show was our dinner (with Pete and Gwyn) at La Paella, a local restaurant where one of the patrons was dancing, hoof in hand, with a sheep called Socrates, who was dancing on his hind legs but who was actually more interested in getting it on with a she-goat called Chiquita who was hiding under our table, while Torito (Little Bull) the dog was running around trying to figure out what the pigs under the floor were squealing about. But that’s a story for another time….

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The Faka Leiti Show

Neiafu, Tonga

In complete cultural contrast to the King’s visit, for Pete and Gwyn’s last night we surprised them by taking them to a show….

The Faka Leiti show.

Yes, you say it just like that. And it’s a show put on by the Faka Leitis: the lady boys!

I haven’t been able to figure it out, but all through the Pacific there are a lot of ‘middle sex’ people – hard to say whether they are men or women, but basically they are the equivalent of ‘lady boys’. Some say that it’s the youngest child in a family of sons that is brought up as a girl; others say it’s a genetic anomaly prevalent in Polynesian cultures. Whatever, there are a lot of them around and there appears to be no discrimination against them by the rest of the population.

And the show was fantastic – absolutely hilarious and everyone – performers and participating audience (think tips tucked into bras) – had a blast.

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The King Comes to Town

September 1, 2013.

Neiafu, Vava’u, Tonga

By: Kerry

A couple of weekends ago, we went to town to the Agricultural Fair – the Tongan equivalent of the Royal Easter Show, without the rides, rip offs, shysters or show bags. Apparently this was the first show to be held in years, so there was much excitement the week prior. The King and Queen arrived on the inter-island ferry the day before (we didn’t see them when they arrived, but we were talking to the owner of the Tropicana cafe/laundry when a flunky dropped off the king’s laundry in a duffle bag…).

The fair was held at the high school football field just out of town. Walking out there, the street was lined with matching school children: all the girls in blue tunics with identically-braided hair and the boys in green sarongs with white shirts and the traditional woven pandanus ta’ovala around their waists. The ta’ovala are ‘waist mats’ worn by both men and women and are often so large and bulky that the wearer appears to be walking in a large basket. It’s hard to imagine how the tradition originated as they appear to be hideously impractical and uncomfortable to wear, much less sit in: it’s fascinating to watch these large, basket-clad people fold themselves into cars.

(Apparently, the tradition derives from Polynesian sailors, who used the woven mats as sails and, when they went ashore, took the sails with them, and used them as shelter or sleeping mats).

We followed a whole crowd of strolling baskets and arrived just as the speeches got underway, which was bad timing as they were long, monotonous and in Tongan.

But then the King said a few words and went walkabout, with the Queen and entourage, to inspect all the produce and handicraft displays. Most of the displays were fairly, um, modest, but the King smiled and nodded and made (I assume) polite comments. Just like our Liz, really. Oddly, the thing that distinguishes him from his subjects is not that he’s about two metres tall and a similar circumference. It’s not that his body basket was more elaborate (in fact it was quite plain) or that he wore proper shoes instead of thongs. It was that he had the pallor of a gambler – the fairest face at the fair!

Nevertheless, he did seem to be very affable and certainly his subjects were all very respectful and excited to see him. The nicest thing was the lack of fear factor: no security checks; no fences or cordons; no cctv (even the TV cameramen were wearing traditional costume, including belly baskets); no guns or weapons of any kind. And everyone was perfectly well-behaved.

I don’t suppose there are too many countries in the world where the King can catch the local ferry to the fair, and just stroll around and not worry that some nutter is going to have a go at him….

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What a Difference

August 29, 2013

Neiafu, Vava’u, Tonga

By: Kerry

Ngau Island

Amazing what a difference some decent weather makes! Since the last update from the Ha’apais, we haven’t seen anything like the relentless 30 knot winds (those euphemistically named ‘enhanced trades’). It’s been positively benign, with plenty of sunshine and protected anchorages that have greatly increased the ratio of decent nights’ sleeps!

It really is GORGEOUS here. It’s very different to the Ha’apais, which are mostly coral atolls and therefore don’t offer much protection from wind or waves. Here, it’s a tight group of more substantial islands – kind of like Pittwater in the Tropics in Technicolor. Everything’s close together, it can be blowing like stink but there’s always a sheltered little bay to escape it. We have to keep pinching ourselves at the sheer beauty of it:  we’ve dropped anchor in two or three metres depth and floated suspended in colour that ranges from luminous turquoise to deepest cobalt and it’s so clear we can see starfish on the bottom in 20 metres.

Many of the limestone islands that are strewn across this dazzling blue have been eroded by the sea into mushroom shapes and other weird rocky outcrops. Almost all are thick with coconut palms and virulent green forest and creepers and the fringing beaches are glaringly white. Unlike most ‘tropical paradises’ these days, there is very little development – most islands are deserted or have small villages; there are no large resorts and the few small resorts are very low key.

We’ve been doing lots of exploring: there are dozens and dozens of perfect, deserted beaches that are better than any brochure; there is great snorkelling with beautiful corals and myriad madly-coloured fish (yesterday we were ‘herding’ a school of several hundred tiny, iridescent blue chromis fish through the water) and walks through forests of coconut palms (Damian is getting pretty good with a machete: Cut down coconut. Chop top off coconut. Fill with rum…).

We still haven’t swum with whales, though we’ve seen plenty – a couple of days ago we were anchored and a mother, calf and escort came within a few hundred metres of us, showing us their tails. Even better, we have been woken up at night on a few occasions by them singing! It’s the most eery sound and reverberates through the hull of the boat.

Rock gift-wrapped in anchor chain

Rock gift-wrapped in anchor chain

And we’re feeling so much more confident (cautiously confident, I should say,) with maneuvering the boat – particularly anchoring, after our debacles in the Ha’apais. Having said that, our anchor chain did manage to crochet itself around a rock the other day. This time, we hauled the rock to the surface – it must have weighed about 60-70 kg – and it came up looking like it was gift-wrapped in chain. Damian managed to break it up with a bit of help from a crow bar and chisel (yes, we had both on board…).

We’re even getting more confident at negotiating some of the er, ‘interesting’ passes through the reefs: particularly interesting when the marker buoys have totally disappeared, the waypoints in the cruising guide are inaccurate, the channel is only a couple of metres wider than the boat and the charts have us going over green bits (i.e. ‘land’). One of us stands on the bow keeping a lookout while the other is steering and watching the chart plotter. The interesting bit starts when all of a sudden there are reefs where they’re not supposed to be and no reefs where the chart says there should be…

There’s a pass that has to be negotiated to get out to the Eastern islands, which we had some fun with last week. Usual story: markers have vanished and charts are off by an indeterminate distance. We’d come through the same pass (which does a double dog leg around barely submerged reefs) a few days previously, but it was at high tide. Coming back, at low tide, we tried to follow our same track in reverse (following the chart plotter). Damian was driving and following the track. I was on the bow eyeballing the actual route. It got interesting when I said, ‘turn right’ and D said ‘no, that’s not on our track’. I said, “TURN RIGHT NOW!!!!!!!!!!”  as I could see barely-submerged coral just ahead of us. There was some short, colourful negotiation, but eventually (just in time) he turned right…

The fishing, unfortunately, has been pretty disappointing. Damian has caught a couple of skipjack tuna, but after eating one, we’ve tossed the others back – fussy, perhaps, but they really weren’t nice… This past week, we’ve had friends from Sydney – Pete and Gwyn – on board, which has been fantastic. Damian and Pete got into the fishing, with the result that they caught a dog-tooth tuna as we came through a pass in the dinghy. I should say that ‘caught’ is a relative term: poor fish was jagged through his side, and had been dragged sideways over the rocks so he came up all scuffed and was dead (presumed drowned) within minutes of landing in the boat. Nevertheless, he was delicious!

We caught him just as we were returning from Mariner’s Cave, a partly underwater cave accessible by diving down (with snorkel and mask) about three metres, swimming through a hole in the rock face and coming up inside the cave. Once inside, the exit to the outside is framed by black rock in the shape of a heart, while the water is the sort of vivid refracted blue that you see in the Blue Grotto in Capri. And when the swell comes in, it compresses and condenses the air in the cave so that it forms a mist with each wave – it’s like the ocean is breathing!

On the downside, the ripples of the GFC are still being keenly felt here – the economy is in shambles and the ‘town’ of Neiafu is very run down. But the people we’ve met have been upbeat, friendly and welcoming. The yachtie community is very strong and tight knit, which is fantastic. Each morning on the VHF radio there is a ‘cruisers’ information net’, hosted by local businesses who volunteer their time. It starts off with any calls for emergencies – more on that later – and covers the weather, then moves on to ‘buy, sell or give away’, where anyone can ask or offer just about anything, from spare parts to spear guns, yoga mats (we donated one of ours to someone who needed one) to empty glass jars for a local man who’s starting up a honey business. Improvisation is the name of the game here: so many things that you take for granted back home are impossible to acquire here – even the simplest of spare parts – so everyone bands together to help each other out.

MV Dorothea hauling stranded yacht, Paje off the reef

MV Dorothea hauling stranded yacht, Paje off the reef

A few weeks ago, a Canadian boat went up on a reef (we’re still not sure why – they went up at 04:30 in the pitch dark, when everyone knows that the first rule of sailing among the islands is ONLY do it in daylight). The call for help went out over the cruisers’ net. Over the next three days, so many people volunteered their time, equipment and labour to get the boat off – it was amazing to see. Luckily, there was a super yacht in town which was able to pull it off without too much damage – if they hadn’t volunteered to help, the Canadian yacht would undoubtedly still be high and dry.

Enough already! Suffice to say, we’re having a great time, feeling a whole lot more relaxed and feeling – finally – like we’re doing what we set out to do.

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PS: Click on Images in the menu bar to see our photo album of Vava’u.