Nautic Life

December 17, 2014 Tonga July 2014 Posted In: Diving, Filming, Tonga, Whales

Swimming with humpback whales.
Mother & Calf in Vava'u, Tonga

Mother & Calf in Vava’u, Tonga

 “ ([ˈtoŋa]; Tongan: Puleʻanga Fakatuʻi ʻo Tonga), officially the Kingdom of Tonga, is a Polynesian sovereign state and archipelago comprising 176 islands with a surface area of about 750 square kilometres (290 sq mi) scattered over 700,000 square kilometres (270,000 sq mi) of the southern Pacific Ocean, of which 52 are inhabited by its 103,000 people “

(from Wikipedia)

We first discovered Tonga through a post on Wetpixel about the Humpback whale migration every year. Immediately hooked I knew we had to go there to see these amazing creatures up close and personal. It didn’t take us long before we started to plan a trip to Tonga.

 

Traveling to Tonga.

MA-60 from Tonga to Vava'u

MA-60 from Tonga to Vava’u

Traveling to Tonga can be an adventure in itself. It seems, with exception of New Zealand, Tonga is far from everywhere in the World. No different if you are flying from Singapore.

We left Singapore on a Thursday evening, and after landing Friday morning in Sydney we took a connecting flight to Auckland, NZ. Here we changed carriers and took Air New Zealand to Tonga. Unfortunately, while not priced like one, this carrier is structured like a budget airline so they are quite picky about luggage allowance. With all the gear our check-in luggage had to be overweight. On top of that Air New Zealand also weighs your carry-on. So we ended up having to buy a 3rd suitcase and repack everything. I wasn’t quite happy having to check in some of my lenses but it had to be done. Next time I will try to avoid flying with Air New Zealand, or plan from the start with 3 check-in bags.

After a 3h flight we landed in Tonga where we would stay the night. We got picked up at the airport and brought to our hotel. We stayed at a hotel called Little Italy. It was about 10pm at night so everything was already shut, even restaurants. We didn’t know if we would get a Taxi at the airport, so we had booked one from the hotel. It was pricey at 35USD for a 15min drive.

When we were doing our research most blogs and travel reports warned us that the local flight would be on a small plane, a 10 seater or so with little space for luggage. This was a big concern for us as our luggage was close to a 100KG, and luggage allowance was only 20kg per person, including carry-on. Since the planes are so small they would regularly bump luggage.

Luckily the route Tonga – Vava’u is now flown with a MA-60 which seats about 60 and while we had to pay for overweight luggage the plane was spacious enough to accommodate our needs. The next day, Saturday early morning at 4AM we went back to the Airport to catch our flight to Vava’u. There we were greeted at the airport by Al, owner of Dolphin Pacific. Our schedule was to drop off our luggage at Mystic Sands, the resort we were staying at and then get picked up by one of Dolphin Pacific’s boats.

Yes after 2 days of travel, hardly any sleep we jumped right into it.

Mystic Sands resort

Mystic Sands resort

 

First day: Diving

Vava'u underwater

Vava’u underwater

Maka, who is security guard/driver/man for everything drove us to Mystic Sands a small cozy resort. When we reached we were greeted by his wife, who is the housekeeper and cook. Our room wasn’t ready but since our plan was to go diving immediately we just wanted to change and prep our dive gear. So we quickly changed in one of their free rooms and they called the boat for us. It seemed everything was very flexible and they were happy to cater to our needs.

Faster than we thought it would the dive boat arrived at the resort. So we hurried to get ready and carry all our gear to the pier. After a few hectic minutes we got onto the boat and off we went. In the hurry we managed to forget a few things, but nothing which would have stopped us from diving.

Most of the information on the web we had read beforehand and the weather forecast had suggested the weather to be about 26-28 degrees Celsius and the water being about 24-26. If you live in Singapore for a while you lose the feel for temperature because it is just always hot. Unfortunately besides being what I would call moderate 28degrees there is also a constant cool breeze in Tonga and that’s what gets to you after a while if you are in t-shirt and flip-flops (our standard holidays outfit).

Jumping into the water it was somewhat of a shock. We were wearing as usual our 3mm 4th Element wetsuits. Being used to 26degrees in Bali we thought it would be fine but 2 degrees make a big difference while diving. 10 minutes into our first dive I was feeling cold. 20 minutes my whole body was shivering and I had to clench my teeth into the regulator to not accidentally spit it out. 30 minutes, it felt like I couldn’t feel my hands and face any more. 40 minutes – I thought I couldn’t go much longer without just freezing to death. Luckily this was the end of our dive and we surfaced.

With the wind it was difficult to get dry and warm ourselves in the wind. Out in the open we were sitting on deck miserably freezing and shivering. Only after our divemaster suggested to huddle around around a large exhaust pipe at the side of the boat’s cabin running up to the roof, did we manage to slowly recover from the cold. Up until then we were ready to give up on the second dive.

Did we see anything during the dive? Not really. Tonga’s underwater world is mainly rocks, some corals and few fishes. Mind you the underwater landscape was impressive and we had great visibility, but it is far from the underwater landscape you get in Indonesia or Philippines.

Underwater Corals

Underwater Corals

In the end we did decide to do the second dive, since we had booked it, I guess secretly we were hoping to see a humpback whale or two underwater. While you are not allowed to dive with them, chance encounters can happen, and then it’s not your fault, is it? In the end the second dive was pretty much like the first one, and we were happy when it was over. No humpback whales were sighted.

Would I recommend diving in Tonga? I’d say only in a 7mm or dry suit 😉 But then again we had an American diving with us who was wearing nothing more than board shorts and a t-shirt. Maybe that was our mistake. 24degrees water? Dive in board shorts is the right way to do it (Alone the thought makes me shiver. Hats of the gentleman in board shorts though. ;))

We have booked 2 days of diving and 4 days of whale watching but after our experience we decided to switch the second day to whale watching as well. So, note to self, next time don’t take your dive gear with you.

In the evening Maka drove us to town so we could go shopping. The resort is self-contained and while you can order meals from the staff you can also cook yourself.

When I came to Singapore, I was quite surprised that even out here, 11000miles away from Germany how high the percentage of Germans is. Almost every corner I can hear someone speak German. This time it was Tiffany to be surprised to find a large community of mandarin speaking Chinese on Tonga. Even funnier was when we found out that pretty much every shop in Tonga is run by Chinese.

We bought our food, headed out to one of the restaurants and had dinner. In general food on Tonga is quite western, and we found Tonga’s local cuisine seemed to be mainly chicken or pork dishes.

 

Sundays

View from the high stand

View from the high stand

Tonga is a Christian country with the King also being the head of the church and they take their Sundays serious. Everything closes down. Restaurants, shops, even the airport shuts down.

In the morning we took one of the free kayaks of the resort and paddled around in the bay in front of the Resort. We discovered a little island close by which had some abandoned buildings and a raised stand. Ignoring the fact that the entire structure seemed quite rusty and might collapse under our feet we decided to climb up the stand and enjoy the view from top. It was well worth it.For the rest of the day we decided we wanted to explore Vava’u a bit, Maka kindly rented us his car since all car rentals in town were closed, it was Sunday after all. We first went to the south tip of the island where we discovered a beautiful beach, with clear water.

Beach

One of the nicest beaches on Vava’u

Second stop was supposed to be the highest point on Vava’u. The island is pretty flat so we thought it would be easy to find. We didn’t have a map (and I don’t think there are any maps) and also no GPS so we basically got rough directions from Maka and went our way. Obviously we got lost and we drove half way around the Island before realising. Nonetheless it was a beautiful drive. With the sun starting to go down at last we found the highest point of the Island. We parked our car, did a 10minutes hike up the hill and got the last glimpse of the sun going down.

Our evening we spent at the resort.

 

Whale watching.

Humpback whale surfacing to breathe

Humpback whale

Our first day of whale watching. We woke up early after hearing excited voices outside our bungalow. Apparently early in the morning some humpback whales were seen passing by directly in front Mystic Sands. Sadly we didn’t see it, but we took it as a good sign. We were getting picked up at 8.30am so we got ready and ate breakfast while waiting for our boat. Our breakfast was cooked by Mosi, the housekeeper. Each morning we got a huge breakfast with bacon, eggs, fruits, toast, sausages. It was really good.

Our boat arrived and we were on our way. The first day our guide was Ali and Alex Both very enthusiastic and experienced guide. Al was driving the boat, Alex was our guide.

There were 4 other people on the boat and us. All together Dolphin Pacific takes out up to 6 people.

We went out past all the little islands – Alex explained to the newbies (us) the rules.

Only 4 people at the same time could go into the water plus a guide. Entry should be as silent as possible. Humpback whales can be very skittish and they are very sensitive to sound.

Soon we saw the first flukes of some humpback whales close to us and Ali tried to get the boat slowly closer and closer. The idea was to see in which direction the whales were going and if they were willing to interact with us. It was 2 whales we spotted. They were traveling along the bays of the islands, in a fairly straight path. When we got closer they didn’t stop but they also didn’t change direction. That was a good sign as at least they weren’t unwilling to interact. So Ali brought the boat slightly ahead of the whales in the path they were going and told us to go into the water. Whales seem to move slowly but they travel really fast. We jumped in, and just managed to get a 10 second glimpse of the whales moving below and past us. Nevertheless this was our first encounter with them and we were very excited.

Unfortunately one of the whales was entangled in a rope around his left fin. The other whale seemed to try to protect him by moving always in-between us and the whale. We got back into the boat and Ali moved the boat again closer. The second try was less successful, as by the time we were in the water they had changed direction.

We kept following them for another minute or so but then decided to let them go their ways. The whale was clearly in distress from being entangled. We wished we could have helped him but obviously that was impossible.

This Humpback Whale was entangled in a long rope.

This Humpback Whale was entangled in a long rope.

So we kept going around the little Islands of Vava’u, and then out into the open ocean. The waves got pretty high and while we saw some whales once in a while far away we never got close to any of them. Ali turned to boat back to Vava’u so we were more protected from the elements. The rest of the day was spent pretty much by moving here and there around Vava’u on the outlook for whales. Luck wasn’t really on our side that day though so we didn’t have any other close encounters.

Monday was a pretty early night for us. After a full 7 hours on the water we were tired, burnt from the sun and just wanted to relax. Day one of whale watching wasn’t that successful. Hopefully  the next days would be better.

 

An amazing Birthday

Mother & Calf

Mother & Calf

Day 2 of whale watching and Tiffany’s Birthday. The main reason we decided to go to Tonga in July was to celebrate Tiffany’s birthday in style. Somewhere far away from the masses of the city and seeing some of the most gracious animals of this planet.

As if the whales knew it was her Birthday we were far luckier on the second day.

The day started pretty much the same as before. We got picked up early morning from Mystic Sands (this time we were a bit better prepared. – take a towel, some water, snacks, sun cream) by Ali and Alex and we made our way to the south west of the Vava’u island group. There had been reports of whale sightings. And really after a while Alex spotted a whale hanging out. The visibility wasn’t very good, so our guide went into the water to check where the whale was. He was fairly deep and at 30-40 meters we couldn’t make him out at all. But he was a single singer (which is why Alex also assumed it was a he) We all jumped into the water to experience the singing of the whale, hoping he would surface somewhere near us when he needed air. There’s a pretty big range of sounds they can make and you can feel the vibrations through your entire body. After 10 chilly but awesome minutes in the water listening to his songs, the whale started moving and heading out and up to get some air. Finning as hard as we could we tried keeping up. Not that it mattered, as he was way faster than us.

We got back into the boat, quite happy to have experienced a singer. When he went back down and slowed down we jumped in a second time. This time I didn’t manage to see him at all. Nevertheless it was an experience just listening to the songs.

We have a few more sightings, but so far none really wanted to interact. Towards afternoon we made our way closer to the central part of Vava’u where in a bay a mother and calf with escort were hanging out. Ali and Alex had wanted to wait until the later afternoon for this encounter since the calf is usually more active in the afternoon. Indeed when we jumped into the water the calf got quite playful swimming up to us and almost bumping with it’s fins into us – it was amazing. We rotated every 10 minutes so each of us could stay in the water.

The escort was usually resting a little deeper than the mother and calf, coming up for some air once in a while. The mother would keep her eye on us all the time while the calf would circle around the mother and come up to us once in a while. After about 25 minutes suddenly they got spooked all three took of. We got back into the boat and tried to follow them. Soon we discovered what had spooked them – 2 new males. The mother, obviously wanting to protect her calf, moved away and the escort stayed with them. Wanting to keep his position as escort soon a fight started between the new males and the escort. We could see from the boat them slapping each other with their flukes, fins on fins and it was a constant up and down. Quite a spectacle. After about half an hour of fighting the 2 males gave up, the escort clearly dominating the game.

When they settled back down we went into the water again. We stayed another 20 minutes and enjoyed the sights of the calf and mother hanging out underwater.

At around 5pm we made our way back to the resorts. In hindsight this day was the best day of our entire trip, having not only heard a singer but also some really close-up interactions with the calf.

Curious Calf

Curious Calf

In the evening there was a private festival on the resort with some local dances. It was quite interesting to watch. After that we went next door to the other resort for dinner.

 

Beautiful Creatures

A protective mother

A protective mother

The next day the weather started to roughen up a bit. The winds got stronger and the waves higher. This meant that out in the open we got pushed around quite a bit in the boat. We saw a small heat run with amazing visibility. But because of the rough weather most of the time over the next 3 days we spent in the bay with the mother and calf. The escort had left already, and the mother was just hanging vertically in the water most of the time, with her fluke sticking out of the ocean as if she wanted to say, here am I, come watch me and my calf. The calf would rest under her fins, and once in a while come up to breathe. While the calf never was as playful as on the first day it would still circle around the mum, with it’s curious eyes on us.

The rest of our holidays were pretty much spent in the same manner. Get up early, take the boat, search for whales. See the Mother and Calf. It was an amazing experience and something I can only recommend.

The last day spent in Vava’u we moved on Friday to another hotel, Hilltop. While not at the water it was in the city and had a great view (on top of a hill, who would have guessed)

The next day with some melancholy we left for the Airport early morning. Funny enough – we had checked the night before online when our local flight would leave, and it was shifted to a later hour, at 9.45 – So we ordered the taxi for 8.15. Apparently online timings don’t matter so much as in the morning while still packing the taxi driver came early because he had gotten word that our flight was suddenly pulled forward by an hour. Hurrying up we quickly packed up, jumped into the car and of we went.

It took 20 minutes to get to the airport but we got there in time to catch our plane back to Tonga where we transferred to the international airport, to get our flight to Auckland. This time we stayed the night in Auckland at the airport hotel. We went for a meal to Auckland city and had delicious steaks at Tony’s – apparently one of the best steak restaurants in Auckland.

The next morning we flew back to Sydney where we took our connecting flight back to Singapore.

Would I want to do another trip back to Tonga? Absolutely.

Just chilling

Just chilling

Until next time!

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