Posted by: Carol | August 21, 2009

Whale Watching Day 1

Our flight to Vava’u was uneventful except for the two-hour delay departing Tucson. Made us a bit nervous as the LAX-Tonga flight only goes once a week, so if we missed our connection we were in for some creative rescheduling or a week long vacation in Los Angeles! There was a noticeable number of underwater photographers aboard the flight as I could tell from both overheard conversation and the type of luggage on the baggage carousel.

It always feels wonderful to step off the airplane and take in the clean humid air of the tropics, low flying clouds, and palm trees lining the runway. And Rod waiting with the dinghy at the dock to load up our suitcases and ourselves for a quick ride to Raven and the start of our alternative lifestyle. Off come the shoes, on go the shorts and T-shirts, and we are back into Raven mode.

Yesterday we signed up to go out with Whale Watch Vava’u, one of several whale watching tour boats that pursue the humpback whales in season. We were out on the water some eight hours tracking down a friendly whale. The first half of the day was only moderately successful, doing what our guides called “hit and run”. It was easy to locate whales – they are everywhere, but the ones we located were on the move and not inclined to play. Eventually when the boat got into good position, we’d slip into the water in our snorkel gear and kick off quickly to try to get a glimpse of the whales underwater as they glided by. Often they are in groups of 3, a mother and her baby escorted by a hopeful male suitor.

Our second hit and run encounter was a single male who dove down below us – we could just barely make out his tail in the blue gloom, but he was singing. Even those aboard the boat could hear the song, but in the water with our heads submerged it was an amazing experience to be immersed in whale song – as much a feeling as a sound as it echoed through the water.

Finally late in the day we got a radio tip that a swimmer-friendly whale and calf were hanging out near shore. We gave up on the random hit and runs and motored over to wait our turn to swim with the whale. Whale watching etiquette requires that only one boat works with a whale at a time, but must give up its place to another boat after 45 minutes, so we bided our time.

Well worth the wait! Mama whale was quietly suspended motionless in shallow water only about 6-7 meters deep. Her calf was only a few weeks old and he was playing around close to her body. On first view he was upright in the water, tail pointed down to the ocean floor, head peeking above his mother’s back, balanced by his flukes on her head and watching us watch him. However he swam loops around and about, quietly entertaining himself while mother never moved – just hung there, all 40 tons of her, while we floated at a respectful distance and enjoyed the experience.

No camera and photographs for me as I really hadn’t had enough time to assemble the housing and be sure that it was secure and flood-proof. Very easy to make a mistake and ruin several thousand dollars worth of equipment so I made the decision to leave it behind for our first outing. However I don’t know if we’ll have this kind of opportunity again – it was very special! Fingers crossed! And camera at hand from now on!

We had met up with friends from Tongatapu who were vacationing in Vava’u. They went whale watching along with us aboard the same boat, and after a nice hot shower to warm up we met again for a wonderful dinner at the best restaurant in town – The Dancing Rooster. Delicious food, great company, swimming with whales – a wonderful first day in Tonga!

Today we sail out of Neiafu Harbor and head for Port Morelle, a pleasant anchorage not too far away where there’s good snorkeling including some limestone sea caves for variety. Swallows Cave extends above and below water and can be entered by dinghy before diving up and down the vertical columnar space filled with fish. Mariner’s Cave has an underwater entrance – dive down to swim through the entrance, then rise to the surface and air space inside the cave. As the water level inside the cave rises and falls with wave action, the air fogs up and clears again from compression and condensation.

We plan to spend the weekend there, come back into the harbor to top off our diesel, then head north to the Niua Group some 160 nm from here. Very remote and beautiful, a population of only some 300 Tongans, and lots of whales.

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