08/16/2010, Vava'u, Tonga
"I'm all out of superlatives!" exclaimed Steve from Curious in his lilting English accent, after we emerged from our incredible swim yesterday with Humpback whales. After writing numerous blogs about swimming with dolphins, diving with snakes, feeding sting rays, diving with manta rays, hearing the whales calling underwater, and everything else that we've all been so amazingly blessed to experience in the last year, he said he simply didn't know how he was going to write about this. And that was exactly what I was thinking as I floated motionless in the water, my arms limp at my sides, face to face and 20 feet from a sleeping Humpback whale, while her 1-week old calf swam energetically all around her.
Our day was chaperoned by Beluga Dive, one of the companies here in Neiafu licensed to conduct snorkeling trips with the whales. There is a lot of controversy over this issue, and much debate on the morning cruiser's net about what's legal, and what's right. As a group (s/v's Curious, Paikea Mist, Serenity, and Fly Aweigh) we had serious discussions before we booked our trip, and I almost didn't go. But in the end, we chose one of the companies with a good reputation and now, after this once-in-a-lifetime experience, none of us bear any regrets. We know that the mother could take her calf and be gone in seconds, and we know she could have exhibited behavior that made it clear she was not going to welcome us into the family. But she and her calf were spectacularly hospitable and we are better humans for it.
She sleeps with one eye open, her pectoral fins resting at her sides, occasionally moving slowly through the water to surface for a breath, and always aware of her surroundings. She knew we were there, she knew where the calf was at all times, and she was as patient and mellow as any new mother I've ever met. We postulated she was simply exhausted, but also, I think she knew we were not a threat. We didn't have harpoons, we moved slowly and cautiously, never putting ourselves between her and her baby, and not making any overt moves towards them. A few times when the curious calf swam near us, she gently moved, positioning herself between us and her. (Our best guess is that the calf was a she.) But most of the time mom was just fine with the gawking humans. Once, when the calf was resting on her nose -- which she did a lot -- the mother nudged her off and gave her a gentle shove towards us. We had heard that sometimes mothers will encourage their young to interact with humans, but typically not until after they have reached 3 months, so we were surprised at this gesture.
We were allowed to go in the water and swim gently toward them to a certain distance, 4 swimmers at a time. We each had 3 or more opportunities with these intelligent giants, and each time was more amazing than the one before. By the time I got out of the water after the third swim, dried off, and climbed to the top deck of the boat, I was overcome with emotion. I felt more peaceful than I've ever felt, and more grateful than I can convey. With the warm sun on my back and a gentle breeze on my face I surveyed the scene, 360 degrees around me. Swimmers in the water, their little snorkels poking out -- a small clump of fragile humans in awe and wonder -- the whales occasionally surfacing to exhale, the baby swimming happily, sometimes getting bursts of energy, spy-hopping and breaching, all 12 feet and 2 tons of her brand-new gangly baby self making quite a show. The scenery all around me was rich greens and gemstone blues, with distant sailboats enjoying the perfect day, their white sails a gentle slant; the sky clear blue with white puffy clouds. Tears of joy and a feeling of ultimate happiness filled me ... you see, it's almost impossible to write about. It was simply the best of everything. It was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for Allan, who had 4 swims with the whales and got lots of pictures -- even a few of the calf suckling, which was not easy considering she's huge, and Allan had to drop a fair bit under the surface to get the shot from below.
After they finally moved off enough to let us know they'd had enough, the group (we totaled 14 today) and the Captain all agreed to head off to the reef on the southeast side of the Vava'u group, where rumor had it the capsized 57-foot catamaran had finally made landfall. (See next blurb.) As we sped off, the calf breached repeatedly, and then the mother fin-slapped the water at least 15 times, making huge splashes that we could see all the way until we were out of sight. It was as if they were bidding us farewell with the best enthusiasm they could display. And maybe mom was saying, "Thanks for babysitting!"
We are all connected on this Earth, and our rich experience yesterday now requires something from us: we'll learn more about the whales, about the cruel and illegal whaling that is still going on today around the world, and about how these gentle, ancient creatures can continue to be protected and appreciated. We were given an incredible gift, and now we all agree: we need to pay it forward.
Allan is working on a photo gallery that includes some of the amazing photos we got with my mom's Sea Life camera, as well as pictures from Gordon on Serenity, Gloria on Paikea Mist, and Trish on Curious. Also, Gloria has written a beautiful blog on our experience, and at the risk of losing my faithful readership to her incredible writing, I encourage you to check it out: www.sailblogs.com/member/paikeamist
Our first week in Tonga has flown by.
We had to get out of Neiafu for awhile because there's too much to do. It's a great place to spend money and eat good food, with something interesting going on every night. Listening to the morning radio net we can see how people become fixtures. Lectures on whales and dolphins, Tongan dance shows, local music, art shows, raffles and benefits, Mexican Buffet nights ("Best Mexican Food in Tonga!" Mike at Aquarium promises) and the smaller lures that come across on the net each morning: one of the restaurants is owned by a Kiwi, married to a Greek, and she sometimes cooks Greek specials. "We have Moussaka!" is a temptation I can barely resist; lobster is occasionally procured by one restaurant or another and gleefully announced on the net, or a catch of fresh fish. (Side note: local fisherman have discovered they can make more money gathering sea cucumbers for the Asian market than fishing, so often the local restaurants have no fish to serve.)
Although we really enjoyed town, a few days in Neiafu caused serious damage to our food and Internet budget, so we dropped the mooring on Monday and started off on an exploration of the numerous small islands in the Vava'u group, all a few hours sail from Neiafu. We started with #16, where we had 2 great nights on a mooring and went on one of the best snorkeling dives of our trip so far, rich with live coral and new critters we haven't seen before. We've taken to rushing back to Paikea Mist to consult their fish book after each dive, identifying the new sightings. Our big event of that dive was the Oriental Sweetlips, a pair of gorgeous yellow and black fish about 14" long. Now I understand the addiction to birdwatching.
We moved on to #7 where Lushka on Further was having a birthday party, and met up with some of our fellow cruisers who had remained in Neiafu or been off to other numerically ordered anchorages. We have The Moorings (worldwide sailboat charter operation, big here in Tonga) to thank for the numbers, even though all the anchorages have actual names. The Moorings puts out a great map which is available for a price, and have done away with the difficult Tongan names and instead numbered each anchorage. It makes for fun conversations: "Yeah, we had a great dive at 16 and then made it to the party at 7. We think we'll hang here a few days and then go check out the gallery at 11, maybe take in the Tongan Feast on Saturday at 8."
Sailing here is a lot like sailing in the Pacific Northwest, or off the coast of Vancouver, according to Gloria, our Canadian friend. In fact, she says sailing around these islands is making her homesick. Of course, it's a bit warmer here than in Canada, although we have been complaining as the temps drop into the low 70's and we're all wearing long pants and sweatshirts.
The wind has been blowing all night, and we even had a little unforecast rain this morning, just enough to get the salt washed off and motivate us to clean the windows. It's overcast, and the anchorage is quiet. I think everyone is taking the morning to catch up on things aboard their boats, as we are. Laundry, toilet repairs, letter-writing, blurbing, cleaning.
We're set to go on a whale watching excursion Monday, so we'll head back to Neiafu Sunday afternoon for a few days, spend some more money, then leave perhaps Wednesday for more numerical exploration.
08/09/2010, Nieafu, Vava'u, Tonga
We traded a sea full of poisonous snakes that can't bite for a sea full of jelly fish that can sting. It's stunning to see how many there are here in the bay, especially at night. Coming back from dinner the other night in the dinghy, we noticed thousands of them, swarms, schools, herds of jellyfish. Once back on our boat, we spent over an hour with a strong flashlight, mesmerized as they swam slowly by -- or squished, or whatever it is they do -- their beautiful white tentacles flowing around them as they moved along, sometimes turning upside down and revealing their see-through insides to our camera. No jumping in the water here, especially at night. Hopefully they will abate in the coming weeks, or not be as thick in other anchorages.
Our first 3 nights here have been so calm, we feel like the boat is in dry dock. Rock solid, except when a dinghy goes by and leaves mild waves in it's wake, gently splashing the hull. We all realized we haven't had a calm, quiet night since Bora Bora over a month ago. The main topic of conversation amongst our friends is how quiet it is, and how well we're sleeping.
I had a great birthday thanks to Allan and the good friends we've made along the way -- Michael and Gloria from Paikea Mist, Gordon and Sherry from Serenity, and Steve and Trish from Curious. Steve and Trish hosted a cocktail hour on their beautiful Oyster 57, followed by a delicious dinner prepared by Swiss chef Gunther at the Dancing Rooster, and topped off with a chocolate cake Gloria baked earlier in the day. I do feel overwhelmingly blessed.
Yesterday Allan and I joined Gordon and Sherry from Serenity for church, a delightful display of sights and sounds. The Tongans take church, singing, and church attire very seriously. The men and boys all had large, thick woven mats wrapped around their waists, bound in place with thick cords, or wide black belts. Some of the women also sported the heavy mats that spanned from above the waist to mid-thigh, worn over fancy long dresses. These are the kind of mats you could walk on, or sleep on, or sleep under. Others had modified versions that looked much easier to wear: intricate woven belts with long fringe, almost like a hula skirt, and some actually had woven grass skirts over their dresses. Not one woman had her hair down; all had long black pony tails or large buns held in place with dressy pins and clips. And not one shoulder was in evidence, making me feel terribly exposed. We also noted that men and women did not sit together. The children were at the front, or with their mothers, who sat on the right side of the church; the teens were all in uniform on the left side of the church, and the men sat in the middle behind the women and children. It made for an interesting sound when they sang, the men in their deep, strong voices and the women and teens harmonizing like a professional choir. It was gorgeous. We didn't understand a word of it, or of the sermon, until the pastor spelled the "H" word very slowly for the children, who burst into laughter.
And today we explored Tonga beneath the sea, and I must say it's a huge relief to see live coral again. I think I'd gotten used to seeing colorful fish against a dead gray background of dead coral, mostly due to cyclone damage, but sad nonetheless. Here, many of the reefs are protected from storm damage, and the colors are as varied as I've ever seen. Rich, red anemone, orange, lime green, yellow, pink and purple coral, huge green fan corals that looked like tropical ferns, and lots of sea life. The highlight was when we stopped breathing and hung in silence, listening to a distant humpback whale. We're hoping to hear a lot more of that in the next month.
Tomorrow we plan to stock up at the markets and head out to one of the many beautiful anchorages within a few hours' sail, to explore and soak up some quiet.
08/05/2010, Neiafu, Vava'u, Tonga
(Last night) We are 20 miles from the Kingdom of Tonga, visible in the darkness only because a soft light glows on the horizon -- the late-night lights of a small Tongan town, although I'm not sure which. Alpha and Beta Centauri have just slid below the horizon, and the Milky Way dominates the sky above, like a cloudy umbrella. We lost our wind, the seas have laid down, and we're motoring slowly in calm water and warm night air toward the northern tip of the island.
This is the time of night I always become extra vigilant, nearing daylight, knowing that around the world the fisherman are waking up and heading out in their small boats for the mornings' catch. Not to mention, the capsized catamaran still hasn't been sighted, although in our radio conversations last night with a few other cruisers headed this way we all agreed the current was actually a SW drift, so the boat should be way south of us, and quite likely embedded on a reef fringing the eastern shore. Not a cheerful thought, but one that has the scavengers starting to talk.
(Later) We've arrived in Neiafu, Vava'u (Va-va-oo) and it's -- really, it's the best. I think I have cruiseheimers bad, really really scary bad, because I'm like the idiot who forgets the joke you told them yesterday, so you can tell it again today and they laugh just as heartily. I love everyplace I go and forget how much I loved the previous one. I seem to have no ability to compare, I just take each new place as it comes and feel like a kid in a candy store, it's really sort of pathetic, but it's fun for me. And amusing for others, no doubt.
Tonga looks much like Niue from the sea, but rather than one long flat pancake it's a whole lot of pancakes tossed about. Low-slung, palm tree encrusted lumps of land are everywhere, some with a few houses on them, many uninhabited. We snaked around on blissfully glassy water through the channel that leads back to Neiafu and saw almost no one, and then we rounded the last corner and came face-to-face with one of the most popular cruising meccas in the South Pacific. They even have a morning Cruisers Radio Net here, which we haven't encountered since Puerto Vallarta. We tuned in at 8:30 as we motored through the fiords, and got the scoop on who's having a BBQ, where to swap books, get transmission fluid, and even got some info on the check in process. We understand Tonga is much like the popular cruising spots in Mexico where cruisers go, fall in love with the place and forget to actually go cruising, or go home. They stay. They buy businesses, volunteer in the community, set up services for cruisers, hang out. Tonga apparently has a very well-embedded sailing community from around the world. They arrange benefit dinners for education and school supplies for the local kids, set up trash pick-up days, hold yoga classes and boat swap meets.
We tied to the wharf and were immediately visited by the Quarantine guy and the Customs guys. Over cold Cokes (nice to have an ice maker aboard ...) they took all our info, gave us some official paperwork and told us we could pay our fees later when we get money. We left the wharf and picked up a mooring, of which there are many in this quiet, protected harbor, and set off to get said money and pay our debts, as well as be available to help the boats coming in behind us. The exchange rate is very good for us, and it will be an affordable stay, which will be nice.
S/v's Paikea Mist, Serenity, and Curious came in an hour or so behind us, and we greeted them and set off for lunch. The Aquarium Cafe is right near our boat, and is one of many waterfront cafe's with a dinghy dock, great food, and free wifi. So here I sit, working on my second Mata Maka, the local Tongan brew, having polished off a delicious fish curry. Allan is napping on the boat and I'm trying to beat my battery to the punch and get this posted.
The breeze is blowing softly, spinning the wind generators on the cruising yachts in the harbor into a gentle whirl, and wafting the scents of Tonga onto this second-floor open-air deck where I am camped. Scents of fragrant trees, cooking food, lush vegetation. Yeah, I could be one of those people who forget to leave ...
08/05/2010, Enroute to Tonga
We're not really sure what day it is because we can't find any accurate depictions of the exact position of the International Dateline on board, so we are just floating somewhere between the 3rd and the 5th of August. Other than some squalls, some rain and the subsequent loss of all of our wind, not much has happened today. We've been looking for the capsized catamaran but no sightings, although it was sort of weird that the weather got dark and stormy just north of the boats' last reported position. There is is still some daylight left, we may see it yet, but our calculations have it almost to Tonga by now if the 1-knot NW current was anywhere near accurate.
It's been a nice day at sea. Got our finances caught up, wrote a few letters, and took some naps -- all those usual things we do when we're not hanging on for dear life, which is thankfully not too often. Still not catching any fish. We've been dragging a line since forever and sometimes we get a bite but it always gets away in seconds. Perhaps it's my fault, I'm not so good at the whole fish-killing thing. Or maybe it's the lure. This lure is not very alluring, I guess. Someone suggested we dress it up with bits of yarn and coral, then it will be irresistible and fish will be fighting over it. Guess that's my job, go through my little collection of pink coral from the Tuomotus and adorn the dinner-catcher.
Next report from Tonga.
08/04/2010, Enroute to Tonga
On the road again. Had a big brekkie and a flat white, bought some t-shirts, checked out with Immigration and Customs, said goodbye to Mamata at the Yacht Club and "see you in Neiafu" to our friends, went for one last swim with the snakes and fish near our boat, and off we went.
We took a little detour along the coast first, because, wouldn't you know -- the whales have begun to arrive. We went to where they were spotted a bit earlier but didn't find them. Maybe in the days to come we'll hear some stories, but for us, no diving with whales. Tonga, however, is reputed to have lots of Humpbacks this time of year, so there's still hope of some good whale sightings.
The sea and air are very welcoming today, we've had a nice sail so far and are moving along at a steady 6.5 - 7 knots with a following 15 knot wind. Sails are wing-and-wing again, and overall, the boat is happy. It helps that the swells are not trying to throw us off the boat or into the walls.
Although the trip to Neiafu, Tonga in the Vava'u group of islands in Northern Tonga is about a 44 hour sail for us, putting us in on Thursday morning, we will arrive Friday. About halfway between here and there we come upon the invisible International Dateline, where we leave Thursday in a heap with all the other days people have lost as they cross westbound. I always wondered if we pick them up on the way back, certainly I've had the opportunity to test that theory many times in my career, but so far I can't say I have tangible evidence that it works that way. You do get a day back, but not the same one. So we'll deposit Thursday, and maybe someone else will grab it going east.
Several of our friends are leaving 14 hours behind us, the boats that have 6 - 15 feet of waterline more than we do and are inherently faster. They'll arrive in the afternoon on Friday, but for now, we have the wide ocean to ourselves. We've marked the last reported position of the abandoned 57-foot catamaran that capsized last Saturday, since it now represents a hazard with it's blue bottom-paint facing up and not much to otherwise catch one's eye. Of course, it's adrift and will not be in that same spot, but we can guesstimate current and elapsed time and block out an area in which to be extra vigilant.
We had the unique opportunity to speak with the owner, Kelly, and his crewman Glen, who arrived Monday on the supply ship that rescued them. The same night that we were all besieged by huge wind gusts and rocking seas in the anchorage, they were caught in a fierce squall, halfway between Niue and Tonga. The winds went from 18 to 62-plus knots in a few short minutes, and they literally didn't have enough time to reef or even release the sails before the wind blew them over. The story is amazing and they are both incredibly lucky to be safe and alive with only a few scrapes and bruises. They were adrift for 18 hours on their upside- down boat. The main thing they want at this point is their wallets and passports.
And surely, things like this get people talking. Wondering what happened, how to avoid such a thing from happening to them, wives, especially, (or maybe just more vocally) worrying about the next crossing, and even more so those with little kids, and all comparing notes about how they would have handled it. Armchair quarterbacks, armchair pilots, armchair sailors -- we all do it and it's a questionable practice at best, although it can help us learn. It was nice that Kelly and Glen were there, and quite in the midst of it since they're staying with Mamata, and are able to answer questions directly. They seem very willing to do so, and it's good therapy. Hearsay is kept at bay, and it helps everyone process this unfortunate and scary event.
But fear not, for us, the weather is lovely, the radar is clear, the forecast is excellent, and I'm just sitting here pondering the wallet/passport thing.