I feel a little delinquent again.. well we've been BUSY! We hit the ground running by going to a Tongan Feast the night after we arrived. This is a popular thing to do here. The one we went to was especially nice because it was put on by a local village rather than a business. The setting was really pretty, as it was held at the house of a local lady named Topou and the villagers came to put on the several hour feast. We sat on mats in her yard under a thatched roof beside the water. I don't know if ours included more things than usual but it started out with a kava ceremony so that we could all experience one. Kava is a root that can be dried, pounded to a powder and then diluted into a drink that has a good kick to it. It is traditionally a very important ceremony in Tongan culture and used to be reserved for men however now women can drink kava also. We didn't have enough to get the full effect, but our mouths went a little numb. A communal coconut shell is passed from person to person and you must drink all that is brought to you. We felt among friends since it was just us cruisers. I don't think I'll ever crave kava but Jon is hoping to get some more.
After the kava ceremony, there were several excellent demonstrations of Tongan life. They showed us the multitude of ways that they use the coconut- everything from making rope out of the stringy interior of the husk, decorations from the flower, strong baskets and walls & roofs for their homes out of the fronds, they drink the coconut water, grate the white meat & then wring it out to make coconut cream which is used for cooking, they make charcoal out of the shells and the list goes on and on. We passed around fire roasted coconut which was delicious. They showed us how they use another plant- the pandanus- to weave their famous fine mats & baskets, making different colors using natural plant dyes. They showed us how they make their tapa- by pounding the bark of the mulberry tree to form a piece of cloth, then they use a handmade template with various patterns on it to mark the cloth, then it is finished by being handpainted with local plant dyes. All over Tonga, you can see men & women wearing their traditional fine weave wraps, beautiful "belts" around their waists & generally conservative dress.
While dinner was being set up, they took us up the hill into their village to meet the rugby team. There would be a championship game the following day. The minister was there with them to pray. On the way up the hill we saw a flock of fruit bats for the first time- they are huge bats that hang out. you guessed it, in the fruit trees by day and then start flying around in the evening. We'd been wanting to see some.
Then dinner was ready and we all sat down once again on the mat. It was delicious food- fresh fish cooked several ways, salads, taro, breadfruit, bbq'ed chicken, limeade and more stuff that I can't remember. Then they entertained us! They played music, sang, there were several kids that performed traditional dancing and by the end of the night we were all up dancing. The kids came up to several of us and put their handmade dance necklaces on us. What a great experience.
The next day, we watched the rugby game ("our team" lost) and then that night, the regatta kicked off with a fancy dress (costume) pub crawl. I dressed in some traditional Tongan clothes and Jon went as a Samoan in his lava lava and we both used the handmade necklaces we'd been given the previous night. We moved from bar to bar behind a huge rolling speaker complete with dance lights and a beat. What a riot! The next morning the regatta sponsored a great breakfast and talk on all that NZ customs would be taking away from us once we arrived at their door so we could prepare and eat up the forbidden foods. We're really excited to get there but a little nervous about the passage. We've gone to a couple other regatta sponsored things like a humpback whale presentation and a documentary on Tonga during the 1950's. It really was much the same- certainly the singing, dancing & clothing are the same as what we've experienced.
But of course the highlight so far has been snorkeling with the humpback whales. We did this a few days ago with Bob & Sue. You book with a dive shop and they take you out for the day, all within the Vava'u island group since these are the winter breeding grounds for this group of humpbacks. In the summer, they go back to Antarctica. We spent the first couple of hours spotting whales but not finding ones who were stationary enough to swim with. There were lots of opportunities for close up views of flippers, tails and rolling backs. The first time we got in we could see a whale down deep, just making out the white of it's flippers but it wasn't coming up to breathe. We sure could hear the singing though! I learned that humpbacks are the only whales who sing and they have a song they stick to each season, all supposedly singing the same song. Each year it changes somewhat. I'd like to read more on this to understand it better. Jon got a nice sound clip that we're trying to get posted (it is on You tube but we're trying to make a link on the blog- internet is so poor here that it's not up yet). I thought the singing was just incredible to hear and I hope we get to hear some more while we're cruising around in the group since other boats have heard it through their sailboat hull. In order to sing, the whale sits vertical in the water and we did see a lot of this vertical positioning over the course of the day.
In the afternoon, we came upon a mom & calf just hanging out and this is where we got in 3 different times to see them up close. We would get in the water quietly and swim over to them and then just watch as the baby would come up to breathe and play (they roll around much like a sea lion baby) while the mom would hover upright just below. Then she would eventually come up for a breath and they would both hang out on the surface for a little bit, then go back down to maybe 50 feet but the water was so clear you could see everything. There would be 4 of us in the water at a time with the divemaster and then we'd swap since there were 7 of us on the boat. They seemed so calm and related to each other so gently- it was every bit as beautiful as the footage I've seen in nature videos except we could see every bump and detail of their bodies. You could easily appreciate the strength of their tail such that you'd try to back up if you got too close to it just in case. I couldn't get over the beautiful gray & white colors set against the crystal clear blue water. For me it is one of those times when something is so beautiful it's overwhelming in a way. It takes time to process it all.
Yesterday we moved out of the main anchorage to do some snorkeling & explore the out islands some. The snorkeling we did last night was fantastic with lots of new species that we've never seen before. We've been busy looking them up in our books and finding new ones we want to hunt for. Lots of nudibranchs here. We're scheduled to scuba dive next Mon & Tues as part of a package we did that was pretty reasonable. I hear there are some great dives here and so far, I believe it.
So, we've been having a wonderful time in Tonga. The island is not nearly as beautiful as others we've been to and you can really see a difference in the lack of gardening and the amount of trash on the ground. The people are every bit as friendly and they call out to you as you walk by and say "Bye!" instead of hi which we can't figure out but maybe we'll get it sorted out before we leave. Snorkeling with whales is very popular and there are several dive outfits that do it. There are a few sailboat charter bases here and this is a definite out of the way vacation spot for New Zealanders and Australians and the harbor is tuned for cruising sailboats which makes it easy to be here. Being able to snorkel with the humpbacks was an experience of a lifetime although in my gut, I wonder if it would be better if it wasn't being done. Even though we're not commercial fishing, netting and otherwise mauling the sea as so many do, I still think that we are distracting the whales on some level, even if we're not scaring them. The mom has to concentrate more on the safety of her baby and the curious calf is paying attention to us when it should be nursing or learning things from it's mom. All while the adult humpbacks are here, they are fasting. They don't have anything to eat and they use their blubber to make the milk for the calf. They lose a huge amount of their body weight and can't eat again until they get back down to the nutrient rich waters off Antarctica. So it would seem that any little stress would use up important calories over time. But that said, I think we made as little impact as we could and the dive boat was respectful and concerned for their wellbeing which made me feel good. I think awareness & appreciation go a long way toward helping protect whales and I feel so lucky to have been able to see them from underwater, which is completely different from the surface. And perhaps I'm wrong. Maybe watching us is A-OK with the whales and a welcome distraction. They certainly seemed at ease with us there. The sad thing is, I don't think we'll ever be able to know.
Here is a link
for the audio file for the whale song