Our first week in Tonga, Part 2
25 September 2012 | Neiafu, Vavau Group, Tonga
On Saturday morning, we were picked up off the boat at 7:15am. We had to set an alarm, which we hate to do, but, considering we were going out to swim with Humpback Whales, an alarm was worth it! There were two other girls with us, from Abu Dhabi, the owner's family, the captain and our guide. The morning was cool, cloudy with a little rain. We motored on the tour boat south to some outer islands where our best chances of finding the whales would be. Everyone chatted along the way, getting acquainted with each other, while the guide and captain kept an eye out for the whales. After about 2 hours of motoring, the captain heard from another tour boat, that whales had been spotted. It is common practice to share information with the other tour company's so that all the tourists get a chance to swim with the whales.
When we arrived, there were 2 boats that were swimming with separate sets of whales. One boat had a mother and calf and the 2nd boat had just one whale. We had to wait our turn, also hoping that the whales didn't swim away. We watched the whales from our boat, a few times seeing them breach and slap their tails, which was really exciting to see. We were all yelling with excitement, all of us taking pictures. Then, the whale that was breaching, swam away and that boat left. After the other tour boat was done with the mother and calf, it was our turn.
The guide jumped into the water to make sure we were ok to swim with the mother and calf. Basically, making sure the whales weren't on the move and also, to make sure the whales weren't agitated. We got the ok sign, and Tom, I and the 2 girls jumped into the water. Regulations only allow 4 swimmers and a guide at one time, as to not disturb the whales. What we saw underwater was amazing. The water was about 100 feet deep and mama was lying at the bottom with the calf nursing! From that depth, the baby looked tiny when it was next to mama. Every few minutes, the calf would swim around and surface, catch a breathe, swim around again, and back down to mama to nurse again. We would see these loving moments when the calf would swim down and glide its body along the mama. At one point, when the calf was near the surface, he got within 10 feet of us, and you could see that big eye just staring at us! It also made you realize how GIANT the "baby" was. So very neat to see! After about 15 minutes, we got out and the next 4 people got in the water. Again, about 15 minutes later, we were back in the water. But this time, the owner told us to stay in the water until the mother surfaced, so we could see her grand size. Within 15 minutes, mama and calf, swimming side by side, began to surface, right in front of us! Now we thought the baby looked like the size of a bus when he was close to us, but mama, she was huge. It's hard to say just how huge the mother was because of no scale and how close we were to them. Unfortunately, once they surfaced, they swam away. It was a truly wonderful experience!
We then motored over to an area called Coral Gardens (apparently a common name for a coral area since this is the 3rd island we've been to with that name), and ate lunch. Afterwards, we snorkeled the Coral Gardens area. The coral was alive and colorful with plenty of reef fish. Unfortunately, the cloudy day did not show off the colors of the coral very well. This is definitely an area we would like to go back to on a sunny day.
Then we motored over to another island to Swallows Cave. It was a cliff walled island with 2 caves right beside each other. The water outside of the cave was too deep to see the bottom, but as we got closer to the caves, the sea shelf rose to about 20 feet deep with plenty of coral and fish. Once inside the caves, the shelf dropped off again. The caves, themselves, were pretty tall, about 60 feet high, with tons of Swallow birds flying around and plenty of nests. One cave had another smaller cave off of it, but the only way to access it was to swim underwater to the opening; down about 2 feet and through the hole that was about 3 feet long. Me, Tom and the guide swam underwater, one at a time and easily reached the other side. It was a small cave that would fit about 10 people. We now call this smaller cave, "Elevator Cave." When a good set of swells hit the cave, the water rose about 6-8 feet. So here we are, rising and lowering with the swells. We were all hooting and hollering in the cave as we went up and down. The elevator cave did have light because of an opening about 15 feet up one side of the rock wall. After the caves, we headed back to the harbor and to Tanga. We had such an incredible day with the whales and the added bonus of the Coral Gardens and Swallow and Elevator Cave.
Because we had such a great experience on Saturday, we decided to go again on Monday. Again, they picked us up at 7:15 am and we headed out to the same area that we were at on Saturday. We were hit by one rain squall along the way, other than that, the day was a mix of sun and clouds. We searched and searched for several hours, looking for the whales, motoring close to some beautiful cliff walled islands, but didn't find any.
We stopped at a secluded beach for lunch. We walked along the white sand beach with our feet in the cool water. Then came the mosquitos. Tom got swarmed by them and escaped into the water, forgetting that he had our non-waterproof camera clipped to his shorts! We left the beach; all of us with a few bugs bites on us and began our search for the whales again.
We finally did find one, a huge male whale. Unfortunately, the whale kept moving around. He would come up for 3 breathes of air, then dive deep. You know they are diving deep when their tail comes out of the water as they "hump the back". At one point when the guide was in the water, he said you could hear the male whale singing in the water, his mating calls. So, we all jumped into the water, very deep dark water, and listened to his calls. It sounded like a trumpet, or some kind of horn playing under the water. The whale seemed so close because of how loud his singing was. We could even hear his singing from the over the side of the boat. Apparently, the males call can be heard from miles away, but because we were in the same area as the male whale, we could hear it from the boat.
By this time, it was getting later in the day, and we headed over to a cave called Mariner's Cave. This cave is not for everyone. From the side of the cliff wall island, you would never know there was a cave. The mouth of the cave is about 6 feet below the water and then you have to swim another 14 feet through the mouth of the cave to get to the other side before coming up for air, with no light in the water because the cave is dark. Tom, another guy and the guide all swam into the cave. Tom said the cave, itself was too dark to appreciate but the best part of it was swimming down and through the mouth of the cave. With the light on the way out it was wonderful and a much easier swim. Note to future visitors: if you can swim under the keel of your boat without using it to pull through then this swim isn't that bad; also try to do it at low tide and light swell so the swim straight down is only a couple feet. And make sure to clear the inner wall prior to surfacing inside, as the small stalactites that sit inches above the waterline will leave souvenir on your skull. This can be avoided by keeping a hand above your head as you surface.
Back on Tanga, we put our non-waterproof camera in fresh water rinse then a bag of white rice, in hopes the rice absorbs any remaining moisture. The SD card was removed immediately, at the beach, and air dried. It is also in a bag of rice. As for the pictures, we haven't put the SD card in our laptop yet. We have a great backup camera and our waterproof camera, so we'll still be snapping pictures. Check out the new photos in the updated gallery.
Tuesday, we got caught up with emails and internet. In the afternoon, we watched a little bit of Monday night football. It's funny that on a Tuesday afternoon, we were watching Monday Night Football live. Last night, we were invited to a dinner party on shore, hosted by 2 Brazilian girls that are students from San Diego, working on their master's degree and doing their research in Tonga. There were about 11 of us there and the food and conversation was great.