Travelogue: Tonga 2004
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Tonga Photo Itinerary: 9/2/04 - 9/14/04: Tonga
9/2 - 9/4: Nukuíalofa
9/4 - 9/13: Naiía Cruises
9/13 - 9/14: Nukuíalofa
by Andrew Sigal


Book List: Lonely Planet Tonga

Currency:

US$1 = TOP$1.97 ("TOngan Paíanga")

Preface

Some years ago I heard that it was possible to scuba dive with whales in Tonga. I have no recollection when or how I heard of it, but it stuck in my mind. This spring the idea popped into my head. I had been diving in Belize and it occurred to me that I really wanted to dive with whales. I went onto the web to search for dive operators, turning up only one - Naiía Cruises.

Naiía Cruises are based in Fiji, but for six weeks a year they take their boat to Tonga to meet up with a pod of Arctic humpback whales which migrate to their birthing grounds in the HaíApia islands of Tonga. No one knows why this particular group of whales comes to HaíApia, or why other groups go elsewhere. But it is known that from late July to mid-September some 700 humpbacks will be among these islands mating, birthing, and raising calves. Naiía has been coming here for 10 years to view the spectacle.

Scientists estimate that at one time upwards of 20,000 whales made the annual migration to this spot. In fact, Naiía started coming here because Rob, the owner of the company, read a 1950ís book describing the waters filled with whales. Unfortunately, it turns out that during the 1960ís the Russian whaling fleet was secretly hunting whales north of Antarctica, in violation of International Whaling Commission rules. During this period they managed to almost completely wipe out these creatures. Analysis of the appearance and DNA of the whales in Tonga implies that the currently population of 700 is probably derived from as few as 15 females that escaped the relentless hunting.

Prior to coming to Tonga, I spent a little over four weeks in Australia and Fiji. Since I was traveling all this way, it made sense to enjoy the region. This approach had its ups and down. On the one hand it meant that by the time I got to Tonga, I was fully in the local time zone. It also had the advantage that in Fiji I was able to try out all the new scuba gear I had bought for the trip. On the down side, by the time I got to Tonga I was already somewhat tired out from travel - missing my friends, my bed, my bike, familiar foods and the like. Also, since Tonga was the highlight of the trip, part of my time in Australia and Fiji was spent anticipating Tonga, so I didnít fully enjoy those legs of the journey. In retrospect, I think a better sequence would have been Fiji (to get my sea legs, test out equipment and adjust to the time zone), then Tonga, then Australia.

In any event, Naiía and the whales of Tonga were amazing.

 

 

Thursday, September 2, 2004

I flew from Nadi, Fiji to Nukuíalofa, Tonga on Air Pacific. Unfortunately, it was a 7am flight, so I had had to spend the night before at a hotel right near the airport. I was concerned about checking in my two large bags (one full of scuba gear), so I made sure to get there the full two hours ahead, even though the hotel clerk told me with a wink that one hour would be plenty. Of course, two hours ahead meant getting up at 4:30am. Walking out of my "villa" into the middle of the night, the moon was stunning, but the air was very cold.

Though Air Pacific makes a big deal about the baggage allowance when you call them on the phone, at the airport the agent didnít bat an eye. I asked her if my bags would make it onto the plane OK, and she told me that only large items like surfboards are an issue. Whew.

I was flying business class for two reasons; first was to make sure that I would get special treatment for my bags, and second was that the price difference between economy and business was negligible. Given the small upcharge I expected business class to be full, however, it was half empty. I guess most people donít check to see what the price differential is.

[Side note: Both Air Pacific and Air Fiji fly from Fiji to Tonga. Air Pacific flies only Tuesday and Thursday, and only from Nadi. Air Fiji flies only Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and only from Suva. I wanted to fly on Friday, but Air Pacific flies bigger planes and was said to be more reliable, so I went with them on Thursday instead. While at the airport I spoke with a woman who told me that she hadnít slept for the last 24 hours because she was supposed to fly from Suva the day before, but Air Fiji had cancelled the flight without explanation and bussed the passengers to Nadi for the Air Pacific flight. Looks like Air Pacific was the right choice after all.]

As with the customs form for Fiji, the Tongan customs people ask an extraordinary number of questions. This time I decided not to declare the trinkets and crafts made from shells, wood, etc. that I had picked up along the way, but I did declare my hiking boots. When I handed my form to the customs inspector, he looked confused and called his supervisor over. I told the supervisor about my hiking boots. He gave an annoyed look to the first customs agent and waved me through without a glance.

The drive from the airport is about 24 kilometers, but it took a very long time due to extremely slow speed limits. Unlike Fiji, everyone in Tonga drives like snails. Not that it mattered - I had nowhere that I needed to be. Finally we arrived at the Seaview Hotel (Vuna Rd., 676-23-709). The Seaview was nice, clean, fairly quiet and conveniently located on the waterfront just down the street from the Kingís palace.

After chucking my bags I walked into town - about 5 minutes by foot. I started with a visit to the marketplace. The produce was very similar to that being sold in markets in Fiji; different kinds of taro, yams, sweet potatoes and manioc, papayas, cabbages, eggplant and peppers. The big difference was the selling of bottles of white and brown "paints", made from plants and minerals, for painting the traditional mulberry bark paintings. Interestingly, people actively wanted me to take their picture. When I lined up for a shot of the produce, the vendors primped themselves and smiled for me to take their photo too.

The recommended internet cafť was attached to the famous Friends Cafť; however, I found it to be so slow that it was a total waste of time. The woman who was staffing the internet portion of the cafť either didnít understand what "slow" meant, or didnít care. I suspected it was the latter.

Friends was also recommended for lunch, so after giving up on the internet I moved to a table at the restaurant portion. I learned that Friends will not start making lunch till 12:00 noon on the dot. I arrived at 11:45, and though they were willing to take my order, they informed me that it wouldnít be made for 15 minutes. For some reason I ordered one of the scrumptious-looking scones to tide me over (not on my diet.) It was far and away the worst scone I have ever had - basically a biscuit with raisins. The coffee was mediocre. My lunch was Cajun Shrimp Gumbo. It was good, but it wasnít gumbo and it definitely wasnít Cajun.

Having time to kill I began a quest for a good internet connection. Along the way I did some sight seeing and window shopping. The various internet cafes ranged from OK to good. Finally I found the well-hidden ANTS Internet (Tungi Arcade, Taufaíahau Rd., 676-27-946.) The machines were fast, the connection was fast, and the price was great. Highly recommended.

By this time the heat, walking and early morning travel got the best of me, so I headed back to the hotel for a much needed nap.

The nap was refreshing so I walked back to town, shopped for some sundries, checked out the poorly appointed grocery store, then returned to Friends Cafť where I had a tolerable iced coffee.

Earlier in the day I had walked by Cocos Restaurant (Hala Uelihgitoni Rd., 676-26-615.) Though I didnít know much about it, I really didnít feel like walking back to the hotel yet again just to look at Lonely Planet, then walk back into town for dinner. Cocoís won by location. As it turned out it was very good. I ordered the seafood cioppino which was excellent; full of different kinds of local shellfish, the tail of a slipper lobster (aka Moreton Bay Bug,) and chunks of fish in a thick tomato sauce.

As I was finishing the owner/chef came out to the dining room. It turns out that she is from Seattle (my former home), which explains the style of the menu and its perfect English. We had a great conversation about food, Tonga, and the local markets. When I was done I took a taxi back to the hotel, as I was told it was too dangerous to walk alone at night.

Back in my room I discovered a few more mosquito bites. During the course of this trip I had been slowly accumulating bites, a few at a time.

 

Friday September 3, 2004

The Seaview was quite nice. With only 11 rooms, itís really more like a B&B than a hotel. I had wanted an ocean view room, but when I made my booking they were sold out. My "standard" room was fine, though there was very little sunlight in the morning. The only big negative was the variable shower temperature - ouch. Also, thought the walls are thick enough that you donít hear your neighbor, the doors are paper thin; a whisper in the hallway is clearly audible. Oh well.

A very nice continental breakfast was served at the hotelís restaurant (TOP$15). Afterwards, six of the other Naiía passengers (also staying at the Seaview) and I went on a tour of Tongatapu island. The tour was run by Joe Naeata of Joes Friendly Island Tours ((676)-15-276). Joe had provided the van service from the airport. A fine businessman he had not missed the opportunity to hand out business cards. The tour cost TOP$30 per person (though at the end virtually all of us added in an extra tip.)

The tour hit all the islandís "highlights." First stop was the site of Captain Cookís first landing in Tonga. Other than a small brass plaque on a concrete pedestal, it looked like any other cove, but we all dutifully took photos from every angle. Just down the road in Lapaha stood Paepae Ďo Teleía - the tombs of the king and queen that had met Captain Cook.

We continued our drive east, then down a tiny dirt road to what Joe described as a "vanilla plantation". One could easily have driven past, as it was simply an area of vines in the forest. Of course these vines were vanilla orchids, but there was nothing to point them out or indicate that they were owned by anyone in particular. Unfortunately the vanilla was out of season and had been fully harvested months before. [Side note: in Nukuíalofa I searched everywhere for vanilla beans. None were available. People told me that they were a valuable export crop and had all been sent overseas. None were kept for the modest tourist trade.]

Next we went to the "famous" Haíamonga, Tongaís Stonehenge, a coral rock archway of two pillars with a horizontal stone lintel. Evidently it was built on the site of the second capital of Tonga as a type of astrological calendar indicating the spring, the longest day of the year, and fall. Down a path behind Haíamonga we walked to the sea, standing on a dramatic coastline of coral rock undercut by eons of wave action. Though this is one of Tongatapuís "must see" sites, it is really nothing special. It is what I call a "local attraction," i.e. itís the best thing around, but that doesnít mean it is significant on a global scale. It does make for a nice photo-op though.

Further south, on the east coast near the village of Haveluliku we stopped at ĎAnahulu Stalactite Cave. Though modest in comparison to other stalactite caves Iíve been in, this one was cool in that there were no guides, no barriers, no railings, and no entrance fee! When in stalactite caves Iíve always had the irresistible urge to touch one - finally I had my chance. It turns out that stalactites feel just like slightly wet smooth stone, but it was great to indulge my curiosity. Unfortunately, this freedom has allowed countless hands to touch, and to break, carve, and graffiti, so the cave is hardly pristine. It appears to be a popular place for local kids to come and party based on the collection of candles, beer cans, and other trash on the floor. One other notable feature of this cave is that the ceiling is covered with the nests of swallows, not bats. The swallows fly around making clicking sounds - I presume they are doing the same kind of echolocation that bats do. Very cool.

Near the entrance to the cave there is a tiny sand beach with a fascinating graveyard. For some reason the Tonganís decorate their graves with all manner of odd kitch; plastic flowers, patterns of stones and beer bottles, stuffed animals, quilts, seashells, and seemingly anything that comes to hand. Curious.

By this time it was easily 1pm and I was starving. We went to a localís roadside lunch stand. They had a handful of options including chicken curry, lamb curry, raw fish, and "lamb with spinach." However, it turned out that due to the lateness of the hour they had run out of both curry dishes; they were making more, but it would be a while. Instead, I and all the other Americanís chose the lamb with spinach. There was no way any of us were going to touch raw fish at a roadside stand in Tonga. Our guide had no such qualms.

The lamb was very good. It was made from what is known locally as "mutton flaps" - the fatty part of a lamb chop. No one else in the world will eat these things, but in Tonga it is a favorite staple, so New Zealand exports tons of them here. Of course they taste terrific since they are mostly fat. The Tongan government is trying to get people to stop eating them as the population is dropping dead like flies from heart disease and other fat-related conditions. Needless to say the government is pissing in the wind. The spinach part of this dish was actually kale. It was simply cooked with coconut cream (another heart-healthy bonus), salt and pepper. The side was "tapioca", which wasnít the tapioca pearls we would serve in America, but rather manioc root boiled like potatoes. The whole thing was yummy and filling.

We stopped for a restroom break nearby at the domestic airport. It was smaller (and more run-down) than most private plane airports I have seen in America. Joe told us that Royal Tongan Airlines "the Pride of Tonga" had gone out of business. Their plane had been repossessed by the Sultan of Brunei. A new airline had popped up to take their place, but still, the domestic airport was a ghost town.

On the mid-south coast we visited a natural stone bridge worn into the rocky coastline. Returning to the highway we passed through a coconut plantation and by a tiny traditional house made of coconut fronds. We considered stopping in at the bird center and botanic gardens, however Joe told us that most of the birds had died. Originally the center had been funded by the government and raised additional money selling captive-bred birds overseas. However, with the government going bankrupt and the trade in birds restricted by international endangered species laws, the center had fallen on hard times and was barely maintained. As it was getting late, we decided to skip it.

Continuing further on our circumnavigation of the island we came to the Houma Blowholes on the western edge of Tongatapu. Once upon a time I visited a set of blowholes somewhere that had a sign indicating it was one of only two blowholes in the world. Iím pretty sure Iíve been to 5 or 6 sets of blowholes at this point. These were pretty nice, though the blows didnít go nearly as high as the ones in Bicheno, Tasmania. It also wasnít practically possible to get down onto the rocks where the waves crashed in, so they could only be viewed from above. Nonetheless, it is an exciting and dramatic coastline and well worth seeing.

The last three stops were pretty lame. First was a three headed coconut tree (whoopee!) Yes, the trunk of the tree had "Y"ed into three, which apparently coconut trees donít do. Next we stopped by a grove of trees where flying foxes were roosting. This would have been pretty cool if Australia werenít overrun with them. Lastly, we drove by the tomb of Tongaís recent kings. A fence keeps onlookers at quite a distance, which is fine since it really isnít very interesting.

This is really a tiny country. There is trash all over the pretty green esplanade that borders the coast, right up to the kingís house (aka Palace.) In fact, looking through the fence surrounding the compound I realized that plastic bags and other trash were floating around the lawn right in front of the place. This, combined with the fact that the kingís house is only marginally larger than my own, makes the place decidedly unimposing. Earlier in the day I had jokingly asked Joe if I could meet the king. By way of reply he asked me quite frankly how much money I had. Considering that this is a country that will sell you a passport for about US$15,000, that response wasnít quite so surprising. Perhaps theyíd like to get their airplane out of hock?

Seven hours after our departure we returned to the Seaview having circled virtually the whole island. If you have a day to kill on Tongatapu, this is certainly the way to see the sights. However, few of the sites are really noteworthy; I definitely wouldnít go out of my way to go to Tongatapu to see any of them. Itís also worth repeating that Tongatapu has almost no sandy beaches - the coastline is all volcanic/coral. That limits the islandís appeal as a vacation destination. I gather that ĎEua, and many other islands have more of that "tropical paradise" feel.

The restaurant at the Seaview is supposed to be the best in town. Unfortunately, the chef was on an extended vacation so it was closed except for guestís breakfast. The second best restaurant was reputedly the Waterfront Cafť (Vuna Rd., 24-692.) It was just a long enough distance from the Seaview to warrant a TOP3.00 taxi (hey, for US$1.50, how can you say no?)

The Waterfront is a large and attractive room, most remarkable for the fact that it is the second most elegant restaurant in Tonga (in the US the place would be considered "casual" at best.) It turned out that this was my waiterís first day on the job. He was clueless. I wasnít sure if he really didnít know a damned thing about the place, or he spoke no English. Either way, he didnít understand a single question I asked, such as "what is the soup of the day?" and "what kind of fish is in the Ďgrilled fishí?" Finally I asked to have another waiter sent over. This waitress was much more experienced, though neither she nor the prior trainee ever managed to smile. I found myself seriously missing Fiji.

Unfortunately, a huge party of 20 or so was seated just before I arrived. Their orders went in right before mine, so my dinner was glacial in arriving. Nonetheless the lobster soup was truly excellent. I had imagined more of a bisque, but this was a creamy soup with large chunks of sweet lobster tail meat. Beautiful. My main was fish (snapper) with chutney glaze. According to the waitress the fish in their dishes is always snapper. I wondered why they didnít just put "snapper" on the menu instead of "fish." The dish was good but the sauce was much too strong, obliterating the flavor of the fish. The fish was very nicely cooked to just the perfect point of doneness, but given the sledge-hammer sauce it could just as well have been chicken or pork. In fact, it reminded me very much of a sauce my mother used to make for pork which she called "red sauce." A couple at the table next to mine had each gotten lobsters. They were huge. At only TOP30, I wondered if I should have ordered that. Undoubtedly the cheapest restaurant lobster dish in the world.

After an immensely long time, and horrendous service engendered by the large party being served, I was done with my meal. I asked for the check, but it didnít arrive. I asked and asked. Finally I went up to the cashier at the bar. It turned out that the table of 20 had asked for individual checks. Worse yet, each person at the table was complaining of errors in their bill and demanding a re-accounting. The cashier had evidently been working for the last half hour to satisfy this table. I was stunned that the restaurant had allowed the request for separate bills.

All in all my experience at the Waterfront was mediocre, though I suspect under other circumstances it would have been much better.

Riding back to the hotel in a taxi, I looked out the window and couldnít help thinking that Tonga on a Friday night makes New Zealand look like Tokyo on steroids. The driver, looking at the same scene said "Christmas Eve. In Tonga we call Friday night Christmas Eve. Christmas every week!" Hmmmm.

 

Saturday September 4, 2004

My room continued to be quiet and adequate, though I heard from guests with the more expensive ocean view rooms that they were awoken several times by carloads of kids droving by, honking their horns, and yelling "tourists go home!" Hmmm.

Saturday morning at the Seaview is a busy time with people checking in and out, so no breakfast is served. On Sundays breakfast is served since no breakfast is available in town (Tonga is a very Christian country.) So I packed all my bags then walked to Cocos for breakfast. I had a good but not great omelet, OK homemade English muffins, and lousy coffee.

I wasnít sure I had quite enough suntan lotion so I wandered around town trying to find some more. No one sells it! There are endless little Chinese-owned variety shops all selling the exact same set of stuff. None sell suntan lotion. The grocery store didnít sell it, the duty free store didnít have any, the touristy shops missed the opportunity too. Finally I found some at the one and only pharmacy, but all of it was SPF30. I already had plenty of SPF30 and wanted SPF15. No joy. Also, their sunscreen was very expensive.

Walking around I realized that I had thoroughly done Nukuíalofa and Tongatapu. The dive boat was scheduled to return at 9am on the final day, and I would be flying out at 10pm the following day. That meant that I would have almost 2 full days with no idea how to kill the time.

Having had breakfast at Cocos, I wanted to eat lunch at Friends Cafť, but apparently they donít serve lunch on Saturday. Its all day breakfast, and I didnít want more eggs. With so few options in town and a fear of getting dysentery from the localís restaurants, I returned to Cocos once again. I had a corned beef sandwich, which apparently they corn themselves. It was OK, but not great, and the bread fell apart instantly.

Walking around town I noticed two things about the locals. First, during the weekdays it seemed that many Tongans wore traditional woven mats around their waists (often over western clothing.) These seemed to be almost entirely absent on Saturday. Second, there were a lot of scary-looking groups of young men walking about. Many were dressed in their best impression of West LA gangsta-rapper garb. More than once I stepped off the sidewalk to let them pass. Perhaps it was just my imagination, but these guys were big and young and looked mean. I had no desire to have the corned beef kicked out of me. I also couldnít help noticing groups of seriously drunk locals hanging out at various convenience stores. Evidently the revelry didnít necessarily stop on "Christmas eve."

At 1:45pm a van arrived at the Seaview to take us to the Naiía. It was a very nice boat; comfortable and spacious. One unusual thing about it is that it has a very small dive deck in back, and a large area in the middle of the main deck for doffing and donning wetsuits and other gear. Most dives are done from skiffs (rigid Zodiacs). The crew would load our tanks into the skiffs for us. We would then be donning our BCís and tanks in the skiffs to do a backwards roll entry for all of our dives. An interesting approach.

Meeting the rest of the guests, my impression was that everyone was in their 40ís and 50ís. They were mostly married couples, some pairs of friends, two singles, and one man that was supposed to be here with his son, but the son had to cancel at the very last minute.

I set up all my dive equipment then met my roommate, the other single person on the boat.

After everyone was settled in, Josh and Liz, the cruise directors, gave us a rundown on the history of the boat, the general procedures, and what our expectations might be for the trip. Then Rob, the owner of Naiía cruises and the boat, gave us a talk on the types of whale encounters we may have. It basically boiled down to two broad categories: whales going about their daily business, and whales being curious about us. The first group includes whales just cruising by - clearly going somewhere - a "flyby." Then there might be whales exhibiting fighting and mating behaviors, and finally mothers with their calves. In almost all of these cases viewing is possible from the boat, but not from the water. Sometimes, however, whales will come by and be curious about us. Most of the time these are juveniles, either alone or in groups. This second category would present our best opportunity for in-the-water encounters. Rob told us how to get ready and into the water with the least risk of scaring them away.

To our surprise the introductory talk was cut short by a whale sighting - a mother and calf. They stuck around for about 45 minutes. It was quite surprising. I didnít think we were going to see whales until we got up to the HaíApai island group.

Much of the rest of the afternoon was spent hanging out, looking out at the sea, and talking with my new shipmates.

Dinner was very good. We were served salad, chicken cordon bleu (without ham) with sautťed zucchini and herbed rigatoni. Desert was a chocolate crepe filled with vanilla ice cream and crŤme anglaise. Iíve never been on a live-aboard where the staff served us wine. In crystal no less. Wow.

We had a beautiful clear night with stars, a perfect half moon, and views of the whole Milky Way.

Around 10pm the boat started motoring north to HaíApai. Normally this is a rough crossing. Fortunately the winds were calm and the waves were small, so the passage was relatively easy.

 

Sunday September 5, 2004

I was up at about 6:45am, just after sunrise. Breakfast, a nice omelet, was served at 7:30. It was a beautiful, clear, warm, windless day. The Naiía people said it was some of the best weather they have had all season. Yay!

The crew spotted our first whales at 8:05am. We watched for a while, then quietly slid into the water for a super-rare encounter with a mother and calf at 8:40. Normally mothers with calves are very skittish, but this one tolerated our presence. At first she maneuvered herself between the calf and us, then they swam away, but only a short distance. We followed. This time they hung there with the calf near us as we lay on the water and watched. The crew were amazed by the interaction which lasted till 9am. The guests didnít know enough to be suitably impressed with the rarity of what we witnessed. We got out of the water, watching several different whales in the distance from the boat. [Aside: I lost my nice padded weight belt on the very first drop into the water. This was being a tough trip for my equipment having lost my hood in Fiji.]

At about 10am we came upon a group of three humpbacks (probably young males) that seemed "curious", cruising around the boat to check us out. We made haste to suit up and get in the water. I got my first photo at 10:15. It was unbelievable. I was in the water till 11:30 when my Olympus camera ran out of batteries. I got out, went to the bathroom, increased the weights on my belt, drank a soda, rested a bit, and grabbed my Pentax camera. I was back in the water at 12:15. It was amazing, the whales kept on coming back and coming back. On several occasions they were so close that Iím sure I could have touched one. My camera battery died at 1:15pm, but I stayed in the water just watching them.

It was amazing to think about what these whales were doing. I mean, it really seemed like they were playing with us. Clearly they were having fun, but were they showing off? Were they studying us, seeing what we would do in response to what they did? Sometimes my mind was blank participating in the experience, and sometimes it was filled with questions. Why were they sticking around? Were they just playing - indifferent to our presence? That didnít seem possible, as they repeatedly swam by, their big eyes following us. Did they realize what a strain it was for us to be in the water with them, the exertion involved in diving down to see them? Did they understand that our intentions were good, that we were "reaching out?" Did these juvenileís parents teach them about the days when men hunted whales, and did these whales connect those men to us? Was this a test? Did they forgive us? Whales havenít built ships allowing them to come to us, so we must go to them.

After a while I simply had to go in. I was exhausted, thirsty, hungry and tired. Most of the divers had gone in for lunch an hour earlier and were starting to come back out again. I had had all that time with only about 5 or 6 of us in the water. Several times I was one-on-one with up to three whales. It was magical, but I had to return to the boat.

These huge animals are so graceful under the water. They were clearly interacting with us. Doing spins, showing us their bellies and fins, sticking their noses above the water. It was amazing, incredible, indescribable, and exhausting. I was thrilled. I felt privileged.

Lunch was dried up old hamburgers (the chef had planned lunch for noon!) I was happy to eat anything, and asked for a second helping. By the time I finished lunch the rest of the guests were returning - the whales had finally left. This five hour interaction had set a record for the longest in Naiía history. I put my camera on the charging stand, went to my cabin, and fell asleep.

At 4:30pm we had a dive briefing, followed by a dive at Ha'afeva Island. It was a relaxing but not very interesting dive. There was lots of sand with not much good coral, not a great siteÖ but we did see a black (immature) ribbon eel, a weird huge tunicate-like creature called a "coralliomorphairan", various sea cucumbers, some reef fish I hadnít seen before, nice large anemones with colonies of anemone fish, a spaghetti worm (loimia medusa), and an unknown nudibranch. There was a little whale song at the beginning of the dive.

That night we enjoyed a great dinner, then watched video of the dayís amazing whale encounters. A night dive was offered, but everyone was so tired that not a single person wanted to go.

It was another beautiful, clear, starry night. By 9:30pm I was out cold.

 

Monday September 6, 2004

Though it was overcast in the morning, the sky started clearing as the sun came up spreading red across the horizon behind the palm covered islands.

Breakfast was terrific - a mushroom frittata and yoghurt with fruit salad, plus very respectable coffee.

Shortly after breakfast the captain raised the anchor, heading us off to look for whales. At about 9:30 we came upon a group putting on a spectacular display of fighting, fin slapping, and breaching which lasted Ďtill 11:30. At one point a pair of huge males swam right past the bow of the boat about 2 feet under the super-clear water. I was on the viewing platform right above them. It was breathtaking. We didnít get into the water, as doing so would have been much too dangerous with these aggressive animals.

I climbed the mast to the crows nest to watch the action from up there. The sight was truly amazing. I loved watching the whales rolling over and over in the waves, slapping their flippers with a tremendous crash.

Eventually the rowdy whales left, leaving behind a few of the calmer ones. We went out in the skiffs to try to swim with them, but they didnít tolerate our entering the water and swam off. Pulling myself into the skiff for the second time I realized that my tricepts were killing me. I had pulled myself into the skiff so many times the day before, my arms were hammered. This was a strenuous trip.

We cruised around for a while, occasionally seeing blows off in the distance, but not getting close to any whales.

They really donít give us much time to sleep, read, or write on this trip. Not long after re-boarding the Naiía we were off again searching for more whales. At 2:30pm we decided to do some scuba diving in an area where whales have been known to swim.

It was a site which Naiía named "Kasikasi Shoals." The Naiía discovered the site on their previous voyage when they accidentally hit it with the boat. "Kasikasi" is Fijian for "hermit crab". In Fijian boating slang, if you can see the hermit crabs, youíre too close. We were (presumably) only the second group of people to ever dive this site. There are four bommies in a row (though I only circled two of them) with sand, rocks and broken coral around. There is a lot of damage to the coral (from weather, not humans) but it is still a very interesting site with a lot of variety.

We saw a young grey reef shark, baby corals, the waving egg case of a Spanish dancer nudibranch looking like someone had glued a bright red ribbon to the reef, lots of pipefish (relatives of sea horses), several bubble anemones with clown anemone fish, lobsters, tunicates, puffer fish and whip corals.

When I tickled a feather star, it opened up to reveal several creatures inside including a tiny fish and an odd grub-looking thing.

All in all a varied, interesting, and pleasant dive. However, I was underweighted and got too light at the end. I had plenty of air but wasnít able to hang at the top of the reef at 6 meters because I kept floating up.

After the dive there was finally a fair amount of downtime before dinner which was an excellent filet mignon and a chocolate torte. After dinner followed the night dive. It was a pleasant and relaxing dive, but there was not really all that much to see. We really scoured the site looking for interesting life. Octopus and Spanish dancers were promised, but none were found.

There was one stonefish, a tiny lionfish, a couple long ugly sea cucumbers with fascinating feeding arms (Euapta Godeffroyi), a huge nudibranch relative called Coriocella Speciosa, pufferfish, lots of sleeping reef fish, beautiful polyclad flatworms, pencil urchins, other sea urchins, bright blue and bright orange starfish, feather stars and decorator crabs.

Again, bed was very welcome.

 

Tuesday September 7, 2004

It dawned another beautiful day, but with patchy clouds and a stronger wind. Breakfast was yoghurt and croissants for me, omelets were also offered.

We pulled anchor and began steaming north to try our luck among some of the northern HaíApai islands. Every other live-aboard Iíve been on cruises either in the evening or at night so that we are where we want to be when we get up in the morning, allowing the guests to jump right in for the first dive. The Naiía doesnít do a morning dive, and we are just as likely to see whales while cruising as at any particular site, so the Naiía moves during the day.

While I was sitting writing my travelogue the shipís whistle went off indicating a whale sighting. "Exhilarating" does not begin to describe the experience. The wind was blowing around 20 knots, the boat was rocking, people were running about trying to get the best view, flying fish were gliding above the surface just in front of the boat, and out in the water two whales were breaching over and over and over again. To see these huge creatures lofting themselves out of the water, smashing down with a boom and a spray, is fireworks and car crashes and sex all rolled into one. Often the breaches were simultaneous, sometimes one after the other, sometimes only one whale would breach.

They would crash straight down or spin as they fell, they did fin slaps and fluke slaps then would disappear for a few minutes to reappear in another spot. During the pauses everyone strained to find any evidence of where they might re-emerge, hoping for that perfect breach shot. Finally, mere feet from the bow of the boat, a whale shot up into the sky. It was literally at my feet as I sat on the bow rail, its white ribbed belly filled my vision then, BOOM, it was back in the water. Everyone on the boat exploded in cheers. We wondered if the whale could hear out applause.

All the while I was furiously shooting, sometimes with my camera in photograph mode, sometimes in the video mode that I had never before used - the still images just couldnít capture the moment. My trigger finger was getting tired holding down the shutter button, when the show spontaneously ended - as quickly as it had begun. An hour had passed in a heartbeat.

Lunch was a coconut milk fish and potato soup; OK but not great.

The waves picked up as did the wind. We continued trekking northward till we found a mother and calf breaching. Rob speculates that the mother was teaching the calf how to breach. Nearby there was a reef. Though the Naiía had never been diving there, and it was not a known site, the decision was made to do a dive in the hopes that we might catch a glimpse of the pair of whales while on scuba. Unfortunately we were not so lucky. Other than the novelty of diving an unexplored site, it was not terribly interesting. There were some cool pin-cushion stars, a variety of tunicates which I spent time inspecting - looking at their inside structures - a couple quite spectacular urchins, giant clams, some huge lobsters, and a little whale song.

Before dinner we did a hop to the almost deserted Ouleva island to check out the beach and enjoy some terra firma. The sand was very soft and pleasant to sit on. Most of the other guests restlessly walked the beach or attempted to penetrate the thick jungle, but I preferred to just sit and watch the waves.

Dinner started with a nondescript chicken based soup, followed by excellent medallions of pork, a mini eggplant parmagiani, and couscous. Desert was a refreshing tropical fruit medley topped with citrus granite. Nice.

We did an OK night dive - no great shakes. I did see a very cool octopus, a slipper lobster (aka Moreton Bay Bug) and two very nice decorator crabs. I got kinda bored and started focusing in on micro things. A tiny brittle-starfish on a big purple sea urchin, a miniscule shrimp on the side of a bulbous sea cucumber, and a tiny coral hermit crab in a minute tubeworm hole (less than 1cm). I was happy when we hit the one hour time limit for night dives.

That night I sat for a while with the crew, listening to them playing guitars and singing songs while drinking Kava.

 

Wednesday September 8, 2004

Breakfast was an interesting interpretation on eggs benedict.

Though we plied the waves, there were no whales anywhere. Reading, writing, and staring at the ocean I was beginning to regret wishing for more "down time." Lunch was a plate of nice fish tacos.

Since there were no whales anywhere, we decided to add an early scuba dive at 1pm. My ears were starting to get a bit tired of diving (Iíd been diving in Fiji as well,) but there was always hope that the whales, missing from above, would appear below.

At the end of the dive last night one of the crew dropped an expensive video camera battery while getting onto the skiff. Thus, we went back to that site so the crew could do a search and rescue (it was recovered.) Sadly, the dive was as boring during the day as it had been the night before - I came up with lots of air left. The coolest thing I saw was a black snapper in its juvenile phase (with a fascinating pattern of white and black), and beautiful leopard wrasses. There were some nice starfish (including a crown of thorns) and urchins. Mostly I just annoyed some little reef fish.

With still no whales in site, another dive was offered. Though they planned on diving a different part of the site, I decided to skip it.

Dinner was an unmemorable fish dish.

We did our night dive at Ouleva Island again. I wasnít excited, since both prior day and night dives there had been rather lame. I almost skipped it, but having skipped the last dive I decided to go ahead. Wow, what a dive. The first half hour was the same old, same old. Boring. I considered scrubbing the dive and ascending early. There had been one tiny octopus in a hole, but he wouldnít come out, and a sand colored flounder about 2" long.

ThenÖ I found a good sized octopus in the open (that quickly ran away), then the divemaster finally spotted our elusive Spanish Dancer (an unusually orange one), a small black nudibranch, then a fabulous bluish octopus with several arms bitten off. I played with him (aka terrorized him) for quite a while before he finally left me.

Then, the piece de resistanceÖ a frogfish! I'd wanted to see one for years. This one was orange/red and about 1.5 inches long. I have no idea how Richard the divemaster found him. The frogfish was inside a feather star, and Richard just reached in and pulled him out. Wow. We stayed and annoyed him for a very long time (about 9 minutes.)

Though it was a clear starry night when we descended, it was blowing rain when we came back up. Sigh.

 

Thursday September 9, 2004

The morning brought weather as bad as or worse than the day before. It was cool, overcast, and blowing hard. Fortunately bad weather doesnít deter the whales, and can even make their blows more dramatic. I put Brian Enoís Music for Airports on the stereo in the main salon to match the moody weather.

After a breakfast of French toast with blueberries, Josh, the lead tour director, told us that it was "officially shitty weather", which would make it difficult to find whales and very hard to swim with them. Therefore we were going to head north about 7 miles in the protection of a string islands to a site where we would do a morning dive. However, as the boat attempted to force its way north the weather got worse and worse, so finally the captain made the decision to turn around and take us back to Ouleva Island yet again, where we did an inshore dive.

The dive was an interesting variation. We dove the same general area as our prior dives, but closer to shore. There was a lot of sand separating small coral outcrops. This area had lots of different kinds of small gobies, a couple rays, various reef fish, cowries, coral hermit crabs, and sea cucumbers. There wasnít much that was particularly noteworthy, and it was not a "great" site, but was enjoyable as something different. I lost the group after about 20mins. The visibility was so bad that I never found them again.

Lunch was a nice spiced beef on a bed of puffed "fuhn" noodles.

After lunch Rob announced that the weather report was in. The bad news was that the storm was expected to intensify throughout the day resulting in very strong winds, rain, and large waves. As a result, we were going to lift anchor and head off to a more protected cove on another island. This was to take a long time as it required navigating through a number of little bommies. The good news was that the wind was blowing the storm away, with predictions that it would be past some time during the night, with several days of good weather to follow.

By now I was really regretting having said that I didnít have enough time to read and write.

The boat got into a protected harbor, then a dive was offered in the cove. The weather was hideous and I just didnít feel like it, so I stayed on board. Those that went reported that I had made the right choice; there was very little there. Originally a second dive had been planned, though it and the night dive were cancelled since the site wasnít very good and the weather precluded going elsewhere. Instead dinner was served, followed by the staff party for the guests with music and kava for all.

 

Friday September 10, 2004

Around 6am I was awakened by flashes of lightning flaring through the portholes of my room. Stumbling from my bunk I looked outside to see nothing but grey and rain punctuated by far off lightning. Oooof.

Though it was calm in our protected harbor, the sky was blank all around until about 10am when a sliver of blue sky appeared to the east. We headed out in the hopes of finding clear weather and whales, each of which did materialize to a degree.

We went for a dive around 10am at Hakavata Island. It was a modestly interesting dive; I got bored after about 1/2 hour. The highlights were a small spotted eagle ray with a remora as big as he was, a brief turtle encounter, a guineafowl puffer in its yellow variant, and a juvenile axilspot hogfish.

I had a chicken foccacia sandwich for lunch, then we continued the search for whales. We spotted a couple, but they werenít hanging around, so we steamed off.

No whales were in the offing so we went for another dive, this time at Leteoo Rock. The first half of the dive was so boring I almost gave up and surfaced. Then I found the wall. I donít know why we hadnít been on it the whole time, as it was much more interesting. A large marble ray swam by which I followed down to 31 meters (my Nitrox max depth), then came back up again. The wall was nice, and the coral heads at around 5-10meters were good too.

During the dive there was almost non-stop whale song. I hung out at 5 meters for about 20 minutes hoping a whale might swim by, though the visibility was so bad I wouldnít have seen it if it were more than 20 feet away.

After a sliced steak dinner another night dive was scheduled. I was "knackered", and hadnít much enjoyed the last few dives, so I skipped it and slept instead.

 

Saturday September 11, 2004

I awoke to find the sky mostly cloudy with winds over 20 knots. Everyone was seriously subdued. We had another fine breakfast, then went out searching for the ever elusive whales. Finally around mid-morning we came upon a juvenile endlessly tail slapping, doing rollovers and fin slaps. Our first true whale interaction in days. It was highly entertaining - clearly the whale was having a good time, or maybe yelling out for some friends to play with. Weíll never know.

After he swam away we stopped fighting the strong winds, heading in to a more protected spot.

Having not found any whales for a while, the decision was made to do an after-lunch dive at Oua island. What a great dive! Finally there was sunshine again providing some reasonable visibility underwater. There were interesting anemones with anemone fish, I saw a cool hermit crab on some coral, and spent a long time with tiny blue cleaner shrimp that cleaned my hand. I discovered some elegant squat lobsters (allogalathea elegans - not a lobster, actually a type of crab) under a crinoid. They made a great photo. There was a lobster, nice reef fish, many banded pipe fish, a huge moray eel, some trumpet fish, and finally a baby lionfish cradled between the arms of a blue starfish. This was the first dive in a long time where I didnít want to come up.

After the dive we continued searching for whales without any luck. So, we went diving again; this time at Luanamo Island. In contrast to the prior dive, this one was really boring. It was just a broken, dead, dying, silty reef. The only thing I recall seeing were two beautiful nudibranchs, lots of anemonies, and lots of urchins. Otherwise it was a total yawn.

After the sun and dinner had set, we did our night dive. This second dive at Luanamo Island was even more boring than during the day. I saw a nice colorful squid, the biggest slipper lobster I've ever seen, and tons of sea urchins. Thatís about it. I quit out of sheer ennui before my time or air was up.

 

Sunday September 12, 2004

The morning broke to mostly cloudy skies sporting magnificent rainbows. We joked about whether whales would be our "pot of gold at the end of the rainbow." It seemed as though the rainbows might have brought us luck as we started finding whales shortly after breakfast. But, we werenít quite lucky enough. We went out in the skiff several times, but the whales were keeping their distance. We would get into the water to be rewarded with only a brief view of the whales diving and swimming away.

The weather was unpleasant but not terrible. However, it made being in the skiff uncomfortable and pulling myself back up out of the water time after time was killing my arms.

Though Iíve never been, I imagine this whale trip was like going on safari looking for lions. Long periods of downtime just searching and searching, followed by great excitement as a pride is finally found. With plenty of time on my hands for pondering, I found myself wondering if we were doing the whales a disservice. As the whales become more and more used to the presence of harmless whale watchers, are we conditioning them to not be afraid of us? Is this wise? If whaling ever resumes wont they be all the more vulnerable? Hmmm.

The rain resumed then receded, the search for whales continued with little luck. Back out in the skiff again we chased the whales with increasing desperation; this was our last day - the whaley-teasing was getting on everyone nerves. We spent hours in wrinkling in our wet suits, sitting in the skiffs in choppy water, returning to the boat, and heading out again. Truly, "desperate" was the word of the day.

Eventually a group decided to head out on the skiff with hydrophones to record whale song. By this point I was drenched and tired and not up for sitting in the skiff any longer. I stayed on board and taught Rob to use Microsoft Access update queries. Somehow I still really enjoy showing off what Access can do.

As evening set with no more whales in the offing, we all made out way to the dive deck to wash our gear and hang it up to dry one final time.

While cleaning and organizing I had a lot of time to ponder the past days. If this had been a two day trip (consisting of the first two days), Iíd knew Iíd be raving about it and rushing to sign up for the following year. I wondered what my attitude would have been in different scenarios: what if we had had a 1 hour interaction for each of 5 days; what if the two great days had been at the end after 7 days of nothing, rather than at the beginning. What if there had been no in-water interactions at all? Hmmm.

After our final dinner together we had a slide show of all of the best (digital) photos taken by people on the trip, and a viewing of the "official" video shot by Josh. Needless to say I bought the video - it was far better than any whale shots I had taken. After seeing the video I felt a little silly about having bothered to bring a camera at all!

That night we began the reurn crossing to Tongatapu. The seas were very rough causing the boat to rock violently - it was much more like what I had anticipated during our first night. Fortunately, coming at the end I had my sea legs. Nonetheless it made it hard to sleep.

 

Monday September 13, 2004

Though poorly rested, I was up before dawn to pack up. Because the waves were so high during the crossing, the dive gear, left out to dry, was still very damp.

After breakfast we all settled up our bills for "extras" like Nitrox fills, dive videos and souvenir T-shirts. We got in to port at around 7am where we were shuttled from the boat to the dock in the skiffs.

Back at the Seaview I was this time put into a tiny, cold, dim, dank back room. Ugh. My damp gear would never dry back there. Even the bed felt damp. I spread diving gear over every available surface in the room, fell into bed, pulled the moist covers over my head and fell deeply asleep.

When I finally awoke it was raining again. Ugh. I puttered around the Seaview, reading and watching a little TV. Finally the rain stopped just before lunchtime so I walked into town where I had a nice Ceasarís salad at Cafť Escape (Taufaíahau Rd., 21-212). Then I went to ANTS internet to see what had happened while I was incommunicado. Not much, it turned out, but I was nice getting some mail from friends back home. I failed to enjoy a terrible coffee at Ali Babas Cafť, next door to ANTS in the Tungi Arcade. Finally I walked back to the hotel, arriving just in time to avoid yet more rain.

For dinner Iíd planned on returning to the Waterfront Cafť, but it is closed on Mondays, and the restaurant at the Seaview still hadnít reopened. Instead, I went to the Lonely Planet recommended Luna Rosa (TCF Building, Taufaíahau Rd., 26-324). Luna Rosa is a surprisingly attractive restaurant hidden above the ugly TCF building. I got there at their 6:30 opening time to find the doors open but nobody home. Evidently they donít actually expect anyone at 6:30. I went behind the bar, turned down the blaring stereo, and poured myself a glass of water. About 10 minutes later Marco, the owner, appeared and seated me. Marco was a friendly, affable Italian who pleasantly told me about their terrific homemade pastas and the complimentary cup of soup. Unfortunately, I discovered that Marco was both the only Italian and the only pleasant soul in the place; the Tongan staff were brusque to the point of being nasty.

While perusing the menu a group of exceedingly well dressed Tongans took a table near me. The women had clearly been bathing in perfume before leaving the house. Gack.

The complimentary bowl of soup was some sort of chicken stock based soup with a dab of coconut cream added. It was pleasant and refreshing. For my dinner I ordered the lobster ravioli, served with a separate plate of sautťed eggplant. The ravioli were light and delicate with well made pasta and nice fresh lobster meat. They were served with a simple browned lobster stock based sauce and a bit of parmesan. They would have been great except that they were served too cold. The plates were stone cold. I heard in my mind my old cooking teacher, Chef Andy, yelling "hot plates, hot sauce, hot food!" The eggplant, though tasty, was similarly chilled.

I enjoyed the food, but unlike the plates the restaurant was exceedingly hot. There were two large air conditioners mounted in the wall, but they were not turned on. The place got hotter and hotter as more diners arrived. By the time they presented me the desert menu the only thing on my mind was escaping for fresh, unperfumed air. I paid up and rushed out into the delightfully cool evening. Still and clear, the sky was full of stars. Ahhhh.

I couldnít resist one more desert before heading back to America and my low-carb diet. Returning to Cafť Escape, I ordered the decadent "chocolate mud cake", a multilayer chocolate carbo-bomb. Mmmmmm, mmmmm.

 

Tuesday September 14, 2004

It turned out that my room (#304, the worst room in the hotel) wasnít booked for that night, so I got the hotel to extend my checkout time till my flight time for a price of Ĺ the room rate. I had hoped they would just let me have it for free after my prior two stays. Oh well. At US$25 it was worth it for the convenience.

Needless to say the weather was spectacular. Clear and warm with a slight breeze. Thereís no way I could have gotten this kind of weather during my stay? Sigh. Of course, it couldnít last. As I was drying my wet suits on the front porch of the hotel, it started to drizzle. Hi ho.

After killing the morning reading and writing I took a taxi to Cafť Escape. It is aptly named - seemingly an escape from Tonga. Adorned with a couch, coffee table, and magazines, it is more like an American cafť/restaurant than anywhere in this part of the world. I had an excellent lunch of fish with black bean sauce, then retired to their couch to read.

Eventually I return to the hotel, trying to stretch out the task of packing over the remaining hours.

I spent the rest of the day just killing time. Reading, writing, snoozing, staring at the wall. At 6:00pm I went to the Italian restaurant just down the street from the hotel to grab dinner before catching the shuttle to the airport at 7:30. Of course, though open, the restaurant said they wouldnít start serving food until 6:30! Good grief. Worse yet, 6:30 dining was a joke. At 7:00pm I finally told the owner that I had to get the airport and could they hurry it up. At 7:10 I told him I needed it to go. Needless to say the phone lines were down, so they couldnít accept my credit card and I had to use the money I was saving for the shuttle to pay for my dinner. I finally got out of there a little after 7:15, rushed back to the hotel, inhaled the mediocre spaghetti with lobster sauce, and finished pulling together my bags. After killing time all day I was now in a hurry! Of course, the hotel couldnít run my credit card because the phone lines were still down, but, fortunately, they were able to put the shuttle fee on my room bill and were willing to take down my credit card information to charge later. I finally got out of there 15 minutes late.

Not that I needed to worry. The notion of being at Tongatapu airport two hours early is patently absurd. The airport is miniscule - one hour would be plenty.

The scheduling of this flight is kind of a drag. The plane leaves Tonga at 10:00pm, they want you at the airport at 8:00pm, it takes a half an hour to get to the airport, there is no food at the airport, and restaurants wonít open till 6:30. Because Nukuíalofa is so dead boring you have to kill a day, and in my case I had to pay extra to kill that day at my hotel. Then the plane lands at Apia, American Samoa around 11:00pm, where everyone has to deplane "for security reasons." The stopover in Apia is 2 hours. The waiting area is typical hard plastic chairs. The plane finally takes off again at 1:00am. In retrospect, I think flying home via Fiji might have been more comfortable.

The flights were on Air New Zealand in a Boeing 767. For some reason business class (all the way from Tonga to Denver via LAX) was only slightly more expensive than coach. However, the business class seats were the narrowest and least comfortable I have ever seen. I have been in coach seats that were nicer. Oh well... I was heading home after six weeks on the road. That was enough to make me smile.

 

Postcript:

Tonga is nowhere. There are a lot of tropical islands and 2nd and 3rd world nations that are interesting or charming, beautiful or dramatic, filled with welcoming people (Bali is world-famous for this), or just simply posessing of tourist infrastructure that allows for a nice holiday (i.e. any Caribbean island.) Tonga is none of these things; it merely exists. Unless you are going to swim with whales, go to Fiji instead. That Lonely Planet could only manage to fill 200 pages is telling (and 30 of those are boilerplate "facts for the visitor".)

The Naia boat is terrific, and they do a great tour. However, it is very expensive and Tonga is a pain in the ass, both to get to and to stay in. Swimming with the whales was amazing, but overall the trip fell short of being the experience of a lifetime. If I were to do it a second time, I think I would try out some of the other places in the world where swimming with whales is possible; among them Grand Turk in the British West Indies and The Silver Banks south of the Bahamas and north of Haiti, each of which are far easier to get to from the United States. I have also heard of terrific whale shark diving in many spots on the Pacific coast of Mexico where mantas and whales are also seen as a bonus. I have even heard that it is sometimes possible to have encounters with Blue whales in the Maldives. All these options are certainly worth more research.

 

© 2004, Andrew Sigal



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