Close Encounter

CBPP_20130831_Whale-122-MWe’ve been treated to beautiful weather in Tonga, with sunny skies and crystalline clear water vibrant in shades of blue and turquoise. But day before yesterday a storm moved in bringing gray skies and rain. The colors wash out of the world and the ocean turns leaden, the green of the palms turns drab. It’s a cozy feeling at night to sleep dry and warm in our bed listening to the sound of raindrops splattering on the hatch overhead. It rained steadily all night, but the downpour quit by morning although the sky was still overcast. We stayed in our anchorage all morning doing some housekeeping – laundry at the top of the list.

But after lunch we’d had enough of chores so we decided to change anchorages and scout for whales en route. The ocean was empty, no whales or whale watching boats in sight. We eventually spotted a very distant blow and were headed towards it with faint hope of catching up with the whale, when I saw a much closer blow 90º to port. So we changed direction and pointed AVATAR towards our new target.

CBPP_20130831_Whale2-103-MLuck was entirely on our side this time. We had found a mother and very young calf that were floating quietly near the surface. They showed no signs of avoiding us or moving on, and no licensed whale boat operators were in the vicinity. Finally I couldn’t resist the opportunity and peeled off my clothes (swimsuit already on underneath) and grabbed the underwater camera which luckily was assembled and ready to go. There was a mad scramble finding the bare necessities – fins, mask and snorkel, forgoing wet suit and booties – and then I eased into the water off the boat’s swim step ladder.

The two whales were maybe 150 feet off our stern and I located them instantly through my camera’s viewfinder. I swam slowly and carefully towards them, minimizing any splashing or sudden movement, and they allowed me to approach without showing any inclination to depart. At one point they did aim directly away from me and I thought they would swim off, but instead their path curved around and slowly, imperceptibly, they drifted towards me until I found myself eye to eye with mama, while baby hovered on the surface just above her dorsal fin, the pair of them checking me out. I was close enough to feel I could reach out and touch her long pectoral fins, and eventually I had to start backpedaling in fear of making accidental physical contact.

The calf seemed very young to my eyes, but had a surprising amount of scarring on her body and her left eye was closed in almost every one of my 400+ photos – leading us to believe she suffered some sort tumble in the coral or other mishap. Mom was still giving her some assistance with surfacing to breathe. The opportunity to swim alone and close to a cooperating whale is a rare and awe-inspiring experience. It is truly amazing that a mother whale with such a young baby would be trusting enough to allow such a close approach without showing any signs of anxiety or disturbance. Perhaps she was giving her daughter a first introduction to the human species!

CBPP_20130831_Whale-211-MI was with them for quite a long time, photographing continuously when I caught a glimpse of a third whale further out. That seemed a good indicator to end the encounter so I started back towards AVATAR. On board they were all starting to call me back in at the same time. Apparently, unbeknownst to me, the third whale had arrived behind me at high speed and put on quite a show including a full body breach and some vigorous tail smacking. Whether he was showing off for the female, or indicating displeasure at my presence, is an unknown – but either way it was definitely time to get out of the water.

CBPP_20130831_Whale2-216-MMike on board had grabbed my second camera with the long lens – not knowing how to use it he took quite a few severely out of focus shots, but he did grab a frame of me snorkeling with the two whales, and also captured the impressive splash of the breaching whale (but sadly not the breach itself).  Still dripping, I switched cameras in time to catch whale number three still tail actively tail lobbing.

Gallery of Whale Photos

Swallows’ Cave and Mariner’s Cave

CBPP_20130830_Mourelle-209-MJust around the corner from Neiafu near an anchorage named Port Mourelle (after the Spaniard Don Francisco Antonio Mourelle who was the first European to land in Vava’u), are two well-known tourist destinations – a pair of caves in the porous limestone of the islands. Swallows’ Cave yawns cavernously above the waterline with geological features that look very much like tonsils. A small boat or dinghy can sail right into the mouth and enjoy the cathedral like ambience and the colorful Tongan graffiti scrawled on the walls. We took the requisite dinghy tour and then scuba dived to explore the cavern depths.

CBPP_20130830_Mourelle-199-MCBPP_20130830_Mourelle-206-MCBPP_20130830_Mourelle-222-MClose by is the second landmark, Mariner’s Cave. This one is a bit trickier to locate, because the entrance to the cave is hidden underwater. We’ve been there before but still passed it by in the dinghy, searching for the underwater opening. It wasn’t until afterwards that we spotted the two large pink graffiti arrows painted on the limestone cliffs pointing straight down towards the opening – duh!

CBPP_20130830_Mourelle-060-M-2CBPP_20130830_Mourelle-071-MStrong swimmers can snorkel into the cave by diving to a depth of 6 feet or so and then traversing laterally some 13 feet under the ledge before ascending to the water’s surface inside the cave. The cave offers an interesting atmospheric phenomenon. Incoming ocean swells trap air inside the cave and each time the waves recede, every few seconds, the air inside fogs up due to the water vapor cooling as it expands. The fog comes and goes every few seconds with the wave action. Lit by sunlight filtered through seawater, the water inside the cave glows with an ethereal blue.

There is a second entrance to the cave deeper down, at about 15 meters. As scuba divers we were able to come and go at our leisure, without having to hold our breath!

Mariner’s Cave is named for Will Mariner, a British ship’s boy. His ship was attacked and overrun by Tongan natives in the Ha’apai Group back in 1806 but he survived and became a favorite of chief Finau, who used Will’s knowledge of gunnery to help wage war on the neighboring islands using captured cannons from the raided privateer.

Will Mariner spent some four years in Tonga before he finally convinced the king’s son to let him leave  Tonga aboard a passing English ship. He eventually returned to London, married, raised 12 children, and became a stockbroker on the London exchange. He wrote a book called “An Account of the Natives of the Tongan Islands” which is now considered a classic of Pacific literature, although at the time no one believed the veracity of his report!


Whale Spotting

CBPP_20130827_untitled-045-MIt took us two weeks to get from Fiji to Tonga, thanks to an uncooperative convergence zone stalled overhead, producing heavy gray clouds, buckets of rain, and high winds. We navigated southeasterly through Fiji looking for safe overnight anchorages and checking the forecast daily looking for a break. We also had the opportunity to read several good books, since the weather was so uninviting. Finally we got an opening and headed across the 300 mile stretch of ocean separating Fiji’s Lau Group from Vava’u in Tonga. It was a 30 hour passage ‘uphill’, hammering head on into the oncoming waves which made for an unpleasant ride, comparable to life inside a washing machine.


The Kingdom of Tonga, about 1300 nautical miles northeast of New Zealand, is composed of ‘groups’ of islands and the Vava’u Group is one of the more northerly. The main town of Neiafu offers the excellent Port of Refuge Harbor with facilities that include fuel, restaurants, a good market for local produce and handicrafts, a few shops, and a very few nice shops. We even have access to wifi again after a long dry spell! Currently it is the peak of cruising season in this part of the world and the harbor and anchorages are full of visiting yachts. One of the main draws is the arrival of hundreds of humpback whales that migrate here each year from the Antarctic to give birth, mate, and raise the babies until they are robust enough to survive the cold polar seas. The whales start to arrive in July and depart again in October, with numbers peaking in August and September.

Whale spotting involves scanning the empty sea for the blow (spout), the column of spray exhaled by the whales when they surface to breathe. Once we spot the blow and close in on them, we’ll often find the whales hanging out on the surface engaging in assorted activities. Humpback whales are the most athletic and exuberant of all whales and display a variety of behaviors – from spectacular breaching when the whales launch themselves, all 80 tons or so (double the weight of Avatar fully loaded), into the air and fall back into the water again with a commensurate titanic splash. Often they’ll breach 6 or 7 times in a row. They will also spyhop, poking their heads straight up out of the sea to take a look around;  tail-slap, smacking the surface of the water repeatedly with their tails; or flipper-slap, laying on their sides or backs and flailing their long (a third of the length of their bodies) pectoral fins against the sea surface. When they dive deep, they arch their backs like a cat and raise their tail flukes high out of the water. When they submerge fully they leave behind a ‘footprint’, a slick of smooth water on the ruffled surface of the sea. Humpbacks are also noted for their complex singing, and it adds an extra dimension to a scuba dive when we hear their distant song echoing through the water in concert with our air bubbles.  There are only about 20,000 humpbacks left worldwide today, the whaling industry having killed a quarter million of them in the 20th century up until 1983. They are now categorized as rare.


CBPP_20130825_5Whales-1019-M-MCBPP_20130827_untitled-121-MWe got extremely lucky with our first whale encounter – coming across five individuals all traveling together. Best guess is that the group including a cow and calf, and three amorous suitors competing for her favor. One of the males was nearly all white with just a charcoal dorsal stripe. Humpbacks are usually black or dark gray with white underbellies. Individuals can be positively identified from the black and white markings on the underside of their tails, as unique as fingerprints. But a white-bodied one would be highly unusual. This group gave us a good show, and we suspect we may have actually witnessed (and photographed) a mating – but as none of us are whale experts, we can’t be sure.

CBPP_20130825_5Whales-238-MThe last week of our trip Mike and I are booked into Mounu Island Resort, operated by one of the founders of organized whale-watching in Tonga. Accompanied by a licensed operator and whale expert, we will actually able to swim and snorkel with the whales, an awe-inspiring experience. In the meantime we are contenting ourselves with whale-spotting, scuba diving, and exploring the beautiful islands and lagoons of Tonga’s Vava’u Group.

Devastation in Niuatoputapu

Tonga_300x20057050The past few days were marred by the devastation that occurred throughout SE Asia and the South Pacific with earthquakes,tsunamis and hurricanes in Indonesia,the Philippines, Samoa and Tonga causing loss of lives and catastrophic property damage all within a few days span of time.  However we are zeroing in on the tragic effects of the tsunami that hit Niuatoputapu in Tonga as a result of the same powerful 8.3 earthquake that affected Samoa a couple of days ago. It has only been a few weeks since aboard Raven we were anchored off Niuatoputapu enjoying the warm hospitality of the islanders in this very remote outpost of Tonga.  Here’s a link to a New Zealand Herald news story describing the damage done to this small island and its inhabitants.  The link follows, as well as a transcription of the story.


“Emergency medical teams arrived at tsunami-hit Niuatoputapu island yesterday, the first outside aid for Tongan victims since the early-morning disaster two days ago.

The death toll for this remote settlement 500km north of the country’s main island, Tongatapu, is nine.

Four residents with serious injuries were flown out to Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa, only yesterday because damage to Niuatoputapu’s sole airstrip meant no craft could land immediately after the disaster.

Tongan Government spokesman Alfred Soakai, who had flown over the island, said 90 per cent of homes had been destroyed and the hospital had been seriously damaged.

Two of the island’s villages, Hihifo and Falehau, bore the brunt of three tidal waves, some 6m high, which hit at three-minute intervals after the 8.3-magnitude earthquake. Vaipoa village remained relatively unharmed.

Just over 1000 people live on Niuatoputapu, which sits close to the Samoan border. It is isolated by the expensive cost of infrequent transport to the island.

That isolation has been exacerbated this week as the tsunami severed all telecommunications infrastructure.

Because aid workers were unable to fly directly to the island, a Tonga Defence Services patrol boat loaded with food, medical supplies and tents was sent north from Tongatapu, arriving about 6pm yesterday.

Journalist Pesi Fonua, who was also on the Government-chartered flight over the island, saw scenes of devastation. Coastal villages have all but disappeared, with murky water lapping at shores awash with debris.

“It looked like everything had been flushed out to sea,” said Fonua.

“The amazing thing was that we saw very few people.”

“We flew around a number of times but there was very little movement, I counted about five people.”

It was heartbreaking not being able to land, he said.

“Those people must have been wondering what on earth was happening. We could tell that they were in distress and were expecting general assistance.”

Clean water remains a critical issue. Storage tanks are either unusable or were destroyed.

A radio clothing and food drive started yesterday morning in Nuku’alofa and a French frigate, which is on a goodwill trip to the capital, has been formally asked to take supplies to Niuatoputapu.”

How you can help

Pacific Cooperation Foundation
Deposits can be made at at any Westpac branch. All the money raised will go to the Samoan Government

Red Cross
– Make a secure online donation at
– Send cheques to the Samoan Red Cross Fund, PO Box 12140, Thorndon, Wellington 6144
– Call 0900 31 100 to make an automatic $20 donation
– Make a donation at any NZ Red Cross office

ANZ bank Make a donation at any ANZ bank branch, or donate directly to the ANZ appeal account: 01 1839 0143546 00

Oxfam – Make a secure online donation at – Phone 0800 400 666 or make an automatic $20 donation by calling 0900 600 20

Whale Watching Best Day Yet!

CBParker_D3_20090906_Tonga-222-EditSunday morning after the big party, we went out on our final guided whale watching trip – as it turns out saving the best for last. Our guide this time was Allan from Whale Watch Vava’u, based out of his Mounu Island Resort and the pioneer of commercial whale watching in Vava’u. He picked us up off Raven from our anchorage near the Full Moon Party, picked up the rest of the swimmers from the resort, and headed confidently out to connect with a trio of whales.

We had an exhilarating day swimming with whales and were very fortunate to have had the opportunity. Most of the whale watching operations are booked solid at the moment, many with their boats taken up by private charters, and we have been scrambling to find space for ourselves. This boat was actually on charter by a Scot named Colin Baxter who therefore had exclusive rights to the boat and was extremely kind in allowing us to come aboard. Colin is an acclaimed professional landscape photographer and serious humpback whale aficionado who has been to all around the world building a portfolio of humpback photos for an eventual book.

Allan took us straight to a mother, calf and escort and we played with them for hours – sharing time with the resort’s other boat, and giving the whales some time to themselves as well. His skill at predicting their behavior without harassing them made every swim a success. In addition he educated us with information about whale behavior. Mother and escort would lie quietly 10-20 meters below the surface while the baby made multiple trips to the surface to breathe and to play, checking us out on each pass. Later in the day he got very playful and started breaching repeatedly. Occasionally the group would move on and relocate, at which point the boat would pick us up and reposition for another whale encounter in a new location.

The Tongan humpback whales have migrated here some 6,000 miles from the Antarctica, spending June through November in tropical waters calving, mating, and raising their offspring until the youngsters are strong enough to make the long trek back to their southern feeding grounds. While here the adults do not eat at all. A mother whale will lose some ten tons, one third of her body weight, during her tropical sojourn. Humpbacks are the most acrobatic of whales, exhibiting exuberant breaching, tail lobbing, and pectoral slapping behavior. They are also noted for their vocalizations and whalesong. Distinctively colored with white markings on the underside, they can be individually identified by the pattern of the markings on their tail flukes.

Late in the day Allan spotted the blow of another whale in the distance, so we said good-bye to our family of three and went off to see what new experiences awaited us. This whale was solitary, quietly lying on the bottom in some 10 meters of water near shore. While we swam above him he lay quietly for up to 20 minutes, then would rise with no apparent effort to the surface, take four breaths, and sink down again for another nap. Allan explained that whales sleep with half of their brain, one eye closed, while the other half remains awake. Because they breathe by conscious effort, unlike our automatic respiration, they need to be partially awake at all times.

Here are a few of the photos of the day, although I look forward to refining them with Photoshop when I get home. One photo, not particularly a good one, shows Mike snorkeling behind the trio of whales – giving you an idea of the contrast in size between a human and a combined total of some 60-70 tons of whale flesh!




Full Moon Party (Vava’u Style)

Morning all!

Socked in gray and steady downpour this Monday morning, 2 inches of rain in the forecast. Boat is nicely washed off and we are now filling the water tanks by collecting rainwater. Should have no problem topping off our 2400 liter storage tanks. We’re signed up for another day of whale watching, but don’t know yet if it’s a go. Tomorrow we’re pulling out of Vava’u about 4 am and sailing south to the Ha’apai group some 60 miles away. The rest of the week is forecast for strong winds – close to 30 knots – puts a damper on things but that’s the way the weather seems to have been this season in Tonga.

Neiafu locals organized Tonga’s First Annual Regatta Vava’u a bit on the spur of the moment – only coming up with the idea some 3 1/2 weeks ago – but they did a bang up job. There are 80 or so yachts in the main harbor last time I counted with many more in the anchorages. The organizing committee put together a few races with trophies along with an entire host of extracurricular activities and some 55 yachts signed up for one thing or another. We didn’t choose to go racing, but did sign up for Saturday night’s Full Moon Party which turned out to be quite the event..

The party was held on a smaller island some 20 minutes from here. We sailed out Saturday morning and anchored in a pretty spot nearby, went for a SCUBA dive on a submerged sea mount with lots of good coral and a large variety of fish, and eventually after dinner in the cockpit we took ourselves over to the party in the dinghy by the light of the full moon. First benefit was valet dinghy parking! With a few hundred people in attendance, all arriving by dinghy, the beach and dock was absolutely jammed with inflatables!

I was expecting bonfires on the beach with beer and a boom box – and was very surprised to find an atmosphere best described as a combination of Woodstock, Las Vegas, and Castaway! Somewhere a generator was hidden away – colored banners were strung up haphazardly in the trees and backlit with lights for effect. A mainsail was strung between two palm trees and served as the projection screen for ambient video. Local pubs and eateries had set up a food stand and a bar. The island had a curving hill wrapped around a flat focal point, creating the effect of an amphitheater. A deejay had a good sound system amped up and played dance music the entire night in the flattened area. Even the porta-pottie was special – built out of sticks and thatched pandanus leaves, but with a real plastic seat and toilet paper mounted on a forked stick!

Attendees including yachties of all shapes and sizes, from kids to gray hairs, and nationalities (French, Swiss, Danish, Brazilian, American, Spanish, British, Australian, New Zealanders and more), local Neiafu residents both palangis (foreigners) and Tongans, dressed in everything from glittery outfits with halloween masks to board shorts and muscle tees with handmade pandanus hats. Entertainment appeared sporadically throughout the evening – a host of dancers dressed in glow sticks for a skeletal effect in the dark, three Tongan fire dancers, a glow stick man on stilts.

Whale Watching Day 2

CBParker_D700_20090902_Tonga-157We’re back in Vava’u after a not very fun sail from Niuatoputapu. We left Monday morning as the forecast indicated that was our best window for wind direction and strength in a weeklong forecast of continuing windy conditions. Beating into the wind, choppy swells, wind consistently between 25-30 knots – Mike compares the ride to being in a washing machine. After our bouncy but uneventful 18 hour overnight passage we pulled into Port Maurelle in the early morning for a lazy day anchored in quiet waters, catching up on our sleep, washing the salt water off the boat, and going for a snorkel.

Wednesday Mike and I went out again with Dive Vava’u, a first rate diving and whale watching operation. Windy as usual – same 25 knots stirring up the chop. We made 4 or 5 attempts to swim with the whales, donning our snorkel gear and waiting on the swim platform at the aft end of the boat, then sliding in (no splashing allowed – scares the whales away) and taking off in a 50 yard sprint to close with the whales. Four or five repeats of that scenario is good aerobic exercise in the rough water! On our first attempt we did see the whales for a moment – a mother and calf who would have been happy to hang around except for their male escort who rounded them up each time and drove them off.

Eventually we gave up the swim attempts and went looking for surface activity with a great deal more success. Good views of a female and calf – she laying on her side waving a flipper in the air and splashing it down on the water’s surface – according to our guide that is female behavior to attract a male. Flippers (pectoral fins) on a humpback whale are exceptionally long, up to 17 feet or about 1/3 the length of the whale’s entire body, therefore often referred to as wings.


We also had really good luck with breaching whales – I missed seeing the pair that breached in tandem – only saw the resulting huge splash. Another whale breached one time not too far from the boat, and then we lucked on an exuberant performer who breached 7-8 times, affording good photo ops. It’s a bit of a challenge to photograph breaching whales as they erupt quite unexpectedly out of the water – but when they repeat it ups the odds of pointing the camera in the right direction at the right time.

The whale in the breaching photos has a yellow patch under his throat – it is a colony of barnacles. One theory about why whales breach is that it is an attempt to dislodge parasites like those barnacles.

We plan to continue to go out whale watching on the premise that the more opportunity, the better the odds of success. However today (Friday) is socked in gray and drizzly – no wind and calm water for a change, but not very inviting. So I think we’ll just stay on Raven catching up with the internet and other mundane matters.

Photo Tip:  Double-clicking on any photo will open it up as an enlargement.