Whale Watching Day 1

Our flight to Vava’u was uneventful except for the two-hour delay departing Tucson. Made us a bit nervous as the LAX-Tonga flight only goes once a week, so if we missed our connection we were in for some creative rescheduling or a week long vacation in Los Angeles! There was a noticeable number of underwater photographers aboard the flight as I could tell from both overheard conversation and the type of luggage on the baggage carousel.

It always feels wonderful to step off the airplane and take in the clean humid air of the tropics, low flying clouds, and palm trees lining the runway. And Rod waiting with the dinghy at the dock to load up our suitcases and ourselves for a quick ride to Raven and the start of our alternative lifestyle. Off come the shoes, on go the shorts and T-shirts, and we are back into Raven mode.

Yesterday we signed up to go out with Whale Watch Vava’u, one of several whale watching tour boats that pursue the humpback whales in season. We were out on the water some eight hours tracking down a friendly whale. The first half of the day was only moderately successful, doing what our guides called “hit and run”. It was easy to locate whales – they are everywhere, but the ones we located were on the move and not inclined to play. Eventually when the boat got into good position, we’d slip into the water in our snorkel gear and kick off quickly to try to get a glimpse of the whales underwater as they glided by. Often they are in groups of 3, a mother and her baby escorted by a hopeful male suitor.

Our second hit and run encounter was a single male who dove down below us – we could just barely make out his tail in the blue gloom, but he was singing. Even those aboard the boat could hear the song, but in the water with our heads submerged it was an amazing experience to be immersed in whale song – as much a feeling as a sound as it echoed through the water.

Finally late in the day we got a radio tip that a swimmer-friendly whale and calf were hanging out near shore. We gave up on the random hit and runs and motored over to wait our turn to swim with the whale. Whale watching etiquette requires that only one boat works with a whale at a time, but must give up its place to another boat after 45 minutes, so we bided our time.

Well worth the wait! Mama whale was quietly suspended motionless in shallow water only about 6-7 meters deep. Her calf was only a few weeks old and he was playing around close to her body. On first view he was upright in the water, tail pointed down to the ocean floor, head peeking above his mother’s back, balanced by his flukes on her head and watching us watch him. However he swam loops around and about, quietly entertaining himself while mother never moved – just hung there, all 40 tons of her, while we floated at a respectful distance and enjoyed the experience.

No camera and photographs for me as I really hadn’t had enough time to assemble the housing and be sure that it was secure and flood-proof. Very easy to make a mistake and ruin several thousand dollars worth of equipment so I made the decision to leave it behind for our first outing. However I don’t know if we’ll have this kind of opportunity again – it was very special! Fingers crossed! And camera at hand from now on!

We had met up with friends from Tongatapu who were vacationing in Vava’u. They went whale watching along with us aboard the same boat, and after a nice hot shower to warm up we met again for a wonderful dinner at the best restaurant in town – The Dancing Rooster. Delicious food, great company, swimming with whales – a wonderful first day in Tonga!

Today we sail out of Neiafu Harbor and head for Port Morelle, a pleasant anchorage not too far away where there’s good snorkeling including some limestone sea caves for variety. Swallows Cave extends above and below water and can be entered by dinghy before diving up and down the vertical columnar space filled with fish. Mariner’s Cave has an underwater entrance – dive down to swim through the entrance, then rise to the surface and air space inside the cave. As the water level inside the cave rises and falls with wave action, the air fogs up and clears again from compression and condensation.

We plan to spend the weekend there, come back into the harbor to top off our diesel, then head north to the Niua Group some 160 nm from here. Very remote and beautiful, a population of only some 300 Tongans, and lots of whales.

Back to Tonga!


About Tonga in general

Malo e lelei (“Greetings” in Tongan)

Our bags are packed and Tuesday afternoon we board our plane(s) for the long flight back to Raven, currently anchored in Vava’u, Kingdom of Tonga.  Why?  See photo (and no, I didn’t take it – hope I’m lucky enough to get something nearly as good)! It is humpback whale season and I’m super excited about the rare opportunity to swim with and photograph the humpbacks and their babies in Tonga’s clear waters.

Coincidentally this article about photographing whales showed up in my inbox just yesterday. Talk about timely!  As well I’ve inserted a link to a recording of humpback whale song, also a link to the excellent Dive Vava’u website about diving in Tonga and Tonga in general.

This is our last cruise aboard Raven; at its conclusion she sails for New Zealand to be sold. However the trip Rod has outlined for us sounds terrific. Spend several days in Vava’u, taking advantage of the commercial whale watching outfits there. Then cruise some 160nm north to the very remote Niuatoputapu Island for a week. Then back to Vava’u, down to the Ha’apai Group and finishing in Nuku’alofa mid-September.  Tonga consists of some 170 islands sprinkled over some 700,000 square km of ocean, and divided into four main island “groups”. On this voyage we plan to visit all four groups, from the Niuas in the far north to Tongatapu in the south, with the Ha’apai Group and the Vava’u Group between.

En route back to Tucson we plan to detour to New Zealand for a couple of days to check in with Circa Marine and see the latest progress on the FPB64.

An Underwater Photographer’s Guide to Humpback Whales in Tonga

Whale Song Recording

Dive Vava’u Website

Passage Videos

Nick frequently crews aboard Raven when a long passage requires an extra hand.  The cool thing is that he takes video and posts it on YouTube so even if we aren’t aboard, we get a taste of the adventure.  First is his video of Raven’s passage from La Paz, Mexico, to Nuku Hiva, Marquesas, French Polynesia – 2650 nautical miles completed in 13 1/2 days.  And following is a video of a provisioning run, stocking up on groceries in Papeete.  Lots of liquid refreshments (mostly red wine) – but keep in mind the majority is intended to last four people from mid-April until November in parts of the world where a well-stocked grocery store is just a fantasy.

Where in the World is Raven?

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Our summer cruise is now complete. Mike and Carol caught up with Raven in Bora Bora and embarked on a 1,750 mile tour of the South Pacific, cruising first to Penrhyn Atoll in the Cook Islands, and then on to Suwarrow Atoll, and finally to Vava’u in the Kingdom of Tonga (photo above). Raven is taking a rest in the protected waters of Port of Refuge Harbor. We plan to return in September to swim with the humpback whales – then on to New Zealand where Raven will be offered for sale as we prepare to transfer our cruising lifestyle to the new FPB 64 schedules for completion at the end of 2009.

Tiger Shark Encounter

2009 South Pacific

cbparker_d3_20090518_tonga-154.jpgYesterday we headed out of the harbor towards the anchorages, and this morning we decided to move around to a favorite spot called Blue Lagoon – a beautiful circlet of intense blue and turquoise water surrounded by breaking surf, coral reefs, limestone islands and sandy beaches where we were looking forward to a nice snorkel. Also we remembered a resort there from our last Tongan visit where we had enjoyed a delicious dinner – so had hopes of a repeat. Before any of this came about however, Mike spotted an enormous lake of blood staining the surf near the shore of the resort with a few locals knee deep in the water up to something. Always curious, we jumped in our dinghy and buzzed over to take a look.
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Port of Refuge

2009 South Pacific

We’re safe and sound in Port of Refuge Harbor, Neiafu, Vava’u, Kingdom of Tonga. Nothing exciting to report about our 750 mile passage – alternately reading, sleeping, and standing watch 24 hours a day for four days and nights. Good thing we picked up our extra diesel in Penrhyn because for two days the wind was non-existent and we’d probably still be floating around out there without our faithful engine to carry us onwards. En route we crossed the International Dateline so now it is the following Monday here instead of Sunday back home.
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Shark Chumming

2009 South Pacific

CBParker_D3_20090511_2009-05-11SharkFeed2-061-Edit.jpgWe changed our plans a bit – bad weather was forecast for around Niue that we wanted to avoid, also due to hit Tonga in about six or seven days, so we decided to leave Suwarrow and head straight for Tonga to be sure we were settled in to the very nice safe harbor in Vava’u before the weather hit. We departed Suwarrow Monday afternoon, expecting to arrive in Tonga during the wee hours of Friday morning, except in Tonga it is really Saturday instead of Friday. Gets confusing sometimes – just hope we don’t get mixed up and miss our flight home! We leave on the 26th from Tonga, connect in Samoa the 25th (day before!), then arrive in LA on the 26th, same day we left only earlier!
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