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The Two Captains


2C Update #134 - Vava'u, Tonga  Part 3  (September 15 - November 29, 2005)

(Photographs...by the 2Cs)



Weather, boat projects and my writing endeavors kept us in Neiafu a full week.  It was not all work and no play.  There was plenty of socialization with other cruisers, many restaurants sampled, more than a few beers raised, and lots of DVDs swapped.  Don made several watermaker consultations, we sold of a bunch of stuff at a Saturday morning swap meet, and we kept the water tanks filled just by opening the deck fills.

By the end of the week I was done with my two articles, the sun was shining again, and it was time to get back to the serious business of being boat bums.


Our first stop was Port Maurelle (#7).  This is one of those lovely anchorages that could be almost anywhere.  A deep U-shape with a sand beach at its head and surrounded by arms of thick green, it is a very peaceful place to swim or kayak, of which I did both. The air seems a full five degrees cooler than town, and though one of the closest anchorages to Neiafu, there were only a handful of boats there.  The next morning we sailed slowly south under genoa alone to a small island called Mounu where we picked up a mooring about lunchtime.  Mounu, the smallest of four islands dotting Vava’u’s east-west reef belt, is the site of a family-run, upper-end fale beach resort.  They also run Whale Watch Vava’u, a whale-watching boat that no fewer than four of our local friends had recommended as the best.  After lunch, we went ashore and walked the shaded paths and the glittering beach, and while there, we signed up to go whale watching the next day.



Whale watching is big business in Vava’u.  During the austral winter from June to October, humpback whales migrate here from Antarctica to breed and calve in Tonga’s warm and protected waters.  We used to have humpback whales similarly visit the Virgins, but it was never like Tonga.  In all my years in the Virgins I had three or four sightings.  Here we saw two on our first day, and cruisers who were here in August and September show photographs of whales swimming among the anchored yachts in busy anchorages like Port Maurelle!

Tonga is the last place in the world where sightseers can legally swim with humpbacks.  After my all-too-fleeting encounter with the mother and calf in Niuatoputapu, I wanted more, and so we found ourselves boarding Whale Watch Vava’u’s power cat early the morning of October 5th.  I mention the date because already we were very late in the season.  Most of the whales had started south.  The day before all the operators had come up a bust, including Whale Watch Vava’u.  Some of the folks on the boat with us were getting a second chance.

We were luckier.  We weren’t away from of Mounu for more than ten minutes before Lole, our guide, sighted a whale off the reefs of Kapa Island.  The boat approached to within a hundred yards and then paced the mother and calf awhile to see what she was about.  Earlier in the season, when the calves are young, a mother whale will often hang motionless at the surface while her baby feeds or plays around her.  These are the “swim opportunities” the whale-watch operators dream of because the whales incredibly seem not to care who else is in the water with them.  Our whale had a different agenda.  During the course of the morning, she swam a huge loop, surfacing and diving but never stopping, perhaps conditioning her youngster for the long swim south.  Our best hope was for a “fly by.”  Don and I were in the first group of four to be put in the water.  We donned our skin gear, stood ready on the aft platform as the boat maneuvered itself “downwind” of her path, and slipped into the water as one group behind our Tongan guide. 


Holy smokes, here she came, swimming slowly and steadily, her calf slipping around and alongside her, to all appearances untroubled by the clump of five swimmers hanging in the water.  The mother was some 60 feet long, and the calf 20 feet.  We could clearly see the characteristic “upside-down”-looking jaw, the nodules that blemish their faces, the eye….  A fleet of remoras accompanied them.   They passed no more than fifteen feet away and without breaking stride, dipped to swim under the boat.  It was over pretty quickly, but it was waaaaaay cool.  The next two swim groups didn’t get half as close.  We followed the whale most of the morning sometimes coming close for short periods, then backing off to give them breathing room for much of the time.  We saw the whole repertoire of whale stuff: spouts, dives, fluke flips, barrel rolls and fin waves.  The baby “spyhopped” once, where the whale rises up vertically in the water to take a look around.   Once the mother came up right alongside the boat and blasted us all with water, and later in the afternoon she came up alongside again and …how can I describe it…vocalized!  After we moved away to give her space, she breached with a huge splash behind our backs!  A little while later each of the groups got a second “fly-by.”  This time the pair swam right at us, dipping at the last moment to swim under us the way they had the boat on the first encounter. 

About this time it became evident that we had the only whale of the day as all the other whale watch boats fell into line.  The Vava’u operators have a creed that when there is more than one boat “on” a whale, they will take turns.  Obviously, since we’d had this whale to ourselves most of the day, it was our turn to peel off.  Instead Lole drove the boat fast up along Vava’u’s dramatic north side hoping to pick up another pair.  Although we didn’t find any more, we sure had a great sightseeing run where we would not likely ever come with the sailboat.

In writing this Update I have been reviewing what little information on humpbacks I have available on board.  Some of the articles in Encarta suggest that whale-watch operators stalking the whales may constitute almost as much harassment of whale populations as did the hunters of old.  I don’t know.  It’s an uncomfortable thought that something I enjoyed so much could be bad.  As in anything like this, I think it is all how it is managed.  It seemed to us that Lole gave the mother and calf plenty of room most of the day, only approaching for short periods at a time, and that the way our fly-by swim encounters were managed she could have avoided us easily had she felt interfered with.  I asked Lole if they ever had trouble with a whale getting irritated or aggressive, and he told me they hadn’t, only occasionally with calves getting a bit “frisky”.  Even here there is plenty of debate about whale watching, only here it is usually between the tour operators who profess a code of conduct (but perhaps are as motivated by protecting their business) and the cruisers who jump in their dinghies and rush up to whales who stumble into crowded anchorages.  Self restraint is a hard thing to master, but I would hope cruisers who live so close to the ocean could manage to behave responsibly, because, ecologically sound or not, our swim encounters with the humpbacks in Tonga rank as one of the most special experiences of our entire voyage, and frankly I hope it will happen again somewhere.

The very next day, under sail on our way to Hunga, the farthest west of Vava’u’s main group of islands, we saw four more whales in maybe ten minutes.  The first was a huge solitary whale, perhaps a male, who gave a picture-perfect flip of his tail as we glided near.  The next sighting was a mother and calf spouting shoreward of us along the outer reef of the Blue Lagoon anchorage, and the last was another solitary whale whose course intersected ours and who obligingly ducked under our bow.  All four of these close sightings happened merely as we were underway from one place to another -- no seeking, no tracking involved -- so it is quite possible to see Tonga’s whales without going with a tour operator.  However, these four were our last sightings of the season.




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All text and photos on this site Copyright Gwen Hamlin 2006


Published at Burlington, VT