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The Two Captains


2C Update #135 - Vava'u, Tonga  Part 4  (September 15 - November 29, 2005)

Vava’u Underwater

Arriving at Hunga Island marked at turning point in our efforts to find good diving in Vava’u.  Although there are two dive shops in Neiafu -- Dolphin Diving and Beluga Diving -- neither had been willing to talk with us about dive sites.  This is not particularly unusual behavior from businesses who want you to use their services.  Our friend Tom of Bravo Charlie III, who had whiled away his months in the harbor by working on his divemaster certification with Dolphin Diving, had kept track of the dive locations he had visited with them, but an 11x17 chart with a bunch of red dots on it -- without GPS coordinates, profiles or briefings -- is not necessarily a lot of help.  It is, of course, why you should go with professionals:  they know the dives, where to anchor, when the current will run and which way, what route will maximize the scenery, and where the critters will likely be.  I can’t argue with it; I made a living being that kind of professional for twelve years.  It just hurts to pay to go diving!

It is, however, very frustrating not to know where to go.  You call into play all your knowledge and all your instincts to guess where might be good,… and then you stick your face in the water.  There are a lot of differences between the underwater processes of the Pacific and our home turf in the Caribbean, and up to this point our only successes had been small snorkeling spots here and there:  the inside reef near the “party Beach” (we later heard the outside is quite good), some scrappy-but-busy patches near the Ark Gallery, and a quite lovely --but small --reef area south of Mounu Island.  To be truthful, we weren’t working all that hard at it either.

Hunga, the westernmost island of Vava’u’s main archipelago, to which we sailed after our whale watch day, is actually four islands that almost touch making two distinct anchorages.  Two small islands -- Foeata and Foelifuka -- define the bottom edge of the popular Blue Lagoon anchorage (the name taken from a resort on Foeata), which is linked to Fofoa and Hunga to the north by an almost continuous barrier reef.  We’ve seen it before; give an anchorage a sexy name like “Blue Lagoon” and everybody wants to go there, even though it is fairly exposed and peppered with reefs and shallows   It was actually where we’d been heading when the sky clouded over and the wind freshened.  It no longer seemed like a good choice.


So, instead we bore away around to Hunga’s west side, seeing four whales on the way (see last Update) to take refuge in Hunga’s other anchorage, a practically land-locked lagoon.  Entry is on the west side through a very narrow opening through the rock complicated by a pinnacle planted in the middle of the pass followed by a dogleg to the right and shallow enough that at dead low tide a six-foot draft boat might touch.  This daunting description got our heart rate up a bit (especially when we realized at the last minute that we were only one hour past low tide), but in fact entry went smoothly and we found only one other boat at anchor inside.

What a perfect hurricane hole!…except of course, for the fact that, like so many places in this part of the world, most of it is too damn deep! There is the Ika Lahi Fishing Lodge at the northwest corner and Hunga Village at the northeast, but, the rest is uninhabited and, after scoping out all the shores (and discovering that the guidebook misrepresents a few things) we dropped the hook about 200 yards behind the other boat on a 40’ ledge along the lagoon’s SW side.  The other boat was Amante, a Morgan Out Island 51’.  We were pleased to see it, because we had met its owners John and Vera at the swap meet in Neiafu and they had expressed some interest in buying our cruising spinnaker (oft referred to as the BFS).  Having used the damn thing only five or six times in three years, we were keen to get off our foredeck, and Amante was one of the few boats around big enough to be a legitimate candidate.  They were also divers.

Before we left Neiafu the last time, we had worked harder at pinning down some dive information, particularly for dives in the 40’ range.  One of the leads we had been given was to dive the snorkel site shown just outside Hunga’s narrow pass. The following morning, we asked John and Vera if they’d like to join us.  What a great dive! By chance we got the dinghy anchor down in the perfect place, a sandy spot at the head of an underwater ravine reaching seaward.  The north side of this ravine was a long spur of rock cloaked with dozens of different kinds of hard corals, soft corals, leather corals, liberally bedecked with featherstars and bright green bubble algae and busy with fish of all sizes.  At its outer end it probably dropped down as deep as 80-90’, but with the good viz the view from 40’ was just great.  The tip of the spur presented an “acre” of unblemished lettuce coral (sometimes called cabbage coral)-- a beautiful species with delicately-folded leaves that we have nothing like in the Caribbean.  Through these leaves darted scissortail sergeant majors and other small tropicals, while above milled a large school of what back home we’d call boga.  We worked our way back on the other side of the “finger” and saw more of the same to the north. We enjoyed this dive so much, we did it a second time the next day.

For that one successful find, we had two other flops.  We burned a gallon or two of expensive gasoline running south outside the Blue Lagoon’s western reef to check out one of Tom’s red dots, which lay pretty near where we’d seen the mother whale and calf on our way in, but Don swam futilely all over looking for anything that invited a dive.  Perhaps we didn’t go quite far enough, plus a lot of the deep dives don’t look like much from the surface.  Who knows? The other dive lead we’d gotten from the same source as the Hunga pass dive.  Said to be just outside the entrance to Blue Lagoon (which we could access from our anchorage through a “canoe pass” at high tide where Fofoa and Hunga don’t quite touch), we found only a mediocre wall of pastel leather corals (a “soft” coral that looks a lot like a floppy vase sponge) which was not worth the stress of leaving the dinghies anchored barely outside the surf zone.  It turns out there are actually two passes into Blue Lagoon and we weren’t in the right one!

Our next successful dive happened several days later when we rendezvoused with our friends Bud and Nita of Passage, who’d finally torn themselves away from Niuatoputapu (which evidently they liked better than we did!  See Nita’s website www.svpassage.com.)  Our lead was another snorkel site off the island of ‘Euakafa (pronounced (AY-wah-KAH-fah).  On the chart it showed as just a tiny patch to the west of the island, but in the 40-50’ of water on its south side was one of the most exciting coral gardens we’d yet seen.  There is a positive riot of tangled staghorn coral, great discs of sheet coral, and big spreads of table coral, that most Pacific of coral formations where a huge fan of lacy caramel-colored coral spreads out from one “stalk” in a huge vertical plane. The most common coral out here is what I call “flower coral” based on a vague recollection of the name from my Red Sea trip in 1984 and the fact that it looks like a bouquet, but my allegedly local book calls it anemone coral, which actually is a pretty good name for it. (Probably a good place to mention that I haven’t found a good book on Pacific corals yet!)  These white corals are home to bunches of dascyllus (dascylli?), tiny black and white fish that dart into its protecting branches like Nemo fish (aka clown fish) do with anemones.  Speaking of which, there are lots of these here too, along with clouds of convict tangs -- yellow striped with black -- over the staghorn tangle, pale blue chromis mixed with orange basslets, pairs of butterfly fish -- each pair seeming different from the last, colorful wrasse, red squirrelfish, banded goatfish, bi-color angels (like the Caribbean’s rock beauties), moorish idols and their bannerfish look-alikes, piccaso triggerfish, tiny filefish (called leatherjackets here), hawkfish and, of course damselfish and sergeant majors.  It sadly seems very rare to see fish of “good eating size” like snapper, jacks and larger parrots…I supposed because, in a largely subsistence culture, they’ve already been eaten.  This is also why it’s a find to sight the fluted shapes of any tridacna clams, although there are some efforts here at farming them.  Obviously, no one has found a taste or use for sea cucumbers around here because we haven’t seen a bottom yet that isn’t littered with them, as well as bright blue starfish, puffy cushion stars and the occasional ugly crown of thorns.

Several day later we made another particularly nice dive with Bud and Nita on a site less than a half a mile from the Full Moon Party Beach, where, in fact we had returned for October’s Full Moon Party   The dive is a reef out in the middle of the channel about a third of the way along a line between Langito’o and Ovalau, and therefore only accessible by dinghy in settled conditions.  Here we found our first “perfect” reef.  We circumnavigated the entire shoal at 40’ and found pristine, mixed corals nearly the whole way around.  The fish life, however, was a bit quiet, perhaps because we were diving right at midday and in such calm conditions.

Don has made a couple of dives I haven’t.  Right at the south end of Neiafu Harbor is the 400-foot long wreck of the copra freighter Clan MacWilliam that caught fire and sank in 1927.  Although it sits in 90-120’ of water, the bow is reached at 90’ and the stern  at 75’, and both ends are moored making it the most accessible dive site in Vava’u.  Don dove this with our friend Tom of Bravo Charlie III, and they reported penetrating the wreck easily through a gaping hole in its side.

Our friend Ben -- formerly of Waking Dream and currently of Aquarium Internet Café -- stole an afternoon away from the office to take Don on a dive at Split Rock, a dive site on the north side of Tu’ungasika, a small island off Vava’u’s Port of Refuge anchorage.  Marked by lots of tunnels and caves, this actually is more my kind of dive than his, but at 60-80’, it is out of my current depth range.  Fortunately, the visibility was excellent, and I was able to follow them easily on the surface….except when they went into the caves!  This dive is what we call a “structure” dive, where the attraction is found more in the underwater architecture than in the marine life, although the highlight for Don, who is not a big fan of caves, was some big fish (no gun), a field of garden eels, and his first sea snake! 







Caves are a big thing in Vava’u.  While out in Ben’s fast boat, he decided to show us two of Vava’u’s major tourist attractions we’d so far missed.  The first is Swallow’s Cave.  This cave (actually a pair of caves) cuts into the cliff above and below the water on the north tip of Kapa Island (just around the corner from Port Maurelle).  In a dinghy you can motor right into it, but it is best experienced snorkeling because it is like floating in a cathedral that has been filled halfway with water!  Just stunning!  Its partner cave a few yards easy swim around the point is smaller with a gap in its roof giving a view of the jungly vegetation above thanks to which it has more floating leaf litter in it.  These two caves get their name (I assume) from the swallows that nest inside and flit in and out like bats.


The real showpiece of a cave, however, was our next stop: Mariner’s Cave.  This cave, on the backside of Nuapapu Island (Mariner mistakenly puts its on Hunga in his 1800 account of the Tonga Islands) would be very hard to stumble over if you didn’t know it was there.  The entrance to the cave is about 6’ under the surface (depending on the tide) and requires an underwater swim of about 12’ to get inside.  Once inside the only light is the ethereal blue coming through the underwater entrance, and the seal is so tight that when the swell rolls in, the water compresses the air in the cave fast enough to produce an instant fog-out!  As the swell ebbs, the air comes as instantly crystal clear.


There’s a wonderful story about this cave that William Mariner relates in his impressive account of Tonga in the 1800s.  Mariner was a 14-year-old clerk aboard an English privateer -- the Port Au Prince -- the crew of which was massacred by Tongans in the Ha’apai Island Group in 1806.  Mariner was spared and virtually adopted by King Finow, and during his four years living here, he absorbed a tremendous amount about the culture which is recorded in the volume Tonga Islands: William Mariner’s Account, published by John Martin, MD in 1817.  (A great read!)  Anyway, the story goes that “in former times” there was a tyrannical leader who mistreated his subjects.  One of his chiefs, hoping to free the people of the tyranny, planned a rebellion, but he was caught and condemned to be drowned at sea with, as they tended to do in those days, all his family and relations.  A young chief was secretly in love with one of the condemned man’s daughters, a maiden to whom he would otherwise have had no access (she was promised to someone of higher rank), so, thinking quickly, he hurried to her abode, declared himself, and explained the situation and her options (none).  Fortuitously, she had been secretly smitten with him, and putting her trust in her savior, allowed him to spirit her away in his canoe and hide her in this cave.  The young chief kept her stashed for two or three months, bringing food, water and bedding as he could, until he was able to arrange to be sent on an expedition to Fiji.  On his way out from Vava’u, he stopped his canoes, left his men perplexed as he dived into the water and disappeared, only to return with his maiden fair, and off they sailed to Fiji where they lived (happily, of course) until the tyrant died.  On learning this tale, Mariner was skeptical about her ability to survive in the cave which has no evident source of fresh air, and took it upon himself to find an opening.  Although he was not successful, it was later discovered that there is a fissure that only gets exposed at low tide (it was high tide when Mariner looked) which does allow the cave to breathe!

Like the Virgin Islands, Vava’u is not often hit directly by hurricanes, but they did have a bad one four years ago.  Hurricanes are hard on fragile shallow-water corals, and Pacific-style barrier-type reefs, which reach right up to the surface, are particularly susceptible to damage from wave action, which may be why on many of Vava’u long barrier reefs we see just small pockets of exciting corals embedded in stretches that are dead or damaged.   The three-to-four-foot tidal range works on them, too, something the Caribbean doesn’t have to deal with (tides in the Virgins run about eight inches!)  On the other hand, as I am wont to say, hurricanes and tides are forces of Mother Nature that have been at work for epochs and are part of the process by which underwater landscapes have been and continue to be shaped.  If anything I am more amazed at what vibrant shallow-water corals persist.  

Vava’u is nowhere touted as a world-class dive destination, but the fact is that, except for the south pass of Fakarava  (check out the December ‘05 issue of Cruising World Magazine for my Passage Notes Piece on that great dive), we have not found really awesome diving anywhere we’ve been in the South Pacific yet.  So, all in all, what is here, when you couple it with the caves and the whales and the fabulous topside scenery, adds up to some pretty satisfying underwater experiences.

Given that, though, imagine what we might have to say if we ever pay the pros to take us!


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