Jellyfish and Whales

Mike and Liz Downing
Wed 20 Oct 2010 10:44
Still in north Tonga and back out exploring the anchorages in the Vava'u group of islands, having spent a week or more back in Neiafu servicing things and fixing, or trying to fix, other things. The last 2 blog entries with pictures took nearly 2 hours to upload, and that was using a plugged in LAN cable, so we'll have to experiment with reduced picture resolution. In the meantime a few text items on what we've been up to.

While in Neiafu we had an unwelcome encounter with a trillion jellyfish. Maybe not quite that many, but the anchorage suddenly became full of them. Every so often they come up from the deep in the evening (the mooring is in over 100 feet of water), but we had never seen this many before. In fact we didn't see them to start with, only after having started the generator to charge the batteries and make water. Going on deck we saw them and were fascinated by the numbers and their graceful swimming action, only then did it dawn on us that we had better turn the generator off fast, but too late, it turned itself off having over-heated. So it was on with the wet suit and over the side to see if we had jellyfish in the generator's water intake. It was evening, but just enough light to see and it was all clear, which meant that one had been sucked up or that perhaps it was a different problem. It was quite unnerving to be in the water with so many jellyfish - not something I would recommend. Then it was a check of the seawater strainer and yes, it was coated in a glutinous gooey gunge of jellyfish - yuk! So that had to be cleaned and as the impeller in the seawater pump had obviously been starved of water and got hot, that had to be changed as well. That kept us busy for a few hours. So from now on you will hear us shout "CHECK FOR JELLYFISH!" before starting the engine, generator or watermaker.

We had a much more pleasant encounter with whales. Humpback whales visit Tongan waters to give birth and raise the calf before heading back to the waters around Antarctica. We had seen several while sailing round the islands here, but at a distance, so decided to go whale watching/swimming with a local boat. Tonga is the only place where you are allowed to swim with the whales, but you can only do it with a licensed operator and there are quite a few to choose from. They have a strict code of conduct on how to approach the whales and where to position the boat. Only 4 snorkelers are allowed in the water at any one time with the guide and only one boat is allowed in the vicinity of a whale.

There were 3 other couples on the boat with us, making 8 in all and we thought we would do a lot of watching whales, but only get a few minutes in the water. How wrong we were - the trip lasted for 6 hours and we spent virtually all of the time in and out of the water. We were with the first mother and calf for 2 hours, waiting on the surface for them as they repeatedly came up from the deep to breathe, passing very close by us as they surfaced. The calf, having to breathe more frequently, would come up on its own, twist and turn and play around before diving back down to mum.

Another mother and calf were found a few miles away and before entering the water the calf gave a great display of breaching - launching itself out of the water and flopping back in on its back. Then there was another 2 hours or so in the water, but this time mother and calf were only in about 40 to 50 feet of water, so we could see them on the bottom - mum resting and the calf playing around and suckling. Following the guide we were always positioned where the mother could see us and when she decide to come up she would come so close - eye to eye contact with a whale is quite something! We were exhausted at the end of the day, but it was a fantastic experience - definitely one of the highlights of the trip. The digital camera (in its underwater housing!) gave good pictures, but a bit blue - it's only really good on close ups and if we got that close with it you would only get a very small piece of whale! The small videos it produces were much better showing them rising up from the bottom, playing around on the surface and passing so close; shame we can't put these on the blog.
(You do need to be a confident snorkeler - Liz usually hesitates a bit when entering deep water, but on this trip you couldn't and she was leaping into water over 200 feet deep with quite a surface chop, time and time again, and loving every minute of it!)

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