Ha’apai and the whales

Caramor - sailing around the world
Franco Ferrero / Kath Mcnulty
Thu 27 Sep 2018 08:36

19:42.56S 74:16.97W

It was Sunday. The sun had risen over a deep blue waterscape speckled with blobs of lush green jungle and white sandy beaches. The lack of wind made it feel like the world had stopped turning.


Arriving in the Ha’apai Group

The Island of Foa wasn’t far now, that was where we were headed, but there, anchored in front of small Nukunamo Island were two yachts. We have no cruising notes for the Ha’apai Group so we will have to make it up as we go along. It looked pleasant and there was room for many more boats, so we headed in.

As soon as we dropped the anchor, we noticed the humpback whales, a mother and calf. She was wallowing in the shallows, with the calf playing around. The baby was still learning how to breathe, each time it came up, it made sure its breathing hole was well above the water before exhaling, for fear of getting water into its windpipes. After a while watching them from the deck, Franco went for a swim. He was lucky as they passed right in front of him and he could see them under the water. He was surprised to see the calf nuzzling its mum under her tail. Apparently this is where her teats are. Everyday she feeds her young five hundred litres of milk, the consistency of cottage cheese, and the baby puts on 50kg per day.

We recognised the yacht anchored closest, it was Rubicon, also flying the Ocean Cruising Club burgee, and at last we met Johan and Lisa from Sweden. We’ve been crossing paths ever since the Marquesas.


Rubicon at anchor

Early Monday morning we headed for Pangai, the regional capital, to sign in. After our recent experience in Vava’u, we were somewhat apprehensive. 

Caramor safely anchored off the village, we paddled to shore in the kayaks. Pangai is a sleepy little village with few cars and Franco was striding down the middle of the road. Suddenly a vehicle appeared from around the corner and nearly ran him over. It was full of young women and they burst out laughing at his look of surprise. They drove off giggling. A few minutes later we passed a billboard:

“The only safe place to cross: a pedestrian crossing.” It proclaimed!

There isn’t a pedestrian crossing in the whole of the Ha’apai Group and just one in the Vava’u Group!

The Customs officer in Pangai was friendly, polite, efficient and helpful. Signing in was a pleasure and the contrast with our experience signing out of Vava’u couldn’t have been greater.

The small indoor market had a good choice of bananas, a few papayas and bags of tomatoes and peppers. There was an older lady selling the fresh produce but she didn’t say anything and it was a younger woman that served us.


Piggies in Pangai

Back on Caramor, we immediately headed for Uoleva Island where we were booked for a whale watching tour.


Franco admiring Caramor in his new ‘Caramor’ t-shirt


Uoleva southern tip

It is the first time we’ve signed up for a whale tour. In Tonga, it is illegal to follow whales in a private sailing boat or a kayak and infringement carries a hefty fine. It is however okay for licensed tour operators to chase after whales in speed boats powered by 150HP engines!

The thing all the whale watching companies offer is ‘snorkelling with whales’. In Vava’u we had been horrified to hear of six (licensed tour operator) boats all trying to snorkel with the same whale. In Ha’apai, there are fewer operators and more whales, and the whale watching rules seem to be adhered to. 

In our experience, whales are curious. As we sailed up the coast of Chile, small groups of fin whales came to check Caramor out. In Niue, the humpback whales swam close to the yachts in the mooring field. When our friends Scott and Laurie (S/V Muskoka) went snorkelling a calf swam right over to them to have a closer look. In Ha’apai, they do have a choice whether to let humans near or not, they get to vote with their tails. The rule is that if a whale changes course, the boat has to back off. 

By chance (or bad karma), we’d booked the same week as the ‘Om Group’. A gaggle of mostly middle-aged American women, led by a flowing haired guru, who have turned spiritualism into a dogmatic religion.

“You have to join our circle and hold hands with us and pray for whales.” A slim brunette told Franco. 

“Actually I don’t. It’s called free-will.” Franco replied.

The dictator insisted but others took up the refrain: 

“Free-will, free-will, yes!” It had struck a chord, maybe a distant memory of what life could be.

We headed out in the speed boat, the ‘Moana’ theme tune playing at full volume over the speakers. 

“Do you know how to spot a whale?” One of the Om women asked. 

I thought for a second. Every time we’ve seen whales, we’d heard them first. The ‘wush’, as they surface to breathe carries over the water. I wondered how we were going to find whales, given all the noise.

A crazy lady was shouting at me over the sound of the music and the engine, asking for the fifth time how long we’d been at sea. I’d already answered four times but she seemed unable to retain the answer.

My senses were overwhelmed, I was finding our companions hard to deal with, had Franco and I spent too much time on our own with the ocean? I glanced at Franco, he was suffering too.

 Franco spotted the first whale. 

“Gee, how did you do that?” Screamed one of the Americans, in genuine admiration. Luckily nobody heard his reply.

Humpback whales are baleen whales, meaning that they filter their food from the sea water through the baleen plates in their mouth. They spend the ‘summer’ in Antarctic waters where their diet consists of krill and small fish. In the autumn they migrate to the tropics to give birth and mate.  They do not eat the whole time they are away as there is no krill, so they survive off their accumulated fat. By the time the females get back to Antarctica, they must be pretty skinny. 

Humpback whales are famous for their amazing aerial displays. They wave their flippers around, stick their heads out of the water to have a look around, slap their tails and jump right out of the water making a huge splash visible from miles around, and probably for miles underwater as well. The males are the choristers of the ocean. The amazing thing is that all the whales in the vicinity sing the same song. Last year it was a different tune and next year it will be a new theme. It seems they learn it in Antarctica before setting off on their migration.

Franco’s whale was a mum and her kid was full of the joys of life. He was showing off all his new skills; tail slapping, breaching, spy hopping. At every acrobatic, the crazy lady shrieked:

“Thank you thank you thank you.” It was driving us insane.

The first group of 4 (we were in the second group) jumped in and swam with the whales for a few moments, until the whales got bored and headed off.

It was coffee time and when Crazy Lady asked for coffee, I questioned whether this was wise. 

Trev, the snorkel leader who was serving up the drinks gave me a knowing look.

“Ah,” she said. Then added “But I’m not taking sugar!” 

Crazy Lady took the hint, switched off the madness and turned into grown-up Cindy. 

The weather was whale perfect, sunshine and no wind. We saw many whales and their displays were breathtaking but we never got to swim with them. Each time we dived in, they took off in the opposite direction. We came across one male who let us listen to his song while he swam around the boat, always just out of sight. On the surface we couldn’t hear him but when we dived down a couple of feet, we could detect his remarkable tune.

It is October now and the newly born whales are plump and strong. Slowly, with their mums, they are making their way offshore. Soon, they will head south for the very first time, on the long journey to their feeding grounds.


The pattern on the underside of the tail is unique to each whale


The tail comes up as the whale dives deep


Spy hopping (what they can see?)


Tail slapping (it makes a great splash!)


A full breach

Thank you EJ (www.ejsencounters.com.au) for your great photos.