Vava'u, Tonga - A whale of a time

Pacific Bliss
Colin Price
Thu 20 Sep 2012 05:38
Kingdom of Tonga - Part I
Vava’u Group, Neiafu Town
We had a particularly nasty trip down to Tonga – kids sick for two days solid in ugly seas that piled up along the Tongan trench with a stiff wind almost on the nose.  We paid the price ignoring the golden ‘never never’ rule, that being:  ‘Never travel on the ocean to a time schedule’, oh, and a new one for us, ‘never leave when you can see the colour purple on the grib files’ (sailors will understand that one), oh and, ‘if the twice wave height is predicted to be longer than the period, don’t even think about going.’  We broke all three.
Safe to say we where all delighted to arrived in the Kingdom of Tonga.  Thankfully it was only a few days at sea despite feeling more like a week.  This huge country has a tiny population and nothing to support them other than some tourism, but Neiafu town feels like being in the Caribbean again with Western bars, wi-fi and organised ‘fun’  – all  in all not really our cup of tea.
IMG_6288Neiafu, Vavau   IMG_6102
Re-meet Daph and Vries of s/v Aquamante – a happy lunch as ever IMG_6194
Note Daphe has a colander on her head again.
We visited a coconut factory (run sadly by a foreigner couple) which was making IMG_6118 coconut oil for cosmeticsIMG_6119IMG_6120 and health,and then with the by-product making, cooking oil, cheese, crisps, chicken feed, charcoal, and pig food for their regular ‘pig racing’ evenings which looked like a real snort! The whole enterprise was really, dare I say it, enterprising, but it seems such a shame that its not been done by a Tongan.  I guess the government will regulate and tax it when it gets successful and that will be an end to it – but that may be a bit cynical.  For the time being – more power to the coconut
We’re here primarily to go Whale watching.  Having booked whilst we were still in Samoa we had high expectation; an Alaskan couple who had been sceptical about this controversial activity found the company we used, Dolphin Pacific Diving, professional and sympathetic to these wonderful creatures from the deep.  Sadly our experience was contrary.  Due to engine failure we where unable to go on the allotted day, making our nasty trip down a bit pointless!  4 days later we finally got picked up nearly 2 hrs. late, still more engine probs.   Whilst I’m sure the engine probs’ where genuine it meant we where unable to travel far from land and thus we where hanging out with 6 other boats all wanting there ‘turn’ with a mother and calf.  So, it was all a bit off from the start.


Tonga is the only place worldwide that has officially allowed swimming with whales, as a result it’s a fast growing industry.   In the past 3 years the price of these excursions has tripled and not only that the number of operators has tripled too.  The current government ethos is that it’s a growing industry that is uniquely Tongan.  This may be very true but we felt from first hand experience this is not the right way to go.   It is believed that the industry is tightly regulated with strict rules only allowing 4 folk and guide in the water at any time,  and each group can only stay in the water for a max of 5 mins.  This all might be followed to the letter.  However, the reality is there is more disturbance due to the huddling of the tour boats around the first whale spotted, always the closest to the departure port.  This is like any other tourist industry an opportunity for man to make money.  Hence the less fuel a boat can use the better.  Our group where advised of the rules before we got into the water, but due to one particular maverick/rule breaker ( appears there’s one in every group) all rules where ignored and this particular tourist got far too close to these gentle giants.  He was in fact endangering his life the consequences where that he got an almighty fright and nearly lost his camera, we rather wish he had.  He emerged from the water having had an almighty shock when the calf brushed up against him when coming up for air.  It’s not the tourist we are actually concerned for it’s what  this activity is doing to the whales.   After the event there’s nothing anyone can do.  It is a startling fact that fewer and fewer whales are returning to there breading grounds up in the Vava'u group to have their calves – would you go and have your baby where you are going to be pestered by the paparazzi all day? 
Having said all that, you can see from the shots above that we did have an amazing experience and got close to a gorgeous pair of whales.
Colin and I both found the main town  Neiafu in Vav’u rather over loaded with ex-pats, it’s the first time we’ve come to some where like this,  and not really our cup of tea.   Getting to know any of the local folk is terribly difficult and one feel a reluctance from the local population to engage. All the local businesses are run by ‘palangi’ (westerners) so very little of the real money is filtered down to the natural population other than at staff salaries. It would be fair to say it’s not our kind of town and then we encountered the ‘regatta’!  Like all thing here run by palangi with lots of fun and games for the yachting community including ‘fancy dress pub crawls!’ and ‘dinghy raft ups!’ plus other activities mostly based around a bar.  Call me cynical, but I’d always thought regattas where supposed to be about sailing.  So we felt a great need to get away.
With the regatta in full swing its difficult to get away from the swell of visiting yachts.  Plus we’re with a group of other cruising boats we actually rather like.  Our compromise is to travel with our buddies and embrace normal cruising life.  Despite our ‘normal’ get away attitude we find living around other boats rather fun.  The up side to it all is the children are having a ball with other boat kids and we’re having a wonderful time having a little bit of separation from full on 24/7 family time.  There is no escaping it,  living as a family in such close confines is peculiar for any culture and is definite difficult for us all at times.
You may remember we bumped into s/v Christopher in Samoa without its 8year old owner on board.  Well they were in Tonga, and him and Cosmo got on famously. Actually the family were all rather lovely and we went out for pizza with them and the whole crew.   Picture below shows Z and C being picked up by tender to go on a ‘play date’ on the yacht.  We only heard that ‘Angry Birds’ flew all over the main cabin – so glad we weren’t there.
IMG_6231Swallow cave which the kids dived down about 1 1/2m to get into the inner cave. IMG_6316
And so, away from Neiafu we visited a number of anchorages, which in Vava’u are all numbered from 1 – 40 on the chart so that the charter boats wont get lost.  It's odd on the VHF to hear people
arranging to meet in anchorage #23 – possible reason is that many of the local names are pretty unpronounceable and people would just end up in different places and never find each other.
Anchorage 33 – Kenutu where the sun shone and we found shells again on deserted beaches. IMG_6320IMG_6319IMG_6384
IMG_6311 Above and below IMG_6300
IMG_6349IMG_6365 Blow holes in the rocks which took some climbing up to
Meeting up with our buddies from Canada that we met in Samoa is a major plus for us all.  The children haven’t stopped talking about Charlie(13) Riley(11) and Saylor (6) and for us adults it’s a never ending riot.  Doug has set up a rope swing off the boom of their very pretty ‘Hans Christian’ traditional design boat.  The kids are happy to spend a whole day throwing themselves off into the water and come nightfall us adults find ourselves enjoying the thrill of it all too,  Only to be halted in full swing by a very cross Zinnia having been woken to ridiculous parental escapades.  Colin and I where frog marched back to our boat and dispatched to bed immediately by a very un-amused prudish 10yr old.  Shades of AB-FAB we think.
Swing2Swing Z swinging from . . . .   s/v Longshot II  IMG_6797
IMG_1017Longshot (rechristened 's/v Loads ‘o noise) still hooked into plenty of fish including this huge giant trevally.
A visit to dive into a fresh water cave – brrrrr.  IMG_6107IMG_6115
We do in fact start to really enjoy ourselves in some more secluded bays and islands a little less visited by other yachts.  On Avalau we met the most remarkable couple Mary 88 and companion Sergei,   who escaped the crazy west some years ago and found their Shangri La  up on a remote hilltop.  They’ve converted this piece of jungle into a wonderful flower garden and eat only organic and build the houses out of wood and see-through plastic.  Mary has to be the most remarkable 88yr old we’ve ever met. She may not have a lot of teeth but she’s as fit as a fiddle still writing from her ocean-side timber framed plastic lined hut not with paper and pen as we had expected but on her state of the art Apple Mac whilst reading the stars.  These guys are hugely self sufficient using only the sun for all power required to run electrical appliances.  Their Kitchen has to be the most wonderful hatched together place I’ve ever seen.  All rather a surreal experience.
Through the narrow entrance in to the atoll of Hunga to a small but hugely warm friendly community where a few Native Kiwi’s have integrated and assisted ‘not patronised’ village life.  So we where able to off load some of our old books to their new Children’s Library.  Again we experienced incredible generosity,  it’s almost impossible to walk around a village without being welcomed in and after church on Sunday we were walking down the path back to our boats when we’re beckoned over and given enough warm packaged up food for a family of eight.  Why? Who knows, it’s just the natural welcome expected of a host of any remote village.
Hungamap017019IMGA0008 Going to a very odd church service on Sunday – unlike the Cook islands we were almost alone in the church and it slowly filled up during the service.  We never quite got the hang of it, and then it was over.
having another baby perhaps – or is it a coconut?  DSCF3106
We’ve been told you can’t provision in the Ha'apai group so we need to return to Neiafu to check-out and do our final stock before hitting NZ in about 2 months time.  I also manage to add to our growing collection of Tribal art,  having met an expat who knows a thing or two about the subject I’m allowed to borrow some of her books showing all sorts of carving weaving and painting.  She call these books her pornography so very quickly the children hook on to calling her ‘mummies porn queen’.  I have to say she was rather delighted with her new title.
Tongan basket – which I bought for my own Christmas present and poor Colin had to hide somewhere in the boat – think he has lost it now IMG_7021
Whilst we’re in Vava’u  I’m  allows me to go on a dive which I have to say is perhaps the best underwater topography I’ve ever experienced.  Also whilst we’re here we find the most extraordinary coral garden we’ve ever seen abundant with fish and a range of types and shapes colours and forms of coral we’ve not seen the likes of before.  Reaching this place was no child's play having to swim through the surf with only about 20cm under your belly, and that was a high tide but worth the risk,  later we took the boats around the other side of the reef whilst Doug and I took the kids to see the beautiful under water spectacle Colin and Sue stood both boats off the reef.  We just can’t understand why Tonga isn’t promoting this natural wonder rather than jeopardising their huge natural visitors, the whales, from ever coming back.
Just before we left, tucked in behind Lamu Island (Anchorage #15 !!) we chased one of the Vaka around the bay  IMG_6873 quite a sight.
We’d been in Vava’u for about a month and weren’t too sad to leave early in the morning, before first light, for a 50nm sprint South to the Ha’apai group