Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Whales in Ha'apai

This time of year, humpback whales have come to the warm waters in Tonga to breed and give birth. We saw some humpbacks as we approached the Ha’apai group and have seen more every day since. Sometimes we see (and hear) the large adult whales breaching (coming up out of the water and splashing back down) in the distance and sometimes they come close to us. We’ve seen some young calves with their mothers and some males trying to show off to get the attention of a nearby female. 

Here are some photos and descriptions of our best experiences....

We took advantage of a few days of quiet wind to anchor out at a tiny island (Hakauata) which seems to be a kindergarten for humpbacks. As we approached the island, one young whale came swimming over to check out Tubby. It was about a boat length away when its mother finally swam between it and our boat and escorted it away. A second youngster was practicing breaching right in the tiny bay where we wanted to anchor. It was inconvenient, but we put the boat into neutral, got the camera and watched it practice jumping and twirling. After a while it must have been nap time because the activity stopped and the youngster and its mother swam away.  That gave us some space to move in and anchor, after which we spent the rest of day up on the balcony watching the occasional whale pass by. It was a rough day! The next morning we were woken by the blows (breathing) of a large whale sleeping next to us!

The uninhabited islands, all the whales, the sun and the friendly locals all made it hard to resist staying out among the islands, but we did need to head back to Pangai for a few more provisions. We almost didn't make it into the town harbour due to all the freakin' whales! Our first encounter was with two who were tail slapping and breaching. We lost track of them, but then they surfaced about 10' off our port bow! Yikes! They are big! Next we saw a few more and circled around for 10 minutes to watch them. Lastly we saw a mother and calf surface a little ways in front of us. We put the boat in neutral and ran to the bow as they swam over to us! As they turned away, the calf must have been 5' off our bow and the mother went under our boat! It was awesome!

A few days later we headed to a northern anchorage in the Ha’apai group in preparation for the 50 nautical mile jump to the Vava’u group. Along the way we passed what Malcolm describes as “Whale school”. First we saw a youngster attempting a few breaches. That was really cute and we got some nice photos. Then mom demonstrated how it is really done! Wow! Junior did a few more, as did mom. Ten minutes later a tiny calf was slapping its tail nearby. We slowed down to watch, and sure enough we saw mom slapping her tail as though she was showing her baby how it’s done. After a bit of this, mom did some pectoral fin slapping. We saw the baby’s tail in there next to mom but no baby pec’s today.

On our way north to Vava’u, Malcolm was on lookout when two very large humpbacks breached about 10 boat lengths directly in front of us. We were sailing along nicely with big wind and there wasn’t much time to do anything other than continue on our present course and assume the whales knew we were there. One popped up again, a lot closer to us, but off to the side a bit! Dina came up to the cockpit and we were looking forward when one of them came up beside us for a breath and perhaps a look at us. The noise from its breath was quite loud! The whale was just 15 feet away! As we continued north we watched behind us and saw the two whales breaching some more.

Remote islands in Tonga - Ha'apai group

Tonga is made up of four different island groups, each separated by 50 to 100 miles. We are in the Ha’apai group, which is sparsely populated and less visited than the other areas.

We found a “crowded” anchorage (two other boats!!) in behind the lovely island of Ha’afeva. When we went ashore, many of the villagers were heading back from church and would stop and talk to us. A few invited us to their homes for lunch. We accepted an invitation for the next day and were asked to invite the people from the other yachts.

It was a windy and rainy night, but our host still went out and grabbed some lobsters off the reef for our meal. Tom and Lynn from SV Roxanne also accepted the lunch invitation, so the four of us grabbed some items from our “giveaway” piles and headed to the village. The food was great, with fresh lobster and fish complemented with some cassava (kind of like potato). Our host invited us out lobster hunting (it isn't fishing as you just grab them with your hands or spear them) but there is no way Dina is going into the water at night. Malcolm is allergic to lobster, so he’s not going either.

This region of Polynesia has some large fruit bats, called flying foxes! They can be the size of small dogs, and they are quite cute! Dina had been asking about them, so our lunch host found one to show her and brought it to the dock (She asked him not to kill it! The locals do eat them). It was a small one, black with a brown head, huge eyes and sharp little teeth (they do bite, otherwise we would have a boat pet). We hadn’t expected him to do that, so we didn’t have the camera with us. Try a google image search for “Tonga Flying Fox” and you’ll probably see lots of photos, some of them better than we would have done.

Next stop was the island of Matuku, just 5 miles south. We arrived on a school day during the lunch recess. There were 20 kids on the beach waving at us when we pulled in. Malcolm took a small kite ashore and was swarmed by the kids who led us down the beach to their school. The kite was a big hit, as was the camera. Tongan children love to have their pictures taken. After a while, the teachers arrived and the kids went in for afternoon classes. We walked around the island, which took about an hour, and then back to the boat.

We caught up with SV Roxanne again at Tofanga island. Tom is an avid kiteboarder, and lent us his trainer kite and showed us the basics on the beach. Malcolm is ready for the next step (dragging through the water), but Dina needs a bit more time on the beach. Tom didn’t have a harness for us to borrow, so a bit of man-handling was required. Dina is going to try it again, in less wind and wearing diving weights, so she will get dragged across the sand a little less... Glenn, the owner of the dedicated kitesurfing resort, Fanifo Lofa, was also on the beach with a few of his friends from New Zealand. They offered encouragement and impressive demonstrations. Looks like we are in the market for a kite and gear!

We’ve spent three weeks in the Ha’apai group, visiting about 9 islands, and we could happily stay longer. However, we’ve eaten most of the food on board and, probably more importantly, drank all the alcohol. Since there isn’t much to buy here in the Ha’apia group, we will head to the hustle and bustle of the Vava’u group, 50 miles north, where lots of our friends, and most of the boats that crossed the Pacific, are located.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Arrival in Tonga

We had a lovely 3-day passage from Beveridge Reef to Tonga. It was sunny, with consistent moderate wind, light swell and at night the moon and stars brightened everything. 

We sailed west from Beveridge Reef and entered the Ha'apai group of islands in central Tonga through the wide and calm pass between Uoleva and Uiha islands. The islands are similar to the Tuamotus - white sand beach, palm trees, surrounded by reefs.

We anchored off the beautiful beach of Uoleva island. There was a smoking volcano off to the west and whales in the distance. We were having gin and tonics up on the balcony, looking at the sunset and watching for whales, when a Belgian and French couple, from SV Utopie, dinghied over to say hello. They were the only other boat in the bay.

The next day we took a long walk on the beach and found the Uoleva Yacht Club! At the bar, there were Chileans, an Austrian and a Montrealer, in addition to the South African and Zimbabwean owners! That evening, we went to the Yacht Club for a wonderful dinner with the couple from SV Utopie.

We stayed in Uoleva for a couple of days before heading a few miles north to Pangai, the administrative capital of the Ha'apai group, on Lifuka island to clear cusroms and buy some provisions. The health official couldn't be bothered to come to the wharf so just customs and immigration came aboard. The immigration woman drove us to the grocery store. Lots of Chinese and Kiwi products. Malcolm stocked up on lots of new varieties of cookies and we will be trying interesting brands of chips... Apples, clementines, onions, tomatoes...all sorts of goodies. We bought a Tongan rum, too!

We can't believe we are in Tonga with our boat! Malcolm brought down the "Q" flag (hoisted to signify we hadn't cleared customs yet) and after he hoisted the Tongan flag, he said, "OMG, we are flying the Tongan flag on our boat!"