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08 April 2014

Humpback whales - snorkelling with these huge magestic creatures

Swimming with the whales - YES, that close :)

Tonga was a last minute addition to my Pacific trip. I was in Fiji, I was having an incredibly amazing time and decided that I would rather stay for an extra 3 weeks in the area before heading back. The joys of solo traveling is that you can decide anytime to change plans.

I had chosen Tonga because, when I entered the only bookstore in Suva, the guide for Tonga and Samoa was the only travel guide they had so it was fate which took me there. I knew nothing about what to expect before I boarded the plane but in hindsight, it was an excellent choice!

Only a short flight away from Suva, the capital Nuku'alofa, is nothing extraordinary to write home about but its charm lies in the peacefulness of life. 

It is a sleepy quiet town with badly lit streets, barking and quite scary dogs, barely any taxis and nothing much to see or do other than wander the streets, go on a dive, swim with the humpback whales and explore the many beautiful beaches. 

As many of the really small countries in that part of the world there is not a lot of choice for tourists or visitors and one of the best known places to stay is either a guesthouse or a backpacking place owned by a famous British man who also doubles as a tourist guide taking people on the only island round tour on his minivan. This takes no longer than a few hours during which you can marvel yourself at the many completely empty pretty beaches with white powder sand and crystal clear waters and count the numerous Mormon churches that dot the city. The Mormons have left a mark in the area, not just in Tonga but across the Pacific, building churches and schools. 


Whale jumping




The other interesting phenomenon are the blowholes, which on a good day, regurgitate water violently. The guide also likes to point at the many crops being grown which he avidly describes with an incredible amount of detail only a farmer would know. You can't hep but remember that being in such a remote part of the world whatever can be grown locally is part of the common diet whereas what has to be imported is expensive and its provisioning erratic.


But the most exhilarating sight in the trip is the occasional humpback whale spotted in the horizon jumping off the water, splashing and dipping back in. In the peak summer months they are everywhere.

Although you can swim with them from the capital it is much better to fly (or take the ferry - overnight) to the Vava'u archipelago islands where not only sightings are kind of guaranteed but the surroundings are much more beautiful and peaceful. And if you are lucky, you will see them from the plane - I was allowed on the cockpit and saw them from the air, that was spectacular!

The whole loop, out and in again
I arrived in Vava'u with the intention of diving and swimming with the whales and I was quickly acquainted with the ways of the islands. As soon as I got out of my hotel looking for the dive centre I met a couple of Aussies who were there for a few months volunteering with environmental associations and I was quickly set for the next day. 

Life in the islands is peaceful as expected but something very peculiar happens in Vava'u. Because the port is a very protected and safe anchorage for large luxury yachts it attracts a lot of private yachts who are moored there for long periods of time when the owners are back home. Expats are overrepresented there with not only the super yachts' crew spending evenings on shore after finishing their shift but also with a relevant amount of foreigners who manage the local tourism businesses: sailing, diving, whale watching, quad biking, etc. all are owned by Americans, Aussies or Kiwis. 

Saying hi!


Additionally, there are a couple of NGOs and Peace Corp deployments further increasing the expat numbers. So out of a population of around 1,000 people there are about 100+ foreigners in the most visible places downtown. Pop into any bar/restaurant and you will be surprised at the football being shown on TV, the Trivia nights, the drag queen shows or the full moon parties. Prices of food and drinks will also shock you. Collateral damage of so many relatively wealthy people in a very remote place. 

On my second day I was picked up from the pier in front of my hotel in the morning ready for seeing these wonderful creatures. From shore, you can watch them in the horizon, not very far splashing around but, from the boat, the size of these creatures and their delicate yet strong strokes becomes apparent. They are enormous. Weighting over 30,000 kilos and measuring more than 15m you have to be brave to jump in and share the waters with them!

Vava'u is specially gifted because, as most of the tropical weather areas where whales go to breed, the sightings of calves and mothers is very common. During the winter months in Antarctica whales make their way up to warmer waters where they breed and wait for the weather to improve. They live of their food reserves and stored fat and fast for the entire time. You need not worry about them being hungry and eating a human, they primarily feed on small fish.

The whale watching expeditions do not go very far into the ocean in Vava'u, a few meters from the port and still very close to islands and land whales can already be felt. Under water, you can also hear their chants and from the boat, you can often see them jumping out and splashing or blowing water as they breathe. It is an incredible experience to be so close to them and observe them dancing in and out of the water. You sometimes have the feeling that they are putting up a show for the tourists!

But then comes the real deal - jumping in!

A sneak preview

You shouldn't think about it too much or you may change your mind. When the guide tells you to jump, you do it without hesitating. Diving is not allowed because the bubbles may bother the whales. When you are diving in the area you can hear their chants but should avoid getting close not to scare them.

Under water, in your wet suit, snorkel and fins it is just you and them. Sometimes they pass by swimming fast, shyly getting away from you. Other times they decide to come slowly and stay around you, curious to see what you are. And when you hit the big pot, the mother and calf may be right beside you and play around you for a long time, sometimes 15-20minutes. Then, the magic of the moment will truly leave you speechless and you will forget about any fears as they gently move around you carefully trying not to aggressively shake the waters so that swimmers don't get thrown away by the ensuing waves. They are very intelligent animals so they perfectly can sense how you feel and if you are calm and quiet you may get lucky and have the best time of your life.

Although fear may prevent you from jumping in if you think about it too much the adrenaline that rushed through when the guide says "Now!" mkes you quickly forget and once you are in the water and see that they are friendly and harmless you quickly forget.

I went whale watching only once but I now wish I had done it more. Being in the wild, in open waters and swimming with these gigantic animals makes you realize not only how tiny we are but also how beautiful and incredible the animal world is. So intelligent and so gentle they swim past you in a constant and gracious stroke without sending you tumbling. They are beautiful animals


The details


How to get there


The ferry from Nuku'alofa arriving
Tonga can be reached via Fiji with Air Fiji. From Nuku'Alofa, take another short flight to Neiafu, the largest town in the Vava'u Archipelago for the real island experience. You could spend days in Vava'u chilling, exploring the islands, swimming, beach hopping, whale watching, diving, sailing... make sure to allow enough time to make the most of it

If you are on a budget and have some time, you can also take the ferry from Nuku'alof to Neiafu, it should take a night.

Best time to visit

Whale watching happens in the summer months when sightings are practically guaranteed

Where to stay

Port Wine B&B veranda
In Neiafu, there is a backpackers hostel in town and a large comunist looking hotel called Puataukanave on the main waterfront which should be avoided at all costs: it is expensive, ugly, dirty, empty and with bad food. 

The best bet is a B&B called Port wine which is quite affordable (30-40USD with a nice home cooked breakfast) and beautifully decorated, homey and great location in town.

If you are looking for a more romantic beach resort there are plenty. Either the Mystic Sands or the Eueiki Eco Resort are wonderful. The beaches there are stunning there and will amke you feel like you are on your honey moon: white powder sand, turquoise water, hammocks swinging in the wind, fresh seafood, coconut trees,...


One of many island beaches around the Vava'u Archipelago

How to get around

If you stay in town the entire area is no more than 10min walk. If you are staying at one of the island's resorts the staff can take you to the main town. But chances are you won't want to leave your hammock.

What to do 

Lots to do in Neiafu and Vava'u: diving (although I must warn it is not great), sailing for a day or afternoon with a few pit stops for snorkelling, swimming into caves, exloring the surroudings, etc., rent a scotter and drive around to a few beaches. 

On Sunday, there is a traditional buffet and beach day at Eueriki Resort which is popular with all expats. The other alternative is the Tonga Beach Resort also a popular day trip for the locals with buffet style food and lovvely beach, paddl board, volleyball, etc.

If you can, attend Sunday church. But dress approrpiately, everyone will wear white with nice large hats for the ladies and traditional dresses. If you get invited like I did, d not miss this chance, it is incredbly soul soothing with the chants and the effort put in by everyone

And of course, the main reason you came here for, whale watching. Go more than once to maximise the chance of seeing mother and calf, it is the best!

On one of the evenings during the week the main bar has a Trivia night all the village attends, come in and join a team.

Practicalities

  1. Wear a wet suit when whale watching. Being in the water, out of the water, in the wind, etc all day will eventually make you catch a cold or not enjoy the trip. It is a tropical island but the whale watching months are actually Tonga's winter when temperatures can drop to low 20s
  2. Bring proper food because you never know how long the excursion may take as it depends on how lucky you are
  3. Meet locals, both expats and Tongans and get to know their ways of life. They may invite you to their homes or to church, Tongans are very open and friendly
  4. When you land in Neiafu there will be no taxis awaiting so make arrangements or hitch a lift with someone, people tend to be friendly enough to take you to your hotel. The pilot and crew are also quite good for that, they took me to my hotel
     
MY TIP

Get a window seat in the plane, you are sure to spot whales from the sky. And try to sneak into the cockpit, ask the pilot nicely :)