The Vava’u island group in north Tonga is famous with sailors for a number of reasons: the main town of Neiafu provides an opportunity to relax, catch up with friends and provision; then there are numerous beautiful islands to explore with easy sailing in between and good anchorages; but the real draw card is that Vava’u is one of the few places in the world you can swim with humpback whales. Susie and I were determined to tick all the boxes.
Neiafu has a deep natural harbour with great protection that provides the opportunity to sit tied to a mooring buoy in flat water. And the town is geared up to serve sailors – wifi, laundry, gas, fuel, repair services, a great fresh fruit & veg market and lots of helpful locals. Each day at 8.30am there is a radio net that tells you all there is to do in town that day. We did the usual and lapped it all up. Several other boats in what we call our ‘moving village’ were in town so it was time to catch up over a cold beer or two. Personally I think they should just rename it ‘Sundowner Alley’.
Top on our ‘to do’ list was a trip to swim with humpback whales. Humpback whales travel up from the Antarctic to the warmer waters of Tonga to give birth and breed. Regulations now in place mean yachties are no longer able to simply hop off their yachts and go for a swim. Not that we’d want Adina to be close to any whales as when they surface for air you realise how enormous they are. Add to that we’d rather be with an expert who knows a thing or two about the whales and how to approach them.
Our whale watching operator was on the lookout for slow moving whales so we could easily swim with them. First up we learnt that if whales come up to breathe every 3 minutes it means they are on the move and we will never keep up with them. Ideally we wanted a mother and a calf moving slowly; if the mother comes up every 15-20 minutes she is moving very slowly and allowing her calf to play. Singing males that hang in the water and sing to attract females are another possible option – and boy do they sing!
Much to our joy we found a mother with a calf and male escort. When all three came to the surface it was quite something to see. The enormity of them strikes you and you started questioning the sanity of swimming with them. Our operator, Andrew, sat patiently to observe their behaviour – the hope being the presence of a calm relaxed mother. In went Issi, our Tongan guide, to have a look and monitor. Up went the call for four of us to don masks, snorkels and fins.
We swam to Issi and in the depths could see the mother, her calf and male escort. The calf spotted us and came up to have a look. When you think ‘calf’ you think something small, but a humpback whale calf is certainly not small. We were all looking at Issi to see how to avoid being mowed down by this rather large creature. He kept us at bay but very soon it became clear the calf was inquisitive and indeed seemed to think we were the morning’s entertainment and to be played with. It came up close, eyed us all out, turned and twisted right in front of us. Big and beautiful. And so it continued in playful mood, sometimes flicking its tail on the water, going this way and that without any set pattern, all within touching distance making us all alert trying our best not to get in its way. We couldn’t believe our luck to get so close to such a magnificent creature. At one stage it came up between us all and a medley of bodies swam frantically in every direction to avoid being hit, leaving us laughing. From time to time the calf would go back down to Mum, sitting at around 15m, and then come back up. After 17 minutes Mum and male escort decided it was time to come up for air. We had thought the calf was big but the adults were simply enormous and we were keeping well clear. Back to the boat went the excited mass and swapped places with the other four people on the tour. 20 minutes later we swapped again. The calf seemed to be loving it, while Mum sat below very calmly. How you wish you could read their minds.
Whale swimming done we went off to explore an underwater cave called Mariners’ Cave. We’d read up about it way before we came to Tonga. To access the cave you have to dive down 2m, swim along 4m and then surface up into the cave. Given the average 46 ft yacht has a keel of 2m and is 4m wide the theory is that if you can swim under your keel you can swim into the cave. Tom being used to cleaning the hull snorkelling knew it was do-able and Susie had been practising on some recent snorkels. Four of us chose to do it. The guide went in first and told us to look for his fins and swim past them and then come up. Tom as ever was the guinea pig. Susie, happy the soldier could do it, went in next. Inside was a lovely cave and looking out of the entrance into the blue water lit up by the sun was even better. Some things in life have to be seen. A final trip for the day was to see the grotto Swallow’s Cave, this time with an open entrance, again with beautiful blue water lit up by the sun.
We finally resolved to leave ‘Sundowner Alley’ and get out and explore the anchorages. The islands make for great sailing as the water is flat, you have to steer around islands, change course, and deal with different, bending winds. Fun sailing, Adina loved it and so did we.
Our first anchorage at a place called Port Maurelle was a popular one and three kiddie boats we know were there: Australians on Moana Roa, Americans on Daphne and New Zealanders on Sud Ouest. The kid boats tend to stick together so they each have friends to play with and parents share the load so the adults get a break. We envy the kids getting to play in this environment – they have no idea how fortunate they are. A quick exploration of the island and we were then invited to Jade on Daphne’s birthday party on the beach as the only ’adult only’ boat, as we are called! Party games, cakes, tug of war, all fabulous fun; the adult men taking the games more seriously than the kids.
Off to our next anchorage, we met up with Mike, Carol and their guest Hugh on board Tashi Delek. One little island, one white beach, perfect. Sundowners on the beach and Mike had decided it was an ideal location for Martinis. Perfect in every way. We really enjoy Mike, Carol and Hugh’s company so the next day we decided to push on to another anchorage together.
The wind angle required tacking to reach our first waypoint and Susie and I diligently persisted. Sailing on a tack towards another anchorage, our friend David on his yacht Bandit saw us and called us up to ask where we were going. We relayed the information and also passed on the information that we miss David and Brenda’s freshly baked blueberry muffins. For fun we then decided to see how close we could get to them before we would need to tack. Next thing, David jumps in his dinghy and, as we’re just starting to run out of depth, comes alongside and throws a bag aboard with muffins and bread in. We tack away shouting our thanks. How fantastic! Bandit Bakery with sail-by deliveries.
Off to our next anchorage with the goal of visiting a local village. A rather deep anchorage with lots of coral. While we felt secure, Tashi Delek declared they weren’t holding and we should move to another anchorage nearby that looked more sandy. Trying to raise our anchor we realised we were very secure and our anchor sitting in 25m of water wasn’t coming up. We keep scuba kit on board specifically for such situations so kit on and down went Tom. The anchor was firmly lodged in some coral and had to be manhandled out. Thank goodness for the scuba kit. The nearby anchorage was not much fun either with sand over hard coral and we took about eight attempts to get it in securely enough to stay the night. A little trying.
A walk around of the local village the next morning and off we went again finding a nice little anchorage where Bandit joined Tashi Delek and ourselves for a barbeque on board Adina. A great evening, in the company of good friends!
A final stop back in Neiafu for a final sundowner and goodbyes to boats whose destination for the cyclone season is Australia meaning they need to push on, next destination Fiji. We still have time until we need to get to Vanuatu in November so Adina is off exploring more of Tonga. First an overnight trip to the Ha’aipa islands where more exploration awaits. The Ha’aipa islands are a string of off-the-beaten track islands. Reading up our guides, they are meant to be very beautiful but most are small and low lying so you need to time your visits to suit the varying wind conditions and ensure you choose well protected islands for when the winds blow. Lots of reef and coral heads so we’ll be making full use of the ladder we’ve built. Promises to be idyllic – can’t wait.