So it has happened. We were lucky ones. Whales found us and fulfilled all my dreams about them. First they came to our anchorage and it sounded like a mom and calf talked the whole night – just outside Alita. Well, actually the calf (high voice) talked all night and mom (very low voice) answered a couple of times. What an amazing goose-bump experience! Let me tell you, when, in the middle of the night, all of a sudden a very loud, strange sound in different frequencies makes its way through the hull to your ear you sit up straight in your bed immediately, like we did. I slept very little that night because I preferred to listen to those beautiful sounds. It really sounded like talking without words but you could almost make our words. Try to talk with your mouth shut, I think that comes closest. To me it sounded like the hig voice was from a new born, like the first cries of a baby when it is born. I tried to record them but there is too much surrounding noise (waves splashing against the boat), so no good quality.
A week later we came back to the anchorage to see what's going on. The next morning I had a beautiful moment for myself. My friend was on the beach and Marcus downstairs while I was looking over the water sad that I had just missed a group of whales swimming by. I prepared my snorkling ear and camera and sat there looking out when I saw a whale swimming towards us. I jumped into the water and positioned myself in a place where I thought the whale might come by. I'd have to be really lucky if indeed he would (so much space to choose from) but I had to try. All of a sudden I see it coming up just in front of me. I quickly stuck my head under water but could not see anything at first. But then, there was the moment I had waited for for so long. I saw one swimming by. But wait a minute, it's not one, it's 3 of them. Oh no, I thought, he is diving down. Too bad, well at least a nice glimpse, close for a second. But then he came back up and turned towards me, swam right to me. OH MY GOD. They must have heard my heart beat through my head, it nearly exploded. Wait, there is 4 of them! I thought one of them was a baby and I did not want to get between Mom and baby and tried to paddle away, which was hard as I was also pulling the Dinghy. Well if they want to do something I have no chance. Damn, I was so nervous I forgot to take the Selfie. But oh boy, what a joy to see them, to look into the eye and face. I could not believe my luck. They had come back for me, I truly believe so! They had actually turned around on their way out of the bay (they ware already about 400m away) and around the reef, came back to where I was, swam around me and then went back out and continued their trip from before. So touching! Unfortunately the water was merky and the sky was cloudy and dark, so the pix aren't great, but the ones in my heart are! I was lucky enough to be close to them in the water twice more, but no luck with clear water and sunny day...
And today, finally, two whales had decided to give me a chance to take a picture of them breaching (jumping). I had changed the settings of my autofocus yesterday hoping this would make a difference, and it did. So, still not very close, but quite nice shots as a memory of all the breaching we have seen in the past two weeks. Yes, there was no day we haven't seen whales out there, more or less far away, swimming, feeding, breaching, tail flapping. Such an amazing experience. But you need patience and time. They do come, you do get the chance, but at their timing. Especially when you're not aon a whale watch tour and are not allowed to drive up to them. They have to come to you. And they did. I am beyond grateful.
Tonga reveals its full beauty once you really have quality time to spend here and go explore all the islands. Winds from different directions and strengths force you to move quite often so you can't get stuck. Every island group has lots to offer in different ways.
Tongatapu in the very south has the best (veggie) supplies, amazing blowholes on the east coast and wreck snorkling / diving on the next islands out. Also it has beautiful 'Eua island in its vicinity – a paradise for lovers of green nature, birds and cliffs.
Ha'apai features all these catalogue islands I was dreaming of. It is the biggest island group in the area that it covers, has the clearest waters, best fishing grounds, some good snorkling, Kiteboarding and Windsurfing and you can walk arond all the islands. Ha'api stands for peace and solitude. There are some really charming „Resorts" out there. Small places with 5-10 huts for guests and relaxing peace guaranteed. There are only 2 downsides in the Ha'apais from a boating point of view: the very limited supply sitauation especially in fresh produce and the more or less rolly anchorages. But you get used to it. „Bar live" at the resorts makes up for that if you want a change. Also in Pangai, the main town, there is a nice Café with decent prices for good food, run by a Dutch lady.
Having spent precious time in Ha'api it does not cease to surprise me that the vast majority of cruisers never sails past the Vava'u group, which is the most famous one, equally for land and boating tourists. It is a divine place, no doubt, with calm anchorages, blue lagoons with clear waters, islands with a calm side and a surf side, amazing caves to swim and dive in, hills to walk up to, lots of bird life, coral gardens for the ultimate snorkling experience. Also here are the most hotels, a decent veggie market, shops where you get the bare necessities in food and daily life, a shop which custom prints T-Shirts (screen printing) with Tongan designs or your own design and some decent restaurants and cafés. Not to forget the radio net every morning at 8:30am on channel 26 with all the important information about happenings and where to get what. At the end of the net there is room for trades like „looking for", „giving away", „exchanging" which has not rarely saved a cruiser's day by getting desperately needed parts off another boat or from some local. That makes Vava'u a big community and that gathers people.
To the north of Vava'u is one more island „group" which consists of Niuatoputapu (where until now I shot my only whale breaching picture in 2013) and a volcano island. Only about 600 people live up there and pray in about 7 different churches. The women are all into preparing the Pandanus leaves for weaving and the men bring home food. Net ball, a NZ / Aussie way of playing football, is popular up there. People are lovely up there, it is a very remote place but with no beautiful beaches or any other activities.
Whales are actually the 99% reason for tourists to come to Tonga. Because you can swim with the whales – if you are willing to pay 400 Pa'anga (about 140€) and your tour guide finds them. Whale season is July through early Ocotber, but mainly End of July to End of September. Most whales reside in the Ha'apais though you can find a decent bunch in Vava'u as well.
By now these amazing creatures are really here and if you're out in the lagoon you will most likely run into whales hanging out and new borns playing (you have to keep a distance of 300m though). It is very cute to watch them finding out about swimming, diving, flapping the tail, jumping (aka breaching) while mom is just lying in the water next to the baby. We were lucky the other day to find relatives playing together: an adolescent humpback whale played with a group of spinner dolphins. Or they with him? These dolphins, between 1,4 and 1,7m long, jumped spinning and turning like a happy bunch and the big boy who could easily fit 100 of them into his size just followed them rolling himself over the back a couple of times. We keep the distance we have to have but took Charly, my drone, out flying to film this spectacle from above. At the same time I took some picutres with my big camrea and the zoom lense (oh how I wish I had a 600 zoom!). What an experience. I am very happy that my dear brother was able to see some Whales hanging out, saw the one playing with the dolphins and one really close as a big male whale came to check out Alita. With the two rudders and about the size of these cetaceans she does look like one of them – on the back. When Alita still had the white body below the waterline and the grey above she did really look like one of them and often interested males would come up to Alita and check her out. That's why Marcus (to my disappointment) changed the bottom colour to grey.
Except for the far north we have seen all the good places with my brother in those 8 weeks he has been on board and I believe the has taken home many new skills, lots of knowledge and cultural experience. He has become a pro in finding and opening coconuts for drinking and for eating; he learned how and where to fish, which fish to eat and how to fillet them, where to find lobsters, how and where to snorkel. He learned about the different kind of reef fish and shells and who lives in these shells originally and later in their existence. He learned about the colouring artwork of the shells and the changes of it during their lifetime in the water and on beaches. He learned that cars can still drive with broken axles and when rust and tape holds the car together. And, unfortunately, he saw that the influence of the „industry world" changes culture and life – mostly not to the better. All of a sudden there is need for money where the people were able to live fairly independent and self contained. There are some good aids from other countries, but they all come at prices. Main influence here is by China and Japan. In return they want the fishing rights, which in return makes the locals suffer because the fish are decreasing at high speeds soon leaving the locals with not enough fish to feed and then they have to buy the canned fish – imported from China. That's already daily life in Samoa, French Polynesia, Vanuatu and probably so many more pacific island which still have (had) an intact sea life. The fishing rights here have been given only for the outer zone, not coastal, but the Chinese often don't oblige to these rules and there are not too many possibilities of controlling it all. Just recently a Chinese fisherboat has been confiscated – fish and boat. But that's just a drop on a hot stone and very sad to see. Though it seems to me that the consequences are a bit tighter here than in the other places I have seen. In comparison to that the aids from USA and Europe „only" come with the hope of having a partner in the Pacific (and who knows what else happens behind the scenes).
Culturally we experienced the celebration week of the 70th birthday of the king with military tattoos and agricultural show, where we got to see him very close. We saw how the people can celebrate with lots of laughter and hold incredible feasts; that a simple life is not a bad life (if you can grow and fish your food as good as you can do it here in Tonga); that tradition, strong (family) community and positive believe makes lovely and openhearted people (although even here typical „disturbances" like drugs and alcohol can't be denied); that being in the navy / army in Tonga does not mean you can't do funny shows. We saw the three Tongan navy ships. We saw that all these free running pigs here in Tonga don't care about feelings and dignity and feed on graves. Most of all we experienced a culture of „live and let live". As long as you respect each other and the culture and don't hurt anyone (and of course pay tax and oblige to the few laws) you can live the way you want, build the house you want and drive the car you want (or what is left from it).
So my brother took home lots of good memories (I hope), beautiful shells (which are not under protection) – and a set of Tongan license plates from the original owner.
Lets hope Tonga remains the beautiful place it is and that tourism stays as eco and individual as it is for the sake of the country and its beauty.
Malo Tonga for the wonderful times here. Love you forever.
The parade itself did not last long. After one song the king stepped into his open top military car with handles to hold onto and got driven around to "inspect" the troops. I don't know who was more excited- the grass that got rolled over or the people. Or maybe the guests of honour. There was the french navy ship that had come from New Caledonia, and then representatives from NZ, Aussieland, Vanuatu, Kiribas, German Ambassador and so on. And representatives of the villages from all the islands. They all left again after the lunch feast.
Before lunch there was a church service. Invited guests were able to be inside, the people could sit outside on chairs and listen via speekers. But most were still busy with preparing the feast.
I have never seen so much food being eaten in such a short time. So many pigs. Ok, you find pigs on every corner in Tonga so they won't really miss them but still. Hard to describe the scene.
What else was happening during that week?
A yacht regatta (our friends won the price for the best decorated boat and the last over the line), prize giving dinner, marching band evening with a marching band from all the schools for every year for the past I don't know how many years, the agricultural fair and last but not least the "Military tattoo". A big show with marching bands and demonstrations by the navy. Very cool. All of it. I could have touched the king a couple of times, got close ups with the big camera. All very traditional, lots of fun. At the agricultural fair the best of each brand were allowed to exhibit: best fisheries, best taro, best veggies etc. As soon as the king had walked by a stand everything they had on display was for sale. They sold the fish for $10/kg! We were very fortunate to have been there when all of that was going on. Certainly a fun experience!
Here are my phone- pix.