Saturday, September 8, 2012

Whale sized post from Vavau, Tonga

We have had a great time in Tonga and managed to fit a ton of fun into a very short amount of time here. Unfortunately, that means blogging has been put on the back burner leading to unmanageable sized posts. In short, we have loved the Vavau group of Tonga. It has been heavenly sailing the short distances in consistent winds with no seas between anchorages and even being able to sail on and off anchor in many places. There is a huge traveling cruising fleet in this sailing paradise, yet still, we managed to find nice isolated anchorages most of the time, enjoying the natural playground, though, unfortunately, not crossing paths with many actual Tongans. After landfall, we quickly negotiated the ex-pat heavy Neiafu, and headed out of town where we enjoyed several anchorages, swam with whales, spent nearly a week at the eastern side of the group behind Kenutu Island exploring surrounds from Fatty and finally moved back west in the island group to enjoy Taunga Island and the remarkable coral garden area before sadly heading back to Neiafu to check out of the country. In the near month that we've been here, we have maneuvered ourselves to be in safe anchorages for two episodes of 20-30-knot winds from the SE and the passage of a stationary-front-bearing low. If the weather window stays, we'll sail onward toward Fiji Sunday morning 9 September.

If you are interested in the longer version of our adventures then keep reading... We spent 5 nights post-landfall in Neiafu, a bustling little town with a bursting ex-pat community. We took a mooring to figure out what the situation was, went to town to grab a little internet, see what was available at the local market, taste the cuisine, and laid low while some stronger winds moved through. On a blustery Sunday afternoon the only ones out, we sailed Fatty around the harbor to the sounds of church singing and bells tolling and enjoyed a dinner the next night aboard outbound Pandion with just landed Convivia before we managed to sail off the mooring and into the playground of the Vavau group.

In gorgeous light winds, we slowly sailed and other boats motored all around us. On a tip from friends, we checked out Kitu Island, a little north of famous Mariner's Cave that we had heard was home for tons of flying foxes/ large fruit bats. It was blissful to be sailing Tao in the light fetchless breezes. As Chris joyously sailed us around in circles, Shawn checked these huge bats out through the binoculars and tried to catch a few pictures with our sad back up camera. We continued on using our digital charts (for which CMAP is slightly better than our digitized paper charts and both are definitely about a half mile off), the nice laminated map we sprung for in town that Moorings put together, and mostly our eyes as we sailed among little tropical islands. As the sun shone, we could see blinding white beaches on islands all around as well as palm trees and other tropical greens clinging to limestone weathered islands, surrounded by shallow teal areas of reef, flanked by deep dark blue water. With settled weather conditions, we made our way toward the empty anchorage south of Tapana Island and dropped the hook. Happily anchored in sand we put the hammock up and tried not to be annoyed when a Moorings rental sailboat anchored just upwind of us and close enough to hang over our anchor. Chris finally calmed Shawn down and instead of weighing anchor and finding another place, we chose to let out an additional 100-ft (putting us at a hilarious 10:1 scope in settled winds) to have some space. On deck, we enjoyed a celebratory glass of wine in our double hammock as the sun set and we had a perfect view of huge fruit bats returning overhead to Tapana Island for the night.

Through the cruiser grapevine (Dreamkeeper and Pandion), we'd been encouraged to keep a lookout for Michelle and Mark on s/v Cheers, so when they hailed to invite us for dinner and to share the jewel of an anchorage they had found, the next morning after poking around a little in Fatty, we motivated for a nice downwind day sail toward them. The anchorage behind a fetch-breaking reef connecting Ovalau and Ovaka Islands turned out to have a ton of room and nice sandy conditions with a few obvious coral patches to avoid. Mellow winds allowed us to sail onto anchor, which we hadn't done much of since Mexico. We made it there in time to enjoy a few moments in the hammock before heading over to Cheers for a delicious dinner and great chats with like-minded cruisers. The next morning we circumnavigated Ovalau in Fatty and snorkeled around a gigantic coral patch before sailing off anchor toward the protection again of Tapana Island, this time to its north. Settled conditions were forecast to disappear and we had planned a touristy whale tour for the next day. As the sun settled low, we sailed between Afo and Tapana into what we have heard is considered a hurricane hole that has several obviously long term moored boats. After circling and scoping a spot in the light winds, we sailed onto anchor to the cheers of the local cruisers having on deck sundowners.

We don't usually do touristy things, but the cruisers grapevine again (this time Britannia) alerted us to the possibility of amazing interactions with the breeding and birthing humpback whales here in Tonga. Before leaving Neiafu-town, we booked a "swim-with-the-whales" tour with Convivia. The day, unfortunately, dawned gray and rainy, but not to be deterred, we set up our rain catchment, organized gear for a surely blustery day, and hopped in when the whale watching boat stopped into our prearranged anchorage for pick up at 0900. There was one other couple from New Zealand that joined us and luckily they had a waterproof camera, because ours broke in Samoa and Convivia had left theirs on the charger. The islands that had looked so inviting over the past few days looked completely different in the heavy overcast, but Allister, the English owner of Dive Vavau who we had chosen to go with, assured us we would see whales. Four swimmers with one guide are allowed by "law" in the water at a time, and it is the whale's choice whether they want to swim with you or not. Without the sun out, conditions for viewing were difficult and the morning was filled with several unsuccessful attempts with a few different mother/calf combinations that were not willing to swim with people (according to our guide, when the baby whales are young the mothers are more nervous). As always there is controversy surrounding the whale tour business, but from what we witnessed, our Tongan driver was very respectful of the distances from the whales which he kept the boat and we did not follow whales that were not interested in our presence.

Finally, after lunch we happened upon a mother and calf that were very playful and interested in us human swimmers. Our group had two wonderful encounters with them and we were lucky to be in the water for both of them. The first round the baby whale repeatedly swam down to his mother in deeper water and back to the surface to play. Pilot fish surrounded the baby as it frolicked and learned how to move its massive self. Finally the mother whale came up toward the surface to breath, on the way displaying motherly affection by nuzzling the baby with her head a mere 20-ft from us. The second encounter was even more exciting, when the baby swam right at our group. Well versed by our guide to stick together, we managed not to get separated by the baby, but it passed within 5-ft of us while the mama surfaced to breath just next to us, then dove right underneath our group. It was awe inspiring to be in the presence of such exquisite creatures and to witness their massive grace and playfulness. In retrospect, we wish it had been a little sunnier and that we'd had our camera, but even with rainy cloudy conditions, it was an unexplainably fantastically magical experience to have a giant baby and enormous mama swim within 5-ft of us and intelligently look right into our eyes.

That evening we organized all the collected water and recovered after the exhaustingly exciting day. The following morning dawned clear and after a lazy morning, we sailed off the hook toward the more isolated eastern side of the group. After seeing a whale breeching just south of Tapana Island, we sailed to Fanautapu Pass. Besides a questionable entry, it was a short but dramatic passage in which we sailed, then motor sailed, then sailed, saw giant mantas transiting the pass themselves, then motored for the overall rather short distance. Although we were required to motor two sections between reefs that were too upwind to sail, there were a lot of coral heads and it sure felt good to have motor power and bow watch with sun mostly behind us. Once in the lee of Kenutu Island with anchor down (in great holding 25-ft of coral sand with grass), we sat back to enjoy the gorgeous very isolated protected area and could hear the raw open ocean pounding the other side of the island.

Over our near week in Kenutu, we visited with Tucker and Vic and their kids Ruby and Miles of Convivia, explored Kenutu Island, sailed Fatty throughout the coral studded bay all the way north to explore Faioa Island, relaxed on Sand Cay (a little knob of sand exposed during low tide), viewed natural infinity pools and experienced exploding waves crashing from the top of Lolo Island. Though we could have stayed for much longer, a spell of nicer weather brought a few boats to visit and we decided to sail out and explore up toward Old Harbor- conveniently connected to the bustling village of Neiafu from the other side. We never made it there, as we found a secluded little bay and sailed onto anchor just offshore a cute little village on Oloua Island. We set up our rain catchment for the forecast moisture and enjoyed a night of eerily calm washed away by rain, awakening to the little village church bells and singing (on a Friday!) before the sun even rose. We had expected a blustery gray day, but instead, the day dawned fresh and mostly sunny so plans changed again. Instead of heading to town for more freshies and internet, we took advantage of the beautiful light winds and sunny weather to transit Fanautapu Pass. A clean passage with a few quick jibes to avoid large coral patches at the west side of the pass, and we breathed a sigh of relief for safe passage. Soon we were upon a little island called Tauta with bright red soil and evergreen looking trees had been calling to both of us, so we checked its possible anchorage. However, the anchorage was not settled in the northerly winds we were experiencing, so we continued on to Taunga Island.

Back to the more heavily cruised area, we were sad to see that the little anchorage we had hoped to seek shelter from high winds forecast in the next few days already had a boat in it, so we continued on to the southern anchorage which also had a boat in it. Finally we pulled the sails down and motored to check out the anchorages. The SW one was very deep with large coral heads and we did not find a section that we felt comfortable with near the other boat, so we returned to the NW anchorage off of the village and through the clear water saw huge coral patches, flanked by beautiful sand. There was indeed enough room for us with the other boat, so we circled around until we had picked a "perfect" spot, and what an amazing experience it was to lower Rocky and watch him all the way down 45-ft into just the right spot to dig into the bottom. This striking anchorage is flanked by reefs on two sides that come out of water in low tide. As the tide fills in and over them, it becomes a bit rolly, but it gave us a good excuse to set up Floppy our flopper-stopper, which we haven't used since Hawaii. That evening as we enjoyed a glass of wine and appetizers in the hammock, we watched the sun set and the rare blue moon rise over the little village on Taunga Island.

The next morning, the SW anchorage was already empty and our neighbors chose to leave before we even had a chance to meet them. With the whole island to ourselves, we jumped into Fatty for an attempted circumnavigation of Taunga. First, we sailed to the south end of the island and beached on a beautiful white sand beach of Pau Island. We walked its beach and then the sandy shallow water section that connected it to Taunga, which would surface soon with the full moon large tidal swing. Before the tide got too shallow we continued on and sailed to the outer reef for some amazing snorkeling on the precipitous outer edge of the reef. Clouds started to fill in as we made our way south of Pau Island and visited the coconut laden island of Lekeleka at very low tide. After Chris found a couple delicious looking coconuts, we sailed the shallows (with the centerboard up and rudder in hand) to the eastern side of Taunga to visit what has been hailed "the most beautiful beach in Tonga." We walked the long curving beach as well as the remarkably thin section of Taunga for views of Tao anchored on the other side. Rain was threatening, but we still pushed on with a stop to anchor off Tauta- the red soil island that had been calling us. With the tide so low we were able to circumambulate it and see beautiful sea life as well as follow bright blue birds. The misty conditions finally descended, so we made our way the last leg around the north end of Taunga and beat the remaining distance upwind to a comfortable warm Tao beckoning us to return home.

We relished several days alone in the lee of Taunga Island waiting out a couple days of over 20-knot winds due to tight surface isobars associated with a passing high pressure. When the winds eased, we headed downwind a short distance before stopping at Sisia Island for some excellent beach time and snorkeling. Easterly winds would have allowed us to stay there overnight, but time being short, we decided to join Convivia for a night just off Matamaka (literally translates to "face rock"). The following morning, after visiting the well manicured little town and the welcoming and fluent school teachers, we sailed Tao downwind to a stellar sandy spit anchorage between relatively small Langito'o and Vakaeitu Islands. From there, we sailed Fatty to an area dubbed the "coral gardens" and watched the only other anchored boat leave the entire area to us alone. After beaching Fatty, we walked along Vakaeitu's shore, timing our entrance into the water between waves breaking on the reef. Once on the west side of the reef, we all of a sudden plunged into the most beautiful coral arrangements of all sizes and shapes cascading from surface reef down a gentle slope. We snorkeled together, holding hands swimming up and down the reefs length through the "garden" diving down periodically to inspect and hearing the far off songs of whales. Once back at Tao, we checked surrounding depths and decided to stay for the night enjoying the last rays of daylight from a small low tide only beach on Langito'o.

The next morning, 6 Thursday September, a rain-bearing-low-pressure was forecast to pass, so we weighed anchor and shared a mellow upwind sail (winds from the NW generated from the passing low) with Convivi, with a close pass of Swallows Cave on toward Neiafu Harbor where we dropped the hook just off the main town market. The predicted wind shift to SW happened dramatically, and though now on lee shore, our anchor set was solid. So we went ashore to treat ourselves to a nice dinner at The Balcony Restaurant with Convivia. On Friday, when we went to check out, the Immigration office was closed until 1330, so with winds forecast to pipe up, we moved across the bay to one of the few available moorings. We sailed Fatty back across to visit Immigration, then Port Authority, and finally Customs and chose to be honest and tell the Customs that we weren't going to leave until the weekend and subsequently paid the extra fee in order to feel good about spending one more night in Neiafu. We enjoyed another nice dinner, then icecream, on Cheers with Michelle (Mark unfortunately had to fly home to attend a funeral) before sailing Fatty under a dark but starry sky across the harbor to Tao. Having to leave within 24-hrs of checking out, the next morning, we sailed off the mooring and anchored for one more night of solid sleep in Port Mourelle. Closely watching the weather, this morning we checked into the Gulf Harbor Net (with David of Chameleon who had helped route us previously from Suwarrow to Apia) and got the green light for passage to Fiji, so it seems, it is already time to get underway again.

1 comment:

  1. WOW! May you now experience fair winds and following seas!