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The Eye of the Humpback - Tonga "The Friendly Islands"


penolva

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penolva

@@bettel and @@Tom Kellie - as promised

 

We saw a brief mention on The Rough Guide TV programme that you could swim with whales, legally, in only two places in the world. Having been whale mad for years and spending some time watching them from boats in Alaska, Canada, California, Tenerife and Scotland we were both immediately captivated by the idea. We had no idea you could even do it. The power of TV.

 

The fact that I couldn't swim more than a couple of strokes having been terrified of deep water since a child, you know the swimming teacher that pushes you under to 'teach you', and an incident as a young mum when I went down for the third time caught by a rip tide in St Ives before being pulled out by my hair, made me decide that swimming was not for me.

 

I had to learn to snorkel, swim in deep water if we were to go to Tonga which is the best place to swim with humpback whales. It is also the most beautiful and friendly islands with lovely people. After several lessons and a great deal support from my better half, who is a fantastic swimmer, I beat my fears and snorkel, flippers and swimming gear in hand we flew to New Zealand from UK and then onto Tonga on 20 September 2010 to make our dream come true.

 

I have dug out the old photographs, taken with a point and shoot and a small underwater camera - no Go Pro at that time - and a poor quality video camera. These will be all I can offer to try to show the best experience of my life. To swim beside a female humpback with her calf is life changing. Nothing will ever frighten you again as that calm, beautiful, intelligent animal will look you in the eye and into your soul and you really do make a connection.

 

We flew with Air New Zealand and onto Tongatapu Nuku'Alofa a couple of days later after a stay in Auckland to get over the long journey. A 3am taxi to Auckland airport to catch the ANZ flight went smoothly. At Tongatapu we did a short tour of the island to see the royal palace, markets, schools etc before catching our Chatham Pacific flight to Vava'U. Another airline flies the route these days but then it was a very old jet with no door to the flight deck. We flew over some beautiful islands and began to realise we really were somewhere very special on the other side of the world.

 

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And Tonga also?! Oh, boy ... But the question is, did you get your tattoo there??

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Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!!! It is the great start and I am looking forward for more :)

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penolva

@@bettel. Wish I had a better camera because I know I didn't capture it, but I hope my words will. Pen

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Atravelynn

And the trip got you to learn to snorkel! Cool!

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@@penolva. I will follow this trip report at Tonga islands with great interest since I was there this August and this was so cool ! :)

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penolva

@@penolva. I will follow this trip report at Tonga islands with great interest since I was there this August and this was so cool ! :)

Ah @@samapi then you must do a trip report of your own when I am finished! Pen

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penolva

And the trip got you to learn to snorkel! Cool!

@@Atravelynn and I put my new found skills into practice the first day! It was cool to see 'under' the sea for the first time. Pen

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@@penolva. I will follow this trip report at Tonga islands with great interest since I was there this August and this was so cool ! :)

Ah @@samapi then you must do a trip report of your own when I am finished! Pen

 

thanks I will then :)

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penolva

@@Tom Kellie I will try to grab some whale photographs from the video as I know you can't see video where you live.

 

When we decided to go the first question was where to stay? We were also visiting Australia and New Zealand that trip and had booked various holiday homes for our extended tour. We thought getting a holiday home in Vava'U was probably not possible but having found holidayhouses.co.nz we discovered the Water Front House reference 56335. This was an great way to spend our first week in Tonga and much better than a hotel. The house details also include some nice photographs of life in Vava'U.

 

We were pushing the boat out for our second week which I will come to later.

 

Morley the owner was very helpful and he has Tevita and his wife who manage the house for him. What a lovely couple, really warm and generous and true Tongan's. Tevita met us at the airport and we went to the town to get some food. We knew buying food in Tonga was not straight forward, a lot of tourists from New Zealand we met had used half of their luggage allowance just for food!

 

Things may have improved @@samapi perhaps you can chip in here? For us there were plenty of vegetables and eggs at the market but no fish or meat. Tevita found his friend who opened a big cool box and it was full of fish he had just caught so we bought a big one for next to nothing. There are plenty of bread shops around, bread being a staple food in Tonga. The 'supermarket' was a Chinese owned small shop. Everything for sale was poor quality and expensive. Frozen meat looked awful and was mainly lamb flaps which is popular in Tonga, we had read about these, basically fat! We bought some milk, tins of tuna, some cheese and butter which were both frozen. We decided we would have to live on bread, eggs and fish for the week.

 

There was a nice liquor shop in town but it had hardly any stock. We managed to buy some wine, their last three bottles.

 

We went onto the house which is a way out of town right on the water. Tevita arranged to pick us up in his boat the next day and would be our taxi driver when ever we wanted to go out. There was a telephone at the house. The best part is the dock down the steps to the sea. A kayak is provided and I took my first snorkel off that dock so its very special for me!

 

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The house is at the top of the steps

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I took this under the dock whilst snorkelling :D

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Oh, I would love to dive right in that water! Those fish in the right hand corner are new to me. So happy you learned to snorkel and had a wonderful time. Looking forward to the rest of this report. What a dream come true!

 

Terry

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penolva

Oh, I would love to dive right in that water! Those fish in the right hand corner are new to me. So happy you learned to snorkel and had a wonderful time. Looking forward to the rest of this report. What a dream come true!

 

Terry

@@Terry thank you it was fantastic. :D Pen

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penolva

Tavita took us out on his boat snorkelling, around the island in the car or we just lazed around. We had lunch in town a couple of times and there are some nice cafe's and restaurants.

 

The coral reef around Vava'U is beautiful and pristine. We snorkelled on the Great Barrier Reef later in the trip, I was getting good by then!, and the coral was badly damaged in places. Tonga was on a smaller scale but fantastic. Some photographs taken on the couple of boat trips we did with Tavita. I took the underwater ones :lol:

 

On the second one you can see the breakers out to sea, this is where the boats go looking for the humpback whales.

 

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penolva

That's me with a humpback whale :lol::lol::lol: some are captured from the video.

 

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@@penolva

What an amazing experience that must be - especially when you had to learn to swim and overcome your fears. Wonderful! (an the island looks beautiful also)

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penolva

When we looked into the ethics of swimming with the humpbacks one name came up over and over, Alan Bowe from Mounu Island.

 

mounuisland.com

 

Alan was the first person in Tonga to, admit to!, diving into the water along side a humpback. He pioneered the industry and there are now many other companies offering whale watching/swimming trips. With Alan we were confident the whales would not be distressed as he will only allow you to enter the water if the whale is calm, its usually a mother and calf. Only a maximum six people are allowed in the water with the whales and where possible its less. They do not chase whales, in fact the whales came to us. One baby was so curious it swam right up to John and appeared to kiss him, at least that's what our trip mates swore happened.

 

The whales are there between late June and early November calving and mating.

 

We stayed with Alan, Lyn and the family for 6 nights and went on four whale trips in their boat. We swam with the humpbacks every time. This is not guaranteed of course and we met many people who had not been so lucky. Once they found out we were having some great luck they wanted to come with us. We also did some great snorkelling trips on the other days and spent hours just sitting outside our fale, traditional Tongan house, and listening to the sea. You could sleep with all the windows open and hear it at night and in the morning wake up and there were whales in the bay. Paradise on earth.

 

There are only 4 fales one being a honeymoon fale. The food is fantastic, they have to ship most in from NZ but they did buy a fish from a passing boat one day. There is a lovely bar and social area but each fale is on its own private part of the island with spectacular sea views.

 

Alan and his daughter Kirsty came over from Mounu Island, their home, in one of their boats. It was a Sunday and the singing from the churches in the town was beautiful, the Tongan congregations have the most fantastic choirs. To get onto that boat with the singing filling the harbour was one of those heart stopping moments you will never forget.

 

We settled in and had a lovely lunch then Lyn suggested we went out on the boat as some people were transferring to another island. We could swim in swallows cave which has a deep shelf off. When we got off the back of the boat into the water I could not believe I was swimming in such deep deep blue water. Near the shelf there were hundreds of fish but then it just dropped away and all you could see was dark blue and no bottom.

 

Our fale 'Taha"

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One of Alan's boats

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View from the fale

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Snorkling in the cave and the fish for dinner.

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penolva

What happens on a whale watching/swimming trip? I will try to describe the swims we had.

 

After breakfast we leave the island around 8.30. We shared our trips with people from NZ, Australia, Burkina Faso, Hawaii and the High Commissioner for NZ and her friends. Everyone was very excited but our first task was to spot some whales. You have to watch out for the spray as they breath out and then shout "10 o'clock!!!!" or whatever direction they were in according to the clock, simple. The boat then slowly goes towards them and the guide, be it Alan or one of staff, get into the water to see if its OK. If it is he then allows us to exit the boat from the rear and swim over in the direction of the whales.

 

My first swim was very scary as I was still not confident with the snorkel so Petelo held my hand and swam me over. I looked down, I almost cried, there below me in the deep clear blue sea was a whale that seemed to be the size of a submarine, just lying there. I can honestly say seeing those whales has been the best experience of my life. In Africa I have told people about it, after a day spent with lions, elephants and all of Africa's wonderful creatures, and those people always say 'We must do that!"

 

Patelo left me with the others and we all just floated looking down, you don't need to dive down nor should you unless its absolutely not going to disturb the whales. The next thing a baby appears from under its mothers flipper. As they have to breathe more often they are more active. They twirl up towards the surface and come really close as I mentioned before. Then the mother breathes, she slowly glides up, takes a big breath and then down again, as she swims past you can appreciate the immense size of her.

 

We spent up to an hour with the whales on each swim out at sea. Sometimes they swam off at speed, you would be watching them and the next moment they were gone and all you could see was a tail in the far distance. Another day they were in the bay outside our fale and we were able to swim with them for a long time as they were just resting up. On another swim the mother and calf swam ahead of us and breached many times. I asked if this was a sign of stress but Alan assured me it wasn't.

 

They do look at you as they swim by. They turn their heads to look up and you feel you make eye contact. They could kill you with one fin or a swish of the tail but you never feel afraid. I do think there is a lot more we don't know about whales, dolphins etc. Like elephants they seem to be more loyal, loving and gentle than any human.

 

On our last swim it was quite cold, John was sea sick and everyone went back to the boat. I stayed with Petelo. We swam over the whale from tail to nose and she looked up at us as if to say goodbye and then a flick of her tail and she and her baby vanished.

 

We flew onto Australia after leaving Mounu and Alan, Lyn and Kirsty made us promise to come back, and we will. I have a few more poor photographs I took of the whales and then will post the videos I made which give more of an idea of the island and the boat trips.

 

Hope you enjoyed the TR and I hope to hear that you go there yourself! and you don't have to be a good swimmer ;) Pen

 

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penolva

This video was made by our friends from Hawaii on the first boat trip so it shows my first whale and her baby. They have made the video for public viewing.

 

https://youtu.be/KgByjyLQ-FQ

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That must have been a truly wonderful experience and I'm very envious to say the least. I worked in Tonga for a few months back in 2000 and saw the whales breaching on quite a few times but never got the chance to swim with them. I'd love to go back but it's a hell of a long trip from the UK and time and money have to be taken into account, my age doesn't help either these days. If you do get the chance to go again then get on with it don't leave it to late.

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penolva

@@Big Andy you are the same age as I was that trip :) you have 5 years on me, Yikes getting old! We are saving up to go back in 2018 for my better half's 70th. Alan said he took an 85 year old lady out swimming. Never too old, just too poor. Pen

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Oh, my God! That looks like truly magical and unbeatable experience! I will try to book my trip for the next February in Dominican republic (it is way too long trip to Tonga from Canada :( )

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penolva

Oh, my God! That looks like truly magical and unbeatable experience! I will try to book my trip for the next February in Dominican republic (it is way too long trip to Tonga from Canada :( )

@@bettel look forward to hearing about it and I hope you look into the eye of the humpback. Pen

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That's a cool report @@penolva and your lodge / fale looked very nice !! I sure understand the enjoyment you could have to swim with these whales and your inland and underwater pictures show well the beauty of those islands and the nice encounters we can have with the whales over there. Thanks for sharing this with us !

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