There be whales here!

August 6, 2007

Our last week on our trip, we spent hanging out in Vava’u, Tonga. Wet met our friend Wendy from Kauai and she showed us around. Wendy lived in Vava’u for 4 years a couple of years back so she knows the place like the back of her hand. She flew to Vava’u from Nadi and we boarded the same plane in Suva, so from that point forward Terry and I were on auto-pilot. We just followed Wendy around. This was appropriate for the end of our trip because the beginning of our trip was spent following (if only in the footsteps of) two other Kauai friends Kevin and Stacey who had done a six-month trip a few years prior. Actually it was over lunch with Wendy, Kevin and Stacey, and a few other K-9 volunteers that I got the bug to take this 6-month trip to begin with. On the way home I had bought a world map, hung it on the wall of our apartment, and showed Terry, “Ok, we are going to go here, here, and here!” Terry called up Wendy and asked, “Exactly what did you say to Mark over lunch???” Terry tells the story better. Anyway, Wendy setup whale watching and diving for us. And for two nights we crashed on her co-owned (with her friend Rick), 26-foot sailing yacht, “Damn”. On those nights, we would row out to the mooring at night in a small row boat and return in the morning to Wendy’s room to meet up for breakfast and coffee, usually at the Aquarium Cafe. The Aquarium Cafe is a really cool cafe/restaurant that does bookings, cart safaris, and offers Internet access. The young couple Ben and Lisa that run the place live on their yacht offshore and are really laid back and friendly. One day after Ben saw a photo of a beautiful island, they decided they needed a life-style change. Ben took a few months of sailing lessons, they sold their house, bought a sail boat, and took off. They ended up in Tonga 3 years later where they decided to open the Aquarium Cafe. Well-run, clean, friendly, and the food is to die for!

[Terry: Like Ben and Lisa, most non locals here seemed to have sailed to Tonga and decided to live here for awhile. Tonga has beautiful islands, beautiful sky with fluffy clouds, clear blue and emerald green water with beautiful sailboats and yachts. Mark and I didn’t know about Tonga like most Americans until we met Wendy. Once we landed in Tonga, we followed her around like puppy dogs. She ran into her friends in the airport and offered Wendy (and thus us as part of her baggage) a ride to the hotel. Her sail boat was not quite ready but since Wendy knew the hotel manager she ended up with this huge room with 2 queen beds and so we bummed with her the first 2 nights. Plus instead of using our ATM card (automatic 3% charge for international use), Wendy was our personal bank and said we can pay her back once we get to Kauai. She saved us a lot of money.]

Whale watching was the highlight of our trip to Vava’u. We were in the water three times with a couple of Humpbacks. On the best encounter, the group of five was snorkeling about 90 feet directly above two whales just motionless in the water below. We watched in awe. Terry was taking video because I messed up the previous video. I must have hit the record button twice like I did on the Nevis Bungy Jump. And probably because I had as much adrenaline flowing through my veins watching these massive creatures. One whale just started floating towards the surface tail first. See the video. I added the whale songs we heard on the boat’s hydrophone to the video to make it interesting. The whale was getting pretty close since we were directly above it. I figured the whale knew we were there and would not surface directly below us; and it eventually did turn and swim away. I was so enamored that I didn’t want to move; I wanted the whales to come even closer. I would guess it was only 30 feet from us at one point. But Terry seemed to think the whale was coming right at us and starting swimming away. So I grabbed the camera to keep it steady for the video already in progress. But Terry kept swimming away and dragging me with her all the while making her little nervous screaming/laughing noises. It was pretty funny but we ended up missing the best part of that shot too so in the end neither of us was able to get any good video to share with you. However, I will never forget this incredible experience.

[Terry: Okay, so this is what really happened. I knew Mark’s mom was pretty worried with Mark breaking his finger then his hand almost being eaten by a huge fish. I was pretty worried about Mark and I was being extra protective. Of course these whales are beautiful creatures and I wanted to be close to them enough to pet them and perhaps ride off their fins like a water slide. But seriously Mark, you can’t pet them like the movie “Free Willy!” I was scared! And I was only trying to save Mark by pulling him away from the whales and I thought he was clinging on to me as well (to calm me down perhaps), but I realized he was only interested in taking the camera off my wrist! Just kidding... but knowing Mark and his love for taking pictures, maybe only half :) Mark and I couldn’t stop laughing the whole time.]

Of’course, we did a little bit of diving in Vava’u as well. The visibility was a little better than the vis in Fiji. Fiji is usually 150+ feet, but was only about 60 feet during our visit. We were told the vis was bad in Fiji the entire year. In Vava’u, we did a few dives with couple swim-throughs and caves with a few small grey reef sharks. Our first dive in Vava’u was a wall dive and the currents were ripping fast! I was distracted shooting video and missed the drop off point to the wall. I had to fight a 5+ knot current to get back. I was pretty tired for the rest of the dive and constantly had to clear my flooding mask so it was not the most enjoyable dive for me. Terry surfaced and said, “That was awesome! Just like a roller coaster!”

[Terry: I was excited to dive with Wendy in Tonga. Wendy’s dive boat, Gladiator, is specifically designed for “boat dive lovers”. It is an awesome boat with a toilet, a separate tank for cameras, and hot coffee and tea served with cookies and fruits. And since Wendy is a part owner of the dive shop, Mark and I dove for free! The first dive was supposed to have some current but since Mark and I have dove in Fiji where other divers warn of strong currents, I thought, “this dive will be a piece of cake”. While Mark was fighting the current I I found this beautiful orange nudibranch that Mark would absolutely go crazy over since we have never seen it before. However, I realized Mark was in no frame of mind to look at a nudibranch when I saw his face. His eye lashes were wet and he seemed tired from swimming against the current. He held my arm tight and did not want us to separate in the strong current. He never looked more uncomfortable underwater. I think I got more scared watching Mark’s concerned expression and giving me the signal to abort the dive than the current itself. He was calmer when the potato cod tried to eat his hand! Mark with all his handicaps -- being tired from swimming against the current in the beginning of the dive, his mask not properly sealing, holding on to my arm and his camera with his injured hand while looking at his gauge and clearing his mask with his good hand -- still came up with more air than me. Darn it! Anyway, Wendy took us to a much calmer dive site for our second dive.]

Friday, Wendy’s last day in Tonga with us, we did the cart safari through the island trails. The carts were like small sand rails. Wendy, Terry and I with our guide cruised across the island and past one gorgeous vista after another. The terrain is similar to Kauai, and our carts raced passed palm, coconut, and screw pine trees through puddles, over dirt, mud and pine needle carpeted trails. We also passed through villages and the village kids ran out to wave to us just like our Viet Nam motor bike trip. It rained on our return which made it even more exciting. By the end of the trip we were all covered in mud. Since every Friday is a weekly yacht race, after the cart safari, we joined Wendy and Rick on their yacht “Damn” against 3 other yachts. Terry and I were glorified ballast and didn’t actually do anything except shift our weight to one side or the other on Rick’s commands of “high side” or “low side”. But it was still heaps of fun being on the boat and seeing how the races were held. Rick and Wendy, the “Damn crew”, won the race! The four of us and everyone else remotely involved with the weekly races were at Mermaid’s bar and restaurant that night as they have been every previous Friday night.

Wendy returned home the next day, and so we were on our own. But Wendy had introduced us to her friends and hang-outs so we were well prepared. Terry and I still had the sailing bug from the race so we rented one of Ben’s home-made sailing dingies and tried our hand at sailing. I have always wanted to learn and now I was lucky enough to have my first sailing lesson in a place like Tonga! Ben and Rick both gave us the 5-minute sailing briefing and then we were off sailing in the harbor! Ben said that the wind was a little strong and we might flip the boat, but he would be watching and would motor out and get us is necessary. But we didn’t flip the boat once. It was really a blast! It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be and we sailed for about 1.5 hours. We managed to cruise around the harbor, circle a few boats, and return to dock ourselves without a hitch. We spent a lot of our time at Aquarium Cafe. Ben showed us how to play Liars Dice correctly and we enjoyed chatting with Lisa about their cafe business and decision to buy a yacht and sail away to begin with. Plus with his dive shop just down stairs, Rick spent a lot of time in the area and we could chew the fat with him too.

Rick, or Ricky as everyone calls him, took us diving on Sunday. Good thing too because the whole town shuts down on Sunday. It was like a ghost town except for the church. Actually, according to Tongan culture we were not suppose to swim on Sunday so we had to load our gear on the boat covertly and set it up and break it down outside the harbor. Too funny! It was a fairly shallow dive site (50 feet) and we saw a few interesting things like a cowrie, clams, and an eel. But I didn’t need to see on this dive. My mask could have been flooded the entire time and it still would have been my favorite dive in Tonga. 10 minutes into the dive, until we exited the water, we could hear two whales singing their whale songs. I say “two” whales like I could understand the conversation, but it did somehow sound like a conversation. One whale would sing, and then the next sound just seemed like a reply to me. On the whale watching boat we heard the whales through the hydrophone and they sounded like the typical whale songs. Like the ones from the movie “Star Trek IV” where they go back in time to capture a whale and bring it back into the future to save the planet Earth. But listening to the whales for 30 minutes straight I heard other sounds too. It was actually very soothing. The sounds were loud enough, and although I had the feeling the whale were quite far from us, maybe even hundreds of yards, I kept my eyes peeled into the blue just in case. I found it annoying that their beautiful songs were interrupted by my need to breathe. Exhale. inhale, and then hold just a few seconds to hear the songs again. On the way back we stopped at Mariners cave for a swim. On the return from the previous whale watching trip we stopped to swim at Swallows cave, a swim spot with beautiful blue water. But Mariners Cave trumps Swallows Cave. The entrance was underwater. You had to free dive about 5 feet down and 10 feet into the blackness to gain entrance. From inside the cave glowed a brilliant blue. Swimming in your mind briefly wanders to, “Am I going to make it. I need a breath.. Ah...” And then you are in, gasping for the caves interior air supply trying to catch your breath.


Swallows Cave
To our yaht...
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