Gentle Giants and Big Mama’s

We dove in the water and began swimming as fast as we could toward where the whale had last surfaced. This isn’t as easy as it might sound. The view from a boat versus eye level with the waves is a stark contrast. Add to that that whales can swim much faster than us humans. One pump of their powerful tails and they will quickly recede into the distance. It was with hope and trepidation that we continued to swim… and then, something in the distance. A dark shadow. Was it the whale? Or simply a cloud passing overhead? As we cautiously closed the gap the shape became more familiar and MUCH larger – it was definitely our whale. Our hearts were pounding from the furious swim and the vulnerability of being near an animal as large as a train car. Amazingly, the whale remained relatively still and didn’t charge toward or away from us. As we approached we saw why. Floating happily on the other side of what we now knew to be a female humpback whale was a very young calf. Momma didn’t seem to be bothered by us and allowed us to get quite close, within arm’s reach, even, although we didn’t try to touch her, of course. She was stunning – at least 40 feet long with barnacles on her nose and flippers, and a sweet look in her eye that watched us but also appeared to doze off from time to time. Her calf was beautiful. His (for some reason it seemed like a boy) pale skin had yet to darken and looked soft and loose on his body. He fidgeted almost constantly next to mom and she would frequently balance him on her nose as if to give him a break from the constant swimming. Ever the toddler unable to remain still, he would stay there for a little while then roll off to the side and swim alongside and nuzzle her. We watched this amazing scene and the whales did not seem to mind. Under the mother’s chin were numerous remora fish that had attached themselves by way of suction cups built into their heads. I imagine we were far less annoying than them.  

After ten or fifteen minutes it was time to go, so we bid farewell and swam back to the boat. We were all giddy with excitement recounting the interaction as we returned to the harbor. It was a powerful experience and a life highlight for sure. And it endeared us to the Kingdom of Tonga. 

Tonga is comprised of four main island groups each about a 1-2 day sail from the other and quite different geologically. We spent most of our time in the Vava’u islands where we first arrived in Tonga. It is very different from the sunken atolls and reef-fringed volcanoes that we had visited most of the season. At first glance the topography is reminiscent of our San Juan Islands back home. There are steep tree-covered hills that go all the way down to the water’s edge and many islands of all shapes and sizes with plenty of coves to escape the wind no matter which direction it blows. Any resemblance, however, stops at the water’s surface. The water is warm, blue and super clear with many great diving and snorkeling spots. It is also where Southern Hemisphere humpback whales come to mate and give birth. The area is called the Port of Refuge for good reason – the sheltered harbor near the main town of Neiafu is typically as calm as a swimming pool, a welcome respite after the miles traveled to get there.

Tonga is a monarchy with very devout Christian beliefs. Dress and behavior are quite conservative and most business and activities, even swimming, is disallowed on Sundays with few exceptions. The people are quite friendly, albeit a bit shy at first. It is a poor country, though, and as avid dog lovers it was tough to see the state that the strays and loose animals are in. Pigs run loose everywhere. And while Tongans do eat pork for some of their meals the pig populace far outpaces any amount of consumption. Many of the dogs are malnourished, afraid of humans, and walk with limps from being hit by cars. One bright spot is the work being done by Host A Vet-Vava’u, Tonga in partnership with South Pacific Animal Welfare to conduct week-long veterinary clinics which provide spay/neuter operations and other services.

The town of Neiafu is a bit rough around the edges with a blend of local Tongans, Chinese immigrants, and a number of expats from around the globe. The economy is heavily reliant on tourism so there is a decent number of restaurants, a few of them quite good, and we were quick to find our favorites.

For cruisers, Greg at Café Tropicana is a fabulous resource for everything from rental cars to movie downloads. Provisioning is a bit challenging but between the fresh market and trips to five or six different stores we were able to find what we needed.

We did some hiking and exploring, too, and even witnessed a visit from the King of Tonga.

Away from the main harbor, there are countless islands and anchorages to visit. Some are completely isolated, others have a small village, each with a slightly different vibe.

One of our days in Neiafu we rented a car to run some errands (propane refill, gas for the dinghy, etc.) and decided to check out what we had heard is a beautiful botanical garden. Unfortunately, we discovered at the entrance gate that it is open only by appointment. We continued to the end of the road and found a restaurant, which also appeared closed. Not to be deterred we parked anyway and walked inside where we met the owner, Haniteli Fa’anunu. Since he obviously was not officially open for business at this time of day, we decided to simply buy a bottle of water and leave. As fate would have it, though, we had only a big bill and he didn’t have enough change so we flexed our plans, ordered a couple of beers, and joined him on the shaded deck. Overlooking a beautiful reef-protected bay we spent much of the afternoon talking story about Haniteli’s time at the University of Hawaii in 1968 and later as Tonga’s Director of Agriculture, Forestry and Food. On his property, he created the botanical gardens, which he continues to develop and maintain, and offers visitors a unique opportunity to learn about the biodiversity of Tonga. It was a fun afternoon and we thoroughly enjoyed our one-on-one time with this interesting man.

A few days later we departed the Vava’u group and sailed south to the Ha’apai islands. We had only a few days to explore these reef-fringed islands and atolls but what we saw was beautiful. On an historical note, our final night in the Ha’apai group was spent in the Nomuka Iki anchorage, which was the HMS Bounty’s last anchorage before the infamous mutiny occurred.

From Ha’apai it was a long day sail to Nuku’alofa on the island of Tongatapu. This is the capital of Tonga and is more of a “city,” complete with a little more traffic and a little more grittiness. The main anchorage for yachties is off a small island a mile and a half from the main port, in front of Big Mama’s Yacht Club, run by Big Mama and her husband, Earl. They are some of the most welcoming people you’ll ever meet and can arrange anything from diesel delivery to laundry service to airport transfer for crew (which we used for our buddy, Tom, who met us there to crew on Gadabout). It was a wonderful place to meet other cruisers, swap stories, and compare plans while awaiting a good weather window for the passage to New Zealand.

All in all, we spent about a month and a half in Tonga. That was far too short to see everything but in this part of the world, the cyclone season dictates timing so we had to say farewell.

2 Comments on “Gentle Giants and Big Mama’s

  1. What a wonderful experience…so much beauty and kindness still in this world! Safe sailing! Love you both!


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