Monday, November 19, 2012

Ha'apai, Tonga

When one observes, first hand, Anne’s obsession with ocean fishing, it’s clear that she inherited the same recessive gene from her father that makes him so passionate about it.  Mark, on the other hand, does not have it and, with the exception of eating the fish, finds the whole process a great deal of hassle, especially on a boat under sail.  It’s a Murphy’s law that fish will only choose to bite when our boat is careening near the limits of control and the crew’s attention should be focused on sailing.  Too often, it is some marginally edible fish, like a Bonito, that seems to take the lure and create just as much trouble and drama as a good fish like a Tuna.  Even when a good fish is hooked, fighting it and bringing it aboard is just the beginning.  As the boat sails on auto pilot, rolling and crashing through the waves, the flopping fish must be subdued and filleted without personal injury or covering too much of “Blue Rodeo’s” stern with blood and guts.  From this description, Mark is sure that those reading this will agree with him that it’s just more trouble than it’s worth...except, of course, those that have that recessive fishing gene. 

All of the fishing hassles seemed forgotten though when, on our 10-hour sail south from Vava’u to Ha’apai, Anne hooked, fought, landed and filleted a beautiful 48” long Wahoo.  Later that night, with friends Bill and Kat from the yacht “Island Bound”, we would feast on the delicious fish while anchored off of Ha’apai’s main village on the island of Lifuka.  Maybe this fishing thing does have some merit?

The next day, after checking-in with the port’s customs and immigration office, we took a brief exploratory walkabout and visited the village’s only real restaurant for a snack and access to internet.  While there, we also followed-up on a recommendation to see the owner about whale watching tours that he provides.  Since most of Vava’u and Ha’apai, Tonga are winter caving and feeding grounds for migratory Humpback whales, we were anxious to have the opportunity to see and swim with them up close and personal, something that probably cannot be done anywhere else on the planet.  With questionable weather forecast for the next few days, nothing was scheduled and we returned to “Blue Rodeo” where we raised anchor and sailing a short 5 miles to the gorgeous, nearly uninhabited island of Uoleva.  While there, we had the good fortune to connect with another whale watch operation run by a young Australian couple who, with there two children, a dog and two pet chickens, live aboard a beautiful 55’ catamaran.  They offer tours aboard both a 21’, rigid-bottom inflatable boat and their catamaran.  Along with Bill and Kat, and hoping for improving weather, we booked a day-long excursion aboard the catamaran.

The day of our whale watch trip, sunny skies replaced the previous night’s wind and rain and we departed the anchorage aboard the catamaran named “Wildlife” at about 9:00am.  Before long, the crew spotted whales and gently maneuvered the boat to an area close enough for us to enter the water with masks, fins and snorkels and swim to them but far enough away so as not to be intrusive.  Once in the water, we swam a short distance, being very careful to move as quietly through the water as possible, and were soon greeted by a sight that took our breaths away.  There in front of us were two mothers and two calfs performing an underwater ballet that seemed choreographed just for us.  This sight was truly spellbinding.  The interaction lasted just a few minutes but left us fulfilled and humbled by the encounter.  After returning to the catamaran, we all talked giddily, sharing our excitement and feelings.  The moment had been magical and we agreed that, even if we did not see any other whales that day, that first encounter was completely satisfying.  Before long tough, we would come across another mother an calf lazily hovering in one area giving our group the opportunity to swim with and observe them for nearly an hour and a half.  During that time, while the calf frolicked near the surface, the mother would hold position below it and near the bottom as if resting and taking a break from the child-rearing chores.  Occasionally, she would rise to the surface, gently lifting the 15 foot-long caff with her nose and given it a chance to rest.  Tris, our guide, would later explain that the nuzzling was also a means of providing sensory contact using the highly receptive areas along the whales’ snouts.  The entire day’s experience proved to be one that we’ll treasure always and make us even more hopeful that humans will appreciate, understand and strive to protect these magnificent creatures.

Over the next 3 weeks we explored Ha’apai’s islands, frequently having small uninhabited islands all to ourselves.  Many of the islands were picture postcard perfect with white sand beaches circling palm-covered land rising just a few feet above sea level.  As we traveled from island to island we stood constant lookout for reefs and shoals often marked by breaking wind waves or patches of dark brown visible through the clear water.  Once anchored in a new location, we were quick to explore the waters with masks, fins and snorkels and go ashore in search of perfect specimens to add to Anne’s shell collections.  While Anne scoured the beach looking for shells, Mark would often walk the area along the brush above the high tide line sorting through an assortment of plastic debris driven ashore by the wind and waves.  Discarded plastic bottles were, unfortunately, all too common as were mismatched rubber sandals, fishing floats and bits of net.  Mark’s imagination would often leave him thinking what useful items could be scavenged if they were ship-wrecked on the island.  On the windward side of one island, he even found an electronic, current measuring device, that he later identified, that uplinks information to satellites.  Having no real use for it didn’t prevent him from lugging it back to “Blue Rodeo” where it remains to this day.  We can only imagine that scientists somewhere are wondering about the strange movements it now exhibits.

In the blink of an eye, the time we’d allotted for seeing Ha’apai had elapsed and we started back north to the Vava’u area to rendezvous with our friends from McCall, Idaho who were soon to arrive for their week-long charter.  As we slipped anchor at our last anchorage off the Island of Ha’ano, we vowed to return someday and see even more of the fabulous area.


  1. I share Mark's opinion of fishing: usually not worth the trouble. Glad you have had better luck! - Mark, svSouthern Cross

  2. We just had dinner with Mark's crew member, Justin, from McCall, Idaho. Fun to talk about your town.

  3. Awesome to hear about your whale experience. Hope you got some good photos! And by the way, I, like Anne have that fishing Gene, but John agrees with you, MArk. He probably got tired of me gutting up our boat last summer. Ha!