In a world of often misused superlatives "awesome" would be one of the most popular, but in the Kingdom of Tonga where you can interact and swim with Humpback Whales and their calves, it is certainly apropos, and roughly translated to English, that's what the Tongan phrase "TohToh Ahtu" means....AWESOME!
Tonga is located in the South Pacific, in the region of Western Polynesia. It consists of an archipelago of over 170 islands of which only 40 are inhabited. The Kingdom is made up of three major island group, where we would be spending the next two weeks on the center most islands, named the Ha'apai group. Tonga is the last remaining monarchy and the royal family that still rule, can be traced back 1000 years!
British seafarer, and world traveler, Captain Cook named this archipelago "the friendly islands" in 1773............we found them to be aptly named as well.
When one dreams of a South Pacific vacation, we automatically visualize swaying palm trees, isolated atolls surrounded by calm azure blue water kissed with warm sunshine and wrapped in light trade winds......a place so idyllic that your desire to never leave almost certainly invades your subconscious. Add the ability to actually swim with gentle Humpback Whales, with their offspring in tow, and you have a perfect vacation and adventure of a lifetime!
Our dreams were realized but they didn't start out quite a "idyllic" as our visions had produced.......we arrived as jet lagged and sleep deprived as inmates on 'Shutter Island', rain, 45 mile an hour wind, with white capped and rolling seas! The tempest continued thru the first week of our inhabitance, bringing with it and whole new set of challenges. Our accommodations were perfect if you're comfortable with the "minimalistic" lifestyle. Wooden, open air "falles" were provided steps away from the ebbing or in our case, crashing waves. Beds were a mattress on palm tree stumps complete with mosquito nets......but Hey! we were here for something much more important than a five star accommodation......we're here to photograph Humpback Whale in their natural habitat!
This particular family of whales migrate to this area of the world to calve and raise their offspring to a stage where they are strong enough to make the trip back south to feed on the rich plankton filled cold waters of Antarctica. These 36 ton leviathans have made this transition since before time began and are especially fond of the warm waters to calve and breed with their male suitors.
Pretty quickly we settled in to our program; up a 7:00 am, grab some fruit or cereal, grab your camera, wet suit/mask & snorkel and began the "death march" down the beach to our awaiting "Sea Adventure Torture Platform" for the next nine hours every day!
The program was to circumvent the seas around the island group constantly scanning the water surface for whales surfacing and expelling water from their blow holes or slapping either their prodigious tail or pectoral fins on the water..occasionally you would actually spot an animal breaching out of the water. Once spotted, we would motor over to the rough location to see if any were stationary and approachable. Full grown Humpbacks normally hold their breath for 20-30 minutes at a time in this setting. Calves are not as developed in the breath hold department and end up "bouncing" back and forth from depth to surface while their mothers keep a watchful eye.
We would ease into the water, a good 50-100 yards away from the whales and fin to the last sighting, while holding your camera, eyes down thru your mask and breathing thru your snorkel........simple in calm seas, but hard work in 3' seas! This was not your normal easy snorkeling like you would find in Cozumel but more on a likeness to a rescue swimmer in the North Sea! After swallowing a gallon of water that inevitably finds its way into the opening of your snorkel in the tempest of the seas, you learn quickly to inhale slowly at first till you're comfortable it doesn't contain salt water that you are constantly expelling while kicking as hard as you can to get to the spot where the whales MIGHT still be.........many times they would be gone and you just had to go back to the boat. Once you would find a pair that was still there, you would get as close to them as allowed and free dive down below the surface to compose the perfect shot.
Dave & Tristin of Whale Discovery were the operators of this deal and went above and beyond the call of duty to get us up close and personal to the wonderful animals every day. Tris "the super model" would typically lead the group to the whales in the water and keeping up with her was an effort in futility as she was a strong swimmer and once on the whales she would keep a watchful eye on us not to get to close. Of course, we would try to get as close as possible to get the best shot and more than once, we were scolded on our aggressive positions. Regularly the calves would be curious of us and approach very close to check us out which would alert their mothers who would approach as well in a protective mode. Trish was nice to prepare us a "beto box" lunch of left over's from the night before and trust me, we were glad to get them!
Upon our return in the evening the girls at Serenity Beach were good about making sure we had food, which consisted of fresh caught fish in coconut milk, bread fruit and tubers indigenous to the area. I especially liked the night we had Mahi Mahi served with sweet potatoes that were purple, our only complaint was that after bouncing over the high seas all day like "Ulysses" and repeatedly swimming back and forth to the boat, we were so hungry we could "eat a skunk and use its tail as a napkin" ! Second helpings were normally nonexistent. We were also left the first week to cold showers at night as due to no electricity on the island, hot water for showers were provided by "camp bags" that were filled and set out in the sun to warm during the day but not sun, no warm water. Further, our "Simian Death Beds" would be damp as well, making for a sticky sleep! Wet suits were never able to dry out so they were a "treat" to shimmy into every morning.
Our highlight of the evening would be the cigar and two fingers of rum that we enjoyed after our meal in our "Pods of Rejuvenation". We had to go to the neighboring island for fuel for the boat, so I decided to bolster our provisions of rum while there. Purchasing a bottle of what was available, it turned out tasting similar to turpentine and making it undrinkable, we gave the bottle to visiting Aussies who naturally thought it was delicious!
Our team for this adventure was made up of only four hardy souls. Brandon Cole was again, team leader and I must say again, his attention to detail, and his resolve in finding marine life globally, is without a doubt, peerless. Not only was he suffering from a debilitating influenza but was still recovering from knee surgery which required a brace to be worn during all activities. Every day on the "Tropic Bird" he would exhibit total resolve in spotting animals, perching himself on the bow and scanning the horizon like 'Ole Shep' the sheep dog, further his constant mantra to "Never Give Up, Never Surrender" was spoken faithfully thru out the first week. Moral was down that first week due to the inclement weather and water conditions, not to mention that the animals did not really present themselves for imaging. Dave promised that next week would surely prove his prowess and that the weather would straighten up and " whales a plenty" would be normal again.........we all had suspicions that it was inevitable but as I said, moral was down. Notwithstanding, our bodies became more emancipated due to the small amount of caloric intake and the energy level required to get a picture of the subject.
Joining us on this trip was a friend of Brandon's was a German gentleman from Washington state by the name of Jens......at first my assessment of him was that he was as "sharp as a bowl of mash potatoes" but the longer I was around him, the more I grew to admire his intelligence. Typical of German folk, very reserved and quiet, but he was a thinker and after viewing his images, realized he was "smart as a fox".
Of course my best friend Carson was with me and so we kept the boat in laughs and continued our barrage of total mayhem between us.
After a week of work with little to show for it, a continued weaken state, and almost cationic, Carson and I began begging for some real meat and lobbied constantly for the opportunity to eat a suckling pig. Finally our incessant whining proved fruitful and a young pig was procured from the jungle and placed on the beach for cooking. We were so excited that we literally stood watch at the spit while it was cooked, like a couple of Hyenas! After we filled our bellies, we slept " like a 10 lb baby" that night.
Bolstered with a proper nutrition level, I asked Dave if it would be possible to surf on one of the reefs that had breaking waves some distance from the island. Sunday is a day of rest in the Kingdom so we had the day off, much to Brandon's chagrin, so Dave said; let's go surfing!
From the island, the waves looked manageable so we took the inflatable out a half a mile or so to the reef. When we arrived at the reef, I realized that I had indeed bit off more that I could possibly chew, but paddled out to the line up anyway. I was not ready for the 10' set wave that I found myself in the wrong place to catch and like the hapless Coyote in the cartoons with the Roadrunner, I knew I was "in for a hurting"! I was "worked" like a rag doll in that heavy slab of water, held down twice by the turbulent waves that came like a freight train. Like being beaten with Thor's Hammer, I finally was able to stand and catch the third wave I found myself damn near to the shore, leaving me with a decision to paddle in or paddle back out to the panga. Naturally I paddled back out, against the current, that kept bringing me back to where I started. Forty Five minutes later, totally spent, I reached the inflatable.........so much for my surfing that day, I never went back to the lineup.
True to his word, Dave produced consistent Whales and calves for us to take pictures of, multiple pairs were accepting of our presence with the weather and water clarity providing perfect conditions for some excellent images, every day thereafter. It made all the difference in our moral and there was plenty to be grateful for, so all the previous week's hardships were forgotten. There is very few things in life that produce the feeling you get when you are up close and personal to the animals and even though I lost 10 lbs in two weeks, I was able to once again get "one for the wall". ...it will remain one of my most favorite trips that I have taken with Brandon, and a lifetime of memories of yet another wonderful creature that lives in the ocean realm.
When our stay was over, true to custom, the fine folks at Serenity Beach Resort assembled on the beach as left and sang us the traditional farewell song "Another one bites the Dust"!