Gearing up for our third play date with these gentle giants, we discovered that three guests would be late. Return guests Scott and Madhavi managed to squeak on to a later flight and arrived late on the first evening, while poor Danny was left stranded in San Francisco airport, so we left for Ha’apai without him, hoping that our office folks would work their wizardry for a quick reunion.
The overnight journey to Ha’apai was not terrible at all; unfortunately though, the weather that first day was. A good dose of Tongan wind and rain is what greeted us that first morning. The whales, however, thought it was lovely weather and didn’t understand what we were complaining about. Before long we spotted several whales near Oua splashing around like kids in a puddle with synchronized tail slapping, both regular and inverted in amongst about a hundred spinner dolphins. Come on guys, you can’t show all your tricks on the first morning. Save some for later!
Madhavi, who’d arrived later than others, wasn’t going to go on the skiff that afternoon because she hadn’t had time to set up her camera, but Joshua persuaded her to go without it. This turned out to be a wise move as they had fantastic luck right there on the first morning. They found a couple of playful juveniles who darted around between the guests, giving everyone a fantastic show. One whale, which we named Krill Belly, kept turning on its side and showing its big black belly while sweeping its tail through the water creating a curtain of bubbles descending from the surface. The two of them danced in front of us for at least an hour and a half, giving all the guests an unbelievable show before swimming off to find new friends. Wow, what a first morning! Back on the dive deck, trying desperately to manage expectations, Amanda kept reminding our delighted guests, “it’s not always like this!” to which she received quizzical looks that said, “it isn’t?” Uh oh.
After lunch, we motored up to Pangai to pick up Tom, our Tongan guide, turn in some paperwork and… pick up Danny! He’d had a monster of an ordeal but had made it through with a little help from his friends. At dinner that night he admitted that after being bumped from the third flight, he’d been ready to admit defeat when he received a flood of encouraging messages from his friends. In fact, he missed his flight returning home, so he picked himself up, tried again, found out his luck had changed and ended up making it all the way to Tonga. That’s what friends are for!
Koroi led a dive that afternoon at Luanafi Castle where John demonstrated his free-diving talents by descending amongst the scuba divers and actually saw the rare and beautiful flame angelfish.
On Day 3 of the charter we woke up to very squally wind and rain. Neither skiff had much action all morning apart from a few very brief encounters with a mother, calf and escort. The afternoon looked like it was shaping up to be the same deal until, after languishing for ages, Amanda and Sly’s skiff approached a tail, just poking through the surface next to Uiha. This tail turned out to belong to a wonderfully calm mother whale who seemed to be meditating, upside down. This yogic parent had given birth, however, to an anything but meditative child. From the gloom, emerged a baby who very much wanted to play. This under-exercised toddler then gave them the most incredible (and sometimes a little bit frightening) up close and personal version of whale-play. Try as they might, our guests could not keep far enough away. The baby twisted and turned, swam underneath and alongside, looked them in the eye and did everything but shake their hands as they fought between the emotions of glee and terror, frantically backpedalling as he approached them and tentatively approaching again when he went down for a snuggle. This being Danny’s first whale encounter since he arrived, it was quite some welcome to Tonga! Back on the dive deck, Amanda found herself saying yet again, “No really, it’s really not always like this!”
Meanwhile, Joshua and Joji’s skiff had found a different pair, a mother and calf again, but this time behaving slightly more as we’ve come to expect. A beautifully calm encounter ensued with mum quietly napping at forty feet, while her small, one-ton baby came up for breaths to show our guests, from a much more reasonable distance. Once they figured out how calm she was, a couple of our guests decided to free-dive down for a closer look. Or should we say, a couple tried… only one of them actually made it. John made graceful S-shapes as he dolphin kicked down, pausing at intervals on his way down and then staying for a good long look when he got there, while Meriel, who to be fair was wearing fourteen millimetres of neoprene, couldn’t get her tush underwater and ended up doing a duck impression. Close, though…!
Only Meriel and Ellie took Koroi up on a night dive at Uonukuhahaki where he showed them so many things that the girls couldn’t even keep track. Included in the bounty were a slipper lobster and a Spanish dancer that almost fell on their heads.
Despite good weather the following morning, Amanda and Joji’s skiff didn’t have any luck around the islands of Limu and Lekeleka. Koroi and Sly’s skiff feared they too would have a dry morning before finding a peaceful mother and calf who entertained them for a short while before the group returned to NAI’A. From the sundeck, Meriel spotted “4 or 5 splooms in the distance.” She coined this fun word for whale blow which we like so much, we’ve adopted it! We were all treated to some nice displaying in the Playground after lunch for which these animals are famous, with many pec slaps and a few breaches in all directions. Both skiffs were so spoilt for choice that when they finally returned to the dive deck, she described it as like being “croutons in a whale soup”. They had whales everywhere, with up to eight at a time!
Joshua led the night dive after dinner at Ha’afeva Beacon where personal trainer Danny was delighted to spend some time with several different octopus. Danny is a huge fan of these intelligent cephalopods and to prove it has a large tattoo of one covering his enviably toned calves. While they were diving, Bo showed an interesting presentation of some smaller, friskier cousins of the humpback, several species of Hawaiian dolphin. These charismatic creatures make great photo subjects and Bo did them great justice, not only on their own, but sometimes with the occasional elegant and talented free-diver alongside them, a lot like Meriel…!
Day 5 brought us terrible weather. Grey skies, rain and wind made whale spotting difficult, but we persevered. Standing up on the bow in our waterproof coats and trousers while our guests sheltered under the cover, we spotted two whales. Since NAI’A’s crew has such great longevity, it’s only skiff driver Sly who is new to the whales this season and he is loving every minute. Three charters in and he’s still just as excited as any first-time guest, even in the rain. So as soon as we spotted this pair he imitated Joshua’s common expression, said with characteristic enthusiasm, “Let’s do this!” What followed were some fantastic and VERY close personal encounters with two big adults who bounced between the two skiffs, allowing everyone their turn to swim with them. That was, until the weather really closed in. Chief Officer Big Mo got on the radio and told us that the weather front we’d seen forecast was coming for us sooner than expected and we should be heading back to the safety of our big steel ship. Having had such a great morning however, everybody felt pretty happy.
The poor winter weather continued all afternoon, so we opted for a dive close to shore at Uonukuhahaki. Seven hardy people braved the conditions, including honeymooners Buzz and Ellie and Madhavi, for whom it was a milestone 1000th dive. As night fell, so did the wind, leaving it calm enough for a night dive at the same location. Amanda led the trio of regulars on this after dinner jaunt to find some interesting critters, including a beautiful spotted cowrie, a fimbriated moray and most excitingly, a large and beautiful variation of a dendrodoris nudibranch that they all oohed and ahhed over.
The next morning was, thankfully, much calmer than the day before and continued to clear throughout the morning. As we hooked around Uonukuhahaki towards Limu Island, Joshua pointed out that we were approaching the Tongan Trench, at more than 11,000 meters, the second deepest ocean trench in the world. Danny quickly quipped, “man, that’s hard to fathom!” proving that you don’t even need to be a Dad to make Dad jokes!
Life's a beach - by Jacques
Playtime! - by Madhavi
Shadows - by Madhavi
Ballet - by Madhavi
Hey, that's not a whale! - by Madhavi
Dappled - by Madhavi
Ooh, new friends! - by Madhavi
Misty morning - by Madhavi
Pucker up - by Madhavi
On the fly - by Madhavi
Pec pivot - by Madhavi
Coming up for air - by Madhavi
Checking you out - by Madhavi
Whale ID - by Rick
Coming to join you - by Rick
Barrel roll - by Rick
Catching some z's
Swim by - by Rick
Swooping in - by Rick
Too close for comfort - by Rick
The shot - by Rick
Both skiffs had some great encounters with a couple of players in the morning before the skiffs separated and pursued different whales for fly-bys and some spectacular breaches. In the afternoon, we watched the beginning of what looked like it might become a rowdy bunch, which Joshua’s skiff followed. Luckily they just turned out to be an enthusiastic group so our guests were able to jump in for many fly-bys with as many as six whales.
Many of you may know Big Mo from previous charters as divemaster or whale guide. This year he has been promoted to Chief Officer, which we’re all very proud of him for, but it doesn’t stop him missing being in the water. After looking longingly at us all season he finally managed to score a couple of hours off to watch some whales. Taking his skiff north of Uonukuhahaki that afternoon, he was lucky enough to find a couple of playful juveniles who turned back and allowed them a lovely encounter. We hope that will last you until next time, Mo.
Day 7 turned out to be kindergarten day. The weather was back to its old tricks with a pesky wind forcing us to hug the shore and hope for mothers and calves in the shallows. And as luck would have it, that’s exactly what we found. Amanda’s skiff found a peaceful mother and a curious baby who spent its time between short snuggles and ever more confident swims with these funny looking black wiggly things on the surface.
Joshua’s skiff meanwhile got lucky and found the same mother and playful calf that Amanda’s skiff had had a few days before. There was that tell tale fluke, just hovering above the surface, advertising to all where she was aaaand there was the baby, nicknamed Ramby, short for rambunctious! The mother Ellie nicknamed Sail Tail because of its unusual habit of sleeping vertically with its tail completely out of the water. Our theory is that she was trying to get a tan while on vacation in Tonga to show off to her peers back home in Antarctica. The baby was right back to its playful ways, each time it surfaced to breathe, it made a beeline towards our guests and began bearing down on them so that yet again, they had to swim out of the way frantically to avoid contact. They spent a full 90 minutes like that before taking off towards Luangahu to pursue some breachers. After finishing with their mother and calf and waiting for the right amount of time, Amanda’s skiff returned once again for another adrenaline fuelled swim with Sail Tail and Ramby, having given them 90 minutes to nurse of course.
Taking our chance while it was still too windy for the Playground, we went ashore with a few guests, including our French couple, Jaques and Isabelle, for a village visit. In no time, she had the schoolchildren singing “Frere Jacques”. Owing to their proficiency with the English language, our French guests were able to mingle comfortably with our American visitors. Thanks to Jamie, they even learned a few very useful, new expressions such as “OMG”, “BS” and “TMI”. Invaluable, I’m sure, to a high-end art dealer and an automotive business consultant!
This year, the whales have been amazing: dynamic, plentiful and approachable. Thankfully, our guests realize their good fortune, none more so however than return guest, Rick who came back after each great encounter, smiling and jokingly asking us, “well how are you going to top that?!”
Then on Day 8, just when Rick thought it couldn’t get any better, Koroi found them a very curious juvenile who just wanted to play! Again and again they swam with this inquisitive and confident whale who just could not get enough of our guests. Every time they swapped groups and jumped in, back the whale came, never seeming to lose interest, making for not only a great encounter but also some fabulous photos. Amanda’s skiff, having followed a promising whale only to see it get stolen by… another, bigger whale (the cheek!) approached Koroi to see if they could join in the fun. The whale kindly allowed them one fantastic swim, before deciding that enough was enough and swam off for a rest.
As during most evenings, Ellie jammed on the ukulele and guitar and drained bowls of kava with our crew on the dive deck. The only difference on this evening was that it was our official kava party. Everyone was in attendance and joined in with gusto. While Ellie nailed “Me & Julio”, Isabelle stole the show by shaking her money maker fearlessly in front of everybody!
On our penultimate day, some managed to see another mother and calf in the morning, before we had a quiet, windy afternoon up near Pangai. That ended in an afternoon dive at Luanafi Castle where we saw juvenile and adult rockmover wrasse and a mystery yellow nudibranch. To celebrate Jamie’s birthday that evening, Bo came out of the galley after dinner, carrying a cake and singing the Beatles classic “When I’m 64” right before the crew came in and sang “Happy Birthday”. It was very cute and we’re sure she won’t forget that in a hurry! The night dive that night at Uoleva gave us an octopus for Danny, a crocodile flathead and a whole lot of fluorescent corals for Ellie who tested out her fluorescent kit for the first time.
This charter started off with a bang and continued to deliver some amazing whale interactions all the way through. This last day was quiet in comparison. Joshua’s skiff observed yet another mother and calf for a half hour before an escort presented himself in the most dramatic way, with one of the closest breaches to the skiff that we’ve had all season. With this spectacular event, we reached the end of a windy, but fabulous, ten days in Tonga.
“Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, it did! Thank you so much Amanda & Joshua, and to the entire NAI’A crew. And special thanks to Mita, who consistently prepares the best food on any liveaboard.”
“We loved every minute of our time with you in Tonga! It could not have been any better. Each and every member of the NAI’A team was outstanding and each of you made our whale expedition unforgettable. The whales, the hospitality, the guides, the skiff driving, the dinners and the singing and kava… Everything was wonderful. It was the best honeymoon ever!”
-Buzz & Ellie
“Thank you to everyone on NAI’A who makes NAI’A what it is – an exceptional operation and a gateway to underwater wonders. What a fantastic crew! Thanks for an incredible life experience!”