Half of our fourth Tongan whale-swimming group joined us through Wiro Dive, comprised of a friendly bunch of Germans, Swiss and even a couple Luxembourgers, while the other half was an experienced group of Americans brought by Sue, a many-time return guest on NAI’A. This expedition started out with a bang… literally. After breakfast near Oua Island, we began cruising past Ha’afeva towards the Playground, a brilliant sun gleaming down on our newest batch of visitors to Tonga. We didn’t get very far because there were several groups of intriguing humpback whales in all directions. One boisterous juvenile in particular caught our attention. As our eyes were lured in its direction, everybody caught sight of a spectacular full breach, followed by a serious of powerful lunges. Most of our guests were still trying to figure out f-stops when the closest breach to the boat of the entire trip happened!
With four groups of whales around, we hoped for an attempt to glimpse these creatures underwater. Amanda’s port skiff didn’t have much luck in that regard, but what they didn’t see they made up for by what they heard, a solemn and shockingly loud courtship song. After a couple of slow fly-bys in clear water, Joshua’s starboard skiff tracked down a mother and calf that became increasingly comfortable with our guests. Whereas most mother whales seem indifferent at best, this slender mother actually circled us and deliberately swung her pec fin at us. Both groups had encounters close enough to cause them to hold their breath and one group even witnessed nursing, something that we see about once per season!
During lunch, another playful pair of juveniles approached and seemed to invite us in with dramatic surface behavior, so we made another attempt immediately following our meal. One group on each skiff had “player” scenarios where the whales repeatedly turned back to us and passed within a few feet with crystal clear visibility. The bad thing about having such good luck early in the trip is that guests tend to think that this is easy. Well, they would find out later in the charter that tracking whales underwater and jumping in the right spot can be a lot harder than it was on that first day!
To start off a steamy Day 3, Koroi’s skiff caught up with some friends from our last trip, Sail Tail and Ramby (short for rambunctious). Once again, this tandem dazzled and frightened our guests; the mother whale sleeping with her tail conspicuously out of the water while her able calf repeatedly charged the humans. As Joshua’s group wasn’t having such good luck, after everybody’s memory cards were full, Koroi passed off their duo to the other skiff so that they could enjoy some (way too) close encounters for the remained of the 90-minute encounter.
That afternoon, Amanda’s skiff discovered a mother and calf on the surface near Uonukuhahaki (that’s just fun to say). The mother effortlessly dove before executing three full breaches, followed by many tail slaps and inverted (belly up) tail slaps. After this stunning performance, Marsha, who had been unlucky with the whales on the first day said, “I’m fighting back the tears you guys!” After swimming with a different, very accommodating mother and calf a little while later, both Annie and Jane were actually moved to tears. “We’ve flown all this way and waited so long and it’s better than I could ever dream!” The mother actually lifted her baby on her snout up to the rest of the group.
Moments later, Rob discovered just how scared of sharks wife-to-be Shelley was. Once the whales had swum away Amanda spotted a lone and harmless (to a group of humans) grey reef shark swimming up to investigate the swimmers. To Rob’s surprise, Shelly immediately screamed and did her best flying fish impression as she bolted back to and up on to, the skiff! So, 2 ton baby whale coming in for the real thing - no problem; itty bitty grey reef shark 45 feet below - freak out!! We’ve a feeling Shelly won’t be allowed to forget that in a hurry!
In the meantime, Koroi’s skiff followed a mother and calf which they didn’t have great in-water encounters with, but managed to catch up to a race involving nine or ten bulls. That night, many guests gravitated towards the dive deck where Captain Keni and the crew serenaded them with lovely song. Reinhard and Antonia wrapped their arms around each other and swayed sweetly to the melody. On a lighter note, when our crew played the popular “Animal Song”, the guests swallowed their pride and did their best impressions of animals.
On Day 4, the excitement of our whale experiences once again rose to the next level. On a warm, breezy overcast day, a pair of juvenile humpbacks approached us in the Playground. It was difficult to pull people away from their dry cameras, but we managed and for a while managed to swim with these energetic large juveniles as they made circles around us. After the whales vanished, the skiffs split up and Amanda headed towards the channel next to Luangahu, only to find the same extremely inquisitive juvenile she had met on our second charter. This wonderful whale who all our guests had not named but unanimously decided was female, entertained this new group in the same very charming and forward way. A little too forward for some! Feeling cautious after their close encounters with Ramby the day before, it took some persuading to get everyone in the water. Not John, Jane, Rob and Andree however, these four brave swimmers stayed in for as long as they could, ducking and back-swimming out of the way of our lady whale’s high-spirited advances, until they had to make space for another intrepid guest.
Meanwhile, Joshua’s skiff pounded upwind across the waves towards the southern end of Uonukuhahaki in pursuit of the friendly pair we had just stopped sharing. When they finally caught up with them, the whales allowed both groups very close, long encounters where they circled the group and lazily swiped at us with their pectoral fins. When that pair split up, the dynamic changed completely, so we headed back towards NAI’A and immediately found another couple of inviting juveniles. These two allowed us several very close but relatively brief views underwater, punctuated by numerous stunning breaches. In one instance, one whale breached very close, towards the skiff while its buddy executed a 360o mid-air spin! In another pass, one spy hopped within a few meters of the boat before they plunged in to observe them underwater. In another hilarious moment, they popped up so close to the boat that, in the chaos of rushing to jump in, Reinhard neglected to put on his mask, so as he filmed the whales with his GoPro, the mask hung uselessly across his forehead! The activity level finally waned and Joshua managed to track them down, sleeping about 15 meters underwater. As they rose for breath, they circled the group many times, rolling, lunging and slowly slashing the surface. For more than an hour, they were able to keep this up; each time they descended to rest, Joshua caught up to them and directed the rest of the group to their nap site. Just when we thought they had enough and we decided to return to NAI’A, one of the whales breached again as a fabulous sendoff. As became their custom, when the European group returned to NAI’A, they expressed their exhilaration by bending and lowering their hands into the skiff, then rising into a full body wave while shouting in a rising “OHHHH!!!”
By the morning of Day 5 the wind began to pick up, although it was still beautiful and sunny. Joshua’s skiff struggled with two sets of mothers and calves. Due to poor visibility and skittish whales, they had very little to write home about below water, but our guests were astonished as one baby breached close to skiff at least 30 times. Koroi’s skiff also had very little luck to start with, but eventually found old reliable Sail Tail and her crazy calf, Ramby. Because Joshua had accidentally dropped a nickname within earshot of our guests, they took to calling it Devil Baby. Of course, this young calf is only looking for entertainment; it just happens to fulfill itself by barging through snorkelers! As we saw five sets of mothers and calves in total that day, we decided that this must be Humpback Mother’s Day in Tonga. That afternoon, our guests ducked the wind by visiting the village at Felemea, Uiha Island.
Holding hands - by Jane
Cartwheel - by Jane
May I have this dance? - by Jane
On the descent - by Manuel
Sky rocket - by Manuel
Recess - by Manuel
Where's Waldo? - by Manuel
Baby shower - by Marsha
Tucked away - by Marsha
Having a paddle - by Marsha
Coming to get you! - by Marsha
Topside - by Marsha
Tropical paradise - by Uwe
Home base - by Uwe
Breaking the surface - by Uwe
Belle of the ball - by Uwe
Torpedo - by Uwe
Playtime with Ramby - by Uwe
Keeping an eye on things - by Uwe
Devil baby - by Uwe
Getting a tan - by Uwe
Wisdom - by Uwe
Ramby's revenge - by Uwe
As you all know, NAI’A is famous for her wonderful Fijian crew. Warm, friendly hospitable and capable, we now have another adjective to add to this list, ingenious. Despite a valve in the oven breaking halfway through the trip, our wizards in the galley continued to churn out delicious meals everyday. The guests might not have even noticed that we were without an oven as Mita was able to produce wonderful cakes by steaming them and even sent some boys to the beach to create a traditional “Fijian sand oven”! There’s a reason we get as many effusive compliments about our food as we do about anything else. Mita, you are worth your weight in gold! For their part, Francoise and Antonia also worked hard during meals. With a couple of their group limited in English and your Cruise Directors limited in their German skills, these women ended up the de facto translators at the dining tables.
Once again, we had another wonderfully sunny day, but again, winds continued to intensify, gusting to 25 knots throughout Day 6. What a perfect time to find a bull run. This competition involved three aggressive males vying for the attention of a white-sided mother who, in turn, battled to protect her small calf. The tiny whale must have been terrified as the bulls lunged and crashed into each other as its mother did her best to stay in between it and her suitors. Finally, in the late morning, we spotted a few mothers and calves near Uonukuhahaki and Uonukuhihifo. Amanda’s skiff had little luck in the water, but saw about 10 nice baby breaches fairly close to the skiff. Koroi’s skiff followed an uncooperative whale throughout the morning before finally ditching them for a lovely, calm mother and calf. After leaving them for 90 minutes so that they and we could have lunch, he took another skiff out to that same pair for a series of brilliant close encounters. Setting a new record, our guests did not do their first scuba dive until this day. They much preferred the wonder and awe of swimming with one of nature’s most magnificent animals to diving Tonga’s coral reefs… and who are we to argue? When they finally went diving, the primary motivation was to hear the enchanting song of Tonga’s humpbacks. Joshua led our checkout dive at the Patch where they found boxfish, flatworms and… one of our weight belts from last year. During the night dive at Uonokuhahaki Patch Reef, Amanda’s divers saw a Spanish dancer, the black velvet velutnid, an orangutan crab, a black flatworm, a blunt end sea hare and lots of scorpionfish, which is why night dives are so popular here!
The winds picked up yet again and, while our guests cursed their luck, at least it wasn’t rainy! We discovered three sets of mothers and calves around Uonukuhahaki, but none of them let us approach. As we hooked around the southern tip towards Limu Island, we found plenty of big waves, but no whales, so we decided to offer two afternoon dives instead. Our exploration of Ladd Reef after lunch was a success, as we saw a sea snake and white tip reef shark and Andree spotted a cute leopard blenny. Only Jane and Andree joined Koroi on a return to the Patch for the second dive but predictably, Joshua’s after dinner night dive at Uonukuhahaki Bommie, got a lot more interest, partly as this was Annie’s 600th dive! Among the viewings were a Hyman’s flatworm, slipper lobster, a cryptic marionia nudibranch, a snowflake moray and Annie spotted a small cuttlefish. Congratulations, Annie, looks like your experience has paid off. All Germanic guests came back to celebrate with a shot of tequila followed by a bit of light boozing… which may have triggered Annie’s downfall.
As strong gusts continued to blow from due east on Day 8, we hung close to the string of islands that make up Ha’apai’s eastern flank. White caps leaping across the surface made it very difficult to spot whales, but we found a couple sets of mothers, calves and escorts. We dropped off the European contingent at the gap between Uonukuhahaki and Uiha while NAI’A carried on northwards, lured by some splashing. Near Tatafa Island, we found the next set of whales, so we loaded up the skiff with the American group. Koroi’s skiff had great close encounters, but plenty of difficulty in the big waves. Joshua’s group struggled at first with a mother who wasn’t interested in our presence, but she quickly calmed down and even circled towards us for a closer look. It’s a good thing too because, due to several days straight of big waves, the visibility was drastically reduced. A large female escort swam solemnly alongside her companion. During one swim, the mother slowed and stopped directly below us. Her baby then drifted back and fed from its mother in one of the clearest displays of nursing we have ever seen!
It was time for our official kava party that night and we were joined by our friends from the nearby village of Felemea, Sione and Tema and their adorable children. Andree, who had lived in the Netherlands for years, crossed the aisle to join the European team in dancing and downing bowls of kava. The greatest hit came from Reinhard who, when “The Animal Song” came around once again, was asked to make the donkey sound, to which he responded with a perfect impression of a monkey!
Fortunately, the weather forecasts were wrong as we rose to a beautiful sunny Day 9 with mild wind, so we decided to head back out into the Playground. It wasn’t until mid-morning that we finally discovered whales that might not mind swimming with us. Two pairs of adults came together at Palako’s Patch, the only reef where we occasionally see whales while diving. Our skiffs took turns swimming with these beautiful beasts against the backdrop of a lush hard coral reef. It was quiet once again in the afternoon as we slowly steamed south towards Ha’afeva, hoping to capitalize on the splendid weather by swimming with whales in the great visibility of the Playground. It wasn’t until we had nearly reached our anchorage that we encountered a mother and calf, but this opportunity didn’t really pan out. Amanda’s skiff soon blazed around to the leeward side of the island where they had fantastic encounters with a mother and baby whose behavior was reminiscent that of Sail Tail and Ramby. Joshua’s skiff, while they didn’t have much to speak of underwater, did catch sight of the biggest calf he had ever seen. It was so large that he was sure it was a yearling until its enormous mother loomed out of the depths. Koroi led the night dive at Ha’afeva Beacon that turned out to be a crowd favorite. The group fanned out and found small octopus, anemone hermit crab and Francoise found a spectacular tritonia nudibranch.
Throughout the night and breakfast the next morning, a mother, calf and escort whale were hanging around Ha’afeva Beacon, near our anchorage. The European group, joined by John and Andree immediately boarded a skiff, while NAI’A began cruising around Ha’afeva and its satellite islands in search of another group of promising whales. While the whales didn’t cooperate for the second skiff, Amanda’s skiff had several great, but abbreviated encounters with this trio before leaving mother alone to feed her growing calf. Only five lucky swimmers went out for our last possible whale encounter near Nukulei Island Island. Led by Koroi, they enjoyed a full 89-minute encounter with a lovely mother humpback and her friendly baby in clear visibility.
As usual, our guest slideshow after dinner on the last night was terrific, but Uwe brought the house down with his incredible video of whales, dancing to the “Animal Song” during an impromptu kava party and the expertly edited attack of Ramby on sleeping passengers.
“Fiji is a hot spot of biodiversity. We’re here for the rich colorful soft coral reefs as well as the unusual stuff - the strange little creatures and endemic fishes.”
~ Dr. Tim Laman, biologist and National Geographic Photojournalist