Straight Out Of The Gate
Our first Tongan whale charter of the season was off to an inauspicious start with several guests getting delayed in Fiji, so they arrived about six hours late on the first day. Californian family unit Seekey, Cory, Karin and Kate arrived on time, along with a couple of doctors; Alan, from Scotland and Jack from Ireland, and spent the afternoon settling in while we cruised around to have a little look at the Tongan coastline. By the time one of NAI’A’s owners, Rob, and the rest of the guests arrived at around eight, they had already finished dinner and the Americans had realized that they were going to need interpreters to understand Alan’s thick Scottish brogue and Jack’s impish Irish humour.
Despite being slightly bleary eyed from jetlag, followed by a rocky passage and limited sleep, everyone made it up to the sundeck on the first morning in time to see some fantastic breaching from a juvenile humpback whale. After a breach not more than twenty metres from our bow, Joshua exclaimed that that could very well have been the breach of the charter and we shouldn’t expect any better than that. No sooner had the words left his mouth than the young whale breached yet again RIGHT under our bow, coming eye to eye with all those observing and giving everyone a good soaking. We needed no further invitation. Minutes later we were in the skiffs cruising around in the beautiful sunshine looking for some in-water action. And we got it. Several close fly-bys gave us our first glimpse of these beautiful creatures underwater. In the past, we have had, let’s say, “issues”, with photographers, so it was a welcome surprise to hear our most serious photographer of the trip, Cory, say that he was so much in awe of that first breathtaking encounter, that it took him two minutes to realize he even had a camera in his hand! That’s what we’re all about on these trips: memorable, personal encounters where sometimes, you find yourself in the position to take great photos!
We may have had a shaky start the day before, but this was already a great first day in the Ha’apai Island Group. We finished it off with an exploratory dive at Putuputua Island in the afternoon, followed by a night dive in the same place where Koroi spotted a Spanish dancer.
Getting up early to watch the sunrise on day three of the charter, Todd had an unexpected treat. While sitting on the sundeck he saw a mobula (aka devil ray) breach clear out of the water. Nice one! Later that morning, Amanda’s skiff had an amazing encounter with four whales turning back and swimming towards them head on. Having boldly started towards them with her GoPro at the ready, Kate then lost the game of chicken, turned and fled back to the group. If Amanda had had a camera, she would have got a great shot of little Kate being “pursued” by four whales. They’re gentle, but they are giants and, until you get used to them, it can be a little scary! They had a few more fly-bys then had a wonderful mother, calf and escort over shallow reef near Lofanga Island. On the third or fourth swim with them they saw something that Rob, in his twenty years of coming to Tonga, had never seen. The baby whale nuzzled up against the underside of her mama and started nursing. Awwwww! Spotting some of what must have been a globule of milk that had escaped and was floating in mid water, Amanda scooped it up in her glove and jokingly offered it around to the guests for a taste. Todd and Alan immediately took her up on her offer and tasted it… ewwwww. Karin commented afterwards that the clear mucus like substance didn’t really look like milk, more like something else…. Double ewwwwwww! Joshua’s skiff meanwhile had been having slow fly-bys in the morning near Fotuha’a, so we had a very happy and bubbly dive deck once everyone reconvened on NAI’A.
In Fiji, we are used to having amazing rainbows, sometimes several in a day, but after lunch, ex-Police Inspector Derek spotted (and subsequently notified everyone with much excitement) an amazingly brightly coloured rainbow just after 2pm (an unusual time of day for a rainbow) lying flat on the water and extremely close to the boat. The ocean surface was glowing the color spectrum. We get it Derek, we like rainbows too, but do you think that if word got leaked to your boys on the force at the Met that you were running around getting excited about rainbows, that you’d ever live that down? Don’t worry, mum’s the word ;)
While the rest of the guests dived at Palako’s Patch that afternoon, Jack, Todd and Leah went back out in search of whales. Their persistence was rewarded and they saw eight big whales starting a bull run. Technically, Leah only saw five, but Joshua saw eight, so we’re calling it eight! Days later, during a dive together, when Leah counted 12 sharks and Joshua counted 20, he teased her by covering one of his eyes, as if that might explain it. While that skiff was waiting for NAI’A to reach the anchorage that evening, the four of them decided to have a little walk along the beach at Uonokuhahaki where honeymooning filmmakers Todd and Leah did a panorama kissing selfie at sunset. That’s a thing, you know - hey, if you were in the business, you’d understand.
An unconventional but fantastic night dive ensued that night after dinner at Uonokuhahaki, where Joshua’s group found two octopus, two blue spotted stingrays, a tiny nudibranch and four larval squid the size of grains of rice.
Day 4 gave us great mother, calf and escort encounters in the morning near Uonukuhahaki. Koroi’s skiff had a few fly-bys in the afternoon and saw the unusual sight of one whale open its mouth, expanding its ventral pleats. Amanda’s skiff meanwhile slipped in to the water on one occasion to find whales, but instead saw 12 grey reef sharks swimming up to investigate them from amongst of a huge school of fusliliers below! Then, spotting a nearby school of blackfin barracuda, Amanda followed them to a nearby reef where she beckoned everyone over to carry on watching more sharks, several dogtooth tuna and a hawksbill turtle. Marking the spot on the GPS, we returned there for a scuba dive and found healthy coral, tons of fusiliers, many baby grey reef sharks, a hawksbill and a green turtle. Running a competition afterwards to name the reef, Leah won with DyNAI’Amite (contestants weren’t allowed to vote for themselves, but Todd and Leah voted for each other, which is kind of cheating). Rob then showed off his awesome new gadget, which allows him to make 3-D graphical representations of dive sites. The night dive that night was not the most interesting but had amazing whale song, very loud, melodic and close.
After a few near misses with a mother and calf the next morning, causing one skiff to retreat to NAI’A, the other persisted just a little while longer and managed to have some very encounters with the duo. Already back on board and watching jealously, the other skiff soon got back out to share the docile pair, enjoying them for the full ninety-minute limit. J’s skiff continued to have brief encounters with other mothers and calves in the Playground that afternoon before we ended up at Ladd Reef for a dive.
Although this was an unofficial honeymoon for Todd and Leah (this busy couple got married three years ago and this is the first time they’ve managed to schedule some time off together), Leah has such a thirst for knowledge that she opted to take two dive Specialty Courses whilst in Tonga. This dive at Ladd Reef was the first of her four dives required to complete both courses and she was caught on video studiously scribbling on her slate, very focused on identifying various types of marine life, overseen by instructor Joshua. Koroi led the night dive that night near Uonukuhahaki where they saw an orange baby octopus, a cowrie, a deadly cone shell and a pair of mating green pleurobranchs.
Like mother, like daughter - by Cory
Up for air - by Cory
Shadows - by Cory
Spyhop - by Cory
Hitching a ride - by Cory
Whale tails - by Cory
Downward spiral - by Cory
Making a splash - by Cory
Sea angel - by Cory
Backstroke - by Cory
Nosing around - by Cory
Who's checking out whom? - by Cory
On a wing - by Cory
High five - by Cory
Synchronized swimming - by Cory
Airborne - by Cory
Tiny bubbles - by Glyn & Susan
Between a rock and a hard place - by Glyn & Susan
Spanish dancer - by Glyn & Susan
Carlson's colors - by Glyn & Susan
On the watch - by Glyn & Susan
Up, up and away! - by Glyn & Susan
Cruising the shallows - by Glyn & Susan
Lovebirds - by Rob
Delight - by Todd
This is why selfies kill more people than sharks - by Todd
Nuzzle - by Todd
Neither skiff had any luck in the morning to kick of Day 6. We watched a bit of surface activity from NAI’A in the afternoon until about 2:30, then decided to give the whales a rest and go for dive at a new site in line with Palako’s Patch and DyNAI’Amite. Here we found a great amount of fish, 5-6 sharks, a hawksbill turtle and a bubble coral shrimp. The only problem was that it was deep – 70-75’ for the most part, with the top at 55’. Luckily we had a fairly experienced group this charter, so drifting blue water safety stops were not a problem, but this will not always be the case. Then, due to popular demand, we had a night dive before dinner near Luangahu, which was a great success. Derek spotted a huge painted spiny lobster and everyone saw an Edward’s sponge crab, a banded sole and a sculptured slipper lobster.
The next day we had the special treat of more than one cetacean at once. Charismatic spinner dolphins approached and swam under the bow, as humpback whales swam just ahead of us. This was followed by some stunning surface display by the humpbacks, for which these animals are famous. We had lots of breaching and synchronized pec-slapping for a sustained period in the Playground, which excited the crew as much as the guests. The deck was alive with cries of “coming up!” along with various excitable predictions of what was about to happen next. Joshua surprised himself just as much as anyone else by totally calling a double breach - a few of years experience along with a large dollop of luck means that every now and again, one of us is right!
In the afternoon, we found a single, very chilled juvenile who stayed below the surface in about 15-30’ of clear water, occasionally coming to the surface to take a couple of breaths, then sinking down below again, still visible. This was a great opportunity to freedive down, which many of our guests took when it was their chance. It’s not every day you get to look a giant in the eye and this made for many great photos.
Our afternoon dive was back at DyNAI’Amite, followed by our kava party that evening. This was a particularly musical affair as we had some special guests. Radiologist Alan, rocked it on the flute, while GP Jack got going on the droms (that’s drums, in Irish). Alan, who had been practicing with the crew all week, stole the show with some beautiful solos.
On Day 8 we had some players near DyNAI’Amite that gave both skiffs several good encounters, several minutes of turning and pirouetting for Koroi’s skiff, while Joshua’s skiff had a whale intent on showing them its belly! In a show of exuberance, this juvenile swung its tail towards the group, getting increasingly close to Alan, Jack and then Seekey. Sensing it getting a little too close for comfort, they called it a day and headed back with several very happy guests. Meanwhile, filmmaker Todd caught a spyhop develop from underwater to above, much to Rob’s appreciation that evening. Heading back to Ha’afeva Island we had an afternoon dive on Ha’afeva Ridge followed by Susan’s 700th dive at Ha’afeva Beacon that night.
So that day, it turned out, was the support act for Day 9 … All along we’d been using the term “players”, which our guests had really yet to see apart from the day before. And finally, here they were. Two whales approached boat in morning, so in to the skiffs we went for what turned out to be our most dynamic and close encounter this season so far. These two (and at one point, three) whales playfully dipped, twirled, danced and zipped around beneath us in the most breathtaking performance that lasted all morning. When we felt like our new friends were getting just a little too boisterous, we left them to their games, but not before every one of our guests managed to have the absolute experience of a lifetime. This is the sort of thing that happens maybe three or four times a year if we’re lucky and so there you go, now you know what players are!
After lunch and a lot of very excited babble, we got back in the skiffs once again. Another new pinnacle, which we’re calling Persian Carpet, became a new dive site. Well, when you see huge tuna, a Persian carpet flatworm, a white scorpionfish and oscillated phyllidia nudibranchs, it’s hard not to want to go back! The night dive led by J at Peapea Reef proved fruitful with a Hyland’s flatworm, pleurobranchs, a huge hermit crab, a vibrant Carlson’s halgerda and some slipper lobsters.
Day 10, the Grand Finale! So now that everybody knew what players were, we got very excited when two juveniles approached the boat yet again. Joshua and Joji had one great encounter in the blue with one curious whale, while Sly and Amanda’s skiff had wonderful close encounters with the same very active and inquisitive humpback who repeatedly turned back and swam towards them over very shallow reef in clear water. More breathtaking moments to end a seriously lucky ten days.
And then, as we headed south towards Nomuku, the weather turned. Before some were even out of their wetsuits from that morning’s swim under overcast but calm skies, the wind came out of nowhere and gusted up to forty five knots, bringing with it, the rain and the end of our ten glorious days of whales and weather.
This has been, without a doubt, a pretty special first charter that has set the bar very high for the rest of the season. Fabulous weather, well behaved guests and whales that have stolen our hearts. Thanks to the whales, the guests and the weather gods, this has been a fantastic start. Long may it continue. Well, just six more weeks…
“Thank you for everything. Great whale encounters, amazing Tonga weather, fun and interesting conversation, never ending delicious food and the crew that was informative, helpful and full of laughter. The boat welcomed us and included us in the Fijian customs and family.”
-Linda & Warren
“Joann & I had a remarkable experience here in Tonga! Our diving trips mostly entail liveaboard boats and this one was the best yet – great crew & great food! You are fortunate to have the ownership in place to allow you to do it right! We won’t easily forget our “Whale Week” on NAI’A – it’s a once-in-a-lifetime gig!!”
-Terry & Joann
“Lomaiviti reefs are in extremely good condition compared to Indonesia and PNG. Immediate action must be taken to conserve this unique region.”
~ Dr. Michael Marnane, Marine Biologist, Wildlife Conservation Society