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Monday, September 17, 2012

9-17- 2012 Swimming with the Whales in Tonga

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This is me doing a little happy dance....yea, yea, yea.........We spent the day with the whales of Ha'apia! Tonga is THE place to swim with humpback whales because a) the huge creatures travel thousands of miles from Antarctica every year to the warm water lagoons of Tonga spending roughly 15 weeks here to breed and give birth before turning around and making the trek back to their cold water but food rich home waters again, and b) Tonga is one of the few places on earth where humans are not banned from getting into the water with the whales for a tiny glimpse into their world.

As far as whale encounters go the Vava'u Group in Tonga is world famous but for us it turned out to be a complete bust. Quite honestly we really should be in Fiji right now but we decided to throw caution to the wind and stop at the Ha'apia Group for one last chance to see the whales. The weather tanked again shortly after we arrived bringing in high winds, heavy rain and very choppy waters -all bad news for whale encounters. Even after waiting two nights at anchor in town followed by two nights anchored off the island of Uoleva things still were not looking to good. The night before our scheduled trip it rained so hard we managed to capture 100+ gallons of free sweet rainwater for our tanks amid 35mph winds.

Astonishingly morning dawned amazingly clear and calm so we were in great spirits when we joined Ann and Mark from Blue Rodeo as tourists aboard the catamaran "Wildlife." The beautiful two year old custom built catamaran is owned and operated by a great family that has been out cruising and offering on the water experiences for more than ten years now. Dave and Tris and their two young born aboard kids Dior and Kai run the business from their floating home. During peak season they spend six days a week offering whale shark and whale experiences in Australia and now swim with the whale trips in Tonga. They take day tripper like us as well as longer term live-aboard guests aboard their home for some very unique experiences.

David was off working with a group of professional photographers on their smaller boat so Tris was our leader and Paul -who joins them from Oz for seven or eight weeks each year- took over piloting the ship. As we motored away from the anchorage the kids were busy at the salon table with one of the four live aboard guests standing in as teacher for the day while the two pet chickens Stripe and Chick-Chick wandered around underfoot.

The plan for their whale adventures is to motor about until they find a whale who will offer to stay still long enough that a snorkel and mask clad paying guests can slip into the water and then swim close enough to get a glimpse as they glide past on their way to somewhere else. You then swim back to the boat to either switch with another group of tourist swimmers or run off to look for your next whale victim. This would be more than difficult to do with just Bill and I aboard our own boat since we would never both jump off Island Bound into the water. Someone has to stay aboard or you could find your boat drifting off in the current as you wave goodbye. Even with the motor off and the sails down a 32,000 pound boat can drift along at an amazing rate which has been known to leave even strong swimmers adrift and alone.

We were planning on jumping into deep ocean waters with live wild animals and you would be crazy not to have someone aboard watching, waiting and ready for pickup. A couple of cases in point: We were told a story of a whale excursion boat dropping a load of snorkelers into the water with a whale shark only to "realize" that the creature in the water was a Tiger shark not a whale shark! Tiger sharks are responsible for more shark attacks than any other shark in the oceans so the shark must not have been hungry as everyone apparently made it back to the boat without incidence but it could have been a disaster. A story closer to home and real time comes from Niafu where we just spent many days. The day we left headed for the Ha'apia Group a guest from a large motor yacht "Ice" was attacked by a shark of some kind. She was swimming alone behind a kayak that was being paddled by another guest. The conjecture here is that the swimmer in the water was playing around in the water right behind and next to the kayak which was being idly then wildly paddled about by another guest and may have looked like a baby whale floundering about in distress. The victim was hit then left without a second attack but was lucky in that the shark left only a large bite mark without taking a huge hunk of flesh with him as he retreated to look for real prey. My point being not to gross you out but to show that it would have been difficult for Bill and me to safely have this experience on our own but with Tris directing activity and Paul manning the helm we were free to enjoy the day and to soak in the experience.

The first whales we saw were just a few minutes out of the anchorage. A mama and calf pair who were quickly joined by another mamma and calf - a rare sighting we were told. Paul positioned the catamaran with Bill and I on one transom all geared up and Ann and Mark on the other. With fins on and masks in place the moment it looked like they were going to pause a moment for us without fleeing we were given the "in neutral" sign and slipped into the water. With instructions to stay in a tight bunch we entered the water and followed Tris towards the group of four whales.

They didn't stay long. In fact the whole thing from splash to climbing out was over in less than five minutes but being in the water with these creatures was amazing. Once we were close enough to stop swimming and simply watch I lay motionless in the water watching as the foursome seemed to be moving right towards me. The two pairs were swimming along slowly only a few feet below the surface. Both moms seemed to be keeping an eye glued to our little group but they remained calm and relaxed as their babies rolled and bobbled along. Both pair turned moving off to the left with one mom and calf ahead of me and the other pair almost directly below me. The closest baby passed upside-down showing me his pretty white belly full of bumps and ridges and trailing along his personal squadron of Remora fish.

I have to tell you honestly that deep in my brain there still lives a place that's reserved for reaction to fears -a human gut reaction that is ever attune to the likes of a real scream in the dark or the image of a shark fin slicing through the water- and as I floated along watching the whales swim towards me a little voice yelled out in my head "MOVE BACK." "Not forward Kat, not forward!!!!" But our guides signal said move forward....so I did.... and then the whales took their slight turn while I hovered there listening to bits of squeaks and clicks and in a heartbeat the whole encounter was over and I was swimming hard trying to make my way back to the cat. It was one of those experiences where after the fact you can't keep your mouth shut and you can't stop grinning. WOW. And it was only 9:15.

The second group of swimmers had been positioned to slip into the water as soon as the whales passed off and away from us and that was the rhythm of the day: drop in a group, reposition, hand signal a switch, new group in the sea as the first group made their way back to the cat. One the foursome moved off we spent a few more minutes looking for whale signs then pacing a few looking for the best candidates. By 10:00 it looked like we had lucked out again when we found a mother and calf logging. Logging means they are on the surface taking a rest. It is the best possible arrangement to find a logging whale and here was one with a baby. We moved in closer and watched and waited. Mamma didn't seem to mind us being there at all. She just lay quietly on the surface breathing calmly and nosing here baby around a bit. The other group of swimmers slid off the transoms and we watched as they moved in.

As we swam forward for our second encounter I could see the calf floating at the surface but his mother lay unseen some hundred feet below. As we swam towards the babe she was just a vague outline below me marked mostly by the light bouncing off her long white flukes and the white edge of her tail fin. As she lay resting her baby repeatedly surfaced and dove rolling and flailing about. He didn't seem to be terribly good yet at being a whale. He rolled and flipped and looked as though he didn't really have control yet over his floppy bits. He would pause hanging with first his head down and tail pointed upwards then roll and lay suspended with his belly pointed towards the sky with no sense of preference. Occasionally he would try a dive towards mom only to sort of bob to the surface for another breath and another try. Tris estimated the calf to be roughly five weeks old and certainly still very dependent on his mother.

After 20 minutes or so momma moved up towards her calf bringing him up to the surface with her for a group breath before leaving him again and returning to her resting place where she hung like a tripod -huge head pointed to the bottom with both flukes spread wide to either side where she quickly settled into whale nap time again a hundred feet below her calf.

We spent the rest of the morning switching out with the other group of swimmers for 20 0r 30 minute turns and when we rejoined the whales for the last time both momma and calf were floating along on the surface. Momma lay logging with her back and blow holes just above the water line but with her face deep in the water. Poised curved over her massive head lay the baby with his blowholes safely above the waves where they could both rest easy without having to work to surface for breaths. They stayed that way relatively unmoving for the next 25 minutes while we listened to their breathing and snapped dozens upon dozens of pictures.

Both of our little swimming groups had three trips out and back without seeming to affect the resting whales. Even Kai and Dior joined us once their school day was completed (they both swim like fish.) But eventually it was time to go. I had been so totally engrossed with the whales that I was surprised how exhausted I felt as I made my last swim back through the rising waves and current to the boat. After everyone was aboard and the tea kettle was on and Paul set the sails and we were off across the waters to another island known for its whale activity. What a lovely treat being guests aboard: Paul at the helm, cups of tea delivered and a lovely lunch with someone else doing the dishes! We had plenty of time to ask questions, visit with the other guests and rehash our morning in the water all while keeping an eye out for more whale activity around us.

On our way across we saw a group of big males, six or more of them moving fast across the surface. Tris explained that the group movement we had spotted was probably a clutch of males pursuing an available female. Evidently the males will keep up the chase for hours until eventually the female gives in and finally picks one with which to mate. We also saw plenty of other surface activity including breaching, tail slapping and lobbing and fluke waving. When we arrived at the opposite island Paul and Tris lowered a hydro phone into the water off the transom and we sat eating pieces of cake and listening to a faraway male singing us his song.

Seeing these great animals so still was amazing. It is hard to explain the difference in perspective you have of these great whales when you're in the water with them compared to watching them from the deck of a boat. It became a total body experience floating there in the sea surrounded by all the sounds of the waves and wind and my own swimming all overlaying the subtle noises the momma and calf were making. Floating so near them was stunning and quite emotional. Here were animals that are usually viewed only in brief glimpses but now every ridge, every skin color variance and even the creases around their eyes were visible.

Before we arrived in Tonga in anticipation of getting into the water with the whales I had been reading all I could find and had watched a wonderful National Geographic program on humpbacks. The video especially showed them spending long spans of time completely still in the water. My observations had primarily been watching them as they were on the move or feeding with the occasional glimpse of one asleep or resting on the surface. But the truth is when they are not on their actual migratory path they spend hours at a time resting nearly motionless.

In the warm Tongan waters that they breed and mate in they do almost no feeding - for months! And the males who do the real singing in fact do all of it hanging nearly motionless head down, flukes spread wide to open their chests to allow the sounds to pour out. Humpbacks have no vocal chords. All of their singing comes as a rumble through their baleen and out of their chests which makes perfect sense when you think about it. When you sing do you do it while you run? Of course not. So the momma and babies are resting and reserving their energy for the upcoming migration back to Antarctica while the males are trying to insure their thousands of miles of migration isn't for naught by alternating between chasing the girls and singing their hearts out. What and experience.

The trip back to our little lagoon was fast. Their big catamaran nearly flies over the water. We blasted back towards home at a screaming 12 to 14 knots. Once the anchor was down eleven year old Kai expertly chauffeured the four of us back to our floating homes in the family car -the dinghy- a full eight hours after our departure. We couldn't have asked for a better day. Even the weather cooperated with not a drop of rain, smoothed down chop, just enough sun to warm us back up but not cook us too badly and a whale experience we will never forget. Kat

~the amazing photos will follow on our Face Book page "BillandKat Russell" as soon as we have a decent connection~

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9-15-2012 End of the Road Pangia Tonga

2012, 09-12 End of the road, Pangia Tonga


In our travels there is a big difference between our time spent in big cities compared to that we spend in small villages. In cities everything blends together and the bits of culture become lost in the big picture but in the small towns it becomes easier to spot the differences and then easier to put them into a context we can understand. This clears the way to really see the culture behind the difference we observe which both bill and I find amazingly interesting. What is the point of traveling if you are not on the look out for the things that are truly different. It puts our own lives into context and open the door to unlimited possibilities. We do the things we do because that's the way we do things but there are other ways to do them that are just as valid.

Take burial for instance. Cemeteries have always fascinated us. In fact I have always been fascinated walking around through the headstones reading tiny snippets of other peoples lives. In Alaska we were amazed to find a cemetery in the village of Hoona where a huge proportion of the people buried there were well over a hundred years old when they died. Mexico had interesting roadside memorials and also the family plots that were taken care of by groups of family members on certain days of the year. Then too of course is the famous Day of the Dead celebration and the resulting art form of skeleton masks and figurines that are now famously collected.

French Polynesia showed us above ground crypts situated conveniently in front yards. Grandma and Grandpa remain important members of the family even after their passing. It is not unusual to see someone taking a nap on top of a crypt or the weeks washing laid out to dry across the smooth marble or concrete covers. Some families build large shade covers over massed group graves and we always wonder about real estate resale values if mom and dad are interred in the front yard. There are often elaborate marble headstones engraved with names and dates along with dates of military service. Scripture and poems are always popular and many have a built in vase for fresh or plastic flowers. Pictures were very popular in French Polynesia and in Samoa. Many had elaborate framed pictures of the deceased in their prime and some had a laser picture engraved into the marble.

In the town of Pangia in Tonga we noticed something we had never seen before. First, instead of the normal rectangle crypt shapes that usually fill the cemeteries Pangia had simple mounds of coral gravel over each body. The graves were not permanently marked with a headstone nor with planted signs of any kind indicating names or dates. Most had plastic flowers profusely "growing" out of the coral piles. But most interestingly off all were the quilts we saw there. Not all but many of the graves had a bed quilt left with the grave.

Some were left laying across the top of the grave and some had large wooden frames at their head with the quilt stretched across them. I was not able to question anyone in town about this -with my limited Tongan it seemed too intrusive a question. I did ask an Aussie woman who has lived here for many years but she had no answer for me. Are the quilts memorial quilts made for the occasion of death or are they the actual bed quilts removed for some symbolic purpose? In a society where so many have so little why would they give up such an item? Of those I saw some where obviously works of quilt art but others looked to be store bought with ruffles and printed flowers. Would a family buy a new quilt or take the time to make a new one piece by piece? Interesting.........I hate having questions like these left open and will ask if the opportunity ever arises. You'll be the next to know. Kat

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Saturday, September 8, 2012

August 29th 2012 Tonga

August 29th 2012 Neiafu, Vavau Tonga Story Problem 1 In order to arrive during daylight hours sailing vessel Island Bound plans to depart Pago Pago American Samoa at 5:00pm Saturday 25 of August bound for Western Samoa 80 nautical miles N/NW of their current anchorage. Winds are expected to be 15kn from the NE for an expected average hourly speed of 5.5 knots. What day and time will Island Bound make landfall in Western Samoa? Answer: Landfall, Vava'u Tonga Wednesday August 29th. As to the change of plans, well we do make changes to our plans. One of our close friends once commented that she never knew when she would see us. “Island Bound always follows her own drummer, one day there you are right there in the middle of things with everyone having a great time and then I look up and Island Bound is gone! In other words we change our minds. A lot. We had been planning our next hop on to Western Samoa for a couple of weeks. As soon as our all of our packages arrived we would stock up on fresh produce and then leave at night fall for the short 80 mile passage and then surprise surprise ...arrive after sunup. Instead the final lost package had arrived, the groceries were all stowed and then as we sat an McDonald’s checking email and looking at weather forecasts and inter-island mileage Bill decided we should skip American Samoa completely in favor of extra time in Tonga. The passage difference: a mere 250 miles. The next morning we hustled around with a few last minute details and said our good byes before lifting our anchor out of three weeks of mud and muck and motoring out into the stiff breeze. There is a fundamental difference between an 80 mile passage and a 330 miles passage. It's OK to leave without fresh eggs or missing bits of produce if your going to be in another town in less than a day. A “one night” is a piece of cake and requires relatively little planning. Psychologically an overnight is simple: you know you are looking at only one night of interrupted sleep and Apia, Samoa is not much of an unknown after our time in American Samoa. I knew we would easily find anything we might run out of and if the weather tanked we would only have a few short hours to endure. But Tonga? A whole other story. We would need to officially check in on arrival and would likely be tired. I hadn't looked at the books on Tonga in two months and not at all with the eyes of imminent arrival. Did we need to get currency? We left without knowing. Did we need to arrive with kava root for the Chiefs or the King? We didn't know and so left with none. Where was my passage rotisserie chicken? No time to cook one up myslef and no dinners precooked and packaged up, only a handful of ripe bananas and almost out of homemade yogurt. Plus and probably most disconcerting was that we had been blissfully ignoring weather reports while we were tucked in safely deep in Pago Pago's anchorage. As amateur weather forecasters there is always much more to any forecast if you have been closely following the local weather patterns and trends than what you can deduce from a single spot check. Regardless we left in a hurry Saturday morning and expected to reach Tonga by night fall 2 ½ days later. Weather wise we didn't exactly get what we had expected. Instead we had 25 to 30 knot winds at 60 degrees off our bow -almost sailing upwind- which came with big clunky 10-12 foot seas. For the first 48 hours we were surrounded by squalls which kept us reefed down, wet and rocking and rolling our way through our four hour watches. Trust me when I say a four hour watch lasts a very long time when the rain sheets down on you and the waves are crashing along and pouring tons of sea water over the boat for hours on end. We sprang a new leak around the main hatch and that along with the water we drug in on hair and clothing soon every towel in the boat was lying in wet salty heaps on the floor and still everything inside was damp to the touch and the floors dangerously covered with slick (and weirdly sticky) saltwater. The night watches were down right cold and I broke out tennis shoes for the first time in I don't remember when along with wind pants and long sleeve shirts and rain coats. It was too rough to shower and 330 miles is far enough to leave anybody a bit fragrant. Add to that nothing to eat that couldn't be put in sandwich or stuffed in a bowl while you hunkered into the corner of the cockpit So, we left at 11am for Tonga expecting 15 to 20 knot winds for the 330 miles passage. At 6.5 to 7 knots we expected to arrive at Vava'u some 55 hours later on Tuesday morning August 27th. Instead we beat upwind in high seas and arrived around 200am -the middle of the night again. We did attempt to drop our anchor in a tiny bend just outside of the island but the poor lighting, offset charts and the whale we apparently woke up were were once again left hove too waiting for first light. Our official check in was 9am Wednesday August 29th after passing over the International Date Line and loosing an entire day. So we lost a day, arrived in the middle of the night and had cruddy weather all transpiring to add up to one of the worst passages of all times. Total time for passage, 70 hours give or take the lost August 26th. Oh and for special measure how about three abscessed boils from a fungal skin infection caused by the wet conditions that left me achy and feverish and now unable to get in the water with the whales until the skin is completely intact again. Welcome to Tonga! Kat