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This blog is part 3 of a three-part blog about experiences from adventures in Eua, Tonga. Go to the previous blogs for the introduction and Experience #1: Pod of Five, and Experience #2: Cathedral Cave.
Experience #3: Mother and Calf
Humpbacks come to Tonga to breed and give birth and while more common in the protected waters of Vava'u and Ha'apai a couple find sheltered spots along the west side of Eua. Boat captains follow a simple rule, if the mother stays between the boat and calf, and starts to move the calf on, you leave – don’t stress the mother or a calf that is yet to gain its strength.
In three previous visits to Tonga we have swam with a couple of cow and calf pairs, mother and baby, Humpbacks before. The calf can be playful, curious and fast, and the mother lets it investigate snorkelers under her watchful eye. On each occasion the mother had come 'out of hiding' and had a hopeful bull as an escort. However, this time was different.
'Slipping under the waves' is an overused cliché but in this instance it was a necessity, the last thing you want to do is to upset a 30-something tonne mother. So, in our small group of five we quietly lowered ourselves into the water and swam, floated slowly towards the two whales, avoiding sudden movements and any splashing.
As soon I could see them under the surface I hesitated. At less than 2 metres long this was easily the smallest Humpback calf I'd ever seen, it was so young. I immediately thought that the mother isn't going to let us near them but, keeping together, we approached. The mother became aware of us and we waited. We were spread out with a few metres between each snorkeler. She descended a bit with the calf beneath her but did not move off. How do you tell a whale that you mean no harm? I tried a slow roll on the surface - like when interacting with young adult whales – we’re here to play?
Then the calf came up for air, my rolling seemed to attract its attention and it came towards me, took a breath, did a head-down tail-up twirl, gave me a stare, and went down again. The mother didn’t move and the calf resumed its position nestled under her chin – it seemed that they were comfortable with us being there.
Every five minutes or so the calf surfaced to breathe, it did a roll or twirl, checked out a snorkeler or two and then returned to mum. Often the calf would rest under its mother’s chin but on another occasion it moved alongside. A giant five-metre long pectoral fin swung out and gently guided the calf beneath the mother where it was embraced in both arms – it was a beautiful sight.
After a while the mother rose to breathe, did so and then descended about a metre but did not move off. The pattern repeated, each time the calf surfaced it would roll or twirl, take a look at a visitor and return to mum. Over time it came closer, to within a few metres of each person – even though it was very young we could never out-swim it and the best option was to avoid any sudden movement, relax and enjoy.
After an hour in the water with the mother and calf we all felt particularly privileged, grateful to have had such an experience, and that it was our time to leave them be.
Diving and snorkelling adventures provide awesome experiences and, according to that study, happiness (see In-water Adventures = Happiness Part 1) – I can't disagree. These were just three such experiences that Karen and I enjoyed, and we can't wait for more! We hope that you too have some amazing adventures.
Want to join us next year?
Thanks to my fearless travelling companions: Karen, Felicity, Linda, Carson, Geoff and Harry. Great adventures are always best when shared.
Special thanks to the Deep Blue Tonga team at Ovava Tree Lodge, Eua: Finau, Grant, Aneesh, Aaron, Harris and most especially to Wolfgang. Great food, great service and amazing adventures are their specialty.
More photos: Tonga - Eua - 2015
Experience #2: Cathedral Cave
Eua is quite different to the other islands in Tonga, it has been formed from up-lifted limestone with impressions of ancient coral often clearly visible in the rocks. It is also the oldest island in Tonga, and the highest.
The island also has a surrounding plateau, much of which sits between low and high tide. A number of underwater caves have formed in this plateau, many of which are waiting to be fully explored. The most well-known is the Cathedral Cave, reportedly the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere.
Entry to the Cathedral is from the ocean through a wide arch at a depth of 20 - 25m. Once inside, the cave opens up into a large cavern with several ‘skylights’ in the roof, which appear like ‘blue holes’ when viewed from the cliffs above.
Although there is light inside the cave it is a true overhead environment with no safe entry or exit through the skylights.
Despite any swell and ocean noise outside the cave, inside the water is calm and silent and light streams down from the roof in beams as if coming through blue stained-glass windows. When passing under the first few skylights no imagination is required to work out how this cave got its name.
In the main cavern area the waves roll over the skylights in a fascinating display, it’s like watching thunder clouds rolling across the sky in a dramatic time-lapse video. Then with each cycle of ebb and flow of the waves above mini-tornado whirlpools reach down into the cave – it’s best to stay below all of the turbulence and just enjoy the show.
This was our fourth trip to Eua and fourth dive into the Cathedral Cave but this time we had no dive-leader responsibilities. It was a chance to enjoy, to photograph the beams of light and to float on my back in mid-water, face-up tank-down, watching the mesmerising display in the skylights above.
It's a happy place.
Words can never capture the feeling of being there, so I'll let the photos help in explaining.
It doesn’t matter if you believe in simple geology or something more, the Cathedral Cave in Eua is a truly special place that will only ever be known to divers.
I recently read a study about happiness. In essence, material things we want and obtain soon become 'stuff' but experiences can make us truly happy and, ultimately, define us as individuals. In diving we need the equipment but it’s the adventure and experiences that we seek. That’s why Karen and I enjoy technical diving, sport diving and in this instance I’ll include snorkelling in the list – it's all about the experience.
With that in mind I'd like to share three experiences from a recent holiday to Tonga. I know that words won't do them justice but I'll try my best. First of all, to set the scene.
Eua (pronounced "A-wa") is three hours by ferry or seven minutes by plane (yep, just seven) east of Tongatapu, which is the main island of Tonga. With large areas of forest and national parks it has a population of about 3000 friendly locals, scattered in a handful of villages, who are devout Christians and serious rugby fanatics. If you’re looking for an air-conditioned villa and a choice of restaurants then Eua is not for you, Eua is for Adventure tourism with a capital 'A'.
Experience #1: Pod of Five
Each year Humpback Whales migrate up from the Antarctic to Tonga, to give birth, breed and relax in warmer water. The waters around Eua are not as protected as other islands where tourists swim with Humpbacks. Snorkelling in deep open water means dealing with swell but it also allows for a different level of interaction with the whales. Young adult Humpbacks visit Eua and they can be both curious and playful.
After being delayed a day (the ferry broke) our first whale swim in Eua began slowly. After some brief encounters we came across a pod of five young adult whales, each weighing about ten to twelve tonnes. With a couple of tail strokes a whale can disappear from sight in quite clear water, so a trick is to appeal to their curiosity – it’s as much about whales swimming with people as the other way around. With ten snorkelers in a group the whales came in to eyeball us, then began to show-off – we were in luck.
To keep the whale pod’s curiosity, one or two of our group (myself included) would do a shallow duck dive where we could be seen and do a roll underwater, or just roll on the surface. In many instances, as I’ve experienced in the past, the Humpbacks will watch and respond in kind. This time I tried to copy them, when a whale rolled and could see me, I responded, as did other snorkelers. Another Humpback seeing those rolls (by either human or whale) would do the same. In one moment we had three whales and a couple of snorkelers all rolling, with arms, legs, fins and tails in all directions!
After an hour the pod decided to move on and we climbed back onto the boat, exhilarated but now tired from the ocean swell. But after a few minutes the pod returned with surface rolls, fin slaps and general 'fooling around'. We all watched, enjoying the show – did they still want to play? I took the camera and got back in the water, alone.
I swam towards the pod as they moved towards me, a great opportunity for head-on photos. I focussed on a couple of whales, turning 180 degrees to drift / swim in the same direction. Swimming on my right side and concentrating the viewfinder on a whale coming closer to me, I adjusted the camera lens to its widest but couldn’t fit in half a whale, or a third, or…. Looking out from behind the camera the whale was barely 2m from me, with another on the other side of it (obviously they didn’t know about the 5m rule). I decided on a slow roll onto my back and away to the left but found there were two more whales on that side, even closer! Looking straight down I saw the fifth whale in the pod.
As a reflex action I made a few quick kicks to 'get away', which is completely futile when you have time to think about it. How this was interpreted by the pod I'll never know (did we startle the little boat-creature?) but in any case they moved apart and gave me more space – I wish I hadn’t kicked. For a brief moment I was in the middle of a tightly packed pod of five Humpback Whales – I was happy for the experience and I will never forget it.
This is part 1 of a three part blog. Keep reading for more adventures from Eua, Tonga:
Experience #2: Cathedral Cave.
Experience #3: Mother and Calf.
More photos: Tonga - Eua - 2015