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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
Here I am, out of the water with a torn leg muscle - so to fill in time I thought I'd sort out out my save-a-dive tool kit. Regular equipment servicing maintains warranties and reduces the chance of missing a dive but even so ‘stuff just happens’, so I always carry a small plastic tool box of bits, which goes in the car for each local dive trip. At one time or another each item has proven to be useful. So, based on the contents of my tool box, here are some ideas that will hopefully help you to also "save a dive".
The contents of a save-a-dive kit will depend on what you’re doing. If going on holiday to a resort with a well-stocked dive store there may be little to worry about, if you’re out with your buddy for a weekend dive you’ll want a 'few things just in case', and for a major expedition you’ll want to be well equipped. The list below fits in the 'few things just in case' category of save-a-dive kits.
When making a save-a-dive kit it’s useful to think about two groups of items – spare parts and tools. You can start with some ready-made save-a-dive kits or start from scratch, either way here’s some things to consider.
I’m a fan of cable ties – they are handy for so many things. Use them to hold broken plastic clips together, secure a corrugated inflator hose if it comes off (rare) and secure a fin strap if a side clip is lost. They have many uses and not limited to dive equipment. On a dive holiday three years ago I had to fix a strap on one of my Crocs – I still wear the Crocs, complete with cable ties! On our last holiday my wife also used cable ties as light-weight D-rings.
If you’re away for a while or just want to be prepared for more eventualities, consider adding the following to your save-a-dive kit:
The above lists of tools and spare parts should help you out in most situations.
Occasionally you’ll find a need something extra, and add it to your kit. On a recent holiday we had ‘an urgent need’ for a 1.5mm hex key to tighten a hex bolt on a camera housing – it has now been added to my kit. Of course, if you have upgraded your regulators or mask, it can be handy to take the old ones along as spares (I've lent mine to friends a couple of times).
As a final note, when looking to buy tools think about what they’ll be exposed too – especially if you dive in salt water. Cheaper tools may not be made from marine grade stainless or suitably coated chrome-vanadium steel. Remember to wash and dry your tools if they’ve been used on equipment that was exposed tosalt water.
Be prepared and don’t miss a dive!
Taking the Xdeep Ghost on holidays over a year ago I loved it so much that I’ve been using it at every opportunity where a single-tank backmount system is called for. It still looks like new after use in some tough conditions, but by being so good it delayed me from trying the Zeos – but the time has now come.
The Xdeep Zeos is promoted as an “out of the box” system, suitable for the new diver and able to ‘grow’ with their needs. I was after the benefits of a backplate, harness and wing system, and tough enough to handle rough entries and exits, being knocked around by breaking surf and able to withstand getting washed up onto rocks …yes, OK, conditions do need to be quite bad to keep me out of the water.
I chose to keep it simple, a basic harness without the optional deluxe set shoulder or back pads. A steel backplate would mean less lead to carry, but rather than be rational I chose a vibrant blue aluminium backplate with matching single tank adapter (STA), for a bit of bling. I moved the Xdeep weight pockets from my Ghost to the Zeos (interchangeable); why wear a weight belt if you can transfer the weight to a backplate? The left weight pocket has a D-ring, so I shifted the existing D-ring to the right side for another attachment point. I also chose the 28lb / 13kg wing, instead of the 38lb / 17kg wing, with the idea of a smaller wing being more streamlined; I don’t see the need to exert any more effort than necessary!
My test dives were a couple of boat dives with the aim of finding grey nurse sharks just off the NSW South Coast. Although I had a couple of new divers to keep an eye on, it seemed like my first pleasure dive in a very long time.
I’d adjusted the shoulder straps the night before so had no problem slipping into the harness. In the water the fit was secure and comfortable – a 7mm semi-dry wetsuit gave me enough padding, and the backplate is a good comfortable shape with well positioned slots for the harness. The Zeos trimmed to a near-horizontal position but I found my head hitting the first stage regulator – my error by fitting the STA by the top bolt hole of the backplate, it needed to be lower, an easy adjustment (after diving).
The double-layered wing construction of the Zeos is similar to the Xdeep Hydros technical BCD, making it a very rugged unit – you don’t normally see this kind of construction in sport BCDs. The double layer adds a little bulk compared to the Ghost, however the Zeos was nicely streamlined when pushing into a gentle current - my old jacket BCD now feels like a sea anchor.
28lb / 13kg lift is similar to a small - medium jacket BCD, but it's a lot of lift when correctly weighted and the weight of gas in my tank will only change about 5lb during a dive. The less weight the less lift needed. At the end of the first dive, bringing the newer divers to the surface, another diver lost his weight belt climbing on board. So back down to 20m to pick up a 24lb weight belt, being deliberately 2lb overweight for this test dive and with half a tank of gas – that’s about 28lb of lift needed, the same as the wing! At maximum inflation I was neutrally buoyant but with all the lift in the wing sitting behind me I was comfortable and trimmed, unlike a jacket where full inflation feels like being crushed to the point of restricting blood flow. (I had an Xdeep closed SMB if extra lift was needed.)
Some other notes. Some divers worry a back inflation BCD will push them face down on the surface; the Zeos had an upright surface position - the wing shape is well designed for streamlining and when on the surface. The Zeos wing has a large-toothed zip making it easily to unzip and wash out salt between the inner bladder and outer shell. Jacket BCDs have pockets (often half filled with integrated weights); however, more D-rings can be added to the Zeos harness and the Xdeep pouch is also a more versatile option rather than pockets. The Zeos is offered “out-of-the-box” in a couple of configurations, but it can be customised to individual needs. The wing and STA can be swapped for a Hydros wing and twin tank configuration, providing an upgrade path.
In summary, the Zeos appears simple, as a harness back plate and wing, but the attention to detail in its design means that it performs brilliantly and, as a sport diving BCD, it is very rugged. I also think it is a great BCD for new divers - forget the jacket and go straight to the benefits of a tec-style BCD.
Finally, we saw crested horn sharks, Port Jackson sharks and Wobbegong's but no grey nurses. They were enjoyable dives nonetheless because of the gear I was using.