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