Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Exploring the Caves, and on to Nuku Island

[Kyle]From Mala, we took the long way to Nuku Island. Our first stop was Swallows' Cave, just around the corner from Mala.

The water outside Swallows' is 80m deep right up to the cliff face, so it was not possible for us to anchor. Instead, we swam into the cave in turns while the other loitered nearby in Begonia. I went first. Swallows' Cave is a tall gash in the cliff side. I swam over the lip at the entrance and entered a huge chamber that was about equal parts above and below the water's surface. My entering disturbed the birds inside and they flitted in and out nervously. Underwater, schools of fish mirrored the behavior of their airborne cousins. I swam to the far back of the cave, where the light was too dim to make out many of the features. There is a dry ledge beyond, which apparently was used as a location for feasting and entertaining visiting nobility. The meal was lowered down through a hole in the ceiling on an large platform like a dumb waiter. The coral was sharp and I hadn't brought shoes in which to change, so I had to satisfy myself with a tippy-toed peek over the lip before swimming back toward the exit.

When we were looking for the entrance to Swallows' Cave, we noted that there was a smaller cave to the north that seemed to have far more birds coming and going. Just to be sure we had the right one, I swam there now. It turned out to be open at the top, which I suppose makes it not a cave at all. All of the birds coming and going were swooping through from both directions. There may have been many many tasty insects in there, but it seemed they were really doing it just for the fun of it.

Swallows' Cave

When I was done, I emerged to find a red sailboat headed our way. We know some Belgian cruisers on red boat called Pirlouit. I thought it was them, but as I boarded Begonia, I could see that it was three times Pirlouit's size. It was an enormous steel ketch of probably just under a hundred feet overall. Maryanne said they had been heading right at her and it took her three tries on the radio to get a response and a course change. There is a lot of boat forward of the helm. She may have been in a blind spot.

Maryanne then had her go at both caves while I stood by. She had the idea of taking our good waterproof flashlight with her, which meant she was gone a lot longer exploring all of the little corners. She returned to say the flashlight still worked but it was not waterproof. {Maryanne: Shortly afterwards if failed completely and we've had to trash it}

We then took Begonia over to Mariner's Cave, where we again alternated swims while the other loitered around in Begonia. Just before we arrived there, I smelled a slight whiff of diesel and asked Maryanne to take over while I had a look. The high pressure fuel hose on the starboard engine had sprung a small leak. This is when it's nice to have two engines. We shut it down, closed the main fuel valve to that side and continued on one engine. We would deal with it once we were anchored. We were a little slower and left turns were slower, so we made a point of keeping the cliffs on that side while the other swam.

I went first. Unlike Swallows' Cave, Mariner's has nothing obvious above the water marking the entrance, so I had so swim around a bit until I found it. It revealed itself as a big hole starting about four feet below the surface. Although we had been assured that the swim was doable by anyone with average snorkeling skills, it is a bit of a leap of faith on the hope that somewhere in the darkness, the rock above would recede and an air cavity would appear in which to surface.

Since we were at the lowest state of the tide, it wasn't bad at all. I thought it was way easier than diving down to the anchor in most places. I was in the cave before I even started to strain for breath. The cave was smaller than Swallows' and with no above-water entrance, completely devoid of swallows. The light coming through the entrance was the only illumination, revealing a low ceiling in wobbly light.

I took another long look at it and decided that I had now exhausted all that Mariner's Cave had to offer. That and I knew Maryanne would be getting a little nervous about why she hadn't seen me reappear yet. Getting out was way easier than getting in. It was just a matter of swimming toward the light.

Mariner's Cave

When it came time for Maryanne's turn, she made a couple of attempts before she finally disappeared for a good, long while. As I was waiting for her near the cliff, a tour boat approached that seemed determined to get between me and the cliff. I thought it was pretty apparent that I was waiting for someone, but he looked like he was about to physically push me aside, so I relented and circled around to make another pass.

Wouldn't you know, the moment I got furthest away, Maryanne reappeared out of the cave to unexpectedly find the sky filled with a boat full of tourists donning their masks and fins. She made her way around the boat to find me gingerly edging toward the cliff where she was. Once she was back aboard, we headed off to our next anchorage at Nuku Island.

Some guide we have says Nuku is the most photographed island in Tonga. It says this not because it is true, but because nobody even has such data, making it impossible to disprove. Other sources have repeated the claim and now it's accepted wisdom. Okay, so there's a chance Nuku could actually be the most photographed island in Tonga, even though it's uninhabited and even though less than fifty people a day must pass within sight of it. IF it's true, it must be some pretty island, indeed.

As we approached, Nuku did indeed look pretty, but just as much so as any of the other islands around here. It wasn't until we approached our intended anchoring spot that it suddenly blossomed. From the specific viewpoint of the anchorage, Nuku was a perfectly proportioned little gem of a tropical island. A wide stretch of turquoise water led up to a beach of powdery, blinding white sand. Leaning out above the beach at a aesthetically rakish angle were a few tall coconut palms with their fronds shooshing in the breeze. Behind all of this, the sand gave way to rock that flared out as it was undercut over the ages by the lapping waves. It was so beautiful we thought, “We've got to get a picture of this.”

I wanted to take a better look, but of course, I had a fuel line to replace. It only took ten minutes to do, but the fittings leaked like crazy. I did it over and over again until I was burned and bleeding from close encounters with the adjacent hose clamps for the cooling system. Once I had paid enough of a physical toll and shouted enough swear words, everything worked just fine. Why does it always have to be like that?

Exploring Nuku Island

In the morning, we swam ashore to give Nuku a proper look. We ducked under low hanging branches and then the overhanging shelf of coral rock as we circled the island. When we finished, we got back in the water and spent a happy couple of hours enjoying the sea life. This area has just about the best variety of coral we have seen this year. Also, there was a much better diversity of other life we haven't seen in a while. We saw several different species of sea stars, anemones, sponges, urchins and a bunch of things even Maryanne was at a loss to categorize, all interspersed with the different fish that call each one home. It really was a joy to see a marine ecosystem that seemed to be thriving. The blue Linckia sea star are all over the place here in Tonga, and we even found some with only 4 arms, not where the 5th was damaged, but where they only have 4 arms from the get-go!

Snorkelling Nuku Island - lots of Anemone fish, and feather stars, almost every meter we'd find something new

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