Saturday, October 13, 2018

Snorkelling the outer Islands in Vava'u

[Kyle]We skipped out of Neiafu a day before the festival officially ended. I’m sure we would have had a good time, but the time to move further south was fast approaching and we wanted to be able to enjoy a few days anchored out in some of the Vava’u islands before doing the longer passages between the island groups.

We stopped first at Nuku Island, where we had enjoyed brilliant snorkeling the year before. When we came around the corner, we saw one other boat anchored there. It was Green Duck, Ludger’s boat. We searched and searched for a good spot to anchor that would preserve both of our privacy, but in the end, we ended up anchoring practically on top of them. He and his crew, Christiana, insisted they didn’t mind. They were leaving the next morning at first light and we would have Nuku to ourselves. They invited us over for sundowners and we didn’t even get to demonstrate our fixed Torqeedo. Ten pulls on the oars and we were there.

Christiana is heading back to work in a week from Fiji and was already dreading the adjustment from tropical cruising. We spent a lot of time talking about the German cruising grounds in the Baltic. They have a section that looks like the Outer Banks of North Carolina, except with castles.

We're back at the beautiful Island of Nuku (but so are various Jellies!

After Green Duck left for Fiji the next morning, Maryanne and I went for a long snorkel. We found most of the cool stuff we had seen there before, plus a couple of other cool things. We found a little angler fish that was too shy to be photographed. While we were enjoying a bunch of clown fish nervously backing into their anemone, we spotted a strange shape moving around in another anemone. It turned out to be a little shrimp. It was half clear and half a bunch of crazy colors and patterns. We had to stare at it a while or flush it onto the sand do discern its shrimpy shape.

As we continued around the island, we also started to notice a lot of plankton in the water near the surface. The layer got thicker and thicker and the little iridescent blobs grew larger and larger. It wasn’t long before we realized we had stumbled into a big bloom of jellies that was growing more populous by the minute. Then they started stinging. Maryanne asked me if I was being stung with the same calm she used to announce she was being electrocuted when she was using our old malfunctioning sewing machine. Yeah. They were getting my head and legs a lot. I was glad I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt to protect myself from the sun. Most of the stings were mild, like scraping past a thorn or getting a sudden patch of mild sunburn. Others were worse. I got one on my upper lip that felt like I had tried to kiss a light socket. That one stopped me cold. They did no lasting damage. Neither of us ended up with any welts or rashes.

The Usual suspects found when snorkelling, but also (new to us) the Peacock Shrimp
Hiding in the anemone and then alongside Kyle's fingers

Some play, some work - normal life aboard

We headed back to Begonia, which was in the clear and found an adorable little family of cuttlefish trying to communicate with us in pictures. We decided to scrub off some of the bottom growth that had accumulated since the last time we mowed the lawn. They seemed to enjoy the free salad. I tried to make the shape for “Help yourselves, even if we’re not here.” I hope they got it.

Next, we tried to go to a place known as the coral gardens. It’s got coral right in the name, so we knew anchoring was going to be a challenge. When we showed up, we were pleased to find three government moorings set up to protect said coral. One was occupied and the owners were about, so we sidled up next to them to ask about the other two.

“They’re available, but they were too shallow for us. Have a good look around before you leave the boat unattended.”

We picked up the nearest one and then I went in to have a look. The lagoon side was deep enough, but the shore side looked marginal. I grabbed Begonia’s stern and used my fins to propel her around the swinging circle. Right at the end, I had to dig my fins into the bottom and push hard with my shoulder to keep a big coral head from contacting our starboard rudder.

We cast off the mooring and searched around for somewhere we could put our anchor. We couldn’t find any patches of sand big enough, so we headed around the corner to a place Maryanne had proposed as a backup on the way in.

It was great! We anchored in the gap between Vaka’eitu Island and Lanukungito’o Island. There’s a reef there connecting the two islands. Behind it, there’s a big shelf of deposited sand two to three meters down with no coral whatsoever. We watched our anchor kick up a cloud of it as it hit the bottom in the crystal clear water and then let out way more chain than we needed, just because we could.

The view here is amazing! The shallow shelf of white sand makes Begonia look like she’s floating above a beach in a tropical sky. On each island on either side are perfect little deserted beaches, each surrounded with stunning rock features eroded into the uplifted coral by the millennia. Through the gap in each direction, we can see another twenty or so islands at various distances, some with a sailboat or two anchored nearby. Places like this seem to pretty to be real.

Enjoying the snorkelling, especially the little critters,
But take a look at that last picture (and the video) while the picture and video isn't great - you can just about make out the little fish (a Goby) and the shrimp that share a burrow and are found all over the place here

We went for a swim and found plenty of coral at the barrier to entertain us for hours. Maryanne had the find of the day when she spotted a Lion Fish. Those are not to be touched. We made a point of putting the only footprints on our favorite beach. We returned to the boat only when we knew we were getting too much direct sunlight. When we got there, we found another family of cuttlefish. These individuals were three times the size of the ones in Nuku. Oh, if we hadn’t just cleaned the hulls…

We spent the remainder of our time sitting in the cockpit and sighing at the view every third breath or so. Every now and then, we hear a “Pfft!” and spot a big sea turtle surfacing nearby.

We couldn’t bear to leave just yet, so we decided we needed an extra day here, just to appreciate it fully.

After a glorious couple of days at Langito’o, we moved a few miles west to an anchorage at the western extreme of the Vava’u group known as the Blue Lagoon. We were looking forward to this as one of our guides calls it one of the prettiest spots in Tonga. The Moorings charter company classifies it as a “Don’t Miss”.

Okay. I think Blue Lagoon was named in the same spirit as Greenland. If you can get people to come, your restaurant will always have a little business. Hey, we fell for it.

There are a couple of lovely beaches and resorts on either side that have pastel-colored cabanas on stilts tucked into the trees. Although we were the first to anchor in the lagoon, since this place is on everybody’s list, it quickly filled up. By the time we actually got our fins on and got into the water, we had to dodge dinghies and kayaks from the other boats.

We were really disappointed with the snorkeling. We spent ages hoping to find something good. The Blue lagoon has LOTS of coral, but at least 99% of it is dead and covered in silt and algae. This place would have been an incredible thing to see when all of the coral was alive and brightly colored. Lots of fish remain, though, and we did see one sea turtle napping on the bottom. He took off when he spotted us.

In the middle of the longest stretch of beach, the view is marred by a “No Littering” sign posted in front of a cave. Closer examination of the cave revealed it to be cluttered with half burned detritus from the beach bonfires of some very inconsiderate people. By the looks of the rubbish, it seems to not be locals, but spoiled boaters who are expecting the locals to be their maid service once they’ve gone. Shame on them!

All of the other boats left mid afternoon to go elsewhere. Charter boats trying to tick off all of the anchorages have to go to two or three a day. Had we not been tired from our long snorkel and averse to the idea of undoing all of the work we had done that morning to get there, we would have gone the five miles back to the picture perfect anchorage at Langito’o. We were making the big jump to Ha’apai in another day, so we decided to stay put and rest up for the overnight sail.

Friday, October 05, 2018

Tonga's Blue Water Festival - and Whales!!!

[Kyle]The Blue Water Festival was a lot of fun, but also quite exhausting. Every night, we would climb aboard after a very long dinghy ride, realizing we would have to be up early for the next morning’s thing.

The festival was jam-packed with events but the highlight for us was the Hosea Primary School Cultural show and Feast, the Kids were adorable and the teachers and parents we exceptionally welcoming
Cruising friends Cap'n Fatty was there, as was Sharon from Whangarei town Marina in NZ.

It was a great time. The event is sponsored by a group of marine businesses in New Zealand as a welcome to all of the boats who are about to make the journey. They know we’ll all be there soon to pay them back. The event were not only a way for a lot of the boats to meet each other, but to have fun together, which gave us all a real sense of community by the end.

Fakaleiti show (At the Dancing Rooster)

The Festival actually had one night where there was no party to attend. Maryanne and I decided to go to the Faka Leiti show at the Dancing Rooster restaurant. In Tongan, “Faka Leiti” means “Like a Lady”. It was a burlesque show of female impersonators, all of whom seemed to be making it their mission to make the audience squirm, blush or both. I did my best to sit away from the dance floor, but I still got the attention of the oldest one and a big kiss on the mouth from the biggest one. Oh, dear! We were invited to stay and dance, but we had stuff to do early in the morning, so we made a hasty exit.

One Blue Water Festival event Maryanne and I missed out on the next day was the big race. It sounded like a lot of fun. The start is at the end of the skipper’s briefing and the winner is the first one to run in and put their boat’s name on the board. There was no start or finish line for the actual boats involved. This made getting out to an already moving boat and leaving an already moving boat a significant factor in the overall result. Going out to the boat, hoisting the dinghy and upping anchor was a sure fire way to lose.

We missed the event because we chose to spend the day on our second whale watch tour. The weather was a bit rough for even the race and when our guides picked us up at Begonia, they immediately started making noises about staying in close to save us having to go into big seas. Neither us nor the one other guest was having any of it. She was an acrobat/stunt woman/free diver/lifeguard and we are us, so we eventually impressed upon them that if their boat could take it, we could take it. I didn’t get the feeling that was the answer they were hoping for, but they pressed on and soon we were bashing around in pretty steep chop looking for whales.

We found several, but each time we approached, they would dive and we wouldn’t be able to find them again. We finally found a mother and calf that came up right next to the boat and lingered for a while. As our guide went to put his mask on before going in, the strap broke. By the time he found a replacement and got it threaded into his mask and snorkel, the whales were gone. We spent the next hour or so fruitlessly searching for them. After a while, our guide started handing out food and the boat started heading in the direction of Neiafu again. After having such high hopes at the beginning of the trip, we were starting to accept the reality that we were probably not going to swim with any whales that day.

There was plenty of entertainment, though. The other passenger, in addition to being quite interesting, also turned out to be completely nuts. She would do this thing when she would start off on a perfectly reasonable train of thought and then at some random point, the train would leave the tracks, roll down to the bottom of the canyon and explode. She seemed intelligent and very well educated, but her entire head was filled with too much nonsense for her to be ever able to get rid of it all in her lifetime. Most of her whale themed nonsense had to do with them being mystical beings that can sense our positive energy and are thus able to understand our deepest feelings. I half expected the conversation to veer into crystals as energy portals or ancient astronauts, but she stuck mainly to the whale woo. How come you never hear about people going into the forest to commune with warthogs? It was all I could do to not roll my eyes at each increasingly bizarre statement. Maryanne was conversing with her quite ably. I later found out she was doing it primarily as source of entertainment for herself; watching me suffer and struggle to keep from saying anything.

Just before I was about to lose my ability to keep quiet, we happened upon a mother and calf that seemed content to stay put. They didn’t do much. They just kind of floated there, occasionally surfacing for a breath. They seemed not the least bit bothered by us as we inspected them like swimmers circling a big boat. We stayed with them for half an hour, looking at them while they looked at us and then reboarded the boat to Neiafu.

We were only underway for about ten minutes when we spotted an individual Humpback. We were in the water as soon as the boat stopped, but all I saw was a giant fluke disappearing into the murk. Aww, we lost another one! I surfaced to try and locate it and saw a dorsal fin coming our direction. Yay! It’s coming back! With my head back under the water, all I could see was a faint outline disappearing into the depths. I was spinning around in slow circles, hoping to see the whale again when I heard our guide yell, “Aw, shit!!”

I popped my head above the surface to see the top half of the whale and a whole lot of spray coming at us. It had just breached no more than ten meters away – about ¾ of a whale length. Maryanne got a better view. She had her head above the water and she actually saw most of the whale leave the water. I expected a big wave to follow and throw us back, but it got lost in the general sloppiness of the sea and never arrived. Close up breaches look cool, but they’re kinda dangerous, so we called time on that encounter and headed back to the boat.

More fun with Humpback Whales

No sooner had we pulled our fins off than we found another mother and calf. Mom seemed to be taking a nap down there at twenty meters, but her calf was having all kinds of fun doing front flips and backflips and rolls and all kinds of combinations thereof. Several times, the little guy (little = 8m) came to within an arm’s length of each of us and gave us a good look with its dinner plate-sized eye. It was amazing! – Better than even the two previous encounters combined. We were all beaming when we climbed out of the water for the ride back to Neiafu. Our companion was convinced that the whale was not dancing, but dancing back. She had sent a vibe that she wanted to dance. As Carl Sagan used to say, “Well,…maybe.”

{Maryanne: Tonga is one of the very few places in the world where it is legal to swim with whales. We consider ourselves very privileged to be able to experience this. However we found Tonga not nearly so professional nor respectful to the whales as we experienced with he operators in Niue. There was no instructions about the whales, how to interact with them, how to entering the water, etc. There was no general whale information provided, and no attention being paid to making sure the whales get some time out between groups of snorkellers. Tonga only allows swimming with the whales when with an approved operator. These operators must get a license and agree to abide by the rules, and we just didn't see much of that going on.. Very sad. Also Niue was less expensive, so if you ever have a choice between locations - I'd say go to Niue!}.

The day after, one of the local schools put on a big show for all of the boaters at the festival. We were told it was their biggest event of the year and they had been practicing a long time for it. It was pretty fun. Most of the kids were under ten years old. At that age, they have plenty of enthusiasm, but almost no rhythm, which is kind of adorable. One of my favorites was when the pre-schoolers sung a song about a family of sharks (Baby Shark). It taught them to run, run, run from hungry sharks, sharks, sharks. Also to be avoided in different verses are Papa Shark and Grandpa Shark. The tune was too catchy to forget. Things you’ve gotta know when you’re a kid in Tonga, eh? When I was a kid, all of the songs were about how we were not to depreciate non-taxable items brought forth from a previous tax year. Okay, not really.

After that, a little kid grabbed each of us and made us dance until we were exhausted and dripping with perspiration, then they took us into the Head Mistress’ house for The Spread. EACH kid’s family made a dish for us. There was more food than we could ever taste, much less eat. I decided not to try to diversify too much and just made sure I was no more than an arm’s length or two from the guy handing out watermelon.

We returned to Begonia for the short break before the evening’s party began and found that we had lost Maryanne’s wetsuit bottoms. We had hung them up to dry after the whale watch tour and now they were gone, presumably blown away by the wind. Her top was still there, as were both of my pieces. I swam around for over an hour to search for them, but the water was very cloudy and I never could find them.

We had other problems, too. Our Torqeedo electric motor for the dinghy had stopped working. The moorings by the town were all taken and we had ended up anchoring waaay on the other side of the bay. There was no way we could row that far and we were depending on it to get us back and forth. Without it, our choices were to sail or just skip everything.

The problem seemed to be either the on/off button or one of the cable connections. After doing a little diagnosing, we decided it was most likely the button. It had been playing up lately, working about one time in three, but now it was down to one in fifty and we were worried it would soon not work at all. The thing is, if we could get the thing to turn on, the motor worked fine. If we couldn’t, nothing would make it work. I found myself (almost) wishing we had a regular gasoline motor with fuel lines to bleed or a spark plug to clean to get it working again. An electron disappearing into the magic box, but not coming out again leaves fewer options for a field repair.

We got lucky, though. There was one other boat in the anchorage with the same Torqueedo we have. It is owned by a retired German electrical engineer named Ludger (of the boat Green Duck). He didn’t have a spare motor, but he had taken his apart and reassured us we could do the same without having to know how to re-solder a printed circuit board. We followed his instructions and took the thing apart. Inside, the control box looked pristine except for a little rust spot on the start button. Bingo!

The button couldn’t be taken apart any further, but we were able to douse it in electrical contact cleaning spray and it went back to working once every two or three times again. Much better. Thanks, Ludger!

By the time we got it all put back together and mounted on the dinghy, it was back to once every Blue Moon again. After a gazillion tries, we finally got it started for the upwind bash to the evening’s party. I figured I could row us back if necessary with the wind to help push us. At the party, Ludger said he had found an old control panel that he had fixed and offered to exchange it for ours if it worked any better.

It seems we never get to take anything apart just once. You can’t get to expert level by taking something apart once. Maryanne had the new one in and the old one out in no time. It is MUCH better. The failure rate is now about one in a hundred, which should tie us over until we can get a new replacement from the factory. Thanks again, Ludger. We tried our best to make sure he never paid for any of the beer he drank at the party.

Fixing things in exotic locations
Maryanne swaps out the motherboard on the Torqeedo

That night, a squall went through at about 2 a.m. I went outside to look at it. The wind was howling and it was raining every direction at once, even up. It was so heavy, I could not see the shore or any other boats. At times, I couldn’t even see our anchor float. We got a good fresh water rinse that night and filled several buckets with extra water. At about 9:00, the skies cleared and the wind disappeared altogether. The water was the clearest we had seen all week, so Maryanne decided to have another go at finding her wetsuit bottoms. She returned an hour later to announce she had found them. They were lounging on the sand in the shallow water before the beach. Apparently, they were on vacation.

Monday, October 01, 2018

First few days in Tonga (Vava'u Group)

[Kyle]After clearing in with Tongan customs and immigration, we had the usual list of things to do on arriving in a new country. What was nice was that this time, we didn’t have to waste half of our time figuring out where everything was, since we had been here a year before. After only a day ashore, we headed out of the city bustle of Neiafu to the nice, quiet anchorage at nearby Mala Island for a couple of days of snorkeling and solitude.

Familiar sights in Neiafu (main town of the Vava'u group, Tonga)
And Kyle could not resist a little more sailing.

I remembered Mala as being a pretty spot to watch the sunset, but having relatively uninteresting snorkeling. This year, we got to see all sorts of hard to find sea critters. We went out for a quick look the second day to see if we could find anything new and arrived back at Begonia six hours later. We were having so much fun, we hadn’t even noticed the time passing.

Once we were sufficiently rested and recovered at Mala, we headed back into Neiafu for the annual Blue Water Festival. Our modest registration price entitled us to admission in a whole week of different events. There were breakfasts, dinners, seminars, races, parties and shows to attend. First however we’d booked in for a Tongan Feast at the botanical gardens. There isn't much to do on a Sunday in Tonga as everyone closes for the day. The feast was it! While not especially Tonga, and with no actual access to the gardens - it was still nice to hear the history and hard work of the Botanical Gardens development from the founder (the first person in Tonga to have a degree), and we got to enjoy some beach time too!

Feast Day at the Botanical Gardens (Ene'io Beach)