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.

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