Ha’apai Whale Watching

What a fluke!

Just having a whale of a time!

Tonga is an important breeding ground for humpback whales, which migrate from Antarctica to Tongan waters arriving June and leaving in November.  It’s one of the best places in the world to see these magnificent creatures.  They bear their calves in the calm reef protected waters, conceived 11 months earlier, and engage in elaborate mating rituals.  Two hundred years ago it was estimated that 7,000 humpbacks visited Tonga each year, and then whales began to be hunted.  It wasn’t until 1978 that whale hunting was banned in Tonga by royal decree, by which time only 3 females were to be seen in these waters.

Now the numbers are estimated to be 700, but recovery is slow, and unfortunately Tonga is coming under pressure to allow hunting to resume.  Hopefully she will continue to resist this.  It is interesting to note that Japan, which we believe is the only country in the world that continues to hunt whales, is amongst the 4 countries that provide finance to support Tonga….the others being China (which is believed to  receive turtle shell powder and dried sea cucumbers from Tonga), New Zealand and Australia.

The main whale watching centre is in Neiafu, Vava’u, where there are 14 operators.  In the Ha’apai there are only 3.

We went out for a day with Whale Discoveries, who operate from Uoleva in conjunction with the Serenity Resort.  David and Tristin and their two young children live on their large catamaran, and they also have a very smart looking rib.  They are Australian from the Perth area, and have worked professionally in the fish and whale tourist industry for many years.  We sailed north on their “cat”, a new and comfortable experience for us, and within an hour or so we were in an area where they expected to see whales, and we were not disappointed.

Whales are either “on passage” in which case you simply see them rising to the surface for air, and blowing, before resuming underwater, or a number of whales will stop to play, the maximum we saw was four at the same time.  Whilst we were in this shoal area there were 3 different families in the vicinity, and we had the chance to swim with a pair who crossed behind the catamaran.  A simply marvellous experience!

Underwater solo …

… and duet!

Something we had not expected was to hear whale song.  David has an underwater microphone, linked in to his sound system on board, which was then amplified and played in the cockpit.  Humpbacks are also known as singing whales because males sing during courtship routines.  The song lasts for between 12-15 minutes, with different regions having different song, for example Tongan whale song is different from that of Australia or Niue.  In addition, it is very complex, more so than an opera aria we understand.  At the end of the song, it is repeated in exactly the same format; the low notes can reach 185 decibels, and be heard for a distance of up to 100 kilometres.  We were so enthralled that we have a copy of the intricate song we heard.

It was a memorable day, and not only were David and Tristin very friendly and informative, they were also highly professional in their boat handling and whale watching.  See also our later blog Nusa Tenggara, about limited sperm and pilot whale hunting in Indonesia.

Our next opportunity came as we sailed south to Ha’afeva, an island some 18nm to the SW.  Our route took us around reefs, rocks and small islands, and also close to another shoal area where we found 4 whales playing.  Naturally, we diverted to watch them!   Our third excursion, again on Pipistrelle, was when we invited Ellen and Wolfgang from Abora to join us – another thrilling day.

From the anchorage at Uoleva Island we even watched pods swimming along outside the reef, and occasionally playing.  While we enjoyed sundowners, we were also treated to the most spectacular sunsets, with a backdrop of Tofua an active, and Kao, a passive volcano!

Smoking Tofua volcano

Backdrop for sundowners …

Humpbacks are known for their dramatic antics. They throw themselves completely out of the water, known as breaching; spy hop, or stand vertically upright above the water’s surface; barrel roll, splash the water with their long pectoral fins, and perform other remarkable acrobatic feats.  Especially the calves are playful and surface frequently.  Interestingly, mother and child are normally escorted by the mother’s next mate and he will either let them splash around or nudge them on further when he thinks playtime is over.  Here we show a selection of photos of their antics.

Spy hopping adult

A pectoral wave …

Making a splash!

Calf doing backward flip

Another fluke showing intricate pattern

All good things come to an end, and with our visas due to expire on 5th August, we planned to sail north to Vava’u to spend a night or two anchored off The Reef Resort, before heading west for Fiji.  Having checked out of Pangai, we had an overnight stop at the island of Ha’ano.  Danny and Yvonne, New Zealanders who we first met in Uoleva had arranged for a Tongan feast to be laid on for us, and with the 6 crew of a French yacht, we made our way to the village in the evening.  Here we found the residents are making an effort to improve their lot by providing entertainment and feasts for visitors to the resorts on neighbouring Foa Island, and for passing yotties.  The evening cost $40 Pa’anga each, about £13.00.  This in turn paid for electricity in the hall and the food, with the balance going to pay for other outgoings in the village.

We arrived to find the local “hall” arranged with a top table for us to sit at, laden with food.  Two men were playing Tongan music on guitar and ukulele, and soon afterwards we were asked to take our places.  We then enjoyed 40 minutes of Tongan dance routine, which was remarkably good bearing in mind we were being entertained in a remote village.  The feast was sumptuous – cold squid in a delicious sauce, various cold meats, vegetables and roast suckling pig, served on hollowed out banana stalks and washed down with coconut milk direct from the fruit.  They even provided us with a Tongan dessert wrapped in banana leaves!

Top table

Dancing girls – skirts made of ‘tapa’ (mulberry bark)

Solo performance!

Photogenic kids

The following morning we set sail at 05.45 for Vava’u, had an excellent beam reach, averaging 8 knots over the 64nm, arriving in the early afternoon.   Our Canadian friends Michael & Liliane on Meikyo were anchored off The Reef Resort, and we received a very warm welcome from them and from Josef and Renate.  Shortly afterwards Mike and Liliane left for Niue, and the French yacht from Ha’ano arrived, so more socialising and a superb farewell dinner before they flew back to Paris, and we prepared to sail to Fiji.

The Reef Resort

Once we were all set to leave, we found that a tropical convergence zone was forming near Fiji, and would be tracking east to Tonga and then on to Niue.  These weather systems bring with them heavy rain and strong winds, and the timing made it likely that we would feel its full effect as we were entering the islands of Fiji.  Consequently we delayed our departure for five days.

In the event, we had light following winds for the whole 400nm passage but we managed to sail until the wind eased as we began to weave our way through the easterly islands.  On the evening of the 2nd day we finally managed to catch a magnificent 18lb mahi mahi – our first since the passage to the Marquesas in April last year.  In fading light it was filleted, cut into steaks and frozen, enough to last a few weeks!


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