A Whale of a Time

Unbelievably another week has disappeared but it has been a week of excitement.

Mother with her one week old baby
Last Sunday we departed Uoleva Island where we had been for a few days and sailed south to the unpronounceable Uonukuhahaki Island. It apparently means East Lobster Island and yes there is a West Lobster Island, which is Uonukuhihifo. The two islands are joined by a sandbar. We spent a few days here flying the drone off the beach and managed to avoid the trees. We also snorkeled off the beach where there was some nice coral and lots of fish.

Uonukuhihifo Island and sand bar

We were the only boat anchored here, though we could see a catamaran anchored about a mile away next to Tofanga Island. At about 9pm on Monday evening we were engrossed watching “Game of Thrones” (our new addiction) on the laptop when we heard a boat named Kalea calling us on the VHF radio.  This was the catamaran we could see in the distance. They had been ashore for the evening on Tofanga island and whilst they were busy exploring, the tide had come in and their dinghy had floated off. Anyone who has spent anytime cruising would know that this is ones worst nightmare, particularly in a remote location like this. Your dinghy is your lifeline to the shore.

It was, thankfully, a fairly calm evening and one of them had swum back to Kalea and fetched a kayak and SUP, to get everyone off the beach and safely back on board. They then called us, as they thought the dinghy could be drifting towards us. We duly headed out with our searchlight torch to look for their dinghy. It was a full moon and a beautiful night and we puttered along in our little dinghy all the way up to their location but, unfortunately, found nothing. We suspect the dinghy had passed us sometime before they called. They were very grateful for our efforts and we heard them on the radio for a few days afterwards trying to see if anyone had found their dinghy, but it didn’t sound like it.

On Tuesday we headed back north again, sailing along at almost 7 knots for part of the way with just the headsail up, and anchored back near Ha’apai Beach Resort. We saw quite a few whales in the distance on the way back north, with one of them doing endless tail slapping. We also had a brief glimpse of a couple of spinner dolphins though they didn’t hang around. In the afternoon we went ashore to the resort to drop off our laundry and finalise arrangements for our swim with the whales the next day.



At anchor behind the reef, Ha'apai Beach Resort

Wednesday (1st August) was the highlight of our trip. Rich (Skipper) and Jess (Whale swim guide) picked us up from X-Pat at 0830 and we headed out on a beautifully calm and still day. We picked a fantastic day for it, further enhanced by the fact that we were the only guests on the trip and so had our own private tour, amazingly lucky judging by the usually full boats we have seen going about!

We had probably been out for about an hour when we spotted a blow in the distance and headed over to find a mother and baby humpback whale just chilling out on the surface. Whilst the adults can hold their breaths for up to forty minutes, the young ones can only manage four minutes and so need to stay near the surface. With our snorkels, mask and fins on, we positioned ourselves on the edge of the boat ready to slip into the water on instruction from Rich. Then suddenly there we were in the water, face to face with a female humpback whale and her baby, only 10m away. The baby was quite pale in colouring and Jess said this was indicative that it was probably less than a week old. After a minute or so, they gracefully swam away from us and we returned to the boat. Rich then slowly followed the whales at a distance watching the mother’s behaviour and when he was happy that she didn’t feel threatened by our presence we slipped into the water again. In total we had four swims with the mother and baby and each time they seemed to get more comfortable with our presence. It is difficult to put into words how wonderful it feels to be in the water with such a large marine creature and yet feel totally safe, unthreatened and peaceful. Just stunning.



After just over an hour we left the mother and baby in peace and headed off to see what else we could find. It really is a bit of a lottery trying to spot the whales. Sometimes they can be a few miles away and by the time you get there they seem to have dived and disappeared. This sort of happened with the next sighting. Jess spotted the blow and we headed off, but when we arrived we could see nothing. We just sat with the engine on tick over scanning the horizon to see what else we could spot when suddenly a very inquisitive female humpback surfaced within a metre of the back of the boat. Rich who was sitting at the back almost needed a new pair of shorts!

Close encounter

Inquisitive female

Rich encouraged us to get all our gear on quickly and get ready to go. We were pretty sure that when he said go the whale was directly underneath us. When we jumped in, sure enough there she was just gliding past underneath us. We thought she may just dive straight away but instead she turned and came right back up to the surface, watching us as she did so and then slowly swam away. The water is so clear here that the views are just phenomenal.

With two fantastic encounters already under our belts we headed for a nearby reef where we anchored for lunch and had a quick snorkel around the reef. Then it was off again to see if we could find one more whale before returning to shore. This seemed to take ages and we were beginning to make noises about having been really lucky already, when Rich spotted a blow way off in the distance.

To begin with we thought that another boat was heading towards the same spot but that turned out not to be the case. As we got closer it became clear that this was more than one whale. In fact there seemed to be a lot of activity with whales chasing each other, blowing lots of bubbles and the occasional half broach.  They were traveling at a reasonable pace and so we followed along at a safe distance.

What we were witnessing was what is known as a “heat run”. A female had at some point before we arrived on the scene, indicated that she was ready to mate by slapping her pectoral fin on the water.  As the males approach she swims off and the males, in our case, four of them, follow in pursuit. As they follow they compete with each other trying to knock the others out of the way or blow bubbles underwater to try to confuse and disorientate the competition. We followed them for about twenty minutes and the turmoil in the water was just phenomenal, with splashing and bubbles and the occasional roar from one of the males.


Heat run chaos


After about twenty minutes Jess suggested we should try to get in the water with them! This didn’t seem like the brightest idea to us novices but is apparently completely safe. Rich positioned the boat and we jumped in beside them. It was a brief encounter but we did witness one of the males blowing bubbles as he swam under us.

Jostling for position during the heat run

It is apparently very unusual to witness a heat run and we felt truly privileged to have such fantastic encounters with these wonderful creatures. We returned to X-Pat for an afternoon of reviewing photos and video of our encounters. They don’t really do the experience justice, but are great memory joggers for us. In the evening we headed into the resort to swap whale tales and photos and feast on pizza and plantain chips again. A good day!

In contrast to our day with the whales, Thursday was not very nice, with the wind turning west and the sea getting quite choppy. We decided to have a day at anchor and Pat did some maintenance to the teak decks, which was long overdue.

Things calmed down on Friday and we headed into Pangai in the dinghy to get some provisions. This was reasonably successful and Debi managed to get most of what she had on her list. Provisioning here in Ha’apai is not as straightforward as in Vava’u and the choice is often limited. We had intended to have brunch in the Mariner’s CafĂ© but it was closed and so we returned to X-Pat for banana pancakes and coffee.

With all the provisions stowed and the crew full of pancakes we headed north again back to Foa and the Sandy Beach resort. We anchored in nice still waters and Pat decided to go over the side with his new DivePro dive system and clean the bottom of X-Pat. The antifouling, which was done in May, seems to be working well and it was easy to just wipe the small amount of slime off with a sponge.

We had been at anchor for a few hours when we got a call from Rich the resort manager, reminding us that they had a Tongan feast and cultural show on in the evening. That all seemed like a good idea and so we duly booked a spot and headed in.

We arrived to find that the resort seemed to be full with a group of ocean swimmers from Cronulla, just south of Sydney, having just arrived! They were very friendly as were the couple from Texas and the couple from Milan who shared our table.  We had a lovely evening with great food and a very good cultural show put on by youngsters from the local school.

Today the wind has gone west again and it is horribly bouncy in the anchorage.  Debi has been contemplating taking seasickness tablets it is so bad.  Unfortunately there are very few anchorages in Ha’apai, which provide shelter from the west so we are just going to sit it out for now.

With our whale watching complete, thoughts are beginning to turn to leaving Tonga and heading back to New Zealand. Pat has started the passage plan and the paperwork for re-entering New Zealand and we have been back in touch with Roger Badham, our meteorologist to help us identify a weather window. At present it looks like it may be in about a week, but as we have seen before that could change!




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