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Vava'u: Having a Whale of a time

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

swimming whales Tonga
Swimming with whales is an incredible experience

We were apprehensive about the sail from Samoa to Tonga. We would be heading south, not west, with the wind forward of the beam. Matt and Amy (from our favourite Youtube channel 'Sailing Florence') had done no filming on this leg as they had both felt too sick. Friends, who did it one week before us, described it as a 'horrible passage'. Consequently, we looked hard for a suitable weather window. Our criteria were; waves less than 3m, no gusts above 30 knots, CAPE below 1000 and a wind angle to allow close reaching, not close-hauled. Fortunately, it should only be a one ( to Niuatoputapu, the first island) or two (to the Vava'u island groups) day sail.

I ran forecasts for the week before we wanted to go. No window. By the end of August we had been in Samoa for over two weeks and were ready to leave, save for a festival the following Sunday. For the first 10 days of September we could only see one possibility: to leave on September 1st. Otherwise, the forecasts suggested we would be there for at least another week. So we took the plunge, missed the Samoan National Festival and left with SV Kumo and SV Mai Tai.

The winds were remarkably consistent, blowing 20-25 knots, and we were close-reaching with three reefs and half a genoa. Despite being purposely undercanvassed, Skyfall flew along and we averaged over seven knots. The passage was more or less OK. Neither of us was sick and, as the wind eased and moved around aft of the beam on the second day, I even started to enjoy it. We arrived in Vava'u at first light after a (slightly less than) two day passage

anchorage neiafu Vava'u
The mooring field off Neiafu, Vava'u

Neiafu, Vava'u is a really protected anchorage among a maze of islands and inlets. The islands were reefs, just below sea level, and then movement in the tectonic plates raised them to become islands. Consequently, the rock is limestone and they are all approximately the same height. Limestone is easily eroded so cliffs are undercut and there are many caves to explore.

Swallows cave is passed on most routes around the islands and is therefore very popular. It is accessible for swimmers or even in a dinghy. It is best to visit in the late afternoon as the cave faces south west and the stalectites are better illuminated.

Swallow's Cave Vavau Tonga
Swallows Cave, Vava'u (photo courtesy of Joaquin, SV PlanB)

Mariners cave is more of a challenge. The entrance is 2-3m underwater and you have to swim 4-5m horizontally into darkness, trusting that you will find air when you surface at the other end. It is probably equivalent to diving under a catamaran from one side to the other. But once inside, the view looking out really gives you a sense of achievement.

Mariners cave Vava'u Tonga
Looking seaward from inside Mariners Cave

Years ago, Moorings (and others) tried to make this a charter holiday destination. Trade wind sailing but on flat waters behind the islands. Unfortunately there are still rocks and reefs and enough charter skippers came to grief to make the operation uneconomic and the charter industry has largely disappeared (Sunsail now have two cats operating here). However, Neiafu is still a cruising hub in September as yachts congregate ready for the sail to Fiji, Australia or New Zealand.. The Ocean Cruising Club (OCC) organised an impromptu dinner in Vava'u and around 20 boats were represented. We already knew almost half and, by the end of the evening, most of the others. It was great to catch up with people we had not seen for weeks and months and share stories of each others travels.

OCC dinner 2023 Neiafu Samoa Skyfall
SV Skyfall relaxing at the OCC dinner (photo courtesy of Susan SV Seawind)

There are over 40 anchorages within the group and we had no chance to visit all of them in the three weeks we had budgeted to stay in Vava'u. Fortunately, there are a number of good guides (e.g. A cruising guide to Tonga) to help you select where to stop. Each anchorage is numbered, making it easier to relate where we went.

Anchorage #16 is sheltered by Vaka'eitu island and is the loction for a 'Tongan Feast' every Saturday night through September. A local family prepare the feast, including roasting a pig on a spit. The meal is followed by music and dance, performed by the family.

Pig roast spit Tongan Feast vava'u
Pig(let) roasting on a spit at a Tongan feast

The following morning we attended church on the neighbouring island of Lape. The church is set up to serve around four extended families - around 30 people. Attendance is 100% and this is the same throughout Tonga. After the service the whole congregation share Sunday dinner: traditional food cooked in an umu (hole in the ground filled with hot stones, food and then covered). Everyone wears their Sunday best which usually includes one garment woven from the leaves of the Pandanus plant. this is true for both male and female.

Sunday best church Tonga weaving pandanus
Sunday best. Note the garment woven from leaves of the pandanus plant

The 'Coral garden' is also close to #16 and boasted some of the best coral that we have seen since the Tuamotos. We saw black tip sharks and many fish

coral gardens  Vava'u
Coral gardens close to anchorage #16 had the best coral we had seen for a while

Anchorage #10 is very sheltered and a good choice when strong winds are forecast. It is also a short dinghy ride from the 'Japanese Gardens'. The name comes from the coral, which resembles Bonsai trees.

Japanese gardens #16 Vava'u bonsai
Japanese gardens (close to anchorage #10) have coral which resembles Bonsai trees

As we sailed between anchorages in Vava'u we had several encounters with whales. Humpbacks travel north to breed and give birth as calves cannot survive the cold of the Antarctic. There are literally thousands of them in Tongan waters. The area is famous for guided 'Swimming with whales' trips.

When on the move, whales travel quite quickly and it would be impossible to follow them snorkelling. However, the whales also need to stop and rest. The experienced Tongan guides can recognise when the whales are preparing to rest, or move off based on how they dive, etc. So the spotters do not just locate the whales, but identify which ones should stop to rest in the near future. The whales are then followed at a distance until they do. This can take an hour or more. At this point the guide swims over to the whales (who are resting 20m below the surface) to verify they are more or less stationary. If confirmed, up to four swimmers can enter the water and join him.

The adult Humpbacks can rest for up to twenty minutes before needing to come up for air. However, the young calves surface much more frequently, perhaps every five minutes.

Whale calf surfacing air Tonga Vava'u
Whale calf surfacing for air

As the calf comes up, the guide starts to slowly roll in the water (without splashing) in an attempt to attract the calf. Adolescent curiosity takes over and it is possible to have extremely close interactions with these amazing creatures. Then, as mother decides to come up, the guide signals to back off a little to allow this giant enough space. The calf will quickly return to mother and dive again once mum is ready to dive (top picture). Videos from our day swimming with whales will appear, in due course, on our '2023 Tonga' page. We really have been having a 'whale of a time'!

We need to be in the capital, Nuke'alofa, at the end of the month to start our preparations for the last passage of 2023 to New Zealand. However, there is still time to explore more anchorages here and in the Ha' apai island group, which is in the 'middle' of Tonga. More of that in the next blog post.

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