Some visual impressions of Tonga

Tonga has been a lovely home for us over the last two and a half months but now it’s time to say goodbye. We’re heading even further south, first to another submerged atoll called Minerva Reef, then onto New Zealand. We’ll probably be at sea for at least two weeks but we’ll use the new blog feature to make posts during that time via the satellite phone. If you don’t hear from us in the next couple of weeks, it’s probably because that new feature isn’t working properly. But then again, it may be because the boat has sunk and we’re drifting around the Pacific in a bright orange floating bouncy castle.

They say “a picture tells a thousand words”. So before we go, I thought I’d leave you with some visual impressions of Tonga from the many photos I’ve taken over the past few months.

Vava’u Island Group

We spent over 2 months enjoying the Vava’u islands. They are a collection of one large island and many smaller ones in the northern part of Tonga. Polynesian legend explains that the islands were created by the god ‘Maui’ who used his magical hook to fish the islands from the depths of the ocean. The reality is just as cool – the islands are raised atolls formed through tectonic forces which have sculpted the Earth’s landscape to elevate land above sea level along the Tongan Trench.

Neiafu

The administrative capital of Vava’u is called Neiafu and it’s also the second largest town in the whole of Tonga. Here we were able to enjoy a number of shops, boutiques, bars, restaurants and a large produce market. There’s even a fine meats deli and of course we can’t forget about the infamous ‘Tropicana’ internet cafe, which provides a whole host of yacht services, but best of all is owned and run by Hugh Laurie.

It’s really him!….. Isn’t it?

Village life

A number of small rustic villages lie around the various islands of Vava’u, each with their own distinctive character. As with many of the islands throughout Polynesia, religion is taken very seriously and every community gathers for the Sunday morning church service.

Blue Water Festival

Each year various companies in New Zealand and local businesses in Tonga fund the ‘Blue Water Festival’. This amazing festival is all about having fun with fellow sailors, exploring the local cultures and learning about how to make a safe passage to New Zealand.

  1. The Race

We teamed up with fellow cruisers Rick and Jasna from s/v Calypso for the annual Blue Water Festival regatta in which we raced their beautiful, but rather heavy, 36-foot Hans Christian cutter. As expected, we weren’t very fast and despite being given a 2 minute head-start, most of the other boats overtook us rather quickly. Still, we had a very special tactic to discourage the other boats from overtaking us by attempting to blind them with the white glare from our… ehem… posteriors. We didn’t win the race, but we did win $100 worth of vouchers for the ‘most naked’ crew 🙂 You might not want to look too closely at the next photo. 

2. The School Show

Part of the local cultural experience was a trip to the local school to see a dance performance by the children. The costumes were as vibrant as the dancing and they even got the audience involved. It was great fun.

3. Kava

Also part of the local culture is an intoxicating drink made from the ground roots of the kava plant. The drink is supposed to have sedative, anesthetic, euphoriant and entheogenic properties but despite making kava at twice the recommended strength, we experienced nothing but a slightly numb tongue.  No amount of photo editing can make this drink look appetising and believe me, it tastes even worse than it looks.

Wildlife

The wildlife in Tonga is really impressive, particularly in Vava’u. The sprightly insular flying fox (aka fruit bat) is highly abundant in this part of the world and can often be seen languishing in the tree branches or flying overhead in the late afternoon.

 

Maninita is one of the islands in the south of Vava’u and is one of few places where the invasive Pacific rat has been completely eradicated. It’s now a haven for breeding sea birds. The abundance and diversity of species at this newly acclaimed bird reserve is really wonderful to see.

Mount Talau National Park

The highest point in Vava’u and the most spectacular views can be found at the top of Mount Talau. Alex and I took the short hike to reach the peak of the mountain – although I’m not sure that 669 feet can really be classed as a mountain! Still, we took great pleasure in walking through the rural villages, immersing ourselves in the tropical flora and fauna of the national park and enjoying the magnificent views of Neiafu from the summit of Mt Talau.

Diving

The diving here is spectacular. I’m recording more diversity on my fish surveys than ever before and I’m seeing soft corals and fan corals in reasonable numbers for the first time on this trip. The underwater caves here are magical. The colours created by the lighting in Mariners Cave and Swallows Cave are really stunning.

Ha’apai

We made our way south to the Ha’apai island group in central Tonga where we spent about a week. It’s the quietest and least developed area of Tonga and is brimming with unspoilt coastline and diverse turquoise waters.

Happy Halloween in Tongatapu

Our final destination in Tonga is the island group known as Tongatapu, home to the main capital of Nukualofa. This is the most developed part of Tonga but although there are many shops here it is by no means a metropolis. The town centre is vibrant and busy, but there’s a lack of chain superstores and the place has a very rustic feel to it. It’s very different from London, Paris, Madrid and other capital cities that we’re more familiar with. It’s the perfect place to stock up for the long sea passage to New Zealand and also to find some hidden treats such as Camembert and baguette – which I enjoyed all to myself as a birthday breakfast on the 1st of November. The weather was misreble, I made pumpkin soup out of the Halloween jack o lantern from the night before and we even had some boat trick or treaters! All in all it was a great birthday that reminded me a little of home.

Beveridge Reef and the ecology of the Pacific

The next landfall for us after Palmerston is a small self-governing island called Niue, however, this was not the next place we set anchor! En route to Niue is a little submerged atoll with no land at all known as Beveridge Reef. This atoll is very similar to the Tuamotus in structure and formation – with an external reef, a lagoon in the centre and a pass to allow us to enter…………… just no land. At all. Not even a rock poking its head above the surface. This didn’t deter us in the slightest however, and as the inside of the atoll contained a convenient sandy shelf only 11 feet deep, we decided it was a perfect place to anchor. Alex was keen to see what it felt like to be anchored in the middle of the ocean and I was keen to do fish and coral surveys in a part of the world with minimal human interference. I had a little bit of trepidation about surveying this particular reef as the sharks have a reputation of being somewhat aggressive and dangerous. The atoll is home to an abundance of gray reef sharks and one of the recorded attacks in the ‘official world shark attack register’ is from this particular reef. In fact, one of our good friends (Josh from s/v Maistral) was anchored near us and had a close encounter one afternoon when he was out spear fishing. After catching a small jack an inquisitive shark came up to him, mouth wide open and attempted a number of times to steal his well earned fish. After seeing the sharks teeth more times than he cared for, Josh decided to forfeit his fish to the shark in the hope that it would then leave him alone. Big mistake! The shark instantly gobbled the fish up and in the process attracted two more even larger sharks. All three sharks then started to aggressively circle around Josh less than 30cm from him, touching their bodies against his. As if that wasn’t scary enough, he was all by himself and his boat was a good 50m swim away! Despite punching the shark’s faces a few times and jabbing them with his spear they still persisted next to him until he was only 10 feet from his boat. Luckily he made it with no loss of life or limbs! Note to self – no spear fishing in isolated reefs! The sharks don’t appear to have developed any fear of humans at all.

Beveridge Reef – you can see the sandy shelf and breakers from the barrier reef, but no land.

Since the very beginning of our voyage I’ve been trying my best to do species and abundance surveys for the fish that occupy the reefs in the islands of the Pacific and also do coral bleaching assessments to evaluate the health of the reefs. As an ecologist I wanted to use this voyage as a means of diversifying my knowledge and to learn more about marine ecology. Not only does it keep me active, but it’s a good way to develop my own skills and who knows, maybe those skills will come in handy one day when looking for work. The main thing is that it’s contributing to conservation and improving data about an area of the world that’s seldom surveyed – and, of course, I absolutely love doing it.

Me using the coral colour chart for the coral bleaching survey

I didn’t want to let Josh’s experience put me off doing my survey at Beveridge. I had been looking forward to it for months and as I wasn’t planning on spear fishing I thought it probably wouldn’t be a problem. Besides, I took Alex with me as my own personal body guard.  After two surveys, one in the shallows near the barrier reef and another in the 40 foot deep lagoon with scattered coral heads, it became clear that there were a lot of gray reef sharks and not a whole lot of large reef fish for them to eat. Many of the fish appeared to be juveniles and any fully grown adults were usually small by nature, so not a whole lot of prey available and perhaps this explains their desperation for Josh’s fish! I got my surveys done without any harm, although we counted over 10 grey reef sharks during our scuba dive and many were very inquisitive. Although they never acted aggressively towards us, many came much closer than I was comfortable with. Luckily Alex was always right next to me keeping a beady eye on them ready to jump to my defence if needed – my hero!

Ready for my scuba survey at Beveridge Reef

Alex chasing off the gray reef sharks

I don’t want to give the wrong impression about sharks. While the ones at Beveridge were unusually inquisitive and even aggressive towards our spear-fishing friend, we have swum with literally hundreds of sharks, perhaps a thousand, and have never once experienced overly aggressive behaviour ourselves. With very few exceptions every shark attack on record is a case of mistaken identity (eg. The propeller of our dinghy – see earlier post from Nuku Hiva, Marquesas) or are associated with humans putting large amounts of blood into the water through fishing activity. Sharks are a beautiful and exciting feature whenever they are encountered on a dive or snorkel, and their presence is an excellent indicator of a healthy reef ecosystem. The reefs of the tropical Pacific are some of the most healthy and diverse in the world. The fish and others creatures we encounter are numerous, colourful and diverse – the variety of life is just amazing and the species so unusual it’s like being on an alien planet. Snorkelling and diving around coral reefs is an absolutely fabulous experience that’s not to be missed.

I’ve added a few extra pages to the website which might be useful to other cruisers wanting to see what fish they are encountering as they explore their local coral reefs. I’ve collated my photo collection and created a small fish ID guide which I will continue to add to as we progress through our voyage which you can see here. I would highly recommend doing a structured survey of the reef when out snorkelling or scuba diving. They’re a lot of fun, very easy to do and you can learn a great deal about the reef habitat and the weird and wonderful species living within it. The data can then be submitted to conservation organisations where it can be used to benefit the environment. If you’re interested in learning how to do this, see here for instructions on how to do fish surveys and here for instructions on how to do coral bleaching assessments.

On a slightly separate note, even though we were in the middle of the Pacific anchored at an atoll with no land we still managed to celebrate YORKSHIRE DAY on the 1st of August. Hope the rest of you Yorkies didn’t forget!