Saturday 29 August 2015

Terrific Tonga

Meg exiting Mariners Cave, Tonga

Saturday August 29th 2015

The MOST unforgettable moment, in a year filled with unforgettable moments!

Ok so, I am just going to BURST if I don’t tell you:  We did it!  We went swimming with whales !  What an exciting day today was !  We started the day bright and early, filled with anticipation and more than a little bit worried that we might not get to experience a swim at all, as there are no guarantees and no refunds! The company we went with (Whales in the wild) will not chase whales and will not jeopardize your safety or that of the whales. They take us near the whales, if they can see any and then they assess if it is safe to enter the water. If it is, it is only with a guide and only 4 people are allowed at once. We were hoping for at least ONE chance to swim with them to help us to  justify the expense. Boy were we in for a surprise !

We did not get to swim once with the whales...we got to swim with them four times !!!!  Including two unforgettable moments with a mother a her calf !  Oh, my my my my my, how do I express in words what that was like ? 

Photo courtesy of Whales in the Wild

First: You see the blow, you see the calf (who, as it turns out, was 7 weeks old approximately), jumping out of the water, you see the mom playing with him and you know, that in a few minutes, you *might* be able to see them underwater !  You fumble with your camera, you quickly grab your mask, throw on your fins and wait for the guide (who is already in the water) to give you the signal. He raises his hand, you jump in, the visibility is good, the water, very blue !  The first thing you see are the white edges on the long pectoral fins, next thing you know they are right in front of you, they are all you can see, mother and child are about 15 feet below you. Mom is perfectly still, baby is hanging out under her head and he looks so small in comparison to her, but they are as one, mom’s head is resting on baby’s head, they are not swimming, just hanging, like if suspended in midair, no motion. Then junior starts to get frisky; he pops his head from under his mom, he looks up at you, he needs a breath, so he comes up, gets a breath. Mom stays where she is, she is relaxed and confident, they have seen many of us today: the colourful and strange flipper-footed creatures. They know we are harmless. After his breath, junior decides to investigate us, he swims right for us, everyone has their camera solidly focussed on him, he gets closer, closer and you think, Whoa ! Is this kid going to stop, or what ?!  He is fearless and you realise that he is actually HUGE!  At least the size of our Volvo back home. He doesn’t look so small when he gets so close, we back away, but he is not being aggressive, only curious. The guide, who is right beside us, tells us not to move. Junior keeps coming and at the last second,he turns, a mere foot or two in front of us the most EPIC adrenaline rush ! I did not expect we were going to be THAT close! (Had I put my hand out, I could have rubbed his belly!) Our hearts are beating wildly, he goes back to his mom, has a drink of milk, and you start to breathe again. That was AMAZING! And then, he does it all over again, and then again !  Our cup runneth over !  When Mom finally needs to take her breath (she can stay underwater for 30 minutes or more), they both come up, as the two separate, they looks perfect like art, like a mesmerizing blue carving of mother and calf or something you would see in a painting, their bodies arch away from each other, they are beautiful, absolutely beautiful. I feel like crying. Oh, and my camera isn’t working, but who cares ??!   They surface about 10 feet in front of where we are floating, we pop our heads out to watch them, they both blow, one after the other, powerful stuff, and mom is simply ENORMOUS, like, GIGANTIC, but no one is scared, at least, I’m not, she is not threatening, not in the least, they are the most relaxed and comfortable looking animals, everything is slow and chill with them !

Meg and her group swimming with the playful calf
Baby coming back down to mom 

This whale was completely still, 'chilling' under water

Fuzzy picture taken with a dying GoPro. The has left its mother, and is coming up to see us

Was it worth the expense ?  No question !  We spent the day surrounded with whales. Sometimes a lone adult, sometimes two adults, and sometimes, and most memorable, with this mother and her calf. By the time we returned to the dock, at 4:00 pm, no one could have asked for more. Well maybe a hot chocolate as we were all a wee bit cold, but otherwise it was a perfect day which no one could ever forget. 

Meg and MC are all smiles after their day with the whales
The Painting MC bought at the Ark Gallery

Crossing the International Date Line, much earlier than expected !

We left Niue on Tuesday August 18th (receiving a last farewell wave from the whales as we were leaving the anchorage!) It was only a two day trip but we arrived in Tonga on Friday August 21. Thing is; we thought it was Thursday the 20th but it turns out that the International Date Line came sooner than we anticipated, as Tonga has adjusted the line to curve Eastward around their islands. Crossing the Date Line from East to West means that you loose a day. We did not experience Thursday Aug 20th 2015, it never happened in our lives ! Once we cleared in, there was hardly any time to rest and visit the town for re-provisioning. mWe had to rush out to a nearby anchorage  (a few n.miles away) to join our friends who had booked a traditional Tongan feast and village tour for, you guessed it, FRIDAY ! We had to move quickly ! 

Tonga village tour and feast on Lapa Island:

We toured the tiny village on Lapa Island, saw how traditional tapas are weaved (they are used as funeral wraps) and visited the school. The evening feast was very good served ‘buffet style’ on banana tree stems (like open ended curved bowls), the roasted pig was most appreciated by everyone I think. 

The village on Lapa Island 

The large handmade funeral wrap (tapa)

Mark and Matthew enjoying the Tongan Feast -Note the banana tree plates

The pig roast

A "tree house" we found during one of our walk.

MC and Meghan went back a few day later to do a puppet show for the 6 students of the school. Then our friends from sv Tinkerbell (a Dutch family), did an origami demonstration which was also most appreciated by the kids. The students then delighted us with their talents as they sang 5-6 songs in english and then presented us with papayas as a thank you gift.

The school kids playing with the puppets after the show

This boy recited a song for us

The class performs "Five Little Monkeys" for us

This cute little friend was waiting just outside the classroom on Lapa Island

Underwater Caves ! Our ‘always fun’  friends on SV MissBehaving  took on the entire crew of SV Amelie, Perry, Seabbatical AND Georgia  onboard their boat and took us to see some fantastic caves that we could snorkel into. First was Mariner’s Cave, where one has to dive underwater in order to access the closed chamber-like cave under the island. Mark and Meghan went in without a moments’ hesitation, while MC and Mathew stayed outside the cave and enjoyed the fish all around us. For MC, it was mostly a physical challenge  (Turns out she is VERY buoyant!) but in truth, it was also a wee bit of a psychological challenge. Mark and Meg came back telling us of a very unique experience: once they surfaced into the cave, and since it is all sealed (but has a very high ceiling), every time a wave pushed and changed the water level in the cave, the air pressure changed and this created an instant fog, which would then dissipate away after a few seconds, this also meant that  they constantly had to equalize  their ear pressure while they were in there !

The second cave, called Swallow Cave, had a very high and enchanted looking entrance, which did not require any diving, so Mark, Meghan AND MC all got to go in that one (Matthew was cold by this point and wrapped in towels all snug onboard sv MissBehaving). What was cool about this cave were the thousands of fish that circled the bottom. I think that this is the same fish that they cast in Finding Nemo-the ones who all move in the same direction to create images.  Also in Swallow Cave, the majestic looking walls were covered in ‘graffiti’: people having been immortalized by writing their names on them. The oldest one found (by sv Georgia) was carved in the 1800s. 

Captain on board SV MissBehaving after a cave dive

The entrance to Swallows Cave

Visiting an ARK gallery and rocking out with a goatTonga is a lovely place to cruise around in, we can see why so many Aussies and Kiwis come here to charter boats !  The islands are so close together providing us with many sheltered anchorages and easy day sails.

 In one such anchorage (simply referred to as Anchorage #11), we saw a neat little house boat, decorated and painted blue. This was the “Ark Gallery” and home of the artist Sheri and her husband Larry  who sailed here from the USA 15 odd years ago. In this quaint little gallery I fell in love with a painting, of a whale, framed in local vegetation. It is now hanging over our nav. station on board Amelie. 

The Ark Gallery in Anchorage #11

Later that same night, Mark and I decide to go for a rare 'date night'. Meg and Matthew stayed on board and we headed to the nearby spanish restaurant called: La Paella (of course!). As we walked up the stone steps from the beach, we were greeted by a couple of sheep and then quickly entered. The restaurant is housed in a humble abode but overflowing with character. The kitchen has an open fire and some of the kitchen equipment looked like they had been around for a couple of centuries!  We met Maria and the rest of the kitchen crew as we sat down and read the description and the history behind the meal we were about to enjoy. And did we EVER enjoy it !  Every couple of minutes Maria would show up with these tiny plates with various delicious appetizers which could only be described as “pure morsels of heaven”, food like this, we had not eaten in a long long time. Some of the other guests we met that night told us that they had never eaten such good spanish food, and these people live in Spain! After savoring every bite of our meal, with a bottle of red wine we had brought with us, we thought the night could not get any better. Turns out we were wrong!

The curtains which had, until then, been covering up a mysterious stage, were opened and the scene was set ! Two stools, carved out of thick wood, a wooden chest and a large drift wood branch which was laid down in front. The musicians took their seats. The guitarist, barefoot and sporting a long white beard, sat on the far end stool. Hunched down, he rested one of his unshod feet on the branch as he began to play the Blues, the second man, only slightly younger than his bandmate; sat on the chest:  cradling a harmonica in both hands, like if he was holding a little bird, a cigarette burning between two of his fingers, he joined in. The percussionist, (a middle aged Kiwi) sat on the stool at the back and kept time. It was surreal! I am convinced that the guitar player didn’t speak English and the “lyrics” that came out of his mouth were truly great completely non sensical, and just a jumble of syllables patched together,  but truly great the music was wonderful, truer Blues players you would be hard pressed to find. You could NOT wipe the smile from Mark and my face!  When the goat, (a wild goat who roamed into the restaurant and tried to “butt heads” with most of the guests throughout the meal) sat down beside the harmonica player, the tableau was complete !  The only regret of the evening: That I had not brought my camera with me to capture the scene and to share it with you all !  I am not making this stuff up! Can you tell we are enjoying Tonga ??! 

Up Next : We had to say a fond farewell to our friends from Seabbatical and MissBeahing (who have been with us since the Galapagos) and Tinkerbell whom we met in French Polynesia. They are headed back to Australia, via Fiji, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia so we will not be seeing them. We will be in Tonga for another week or so before we also need to be heading off to Fiji to meet up with Nat, a great friend, joining us from Canada !


Meghan On Amelie (Written in August 2015)


For most of you right now, today for us is yesterday for you because we have crossed the International Date Line (actually, technically speaking, we haven't actually crossed the line yet but Tonga is considered past the line).

There are many groups of islands in Tonga but we chose to focus on only one: the Vava'u group (which is kind of like the Gulf Islands).  On our very first night, we went to anchor in front of a little island called Lape island (our friends had organized a traditional Tongan feast at the local village).  It turns out that that village was the smallest town in Tonga with five families living there.  It was a very beautiful town with no cars and where the houses had palm tree leaved roofs.  Then, the feast that night was incredible!  It was all freshly picked crops right off the island or meat roasted right over an open fire (no seriously, they had an entire pig laying out on the buffet table, it was so cool) and the best part was, our plates were made out of banana tree trunks!  It was after the meals we had had in Palmerston and then this Tongan feast that I decided that the best food in the world doesn't need to come from an expensive, fancy restaurant at all.

About a week after the feast, we went back to that town to do a puppet show for the local school.  This time, the entire school was there and there were still only six kids and they were all very young ones (from ages five to about ten at the most). Also, the kids were just learning English so I don't think they understood much from the puppet show but just the puppets definitely put smiles on their faces.  After our show, our other cruising friends did an origami demonstration for the kids which they really enjoyed.  Then, there was a surprise at the end and the kids sang and danced to some songs (in English) which included: "Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed", "If you're Happy and you Know It", and many other counting and alphabet learning songs.  At the end, they gave us three papayas to thank us for the shows! 

You always hear about one room schools in the old in days, well, they are still around in some places!  Even though it was small, we could tell by all the good quality posters and supplies all around the room that the children were going to learn just as much as any other kid in any other school (or even more). 

As well as visiting towns, we have also been on great water adventures here in Tonga.  One day, we all hopped on board our friends SV Miss Behaving and we all went together to some snorkelling caves.  The first one was a hollow opening under an island that to get to, you had swim underwater for about fifteen seconds.  Most of us were able to do it and once you got inside it was a phenomena of nature.  The cave was about a hundred feet tall but because of the pressure inside, sometimes it would fog up completely (and then your ears would pop) and then a few seconds later, the pressure would go down again and you could see clearly!

The second cave didn't involve swimming underwater for a long time but it had thousands and thousands of fish!  In the movie "Finding Nemo", at one point, Marlin and Dori meet this giant school of little tiny fish and that's exactly what it was like in the cave!

Then, about a week after the cave adventures, my mom and I went on a tour to swim with humpback whales!  For those of you going to Tonga who want to swim with whales, I highly recommend going with the company Whales in the Wild because they know exactly when it is safe to swim with the whales and when it is not, they will try their best to let you swim with the whales without having to wait for another company to leave and they will get you as close as you can possibly get to the whales (see my mom's last blog, right before mine, to see some pictures of the whales)  

We swam with three different groups of whales.  The first time, it was one adult, the second time, it was two adults, and the third time was with a mother and a calf!  It just got better and better every swim we did!  The best part was when the baby (who just to give you perspective, was the size of a regular sized car!) would come up to breathe but he'd also play by slapping his tail, breaching and coming just a few feet away from us!

In about a week or so from now, we will leave for Fiji which I am really excited for!  From whale capital of the world, :) Amelie IV


What was made:(MC's is on the Left, Meg's on the Right

Meg and MC learning to make art with glass with Lauri on SV FreeSpirit

The band at the Spanish restaurant (note the goat) Photo credit to Anna from SV Shine 

Catching a Skipjack Tuna while crossing from Niue to Tonga

Meg catching a ride onboard SV Seabbatical (Amelie in the background)

Pigs roaming on the beach in Tonga

Finding an intact sand dollar is always a thrill

At first I thought that this was a reflection in the water !  Seen in a marina in Tonga

Tuesday 18 August 2015

NIUE !!!

Tuesday August 18th 2015

Now, I am going to take a wild guess that (unless you are a cruiser who has done what we are doing or you are a Kiwi), you have never heard of Niue. Situated between the Cook Islands and Tonga, it is the largest (100%) reef island in the world and the 2nd smallest independent country, after The Vatican. 

We had heard about Niue from other cruisers and what they told us intrigued us, our curiosity was piqued and we wanted to see it for ourselves. 

The thing about Niue is that you can only go when the winds are just right; that is to say, when the winds are coming from the North, East or South East, and not from the West. So we waited for the right weather window in Beveridge Reef, and sailed out on Wednesday, for the short (18 hours) sail there. Upon arrival, we could see the flat terrain of the island (69 meters being the highest point) and at the mooring ball we were welcomed by the Niue dolphin greeting committee! 

We are anchored right next to the nice little town of Alofi which has the world smallest yacht club: a lovely little place which is very welcoming and helpful (Shout out to SV Terrwyn and SV Mahina Tiare III, we found your names in the registry there!). The tourist information was very good too. Learning all about the many things to see and do here really ignited our excitement even more! We arranged to rent a 12 person van for two days with our friends from S/V Perry and Seabbatical and then we went grocery shopping. The island is closely tied to New Zealand and our Australian friends were very happy to recognize all their Aussie and NZ food brands on the shelves.

The whales offered us a show right in our anchorage ! 

It’s all about the whales!!!

For us I think, Niue was all about seeing the humpback whales, which come here to calf during the winter months. We had been told that the cruisers in the bay had been seeing them all around the boats. There were also reports of cruisers hearing the whales singing at night! On our first day, I spent the morning looking around without much luck. Later that afternoon, as we were getting ready to go into town, the whales came out and gave us a great show! 

A mother and her calf in the Nuie anchorage

It was a mother and her calf, near the main dock, about 100 meters away from our boat: Mother was “teaching” child, there were many fin slaps (Humpback whales have very long pectoral fins so it is an impressive sight!). There were a few tail slaps and momma was rolling so we could see her white belly. Baby was having fun too. We watched this with great excitement and camera clicking.

Although we were asked not to approach the whales, we saw one of the local fishermen come up to take photos (and his being there gives you a better perspective of how magnificently big the whale was. 

Humpbacks can be as long as 18 meters, in other words: as long as Amelie! A little bit later we saw a local (licensed) operator bring tourists right near the whales and they got into the water (diving) with them!  I envied them and could just imagine the thrill they must have felt as they got in with it!  The whale did not seem to mind at all, as they stayed far enough away from her and her calf. 

Mother's Pectoral Fin (right) and Baby's tail (left)

Here you can see part of the whales head peeking up

This exciting first display was not to be our last! The next morning, I was in the galley, preparing breakfast. I was surrounded by familiar sounds: The kettle was on, Matthew was playing on his iPad, but I could hear something, something big and powerful breathing close to me. I peaked outside and saw the whales right behind the boat. blowing (spray). It was UNREAL, we ran down to get the camera, woke Meg up, and just like that they were gone, but not too far, they were behind our friends Catamaran (Seabbatical) What a way to start the morning! 

Later on that same day, while touring the island, we were all sitting at a lookout, staring out at the ocean. We saw the now familiar blow in the distance. There was another female with her calf and a little bit further another lone whale (male?). We decided to wait and watch them go by....we were then privy to a most spectacular show as the lone whale breached no less than 15 times or more!  We all had a blast as we trained our eyes and (300X lenses) on the water trying to catch the next jump. Matt from SV Perry really impressed us with his observation skills as he figured out the timing of the jumps: As soon as we saw the whale take a breath and dive down we started a count: “ One-one thousand, Two one thousand....” and at 25 seconds we started a count down” (5-4-3...CAMERAS READY....-2-1) and sure enough there came the jump, more spectacular than the one before!  CLICK! It was exhilarating. better than any show we had ever seen. Shouts of appreciations and clapping all around ! What a thrill ! Thanks to Matt’s count down technique, I managed to capture some great shots!  

Yes… these photos were all taken by us !!! 

Fiona on Seabbatical called us that night as she heard them singing. (The male sings a mating song!) She was not sure if she was dreaming as it was so eerie and beautiful. The next night she heard them again, as did Owen and a few other cruisers. I guess we sleep too soundly or Amelie's hull is too thick, because we did not heard them, although, I did dream that I heard them. Hm, maybe it wasn’t a dream ? (**Update: The bugs being so bad last night, we shut all windows and hatch and because of this, we could hear the whales very well, through the hull this morning!  Wonderful!)

Caves, Chasms and Crabs:

Niue also has some pretty spectacular coastlines and caves to visit. Each one is quite different from the next. We enjoyed our two day tour, stopping at various “sea walks” to visit some of them and to snorkel in the crystal clear (albeit cool) waters ! 

Each time we came to land, we had to use this dinghy lift to park our dinghy on the dock

Meg stands next to the large hook we had to use to lift our dinghy out 

The whole gang rents a van for our two day trek !  (Nice flower Matt!)

The many cave formations on Nuie really impressed us

Jen walking in a cave

The kids take a break in one of the caves

Mark and Matthew at the bottom of the steep stairs

Part of our hike in Nuie

These rock formation have been called "the flower pots"

We also enjoyed a delicious buffet dinner complete with evening fire show. And got to experience one of the monthly 'Show Days' which are hosted by a different village each month. There we saw the famous coconut crabs we had heard so much about: The largest land crab in the world, these interesting creatures climb trees, and haul coconuts to eat. They are kept as pets (?) for many years. The ones we saw here are about 13 years old. They are revered for their delicious meat, but it is illegal to export these from Niue. It’s a good thing too, because it would not take long for their population to be wiped out if this wasn't regulated. We also ate good food, and watched various cultural demonstrations and events.

The enormous coconut crab (on a coconut)

That's an impressive leg span !

An evening fire show

The cultural demonstration at 'Show days'

The harvest tent at Show Days

Niue has definitely been one of the highlights of our trip so far. If you are ever in this part of the world, don’t miss it! Sending you Big Salty Hugs from all of us here on Amelie. Next up:  School starts up again and we head to Tonga for 3 weeks. Sending you Big Salty Hugs from all of us here on Amelie.


Meghan On Amelie (Written in August 2015)

Nuie (Pronounced Nyoo-ee)

Niue is the largest coral island in the world.  But don't start thinking it's a humongous island or anything because it is also the smallest independent country in the world (apart from Vatican City). 

In French Polynesia, we saw dolphins galore!  On almost every crossing in the Marquesas, we saw dolphins.  Now, since Palmerston, we have been seeing no dolphins but quite a few humpback whales!  It is migrating season for them so they move north into warmer waters, like here, for calving.  In Niue, they were right in the bay and we saw them almost every day (one time, one was just like 30 feet off our stern!).

Everyone kept telling us about the fabulous caves in Niue so we (and our friends SV Seabbatical and SV Perry) rented a van for a couple of days and toured all around Niue.

We visited five caves and chasms that were all really cool and yet, all very different.  At some caves and chasms, we got to swim (one of them really reminded me of the Las Grietas in the Galapagos).  We also went on hikes, went to a Niuan brunch on the second morning and saw a few excellent whale breaching shows!


A rare shot of Mark and I, ad we dressed up ! 

With our dear friends, Matt and Jen (Perry), Owen and Fiona (Seabbatical)

Matthew enjoys a beach walk

Meg on the rocky beach, Nuie

Some of the snorkelling spots we sampled

The kids enjoying the clear water in Nuie's swimming holes