Woooooooo. Eeeeiiiiiiaahhhhhhhh. You know the whales are close when you can hear them out of the water. You know the whales are even closer when you stick your face in the water and they are RIGHT THERE, just hanging out, swimming around.
We are currently anchored in the outer islands of Vava'u, and yesterday Mark, Yuka and I went illegal whale watching. In Tonga whale watching boats have a "monopoly" on the whale watching business, meaning that (in theory) you have to pay 300 Pa'anga (about $200) to go swim with the whales. You can be fined (I don't know how much) if you are caught swimming with the whales on your own. Not that the tours take any special precautions not to bother the whales or anything, it is simply for economic reasons. We said to "hell with it, nobody can own the whales, man," so early Saturday morning we jumped in the dinghy and set out to find some whales.
We saw a whale right outside the anchorage, but it swam away when we headed in its direction. It was not until we were out in the middle of nowhere - still in sight of land, but far out - that we saw a mom and her calf swimming around. We motored over very slowly and quietly to where they were. They swam away. Things went on like this for an hour or so, until we just sat in the dinghy with the motor off, listening to their songs getting louder and louder. I stuck my head in the water and from their songs it sounded like they were right next to us. Then Yuka hit me on the shoulder, "They are RIGHT THERE!!"
I stuck my head back in the water and sure enough, a mother and her calf were swimming not 20 feet from the boat. I managed to grab my camera and snap a few shots before they dove, but I was too stunned (and a little scared) to actually get in the water with them. Mark and Yuka were also too awestruck by being so close to them to do anything but stare. When I took my head out of the water I was giggling and shaking - it was pretty thrilling just to see the whales under water.
We followed a few more spouts and saw a calf breach a few times, but now it was getting later in the morning and the whale watching boats started to show up. We got out of there pretty fast to avoid being harassed.
I got back to the boat about 10 AM, which was high tide, so I wolfed down some breakfast and then suited up (yes, I wear a wetsuit in 80 degree water) to go snorkel the coral gardens. You have to snorkel the coral gardens at high tide because it requires swimming out past a very shallow reef on which waves break (unsurfable waves, unfortunately). The current was very strong swimming out and we all struggled a bit, but it was pretty exciting. I was roasting in my wetsuit from swimming so hard, but was glad I had it on because I would have many reef cuts if I didn't.
The coral gardens are exquisite. The sea floor is a carpet of brightly colored coral with exotic looking fish swimming in and out of crevasses. I saw a big octopus and had a great time watching the waves heave and tube over the reef (from the back) and listening to the whale songs. We didn't see any more whales but heard them well.
That evening there was a "feast" put on by the local village of Lape Island to raise money to rebuild the pier that was destroyed in the last cyclone. A bunch of us yachties went in and were fed traditional foods, including a roasted pig and canned corn beef - which is not local and not particularly good, but extremely popular here. The meal itself was not... superb, but the atmosphere was friendly and fun. Before the meal the Tongans said a prayer which included something to the effect of, "we thank God for this food and will remember those in the world who do not have enough to eat..." I though this was very interesting because one could consider these people impoverished, and yet they are still concerned with people in the world poorer than themselves. They followed the prayer with a beautiful a cappella hymn which almost made me want to go to church in the morning to hear the singing. Almost.
Instead of going to church we went on another whale watching expedition, this time with Mom and Dad as well. We were ready for the whales this time, and when we saw one close enough to the dinghy we all jumped in the water and swam over them for about a minute, until they dove deep and disappeared. It was pretty amazing and a little eerie to be in the water with such a huge creature. Aside from that one whale, we did not see any others. Maybe they were taking Sunday off, like everybody else around here does - except us extreme folks.
After whale watching Mark and I went on a dive with two guys from another boat. As we were getting in the water a huge whale breached not 100 feet from the boat. That made it a little intimidating to get into the water. Once in the water the whale songs were so loud I could feel the vibrations coursing through my body. We also heard a few crashes that I assume were whales breaching very close by. Pretty thrilling. The dive was amazing, with coral towers in the shape of giant mushrooms towering 60 feet up toward the surface. Tons of fish, big and small, all sorts of cool shit, etc., etc.
Ok, I think this is enough.