Ha'apai, Tonga aboard M/V Nai'a
Copyright 2013 - Ken Knezick, Island Dreams Travel
Gazing down on the humpback whale mother and calf resting 30 feet below the surface, "haunting memories" is the phrase that kept coming to mind as I floated in the azure blue Tongan sea. With the sun high in the sky, light beams flitted around the whales, highlighting their long pectoral flukes and the tubercles and barnacles that dotted their rough hides. The mother whale was as cautious as the one-ton baby was curious, but when we were careful to approach respectfully, the magnificent spectacle of nature that played out below haunts my memory.
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M/V NAI'A -- In Hawaiian Nai'a means dolphin, and a finer platform for these Tongan whale interactions I cannot envision. A solid steel-hulled vessel, she is 120 feet long with a 30-foot beam. Carefully rebuilt in Fiji, employing many native skills and materials, the exterior decks are of thick rosawa wood, while the salon is attractively finished in locally-sourced mahogany, damanu and yacca wood. A highly-seasoned Fijian crew of 13 ably serves 16 guests in eight, ensuite cabins. There is a spacious main deck for gearing up, and a small dive platform at the stern for boarding the excellent 22-foot rigid inflatable skiffs. Photographers are afforded a well-planned camera room and large dip tanks are reserved solely for underwater cameras. A large sun deck above the salon is the perfect place for whale spotting, and the plucky photographers who climbed the main mast to the crow's nest brought back stunning images of ship, sea, and the magnificent whale interactions.
TONGA -- Sailing aboard M/V Nai'a, our lucky group of scuba divers and snorkelers were visiting the Ha'apai island group in central Tonga. Due to the numerous shallow reefs jutting out of seemingly clear seas, Captain Cook called these waters the "dangerous archipelago." Navigating here still requires great knowledge and skill. The chart our captain consulted was from a British naval survey in 1898, fortunately supplemented by GPS, radar and computerized charting. Our party boarded the Nai'a at the Tongan capital city of Nuku'alofa, where our cruise commenced with a 70-mile overnight passage north to Ha'apai. After that we shuttled between a few safe overnight anchorages, spending our days on the open sea "playgrounds" in search of humpback whales.
HUMPBACK WHALES -- Incredible migratory mammals, reaching 60 feet in length and 80,000 pounds, humpback whales may be found around our planet. The tribe of whales we followed spends their summers in Antarctica, feeding on rich krill. To avoid the harsh South Polar winter, they swim north to the sub-tropical waters of Tonga, where they mate and give birth but do not feed. The gestation period is 10-12 months, and a female is thought to bear a single calf every one to three years. At birth, the babies may weigh one to two tons. When nursing, they consume up to 100 gallons of rich mother's milk each day. Sometimes traveling in the company of an adult male escort, mother and calf stay together for the first year, returning to their polar feeding grounds, and again back to winter in Tonga. This tribe of humpbacks was ruthlessly hunted into the mid-20th century but are now, finally, benefitting from attempts at protection. Current estimates believe there may be 3,000 humpback whales visiting Tonga each season.
SWIMMING with WHALES -- Each morning following breakfast, our captain would move the Nai'a from its protected overnight anchorage and begin the search for whales. They may be discovered by their periodic blows (breathing), or more energetic behavior such as breaching (leaping out of the water), pectoral slapping, peduncle (tail) slapping, spy-hopping, group heat runs, head lunges, etc. If the whales were moving, we might follow and photograph them from the main ship. But if conditions seemed promising, it was time to don our wetsuits, grab snorkel gear, and board the skiffs. Here the trained eyes and experience of our driver/spotters came to the fore. By reading the whales' activity, they would put us in the water with the best chance of enjoying the whales face-to-face. The individual encounters are often brief, so we were often in and out of the skiff multiple times. The reward of seeing these massive animals up close, in their own aqueous element, made it well worth the effort, and has imprinted me with some deliciously haunting memories.
THE SCUBA DIVING -- The in-water whale encounters are conducted only on snorkel, but scuba diving is also offered on these Nai'a Tonga expeditions. These are tropical to semi-tropical waters, so do not expect the lush soft corals of Fiji. None-the-less, we enjoyed some good dives, with nice hard corals and a broad population of indo-Pacific marine life. One dive in particular, Palako's Patch, offered about as healthy and diverse a hard coral reef system as I've seen anywhere in recent years. Typically you may get one or two dives per day including some night diving, but keep in mind that the scuba diving is secondary to the whale encounters.
FINE DINING at SEA -- All of this climbing in and out of the skiffs, and swimming after 30-ton whales, may well enhance your appetite. Fortunately, in this too, Nai'a is ready to serve. Food was healthy and well-prepared, served to order at table in the comfortable salon. With two or three choices offered for every meal, making your selections the evening prior enables the cooks to plate each meal to order. My own vegetarian diet was well served. Water, juice, coffee and soda are always available. A commercial grade coffee machine grinds your regular, espresso or cappuccino by the cup, and then steams milk to frothy perfection. Complimentary wine and beer are served with dinner. At other times, wine, beer and cocktails are available at reasonable prices. Should one prefer, it is also acceptable to bring your own bottle on board.
SHORT WHALE SEASON -- The Nai'a offers only four whale cruises per year, scheduled during August and September. This is winter season in the southern hemisphere, when water temperature and sea conditions are highly variable. As these whales are wild animals ranging across open ocean in capricious conditions, each trip is ten-nights in duration, hopefully offering ample time to find, photograph, and interact with the whales. On my trip we were fortunate to experience some perfect bluebird days, with calm seas and great visibility. Such perfection might be immediately followed by a day of rain, 20-knot winds and rougher seas (which the Nai'a handles masterfully, by the way). Water temperatures during this season range from 72-76 degrees Fahrenheit, and air temperatures from 68-78 degrees F. Fortunately, the comprehensive trip planning information allowed us to come well prepared for these varying conditions.
THINGS to BRING -- Dress is diver casual aboard the Nai'a, but come equipped with layers of topside wear to include a warm-up suit, sweater or sweat shirt, and a good waterproof wind-breaker. In addition to plenty of sun block, pack a proper sun hat, a baseball cap, and a stocking cap. Your trip may include a visit to one of the small local villages, so have a comfy pair of walking shoes. For maximum comfort during the snorkeling and diving I recommend a full 5 mm wetsuit plus a hooded vest, neoprene gloves, and neoprene socks to wear inside your dive booties. Obviously, a good snorkel is a must. If you will only be making a few scuba dives, it is possible to rent BCD, regulator and wet suit from the ship's stock, rather than packing your own. This will free up luggage room and weight for the additional clothing recommended, a couple of good books, and perhaps some school supplies to donate to the village.
PHOTOGRAPHY SUGGESTIONS -- For tips on how best to photograph humpback whales, I was fortunate to be able to powwow with master underwater photographer Marty Snyderman. Per his suggestions, you will want a wide-angle lens in the water, preferably a wide-angle zoom. Marty suggested something like a 12-24 mm zoom, which he then proceeded to lend to me. That Nikon lens, on my D2x camera body, offered just the range required. Keep your system as streamlined as possible. A strobe is not important to these pictures, and will just slow you down in the water. Patience is a critical item to add to your kit. When we waited together in a small group, the whales were less intimidated by our presence. But, as happened more than once, when my enthusiasm to get a closer shot prompted me to rush forward, the whales would swim away, bringing the encounter to an abrupt and disappointing end.
TOPSIDE PHOTOGRAPHY -- There are also superb opportunities for topside photography of these whales, blowing, breaching, tail-slapping, etc. To capture this you will want a mid-range zoom lens. I came with the Sigma 150-500, and that was too much magnification when the whales were close to our ship. Another guest shot with a 70-300 zoom, and that seemed to be just about right. Marty also pointed out that the more frames per second your topside camera can shoot, the better chance you will have of capturing "the shot."
GETTING THERE -- Nai'a sails from Nuku'alofa, Tonga's capital; airport code TBU. Most common flight routings are via Nadi, Fiji or Auckland, New Zealand. Typically, the Tonga cruise itinerary strives to weigh anchor at 3 pm on the initial day of sailing, returning to port by early morning on the final day of the cruise. An overnight may be necessary, depending on your choice of airline and flight itinerary. As they are few in number, the Nai'a whale trips in Tonga book out well in advance. If you are interested, please contact Island Dreams for availability, pricing, airfare and further details.
THE BOTTOM LINE -- On our final evening at safe anchorage, we watched through the windows of the salon as a mother and baby humpback whale practiced breaching and tail slapping. With the baby following mommas lead, they breached as least 30 times. Such a powerful display of raw joy and immense power is wonderfully infectious. The opportunity to slip into the water, swim with and photograph these majestic creatures is a dream come true. Nai'a is a finely-tuned base of operations, making this experience accessible to people of varied skill levels and physical abilities. If you are a water baby, and would love to come face-to-face with humpback whales in dazzling blue water, Tonga aboard the Nai'a is the place to be. I fervently wish you haunting whale memories of your own.
"Wishing you great diving, and a world of adventure!"
Ken Knezick - President, Island Dreams Travel
Report and photos copyright 2013
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