Diving with giants: A peak into Tonga’s underwater wonderland

September 2016

I wiggle my toes into the sand, wedging my feet into the course granules of earth. If I don’t, I’ll topple over! I’m squatting beneath the branches of palms and scrub—spending a penny, if you will. On the evening breeze drifts the harmony of a sun-kissed, booze-primed chorus of sailors somewhere down the beach. Euphoria washes over me like a tsunami.

I press my heels into the earth and stand. A kaleidoscope of fire floods toward me from the jeweled western sky. Ruby. Garnet. Gold. Citrine.

The choir on the beach comprises a couple dozen cruisers who, like us, have sailed thousands of miles from a dozen or more nations to drop their hooks on this expanse of beach. The most memorable among the cast of characters were David and Gitte, a Scottish couple aboard s/v Aros Mear; Dave and Amy, the young American couple from the catamaran s/v Starry Horizons; Shelley and Kyle, a pair of scuba diving Canadians aboard s/v Blowin’ Bubbles; and, of course, our Mike and Gill aboard s/v Romano.

David & Gitte from s/v Aros Mear

Daylight faded and sundowners continued to be poured as masthead lights twinkled across the anchorage at Port Maurelle. The bonfire Neil and Kyle nurtured from a spark blazed. Seeds of friendship sprouted in the flames, as we passed bowls between hands, sharing homemade dishes and a potluck supper.

Gill and I trudge into the shadows toward our dinghies, every boat’s by-proxy bar. “Watch that painter,” I advise, shining the rope with my flashlight. Gill acknowledges the rope the strung between a fat hypalon boat and a tree and then promptly trips over the line and lands plop on the sand. My concerns are met with laughter.

Stumbles in the sand kindled the joy in the air rather than stifled it. Mike and Gill have become two of our favorite friends, and we’ve already grown confident that our friendship will endure after our routes diverge. As months of the cruising before we were to reach Australia had dwindled to weeks, the experience was growing more precious each day.

“Tonight is a treasure,” I thought. “Pour me anotha.”

Mariner’s Cave
We awoke the next morning eager to go scuba diving with our new friends. David and Amy had generously invited Shelley, Kyle, and the two of us aboard s/v Starry Horizons to dive Mariner’s Cave, a well-known but tough-to-find jewel in Vava’u’s mosaic of islands.

Starry Horizons is a pretty boat, and there was something about tugging on a wetsuit in the spacious cockpit of a catamaran that made me feel like we were on a chartered dive expedition.

I tend to be a nervous diver, and with the exception of my SSI open water certification dives in Seattle, I had literally never dove without Neil.

Today would be different.

There were three couples; we agreed that the men would dive first, then the women. Kyle and Shelley were dive instructors in their pre-cruising life and knowing that Shelley would be leading Amy and I was a great source of reassurance. The entrance to Mariner’s Cave is not visible above the water. Thus, while we knew generally where the cave was located, finding the entrance along the limestone cliffs would take a bit of luck. Thanks to a scouting expedition by Kyle, we found the entrance to the submerged cave quickly, and the men set off on their dive.

Then it was our turn.

Mariner’s Cave can be accessed by either of two entrances, one 3 meters below the surface and another 12 meters deep. We opted for the shallower of the two and not long after we began to descend, we surfaced in the pitch-black underbelly of the limestone into a hollow of air. The force of water moving in and out of the cave created gurgling and whooshing sounds, and with each breath of the sea, the pressure changed dramatically, popping our ears and leaving us giggling! An electric aqua glow shimmered eerily across the surface of the water where sunlight seeped into the cave through the entrance we’d just traversed. Shelley shone a light into the darkness, revealing purple-stained walls, an artefact of the minerals in the limestone.

We descended and exited the cave to explore along the limestone walls. There were a few interesting fish and small corals, but it was the serenade of whalesong echoing through the water column was the most memorable treat for our senses.

Swimming with whales
Tonga, like Niue, is a breeding and birthing ground for one of the pods of humpback whales who make the South Pacific their winter home after fattening up on krill during the Antarctican summer. It is one of the few countries in the world where you can swim freely with humpback whales and after having some remorse about not taking advantage of the opportunity in Niue, we weren’t about to skip it in Tonga.

In the days before the weather gods forecast a good window for our passage to Fiji, we signed up for a whale swim with Beluga Diving. It was a full day affair spent speeding through the picturesque islands of the Vava’u group, our hopes high that we would indeed have be able to swim with the some of the visiting giants. It wasn’t a particularly calm day. The tradewinds were a bit gusty and the zen conditions that had characterized the prior couple of days were gone. The breeze had churned the seas enough that I felt seasick as we zipped along, all eyes on the lookout for blows in the distance.

Our guide briefed us on the protocol should we sight a whale. The boat would rush as close as was allowed to respect the animals and then we would all barrel off one after the next and swim as rapidly as possible in our desperation to get a glimpse of the animal beneath the surface, always remaining behind our guide.

We saw half a dozen whales and each time, our hearts careened into our throats, as we tugged our masks over our eyes, shoved our snorkels in our mouths, and scurried to the stern of the boat. It was a bit chaotic but not overly so. The visibility was not great but more than once, we caught glimpses of the creatures. One was particularly curious and lingered longer in our view than others. It was enormous, and its right eye, the size of a dinner plate, never seemed to leave us, even as it broke the surface of the water to breathe. It was magnificent to behold, and evoked an awe-inspiring reverence for Mother Nature and her precious creations.

I was so caught up in watching the creature that I didn’t notice that an even grander beast was rising below it. The gigantic whale I had been admiring was but a baby, a calf of no more than a few months or weeks. Mama was coming. As the animal ascended from the darkness and its shape took form, I all but panicked at its sheer grandeur. My breath tangled in my ribs and left me gasping. The calf dove to mama, and then up again, and then again down. Our guide later told us that baby was nursing with each of these descents, guzzling some its 150-gallon (570-liter) per day ration of a milk so rich in fat that its consistency is more akin to toothpaste (35-50% fat concentration).

The grace that these creatures afford humans in spite of centuries of violence in the form of whaling, among other harms (e.g., boat collisions, environmental pollution) is mystifying. In one intentional swipe of her tail, mama could have easily taken out the lot of us. Yet, she surfaced and then disappeared with an apparent nonchalance that seemed kinder than anything we, as humans, deserve. There was a lot more to process about the experience than simply the animals’ behemoth size.

Swallows’ Cave
As the day wound down and the sun angled toward the horizon, we made a final stop at Swallow’s Cave. We had explored the cave by dinghy with Mike and Gill from s/v Romano a few days prior, and there was something nice about visiting a spot twice, which we don’t often do while cruising. Today, we hopped off the boat and swam inside.

Unlike Mariner’s Cave, Swallow’s is hard to miss. Inside the gaping 6-meter doorway is a downward-turned sculpture of rock that reminded me of the figureheads that adorned the bows of wooden tall ships in centuries gone by.

Swallows’ Cave is a magical labyrinth of light, especially late in the afternoon. The interior is cavernous and easily navigated by dinghy. Shapely, with nooks and crannies and stained the color of green olives and boysenberry, the cave is arguably beautiful. However, its otherwise barren walls are not particularly remarkable. Dip your eyes beneath the surface, however, and you enter a new dimension.

Swallows’ Cave is deep, cut in the shape of a marquise, and the afternoon sunshine illuminates the warm water like a paraiba tourmaline. Thousands upon thousands of tiny baitfish congregate inside the cave and move cohesively, bending shape in the light in a silent grace that is transfixing. Neil free dove again and again through the fish, and I delighted in watching as their movement curved away as he swam through them, only to watch them twist and cascade to fill the pillar of light cleared by his presence almost as quickly as they had arced to avoid his path. Our GoPro screen grabs were a poor effort to do Swallows’ Cave justice, but our friends on s/v Tamata captured some stunning images the year prior.

A day of bathing in the goodness of the Vava’u’s underwater world was a beautiful way to conclude our time in Tonga. Next stop: Fiji.

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