Friday, 22 Feb 2019

Diving in Tonga

Diving in Tonga

Fifty Places To Dive Before You Die

Chris Santella

Many Westerners may not have heard of Tonga (diving in Tonga) until it joined the coalition of the willing in the Iraq War in 2003 (sending forty-odd troops to the conflict), let alone been able to place it on the map. Situated in the South Pacific about two-thirds of the way between Hawaii and New Zealand, Tonga consists of 171 coral atolls and volcanic islands, clustered in three main groups—Tongatapu to the south, Ha’apai in the center, and Vava’u to the north. The Tongan people have a rich seafaring history; chieftains and explorers sailing out of Tonga (diving in Tonga) from 1000 CE to 1200 CE created a loosely knit empire that eventually included much of Polynesia, including Fiji, Samoa, and parts of Micronesia and Melanesia. Despite their earlier proclivity for conquest, the Tongan people are known for their good nature. When Captain James Cook visited Tonga in the 1770s, he was so well received that he dubbed them “the Friendly Islands.” Tonga (diving in Tonga), it’s worth noting, is the only Polynesian state to have maintained its independence throughout recorded history.

Diving in Tonga - photo 1

Diving in Tonga

Diving in Tonga. The hilly and richly wooded islands of Vava’u enjoy the majority of Tonga’s tourist trade (though tourism is still a relatively undeveloped component of the economy), and provide excellent cruising grounds for sailors, including one of the best-protected harbors—Port of Refuge—in Polynesia. While Vava’u (diving in Tonga) has been known for its summer cetacean visitors for some time, divers are just beginning to understand the charms of its reefs and smaller creatures. “I’d worked quite a bit around the South Pacific,” Paul Stone began, “and when I arrived in Tonga (diving in Tonga), I found that the water clarity was some of the best I’d ever seen. The reefs are also unbelievably healthy. I remember going to some famous venues and diving their showcase reefs; there’d be twenty yards of dead space, ten yards of good reef, another ten yards of dead space, and so on. Around Vava’u, we have reefs where you can go and go and go and there are no dead spots. I love small animals, and our reefs have some fascinating creatures—like Fiji, but perhaps even better. There are three places where we can find orange hairy ghost pipefish, a species discovered just a few years ago. Our giant clams are also of great interest to visitors.”

Diving in Tonga - photo 2

Diving in Tonga

Diving in Tonga. Though Paul can overlook the passing gray reef shark to inspect interesting small critters, he can’t refuse the call of the humpback whales, which call the sheltered waters around Vava’u home (diving in Tonga) in the summer months. “For anyone who has any interest in nature or the underwater world, the humpbacks are mind boggling,” Paul exclaimed. “If people have any passion for whales, they’ll vividly remember every instance of every encounter with a humpback—if it’s their first, their tenth, or their hundredth. I can’t even count the number of times we’ve had ‘been there/done that’ kind of guys who act very matter-of-fact when they step on the boat. As soon as they see a whale up close, they freak out. We had a famous photographer on the boat last year to take some footage. After his first experience in the water, he came up after a three-minute encounter and realized that he’d forgotten to shoot any film. That’s what happens when you find yourself swimming along with an animal the size of a city bus.” Humpback whales are members of the baleen-whale family. Adults generally range from forty to fifty feet in length and can weigh up to forty tons. Humpbacks feed on krill and will also take small schooling fish.

Diving in Tonga - photo 3

Diving in Tonga

Diving in Tonga. These whales are renowned for their long migrations—some individuals have been recorded traveling as far as 15,000 miles from feeding to breeding grounds. Different populations of humpbacks have different migratory patterns. The whales that return to the waters of Tonga each summer—between 500 and 1,500 animals—migrate from the Southern Ocean below New Zealand and Australia. “Vava’u, Tonga (diving in Tonga), is one of the two places in the world where humans can legally swim with whales,” Paul explained. “The other is eighty-five miles off the coast of the Dominican Republic in the open sea. Many of the places where we’ll interact with whales are very sheltered, which makes for a more intimate encounter. While some animals begin to show up in the spring, we think of the season beginning in mid-July. That’s when the juveniles begin showing up. They seem eager to interact with the boat and with people. We’ve had many interactions when there are two to five whales circling us—I think they’re trying to understand mating behavior. They’re not mating with the boat, but displaying to it. From earlyAugust through the end of the month, we observe heat runs. This is when you may have a dozen whales together, with one or two females in front, and a bunch of males chasing them.

Diving in Tonga - photo 4

Diving in Tonga

Diving in Tonga. The surface behavior at this time is amazing. From mid-August through the end of September, mating-age females and males are starting to interact, and some calves are emerging. This is also the time when males are singing. When you have a male twenty feet or even eighty feet below you and he sings, you can feel the song going right through you. I can only equate it with the pulse, the throb that goes through your body when you’re in the front row at a big rock concert and the band kicks into its first number. In October, it’s mostly females and their calves. This is the holy grail, what touches people the most—to see an animal that’s so physiologically different from humans display such tender maternal care. With a baby that’s twelve feet long!” Paul’s wife and business partner, Karen Varndell, recalled an especially touching moment she shared with a mother and calf. “We spotted a mother and calf breaching in the distance, and we brought the boat up to within a hundred feet. They continued breaching and fin slapping, and then began circling the boat, first thirty feet away, and then just ten feet away. At that point, we went in the water—and the mother went to sleep. She was down below for about twenty minutes, and the calf was between us. She came up to get some air, and returned to her nap for another twenty minutes. This interaction went on for fifty-five minutes. I’m completely convinced that the mother felt comfortable napping because we were there to watch over her calf.”

Diving in Tonga - photo 5

Diving in Tonga

 

 

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