Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Friendly Kingdom of Tonga

We made landfall at Vava’u, Tonga on September 9th, after a nine day passage from Bora Bora. We had hoped to stop along the way at Beveridge Reef, a submerged atoll in the middle of nowhere, and the island of Nuie, but by the time we got there the wind was blowing 25+ knots from the southwest and the seas were 4-5 meters.  Neither place is tenable in those conditions, so we sailed right on through.  Next time…

The annual Vava’u Sailing Regatta was in full swing when we arrived.  A week of parties, parades and fun.  Many boats that we had not seen for a while were there, so it was great to catch up and swap stories about our Pacific crossings.  Sete Maris, Sharkita, Chantey, CD, Narama and of course our buddy boat, Pelagic.  And then the Rugby World Cup started. Even more partying!  Tonga is rugby mad - every bar and restaurant with a TV screen showed all the games from morning ‘til late. Tonga had a team in the tournament, so it was pretty intense. The Tongans cheered for pretty much every play by every team, but when Tonga beat France, the whole town of Nieafu went wild!

We did take some breaks from the unexpectedly intense social whirlwind of Neiafu to explore many of the 40+ identified anchorages in the protected waters of the Vava’u group.  We were able to find places all to ourselves and the snorkeling and diving were excellent. We identified about 60 new-to-us species of fish. Compared to the Tuamotus we did not see the large numbers of fish, but we felt there was greater diversity. There was spectacular variety of abundant and healthy corals, b ut hardly any sharks. We usually had about 20+ meters visibility and the water temperature was about 26C, a bit cooler than French Polynesia.  The people of Tonga were amazingly warm and welcoming.  We felt that they were truly happy to have us visiting and enjoying their beautiful island Kingdom. 

 Neiafu Harbout, Vava'u, Tonga. Its deep and rocky, making anchoring tricky but you can usually find a mooring in this well protected anchorage.

Rugby World Cup - Tonga vs. Canada. Everyone cheered for everyone.

 Canada managed to win this one!

 A Tongan Feast at the tiny village of Lape Island, population 24. Our hosts, Kulio and Tara were extremely welcoming. They are holding these feasts to encourage donations from cruisers towards the rebuilding of their dock, which was destroyed in a cyclone several years ago. After this gathering they finally had the required funds and hoped to have the dock built for next year.

 Time to work off a bit of the beer and roast pig with some diving!

 Amazing diversity of corals.

 A formidable oyster.

 A Pacific Lion Fish in the Pacific where it belongs. The last picture of a lion fish on this blog was from the Caribbean where they are a destructive, invasive species. Here they are part of the natural ecosystem with predators that keep their numbers in check.

 More fabulous corals.

 Sunset Wrasse.

 Cathy's Clown(fish).

 A Motley Crew aka the Southern Cross Net, getting ready to party. The Southern Cross Radio Net was started in the Med several years ago and picked up members along the way. We were pleased to be invited to join back in the Tuamotus and Derek volunteered to be the Monday net controller. Every morning, especially on ocean passages we all checked in on shortwave radio with our positions and weather conditions. A good way to keep in touch and it was great to know there were friends out there who would do anything to help if the need arose.

 Derek's public debut, with encouragement from Connor of Toucan, who can actually play the guitar and sing - very well.  Thankfully the Southern Crossers were a supportive audience, helped no doubt by the quantities of beer and rum!

 The Tongans are renowned for their church singing. They have put up a shade tent for the overflow crowd on this Sunday. It was lovely to just stand outside and hear the choir and congregation sing in glorious harmony.

 School boys dressed in their uniforms which include the Ta'vala, or waist mat, a traditional item of Tongan dress which signifies respect to God, King and country.

 Primrose, a leading figure in the Nieafu market and a multi-talented artist presented Cathy with an heirloom tapa that had been in his family since the 1930s.  Another example of the friendship and generosity of the Tongan people.

 A woman finishing her day of weaving mats from pandanus leaves. It takes many weeks to weave a single mat and the best are saved for special occasions and as wedding gifts etc.

 Shopping for watermelons in the Neiafu market. These were about $4 Cdn. There was a good range of local fresh fruit and veggies at reasonable prices.

 Picture taken from inside Swallows Cave. Several high interlinked caverns large enough to tour by dinghy. 

 A Tropic Bird leaving its nest site inside the cave.

 We hung out with a mother Humpback Whale (about 15m long), and calf for about half an hour. We were just drifting along in the dinghy and they stayed with us. It was wonderful to hear their songs underwater when we were snorkeling and diving. Next year we plan to do a guided trip where you are allowed to snorkel with the whales.
 After 6 excellent weeks in Tonga, finishing with a few days in the Haapi islands, the weather conditions were perfect for the 1100 mile passage to New Zealand. It was a bit earlier than we had planned to leave, but given that the trip has the potential to be one of the nastier ones, we decided to take the window and leave for New Zealand. We'll just have to come back next year!
 For this passage, we did engage the services of Kiwi weather guru, Bob McDavitt, to provide us with a forecast and voyage plan, as well as daily emails from our friend Russell in the Med (you can access weather info for anywhere from anywhere). We also download twice daily weather info directly via satellite and shortwave radio.

 Cathy cooking up a storm on our passage from Tonga to New Zealand. We had heard that New Zealand Agriculture inspectors would not confiscate meat that has been cooked. So Cathy went through our frozen meat and cooked up masses of tasty dishes which we then froze. This worked for us but others had their cooked frozen meat confiscated anyway.

And it was mighty tasty! Here we sit down to a meal of Moroccan chicken on couscous, salad, homemade humus and wholewheat buns, and for desert, fruit bars (we had heard they would take our dried fruit too - they didn't.).  We ate this gourmet meal while the autopilot steered us along at 8 knots with a double reefed main in 20 knots of wind and 2m seas - we love our cat!  Not only was this meal tasty, but it was a prize winner. Cathy won Best Meal Underway from the NZ Island Cruising Association Rally!

 We do have to go outside sometimes especially as we get close to land, in this case New Zealand. And suddenly it was freezing! Well, not actually freezing, but it was 19C and after 3 1/2 years in the tropics where we never had temps under 28C, our blood was pretty thin. So we piled on fleeces, hats and socks - warm thanks to Iris on Pelagic!
We had a great trip down. 1100 miles in 6 1/2 days, at an average speed of 7 knots with max of 15 and many hours at 8-10 knots over sparkling blue water.  A great finish to a fantastic season sailing across the Pacific.

 A sunny welcome to Opua, Bay of Islands, New Zealand. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The High Societies

The Society Islands are the last of the three French Polynesian archipelagos we visited.  These islands are unique in having reefs which encircle the mountainous islands, creating a ring of calm inner lagoon waters to swim, paddle and sail in and just enjoy.  They are also more populated with Papeete, Tahiti being a real city with upscale supermarkets, pearl markets and ugh, even McDonalds (though when said with a French accent it sounds almost gourmet)..

 Papeete, Tahiti.  Dozens of outrigger canoes sweep past on both sides of Idyll Island during a weekend race.  The channel is used all day by people in every sort of craft imaginable.

  About half a km from our anchorage, a pass cut through the reef creates ideal breakers on the outer edges for surfers and boogie boarders to play.  Though it looks tempting, it is not a break for beginners like ourselves, as the surf crashes on to a very shallow (and jagged) coral reef. There are world class surf breaks on the other side of Tahiti. 

 Fabulous black sand and white sand beaches are great places to wander.

Point Venus Lighthouse was built in 1867 by R.L, Stevenson's father.

 Fautoa Waterfall, one of many plunging down the steep mountains. So steep, that a lone cruiser with an excess of adventure genes, scrambled down into a closed canyon and was trapped there a week before being hauled out by helicopter.

 A steephead parrotfish on ice in the market for someone's dinner.  They are very common reef fish that we enjoy watching while snorkeling.

 Last stop in Tahiti - the Duty Free store.  Drinkable wine $3-4 per bottle. Not as cheap as the $2 litre boxes in Panama, but cheaper than anything we will see for years...  The whiskey was cheaper than we had seen anywhere at $8. Derek overestimated our consumption (just a bit) which gave us some worries when entering New Zealand with it's strict customs regulations. More later.

 From Tahiti we sailed 10 miles across the channel to Moorea - spectacular! 

 Derek shining up our new Mercury outboard that we had shipped in to Tahiti.  Saved us about 30% and was easy thanks to our amazing agent, Cindy (CMA-CGM Agency).

 Cathy playing tag with a stingray. Dozens of rays and sharks come into the shallows to be fed by the snorkel excursion boats from the resorts.

 Wonder where they got the design for the stealth bomber...

 Bora Bora, one of the most photographed and legendary anchorages in the Pacific. Not bad.

 Our chartplotter showing the reef completely surrounding the island, with only a single entrance channel. Makes for beautiful, protected waters inside the lagoon. You can see our boat, the black shape, anchored down in the Southeast corner where we were totally protected from the 25 knot winds and 4 meter seas that were crashing outside the reef.

 Inside the reef the bottom is mostly sand, with a few sea urchins.  Actually, there were only a couple of places where they concentrated like this.

 Feeding Frenzy! Like Moorea, the resorts at Bora Bora feed the sharks and rays to liven things up for the snorkelers The sharks seem only interested in the fish bits - lucky for Cathy!

 Just gotta stay in your own lane.

 Not all the fish are big with large teeth. Here are a couple of cute little humbugs amongst the staghorn coral.

 Derek taking advantage of the calm lagoon water to go up the mast to replace fix a broken wire - and get a better view.

 A better view!

 Life is good.

 Time to leave French Polynesia and head towards Tonga, about 1500 nautical miles to the west. We stayed the full 90 days of our visa and thoroughly enjoyed every one.  We would love to come back some day.

 About half way across, we got into a school of short bill swordfish. In 2 hours we hooked 5, managing to release 2 at the boat, the other three, further out.  They were about 2m long and put up a tough fight. Difficult to deal with when doing 8 knots downwind!

 The last 2 days of our passage to Tonga were the roughest we've experienced with winds to 40 knots and seas 5m. Can't see it here but there were some big ones!  Idyll Island handled it no problem, surfing down the waves at 10-11 knots with only a double reefed headsail.  But we were glad to get into the shelter of Vava'u, Tonga.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Tuamotus

We felt like we'd found the pot of gold - The Tuamotus are the South Pacific as we had dreamed.  We spent 6 weeks, visited 5 atolls and snorkeled pretty much every day. 

Typical motus (islands), scattered along the encircling reef of the atoll. The lagoons enclosed by the reef are much larger than we had visualized; as much as 30 miles x 10 miles in area.

The lagoons are generally 20 to 40 meters deep but dotted with numerous coral pillars (bommies) rising to the surface. Or often just under, which makes them very difficult to see. Good light and a sharp lookout are required!

In company with our Aussie friends on "Pelagic" we explored dozens of motus.  Most of the time there was no one else within sight.

The cairn that marks the spot where the Kontiki raft ended her voyage from Chile on the reef.  Thor Heyerdahl and crew were safe and proved that the Polynesians could have descended from early South American sailors. Later DNA evidence disproved the theory..

Weekly supply ship being unloaded

A real store!  We were able to find a couple of mangoes and a few potatoes. Too late for the baguettes. Very welcoming - they gave Cathy a frangipani lei.

In search of baguettes and brie. Nice road - all the larger villages have benefited from the French government's investment in infrastructure.  And they are kept very clean.

Hi from down under in the Tuamtous! 

A wet suit makes long, 2 hour snorkels more comfortable. OK we're wusses - the water temperature is 78 - 80 degrees F (26 C) 

Finally, the truley unspoiled, vibrant reefs teeming with more brightly colored fish over healthy corals than we could have imagined.  Sadly, the compressed, repressed and depressed images required for the narrow bandwidth available, seriously diminish the quality of the photos.

  Moorish Idol.  A common but reclusive fish.

A Dot Dash and a Speckled Butterfly fish cross paths.

This Bignose Unicornfish was enjoying our table scraps off the stern of 'Idyll Island'

Neon Chromis cloud the branching corals but slip instantly within when predator or diver approach too closely.

Twin Chromodoris, a 3.5 cm nudibranch which raises and lowers it's mantle (skirt) as it crawls along giving a doubled effect.

Very cute little guy about 1.5 cm

Raccoon Butterflyfish.

Orange Striped filefish

Sixband Wrasse (aka Candy Wrasse)

Chevroned Butterflyfish

Ornate Butterflyfish

Pearl oyster in the wild.

A very friendly pearl farmer gave us a tour of his topside operation.  The oysters are grown on buoyed longlines in the lagoon.  Another hazard for the boater to avoid, but a simple, eco friendly industry for the islanders.

This imported Chinese expert implants a plastic nucleus in the correct part of the oyster to produce a French Polynesian black pearl.  And yes, Cathy couldn't resist a purply-green iridescent pearl pendant.

Tridacna, a smaller cousin to the famed Giant Clam.  This species embeds itself into cracks in the coral. They are prolific on the shallow reefs.  Their mantles are jewel-like iridescent, blues, purples, and greens.

Tridacna settled in the reef surrounded by a stunning bit of coral.

Hermit crab feeding frenzy. These guys are everywhere - we even saw one 6' up in a tree! Here they clean up the remains of a coconut.

Can't quite fly yet but this little branch is getting uncomfortable.  Brown Boobie on shrubby motu.

Rescued by Iris and Graeme as our outboard seized in the pass at Makemo atoll on our way to a dive.  We still did the dive and it was fabulous!  Low, rolling, unending hills of live coral sloping into the depths, with masses of fish darting in and out every which way, other fish forming a 1 m cloud above the coral and larger fish appearing suspended in the transparent water above us.  Truly awe inspiring.  We know about 100 species by now but there are always new ones to look up.  For you Caribbean divers - Paul Humann and Ned Deloach have written guides for Pacific fish and invertebrates - hurray!  The Pacific Ocean is much richer in both numbers and varieties of species than the Atlantic/Caribbean and, they are more colourful.  These authors consider their substantial books as mere starting points for Pacific species identification.

It shrank! Derek running the tiny 3.3hp outboard so generously lent to us by s/v 'CD' when it turned out that our 15hp was not repairable - kept us mobile until we could get to Tahiti.  Thanks Dave and Cris!

Regal Angelfish

Orangespine Surgeonfish

Herd of Yellowfin Goatfish

Whitecheek Surgeonfish

Humphead Wrasse. About 1.5m long and must weigh 50kg. Just cruising slowly through the crystal water. Luckily they are completely docile.

Black Tip Reef Shark. About 1.5m in length. They were constantly cruising the reef.  Not at all aggressive but would always come by to check us out. Though when Derek tried spearfishing and shot a small gouper, 3 of them showed up in about 5 seconds!

Saddled Butterflyfish

Steephead Parrotfish and others, just hanging in the crystal water.

A shy Moray Eel keeping an eye on us.

A tasty little Peacock Grouper. Tasty, but you have to be aware of which atolls are ciguatera free before taking one for dinner. Ciguatera is a neuro-toxin found in some species of algae that is concentrated in the tissues of fish. 

You won't see a unicorn on land, but in the South Pacific, there are herds of unicorn fish roaming the reefs. This is a Spotted Unicornfish.

Just dove the South pass of Fakarava Atoll in the background. We glided through with the current while hundreds of Black Tip, White Tip and Grey Reef Sharks hung over the bottom. The little cafe suspended out over the water sold us their last 2 beers! 

Another deserted motu.

Small but tasty. A Peacock Grouper, one of half a dozen fish Derek caught in 15 minutes off the back of the boat. You want the smaller ones to minimize the risk of ciguatera.

Bastille Day celebrations on Fakarava. A whole morning of coconut based competition. Here the winner is finishing up the 30 coconuts he has opened and extracted the "meat" from - in about 5 minutes!

The winner of the coconut frond weaving competition.  We didn't stay for the second day of coconut sports.

After 6 weeks its time to leave the Tuamotus for the big city of Papeete and the Society Islands. Wish we could have spent another 2 months lost amongst the atolls!