In Vava’u, one of the three main groups of islands that make up the Kingdom of Tonga, there is a charter sailing yacht named Melinda that sometimes goes out on day trips. I don’t know how many people were aboard the Melinda the day they saw 17 whales at one time, but from the number who were able to give me the full story when I arrived a few days later I can only conclude that it must have been everyone in that part of the South Pacific. From the large size of the group (of whales, not whale watchers), Allan Bowe, who runs his own whale watching boat out of Vava’u, concluded they were probably pilot whales and not the larger humpbacks who every year come up from the Antarctic from June through November to bear their young. The probable attraction for the humpbacks, Bowe said, is that the cluster of 50 islands making up the Vava’u group provides warm, shallow, protected water that still has easy access to the open sea. And those are the same things, I said to myself after a week-long visit, that make Vava’u so attractive to sailors, snorklers, scuba divers, sportfishermen, and sea kayakers.
Of course there is a lot more to Tonga, which is all coral islands or raised atolls, than the water sports of Vava’u. I began my visit by spending a few days exploring Tongatapu, main island of the Tongatapu group, where I landed aboard an Air New Zealand flight from Los Angeles and rode into town with a wide-girthed taxi driver who wanted to know what I thought about the prospects of the Los Angeles Raiders.
On Tongatapu I wandered through the shops of the capital, Nuku’alofa, admiring what may be some of the best tapa cloth in the Pacific. I saw the trilithon, Tonga’s equivalent of Stonehenge. And the landing place of Captain Cook, who called Tonga "The Friendly Islands." And the "flying foxes," or fruit bats, which are said to be good to eat (and a favorite of the king), but which I was relieved to see were on no restaurant menus. And I sat down to an umu feast at the Tongan National Centre, where I learned, to my delight, that the accepted way to show appreciation of the girls performing traditional Tongan dances is to walk up to them while they are dancing and stick small-denomination bills to their well-oiled bodies.
Aboard my Royal Tongan Airlines flight to Vava’u we flew over Ha’api, the least populated and least developed of the three main groups of islands. Judging from its tiny villages, lonely palms, and empty beaches, I could see why there is talk of attempting to have it designated a World Heritage Site. But I admit it was the waters of Vava’u that attracted me the most. On Vava’u there were the whales, of course. Tonga is one of the few places in the world where it is actually possible to get in the water and swim with them.
And there was the sailing. In addition to individually chartered boats like the Melinda, the Moorings, biggest yacht charter company in the world, has a large fleet of boats based in Vava’u.
And there was scuba diving. Dolphin Pacific Diving offers everything from full certification to underwater photography services.
And the big-game fishing. Every day I spent at the Tongan Beach Resort, where most of the water activities in Vava’u are based, I saw the New Zealand sportfishing boats Delray and Kiwi Magic come in with marlin often taller than the anglers standing next to them. But it was the sea kayaking (and the snorkeling, exploring, and beachcombing I was able to do from a kayak) that attracted me the most. Not only because there seemed no better way to get to the islands, but also because Sharon and Doug Spence, hosts at the Friendly Islands Kayak Company, work to see that their guests learn not only about Tonga’s waters, but its culture as well.
I spent two full days in a kayak, one with the new friends I made from a group of eight kayakers who’d come from Canada. And when they set off for a ten-day paddle through the outer islands with their local guide, Ma’a Tonga, I spent another day with Sharon and Doug, snorkeling on the reefs, picnicking on the beaches, and learning what it’s like for them to live in an island paradise. (One typical day in paradise, they told me, they shooed a cow away from their garden without first realizing somebody had tied the animal to their fence.)
My day with the Spences began at the Tongan Beach Resort. From there, along with two Japanese brothers who had never kayaked before, we paddled across a calm ocean and slipped through a flooded crack in the sea cliffs of Kapa Island into Swallow’s Cave. Beneath us in the dimly lit blue grotto, the water was still, deep, incredibly clear, and just calling out, it seemed, for somebody to scuba in it. Above us, the dark roof of the misnamed cave was aflutter not with swallows but starlings. "At least they are not bats," I said to one of the Japanese brothers, who, apparently being able to understand my English just well enough to recognize the word "bats," looked up in alarm.
We didn’t have enough time that day to visit the famous Mariner’s Cave, whose entrance is actually underwater, but instead we turned east toward the little island of Mala, which has a white-sand beach perfect for picnicking. According to legend, Mala was once the home of a cannibal who liked to have anybody in for lunch who happened to be paddling by. We found no cannibal there, but the way we went through our picnic lunch I suspect his spirit lives on. The coral garden off the island, alive with a kaleidoscope of blue, yellow, and orange fish, proved to be a favorite snorkeling spot, especially for the younger of the Japanese brothers, who was so keen on remaining in the water that I worried that the only way we would ever get out of there would be to let him swim back to the Tongan Beach Resort. As it turned out, he didn’t swim back, or paddle either. Doug showed us how to hold the kayaks together as he raised our picnic ground cloth to a following breeze and, like an ancient South Seas catamaran, we sailed home in grand style. My only disappointment was that, unlike the day I’d been out with my Canadian friends, none of the island children swam out to meet us on the final stretch, shyly asking if they could hitch on and have us pull them through the water.
That evening, I enjoyed another umu feastѕ pork, fish, lobster, octopus, and vegetables cooked in an underground ovenѕ followed by dancing, during which a lady of whale-like proportions tried to knock me to the ground with well-timed swings of her hips.
The next day was Sunday, and in Tonga, I discovered, even visitors who don’t go to church at home will want to go on Tonga. For one reason, there is nothing else to do ѕ everything is closed. For another, the singing is wonderful even if you don’t understand the words. And between the church bells and the roosters, which start crowing around 5:30 A.M., you’re going to be up early anyway.
Of course in Tonga there is a special reason for getting up early, whether you are whale watching or going to church or helping the Spences shoo cows out of their garden. If you get up early enough, thanks to Tonga’s position just to the west of the international dateline, you can take pleasure in knowing that on that morning you will be the first person in the world to welcome the dawn of a new day.
It makes you wonder if that’s another reason why the whales, intelligent creatures that they are, come to Tonga, too.