September 2017: My wife and I flew to Tonga, the last country of the Pacific to be still ruled by a king for 6 days as part of a larger two-week trip that also included Samoa and New Zealand. Our main goal in Tonga was to swim with Humpback Whales, an activity which has famous Tonga famous. Ironically Humpback whales were once hunted in Tonga and their numbers were reduced from thousands to a mere 50 in the late 70’s. The King of Tonga declared a ban to the hunting in the 80’s and their numbers have rebounded to almost 5,000. These whales visit Tonga to give birth every year on their way back from feeding in Antarctica and Tonga is the only place in the world where swimming with these whales is legal and when done properly without subjecting the whales to undue stress, the practice has helped promote whale conservation. Tonga is a vast island archipelago of hundreds of islands and many of them offer whale snorkling but we chose one of the cheapest and least visited for whale snoreling, Eua Island to have more whales forourselves. This is the story ofone of the most amazing marine encounters my wife and I have ever had.

 

 

Hundreds of whales migrate between Tongatapu and Eua Island every year. We went to Eua Island to Swim with them

Tongatapu Island

 

 

We started our trip in Tonga in the capitol island of Tongatapu, the most populated island of Tonga and where the king lives. We arrived via a flight from Auckland, New Zealand. We planned our visit around the whale migration season, but we unfortunately didn’t luck out with the weather, and we had cloudy, windy and rainy weather for most of our trip. Yet we did the best with what we had.  We stayed at a Keleti beach guesthouse at the southern end of the island, where we had our own bungalow overlooking sea cliffs with a private beach cove. The waves were huge and crashed along the shore and our beach was far too treacherous to linger on.  We hired a taxi to show us around the island. The highlight for me was Anahulu Cave with the lake inside and cliff jumping inside. We also visited the Tongan version of Stonehenge, a giant stone arch built in the 14th century that once housed the king’s throne.

 

 

Waves crashing over the coral

A brief moment of good weather in between ocean swells that came powering through the little beach cove

At this monument, Paula asked me for the Tongan money, and I handed her 70USD worth and when I wasn’t paying attention, she returned from a small souvenir booth of local ladies selling trinkets with a few necklaces and a wrist band of shells. I figured out that Paula made a miscalculation on the conversion rate and was overcharged by the bullish souvenir stand lady. I promptly paid her a visit, and after I threatened to return with police, we renegotiated the purchase so that it was a little fairer.

 

14th century stone archway that once covered the kinhs throne-Tongan Stonehenge

Anahulu Cave

Flying to Eua Island

 

 

There are two options to get to Eua Island, a 3-to-6-hour public ferry that crosses rough seas or the worlds shortest flight, an 8-minute single engine plane trip. We chose the flight. It wasn’t comfortable but it was quick. it’s a good thing we did fly too because the seas would end up being too rough for the ferry and it would be cancelled indefinitely.

 

Our flight

Our Eua Island Guesthouse

 

 

Eua island is my kind of island. it is rarely visited by tourists, still pristine and wild with lots of rainforests and sea cliffs and home to small population of traditional Tongan people living ina few small villages.  The island has lots of hiking trails and although camping is technically forbidden there are lots of hidden beaches to camp on. We unfortunately had too much rain during our trip for camping and even though I brought my tent, we ended up staying at the Hideaway Guesthouse every night. This was fine because we loved Hideaway Island. It was run a by a Tongan women who also lives part time in New Zealand. There was a common outdoor seating area where we would eat our meals while watching whales breaching out in the nearby channel. The most unique part of the stay however was not the whales, it was the huge boar, named Prince that wandered around the grounds and restaurant looking for scraps and dozens of small piglets that the boar squired. In Tonga pigs are raised for food but these ones were more pet than food and they were given free reign, but the owner did try and block them from entering the restaurant area but despite their best efforts the 300-pound tusked boar would always break into the restaurant where he would find food from tourists. The boar looked intimidating, but he was a big softie and he loved being scratched by Paula and I. It was the piglets I feared far worse than the boar. The little piglets always in pursuit of food, would often sneak up on us and nibble on our food, a sensation I didn’t appreciate and there was no stopping the piglets from entering the outdoor restaurant. They were little and could get anywhere.

 

Me with the giant boar and his piglets

Paula with the giant boar and a piglet

Exploring Eua island

 

 

Our guesthouse was located just outside of the village and was connected to most everything on the island via a dirt road our foot trails through the jungle, so Paula and I did a lot of exploring on foot and for the further away places, we hired a vehicle and driver from our guesthouse to show us around the island. What I loved about the island is that it was not defendant on tourism. The people lived off of fishing and farming and they lived traditional lives and were very welcoming. The students wore the traditional mat, ta’ovala mat or variation of one as part of the outfit. As in ancient times, this often still consists of a laufala mat wrapped around the waist and secured with kafa — sennit cord made from braided coconut husk fibers around their waists and some older people did too for no special reason. The on Sunday in church almost everyone man and woman wore the traditional mat.

When I asked about the origin of the mat at my guesthouse, a Tongan lady told me the legend was that a European shipwrecked crew came stranded on one of the Tongan islands hundreds of years ago was summoned by the King but when they realized their only clothing was tattered and unbecoming of a king they removed some of the rope sail from their boat to wrap around their waist to appear more respectable. When the king saw this, he liked the appearance of this and started to wear the same mat. Soon others began to emulate the king, a new custom was born in Tonga.

 

Schoolchildren with mat uniform

A Tongan family relaxing on the porch of their home. The mother is wearing a mat.

Paula and I loved Eua Island especially the church service on Sunday morning. Its true that in Tonga everything shuts down on Sunday. Even our restaurant service at our guesthouse was extremely limited on Sunday. Tongans take God’s Day of rest very seriously. Paula and I attended one of the small wooden chapels with open windows and Tongan people dressed in their best clothes and traditional mats wrapped around their waists. Listening to the harmonious melodies of the hymns of the Tongan people was a highlight for Paula and I. i have loved the church hymns of the South pacific for a long time but to be in the church service overwhelmed me.

Graveyard

Swimming beach we hiked to when the rain stopped

Tongan girls  

Eua island is full of jungles in the wild western side, and we did some hiking. This is an amazing part of the island where I could have spent days exploring and camping.

Exploring the highland jungles

Our driver climbing into a pit

Spider

100′ rainforest pit

We hiked along the sea cliffs facing the open ocean. The waves and wind were fierce but the views amazing.  A majestic herd of wild horse crazed on the grass nearby.

 

Lokupo cliffs

Natural archway

Wild horses 

Swimming with Humpback Whales

 

 

Pula and I ended up booking two-day trips to swim with the whales with a local fisherman named Kiki, a kind man of few words who spoke very limited English but seemed to understand the ocean, tourists and whales very well.  Kiki took us out on the first trip with his son on a small skiff. He had wet suits, and life jackets for us wear and we headed out into the rough seas of the channel. Sometimes waves would lap over the side of the boat. It was hard to spot whales since the shit caps obscured the waterspouts of the whales usually used to spot them. But it didn’t matter there were so many whales and somewhere doing full breaches out of the water. As expected, we had the whales mostly to ourselves. There was no harassment of them by chasing them. We simply navigated the boat in front of their path, Kii would drop us off into the water, pull his boat away and we would snorkel in the open ocean until the whales came close to us. The waves made it hard to even snorkel. Water lapped into our snorkels and Paula had time breathing. The deep blue beneath us was intimidating and Kiki mentioned occasionally he has spotted a tiger shark in the waters. We couldn’t see the bottom and I kept Paula close to me. I figured I would use my gopro stick as a repellant if we encountered a shark and I was constantly looking in all directions to ensure nothing was sneaking up on us.

I will never forget the moment that we first laid eyes on a giant Humpback whale in the water. The grace of these giant animals underwater, with their almost ballet like underwater movements was simply beautiful. They came to the surface every few minutes for a breath and then spent 20 seconds or so sometimes having a peak at us before plunging back down into the dark depths of the ocean with just a few strokes of their giant fins. We swam with the whales at least a dozen times over the two days and on one occasion I was able to get within 10 feet of another and baby and I honestly thought they were going to collide with me, but they veered off to the opposite direction before getting too close and disappeared. Swimming with the whales was almost a spiritual experience and one we will never forget.

 

Kiki

whale closer to shore

Whale fluke

Whale fin

Our last day snorkeling with the whales was the best. The seas were real rough and it rained and there were no other boats on the water. Kiki’s son wasn’t with us, and Kiki would drop Paula and I off into the water alone with the whales. The experience was more intimate and intimidating than before, but we loved every moment of it.

 

Nearby whale 10′ away

Mother and baby

Whale encounter

Video of our whale encounters 

Whale diving after breaching out of the water right in front of me

On the day of our departure the ferry was cancelled, and all flights were booked for days so we were happy we purchased our flight tickets weeks ago. We flew back to the main island and then onward to Fiji the next morning and back to San Diego.

 

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