We had to say goodbye to Eck at 7AM – he left early to get back to Singapore for his daughter and a birthday party. People leaving early is always a sign that vacation is coming to an end.
We had a 9AM boat time once Alan got back from town. Like the day before, there were more swells and lots of wind. Luckily, we had a few drops with a mama, baby and escort. On the first drop they turned and swam right by us – practically beneath Gary – it was so beautiful. On the second drop they swam beneath us. And on the third, they swam past and away.
Alan joined us for dinner and told us the story of how he get to the King of Tonga to agree to sell him Mounu Island. He gave him “a pig and two fish” – which we all agreed would be an excellent name for his memoir.
We did a lot of fishing from the boat. They caught a marlin but it broke free before it could be reeled in.
Today was rough, windy, and bumpy with little to no whales. At the end of the day we got a call from another boat that they had a friendly mother/calf pair, but by the time we got there they had moved too close to a reef. With the waves as fierce and rolling, Alan couldn’t get the boat close enough to let us in safely. If one of us got washed up on the reef there would be no way to get to us without damaging the boat. Such a shame, because the calf was essentially a big puppy dog who wanted to play. He kept rolling over onto his back and showing us his big white belly. It would have been fun to play in the water with him. A few times he came up from the water with his mouth open as if feeding. Pretty amazing, and something we’d not seen yet.
We got back to the island very late – around 4:00 – and we all disappeared from each other, tired of the day and the long ride back.
Gary’s Storytime: Since we skipped Storytime last night, we had two stories to make up for.
Spoiler Alert – no whale time today. They were out there and looked playful, but each time we got close they’d dive and disappear. There were a few breaches and a few tail slapping so we’d go nearer and they would quiet down and go. A fascinating part of the morning was a pair of juvenile males who frolicked together in the waves and showed off for us. We tried to get in the water with them but they were only in the mood to show off for the boat.
Fastest Dinner On Mounu
A sailboat anchored off the island, and the couple came to the restaurant for dinner. They were rather loud and annoying, so we whale-watchers silently agreed to skip Gary’s Storytime and hurried to the beach for a crab hunt.
We were in the water within 30 minutes, as a mother and calf were just off the island. Mom was relaxed and laid-back, and the little girl calf was shy but curious. As we slowly approached we noticed how far the calf explored from Mom and how Mom just relaxed under water. She’d go down to about 60 feet for a snooze. And while she rested, the calf would hang with her, come up for a breath, check out us snorkelers, circle around the boat and play, come back to see us, and then go down to Mom. She’d do this three or four times until Mom finally, slowly came up for a breath. Then they’d both swim for a bit, and Mom would go down for another rest. And we’d repeat the entire routine together. We stayed with them for an hour and a half – the maximum to be with a Mom and calf – and then left so an incoming boat could experience them.
As if they knew we were leaving, Mom and calf both breached to say goodbye.
A few lessons that stuck today:
1) Always find and stay close to the Mom. The calf will always come back to her, and if you chase after the calf you’ll just end up kicking all over the place
2) Let the calf come to you. Otherwise he/she will get scared away and the mom will swim off
In the afternoon we usually return to the island around 2:30 or 3:00. Tony and Emi always go snorkeling, and Eck and Serene often do as well. I find that I’m usually more inclined to nap and read. Lazy of me, but there you have it.
Gary’s Storytime: Ginger and the monkeys at the zoo
Our evening routine of Gary’s storytime accompanied by tequila continued. As did our crab hunting on the beach.
According to Tongan law, Sunday is a mandatory day of rest. No boating. No whales. No leaving Mounu Island. Though we were allowed a sleep in, I woke up at 6:30 and had a sunrise walk with Otto all around the island.
After breakfast we all had a quiet morning of reading, writing, and photos. I spent 3 hours sitting on the deck and finally writing my journals from Uganda in June – all to the sound of waves crashing against the beach.
After lunch, Laura, Eck and I snorkeled all the way around the perimeter of the island. Parts of the water were very cold – Tony would later tell us that he can’t remember a day where the water of the island was this cold. But we saw some fun little things: a sea cucumber “heat run”. Lots of fish. Laura found a little eel, which I promptly scared away trying to photo it with my wide-angle lens.
Water shortage: Mounu Island (and Tonga as a whole) is experiencing a draught and fresh water is at critical levels. So we’re especially focused on water conservation and take “cabin showers” rather than full showers. We still drink all we need to, but it’s a healthy activity to be forced to think of what we take for granted on a regular basis.
Gary’s Storytime: This evening’s story was all about Ginger’s first day of school and pancakes.
I woke up just after the sun came up after 6:00 and made my way to the dining area to journal and organize pictures. There’s really nothing better than typing away with a coffee and the silence of only the surf.
The whales were evasive this day. Lots of boating around and not finding any whales, or finding whales with too many other boats. At one point we found a mama, a calf, and an escort, but they deliberately turned and swam away from our direction. After 10 minutes of following and hoping they’d slow and sit, we got the message and left them alone.
It seemed that the whales just didn’t want to play with us. I teased Serene that I’d have nothing to write in the journal, so I’d have to dedicate this entry to her “Rape and Pillage of the Ocean”. Luckily she was saved. After lunch and almost time to head in, we were saved by the other Mounu Island boat – on loan to another service – who called to say they had a mother and calf who were close to the surface, would dive and swim, and then stay close to the surface again. It was the same mother/calf from the day before though a bit friendlier… until we got in. Then they swam. Each group of us had about 60 seconds in the water before they dove, and then we tracked them for a while from the boat. Luckily, the calf was feeling energetic and showboaty, giving us a lot of photo ops.
An hour of tracking, they slowed down and we tried for one more swim. Magical. Mama and baby just sat in the water, completely still. He was completely under her head and would occasionally come up for a breath. One time he surfaced about 10 feet from me. Mama gave us a good 15 minutes with them – and it was extraordinary. I’ll bounce around the ocean all day long if this is how it ends.
Arta Tequila: We’ve started a few group-driven traditions for ourselves here in the last whale spotting Tonga trip. One is Tony’s bottle of Arta tequila, which he was gifted earlier this season from the owner of the company. Most of us associate tequila with crazy nights and horrible hangovers, but a good agave-based tequila like this is a delicious thing. So we celebrate each evening with a round of drinks and I track the end-of-night bottle level with a camera shot.
Gary’s Storytime: The second tradition is a new one (here on day #3 together) which we kicked off the night before when we learned that Gary had written a collection of children’s stories. We made him promise to tell us a story this night, which explains how we ended up sipping tequila and listening to the first chapter of Ginger and Mrs Peabody.
Crab Hunting: The final tradition – not unique to our group – is taking Otto crab-hunting. Otto knows it’s coming, so he starts circling after the dessert plates are cleared, his little feet tapping and his nose huffing as he waits impatiently for us to go to the beach. The process of the crab hunt takes a few different elements:
1) Running down the beach with our solar-recharable lights
2) Spotting out the crab holes in the sand along the shoreline
3) Calling his name with great enthusiasm, “Otto Otto! Otto Otto!” and frantically pointing to the hole
4) Waiting with anticipation as Otto sniffs the hole to see if anyone is home
5) Laughing as he digs and digs and digs and eventually comes up with a crab, which he then chases all over the beach
6) Moving OttoOtto along when the crab starts to play dead in defense “Come on Otto! Otto Otto!”
It’s the last thing we do before turning in for the night, which is usually around 9:30.
Beautiful weather – again. But this day was very little water time and a lot of boating around the islands. No complaints there; the scenery was gorgeous and the company fun.
We ran across a number of mother/calf pairs out in the blue, but we also had a number of boats cluttering the ocean and aggravating the whales enough so they dove. We also had a few heat runs at a distance. But everything was fast moving so we had little chance to get in. There was one set of mama/calf in a little cove that we found, long after lunch, but they were evasive. Each time we went in the water they went deep. We could see the white of the calf’s belly but it was down, down, down. And when they came up for air they came up and dove deep again.
We were dry, but happy. We usually returned to the island around 2:30 in the afternoon and spend the rest of the day snorkeling, napping, and reading – in no particular order. This day was sand dollar hunting with Serene and Eck, then reading until the sun went down.
Dinner was sashimi from the fresh catch the night before, followed by the lobster tail and our (now traditional) tequila shots. Lots of laughter at the table tonight, sharing stories about each others’ children and teasing Gary about some cartoon character named “Peggy Pig” or something. Then we discovered he has a collection of children’s stories in his head.
The evening was closed up with a rousing crab-hunting round with the ever-ready Otto. He found a few and took his frustrations out on the crustaceans – having been spurned by his doggie girlfriend that day in town. Poor pup.
I woke early to enjoy a quiet coffee in the dining area with my journals. Mounu was a peaceful, lovely place. With really delicious coffee.
After breakfast was served we loaded up the Phoenix and took off for a day of whale-watching and – hopefully – swimming with them. The process involved Allan driving the boat with his head out the top; and Tony, Emi, and Ma’ata on the top level watching for the slightest glimpse of activity.
Very soon they spotted something Tony said he’d only seen once before: about 4-5 whales breaching over and over again. All that activity turned into a heat run: the female expresses interest by slapping the water with her pectoral fins over and over again. Then the males come running. What’s next is a pursuit in the water as the males give chase and she breaches over and over again.
The water was rough and rocky, and there were 2-3 other boats out there with us.
Next we headed inland to calmer waters and to search for a mother/calf combo. What we found was a “singer” – a whale sitting still, upside down, and singing. He flapped the surface a few times with its fluke. When we got in the water it stood still for a moment then slowly moved down and tilted horizontally. Out of nowhere another whale showed up and the two of them disappeared off into the blue.
We arrived back at the island around 2PM (lunch was on the boat) – which gave plenty of time to nap, snorkel, or both. I opted for a snorkel out in the shallows.
Dinner was a re-cap of the day, and how well we did (or didn’t) swim. And also a very in-depth conversation of how the academic community publishes papers and studies, and yet doesn’t spend any time out or in the water with the whales. They come down for 2 weeks, take photos of flukes, and consider that a study. They don’t use the resources of operators or the people who are out there every day. And wouldn’t it be interesting if they did?
Mika picked me up at 6:20 and we moved to another hotel to pick up 2 more passengers (a young couple from the UK) and took us to the domestic terminal. I’d learned from the prior day’s flight that I should consolidate back into one piece of luggage, and my overage charges were only about $20 USD. To pass the time until the flight, I went to the little cafe next door to get a cappuccino.
I met three of the other six travelers: Gary and Indra from Singapore, and Laura from the US. We boarded our little plane for our 45 minute flight to Vava’u. Tony met us at the airport with Allan Bowe, the owner of the Mounu Island Resort, who gave us beautiful leis. We hopped in a little bus, stopped by a bodega and a market, and climbed into the boat – the Phoenix – for the 30 minute ride to Mounu. It was a grey, cloudy day – which was perfect for the beautiful boat ride.
Mounu Island Resort is a tiny, private island owned by Allan and his wife Lyn Bowe, who moved here 17 years ago so they could be closer to the whales. They have a few tiny cottages and one main dining area – with trees and sand in between. It’s lovely. Laura and I were roommates and settled right into a normalcy which we’d perfect over the next few days. Starting with my unexpectedly long two-hour nap that afternoon.
There are eight of us total: Tony and his wife Emiko, Gary and Indra, Serene and her friend Eck, Laura, and myself. We’re a group who’ve traveled far to get here and are passionate to see and learn about whales. Tony used dinnertime (delicious!) to brief us on our whale encounters. There will be lots of swimming, and lots of boating, and occasionally executive decisions by Tony/Allan to move on from one whale and try for another. Tony summarized our most likely encounters in three scenarios:
1) Heat Run – a single female slapping the water and calling the males come mate. This is a fast-moving, frenetic activity.
2) Mama and calf – a mother whale with her baby calf, sitting on the surface and breathing
3) Singer – a single whale, hanging horizontally upside down in the water and singing
For each of these, Tony advised us to “match the mood of the whale”. Meaning that some will be curious or inquisitive, some will be uninterested, and some will be unfriendly. This follows the same logic as any other mammal – elephants, gorillas, anything – is just to maintain awareness and enjoy.
The next time I travel somewhere it takes 3 days to get there, I’ll bring an extra pair of underwear to change into after day #2.
It’s a real shame that priority lounges stock their kitchens full of wine and beer and – after two solid days of travel – I have no interest in anything but water
Never underestimate the power of a shower. Even if you have to dry yourself with paper towels because – while beer and wine is fully stocked – towels are not.
I will never again think the NYC-SFO 6 hour flight is a long trip
I really need to re-assess the weight of crap I bring on these trips. I’m paying overage up the wazoo.
I have no idea how Air New Zealand got my bags to me, but I’m grateful for the small miracle that made it all happen. To tell this story, I have to map out the series of legs on this trip:
JFK –> LAX (Delta)
LAX–> SYD (Delta)
SYD –> AKL (Delta)
AKL –> NFU (Air New Zealand)
NFU –> VAV (Real Tonga Airlines)
It’s important to note that it took three tickets for these 5 different legs. Legs 1-3 all booked via Delta on a single ticket. But legs 4 and 5 had to be booked separately. So when I arrived in Sydney and discovered that leg #3 was delayed for hours and hours and I was at serious risk of missing leg #4, my Amazing Race mode kicked into overdrive. And it was slightly complicated because leg #3 was a Delta flight but was actually operated by Virgin Australia. So I went to a VA gate to explain the problem (a) my flight is delayed, (b) I’m going to miss a connecting flight on a different ticket, (c) my bags are checked through to AKL.
I’d been traveling for 24 hours by this point, so I wasn’t sure I even made sense. But somehow they understood my gibberish. They had a flight to board but they’d get me sorted out. I went in search of coffee and drowned my sorrows in the largest chocolate croissant I’ve ever seen. After I’d finished licking my lips I heard my name paged and returned to gate 63. They’d booked me onto an Air New Zealand flight that left an hour sooner, but i needed to go downstairs to the Air New Zealand desk to get my luggage transferred. Karen at the desk sorted out that bit, while also making sure I had a decent seat (I had a whole row to myself). She was the best part of my day.
And the luggage gods were smiling on me, because my bag was there in Auckland just as it should be. I had to pass through Customs, get my luggage, check my bags again, and pass through security to go back to where I came from. I wandered slightly shell-shocked around the AKL airport and decided to treat myself to a shower – though the public showers had no soap and no towels (or paper towels), I had a rinse anyway and dried myself with my trusty scarf. I felt mildly better. But then I realized that that Auckland had a lounge that accepted Priority Pass. MOTHER OF GOD! Priority Pass is about as useful as the Diners Club Card – but when it’s useful it’s AWESOME. I took shower #2 – this time with soap and shampoo – and dried myself off with paper towels. The definition of Heaven is all relative.
I’ve been traveling now for 38 hours and have no idea if the above paragraphs make sense. And I don’t even care.
In Auckland, I expanded to two bags as I’d have to pay overage charges for the one. But it turned out that the extra bag cost me $90USD anyway so it would have been smarter to pay overage. Novice traveler move, and not worth the mention in the journal except for a small circumstance when I finally landed in Nuku’alofa at 11PM at night. I caught a cab – a lovely driver named Mika – who started the 30 minute drive into town. About 5 minutes down the road I said, “Oh no! Mika! I left my second bag!!” Mika probably wondered if I’d lost my mind, but obligingly turned around so I could run back in to the very tiny airport to get it. Mine was the only bag left in the entire pile.