Friday, October 17, 2008

Whale Song Serenade

We weighed anchor in predawn silver blue hues, with enough light to grope our way around Euakafa Island. The dimmer was turned up as we hoisted our sails, giving us the visibility we needed to avoid the litter of coral patches and reefs, and the Vava’u island group fell away to the north. With obstacles behind us we braced ourselves for a joy ride, sailing a close reach in 18 knots of wind, and averaging 8-9.5 knots of speed.

This day trip, a 70-mile passage to Ha’apai, was made caravan-style, a novel experience for us. We had departed Vava’u with a bevy of boats, namely Libertine (Dutch), Shilling (British) and Moonduster (Californian). So, we spent a good deal of the passage comparing notes on the VHF and, since testosterone was involved, racing each other to the “finish line.” We are happy to report we left everyone in our wake.

The welcome committee was especially welcoming that day. As we approached the northern tip of the Ha’apai a humpback whale made a spectacle of herself, parting the waters with sheer force of bulk and will. The portentous display lasted several minutes and left us giddy.

The Ha’apai island group is known for its navigational hazards. As a result many mariners avoid it altogether, rendering Ha’apai rarely visited and sparsely populated. What with imprecise charts, about a quarter mile off, it makes avoidance of charted coral a greater challenge. Compounded by the presence of many uncharted coral heads, a lookout on the bow and the sun overhead is paramount. Lucky for us, so many sailors don’t know what they’re missing.

Sadly, the weather has been a little glum. Ho hum. Overcast skies, gusty tradewinds and intermittent downpours have limited our enjoyment of these wondrous outdoors, keeping us in hunkered-down mode more than we’d like. And yet, when the sun shakes off its veil and the whitecaps wander away, all the more spectacular the scenery becomes; simply put, it shimmers. We anchored off Pangai village, the most populated, on Lifuka Island, to check in with customs. We wandered through town, confirming that, as warned, there’s little there. And then we hunkered down. The horizon closed in, wind and rain blew through and we sat it out. After a couple nights the sun made its appearance and was forecast to stick around for a few days so we high-tailed it out of Pangai to get the most out of the clement weather.

Our first stop was an anchorage at the southern end of Uoleva Island, a short 6-mile journey. En route we passed by a whale cow and her calf, no more than 100 feet from our stern. We dropped anchor in turquoise waters along an expansive white sand beach, slipped into our bathing suits and dinghied to the reef opposite the shore. There the coral grew in life-affirming, orgiastic profusion. The rippling sunlight fractured into a dazzling confetti of rainbows, like paparazzi flashbulbs. It’s tricky to smile with a snorkel in one’s mouth but possible, I found. We swam with Wayne who reported, after we plopped ourselves back in the dinghy, that he had spied a shark following Ben (unawares) at a steady 15-foot distance. Evidently it was a small one (~4.5 feet) and probably just satisfying its curiosity. Without any major hemorrhage, I guess he didn’t find Ben all that interesting after all.

The next morning, in the midst of preparing a departure to the next anchorage on our agenda, we heard a distress call on Channel 16. The sailboat Talismano had run aground, on a reef just outside Pangai village. They requested assistance with wavering voices that underscored how very afraid they were. We were anchored about an hour away but we heard no other response to their distress call. Ben and Wayne took the dinghy to board Shilling, anchored nearby, who then set a course for the grounded vessel. We were all relieved when, 30 minutes later, Talismano reported that a local powerboat nearby had managed to dislodge them from their rock-jawed snare and all was well. Shilling turned back and we shared a morning coffee aboard before the three of us (Shilling, Moonduster and Pangaea) set out for Huaka Lehi, another 6 miles away.

Our approach to Nukupule, one of two diminutive islands that share Huaka Lehi’s lagoon, was auspicious. Once again a whale greeted us, as we skirted the reef and found the bight in which to drop anchor. We jumped in for a cool-off swim and then jumped in our dinghy to explore the sands of Nukupule. As we neared shore a cloud of flying foxes (fruit bats) scattered from their arboreal roosts with some scolding chatter. They circled above as we circumambulated the tiny island, and finally settled down in resignation.

We agreed to a little afternoon entertainment to follow our explorations, as Wayne offered us flying lessons (ie, spinnaker flying) aboard Moonduster. He retied his anchor to his stern to invite the wind from behind, hoisted the spinnaker, tied a boatswain’s chair through a line connecting the spinnaker’s two clews and told me to jump in the water. I wriggled into the boatswain’s chair and adjusted the two ends of the line from which I was suspended to fill the sail. With a little trial and error, and with a soft gust of wind, I was lifted out of the water, in front of the bow, dangling from the billowing spinnaker above. The motion was so gentle I felt almost cradled. After some squeals of mixed delight and terror, I settled in and enjoyed the view. The excitement was short-lived as the soft gust blew by and I was lowered back into the tepid water. Janet from Shilling was next but her lift-off was a little feeble as the afternoon winds were settling down for the night. Ben gave it a go, but it was a no-go. We agreed to reconvene for a potluck dinner aboard Shilling and returned to our various vessels.

Right upon clambering back aboard our cockpit we heard a shout from Shilling. “Whales!!” We watched excitedly as a cow and her calf sauntered lazily into our anchorage – Mom alternately floating and diving, while Junior practiced his belly-rolling, tail-slapping and flipper-flapping, to our delight. After a few minutes it was evident the whales would be sticking around. Ben jumped in the dinghy with his mask and snorkel, paddled over to the whales and quietly slipped in the water. He watched from a reasonable distance and the two took little notice. Eventually, Junior’s curiosity was piqued and he decided to check Ben out. Mom thought better of this and approached Ben as well, effectively steering Junior off his intended course. Close encounter! Ben paddled back to the boat while I hesitated. Should I? Shouldn’t I? I half expected the whales to drift away but instead they approached closer, weaving their way between our boats and that decided it for me. Time to swim with the whales. Apprehension lingered about but I swam to the whales nonetheless. Other than the occasional “PHWhoooosh” of their blows, and Junior’s carefree splashing, there was no sound to be heard besides my heart trying to beat out of my chest. I could see their bulk above water. They seemed close by but below the surface the water was a slightly murky blue facing into the slanting afternoon sun and it required a continued approach before their forms solidified into view. It was pretty shallow here, about 30 feet deep over sand. Finally I could make them out, a few whale-lengths away. A rush of exhilaration flowed through my veins and tickled my nerve endings. Afloat in the shadow of giants. Mom hung in animated suspension close to the sea bottom while Junior performed his acrobatics above her. He continued to belly-roll, flipper-flap and tail-slap, but his favorite position appeared to be upside down, a vertical dangle. I kept a constant distance and simply observed. Mom and Junior took no notice and eventually my heart rate slowed to a comfortable rate and rhythm. Eventually Wayne joined me and, just like a man, thought he’d see what would happen if he approached. I hung back, more respectful, less intrusive (and more fearful, to be honest). Needless to say, mom had the final word and removed a little further out.

Our dinner plans were slightly delayed by the cetacean encounter – no complaints there. We enjoyed our evening, toasting the whales into the night. Before heading back to our respective homes we heard the familiar “PHWhooosh,” and suspected we’d be having a sleep-over with whales. Ben and I lounged at our bow, watching the sleeping mother’s bulky shadow in the moonlight, and watching Junior cautiously explore in his midnight insomnia. We sent up our words of thanks.

The next morning, sipping coffee in the cockpit, another shout of “Whales!!” was issued. This time a pod of 5 or 6, traveling through the channel adjacent to our anchorage, was greeting the morning with exuberance. We don’t know if Mom and Junior had joined their number but we suspect so. For close to an hour we watched as they breached, and breached, and breached, until they were dots on the horizon. The forecast foretold of crummy weather on its way, to be expected late in the day. We wanted to eke as much play time out of the sunshine as possible. Shilling needed to head back to Vava’u so we parted company and caravanned with Moonduster to Lofanga Island, a 3 mile trip across Ava Mata Nukupule channel, where the whales had just passed us by.

We saw another whale lingering at the point, adjacent to our new anchorage, but couldn’t pinpoint where he’d gone. As soon as we dropped anchor in this beautiful cove we jumped in the water for a snorkel along Lofanga’s southeastern reef. Here, too, the coral was on proud display with a veritable side show of piscine freaks to entertain us. Wait….I heard something. Was that a squeal? “Ben? Did you hear that?” It took a couple minutes before it dawned on me—whale song!! A whale song serenade. I couldn’t pick out whether it was two voices, one deep, one shrill, a mother and calf I suppose, or if this was the range of one whale. And what is the range of a song, to a human’s ear? How far away? Her voice echoed all around us but the diva that crooned this lullaby remains anonymous.

After our swim we hiked along a trail up a hill from the beach, worn through the grass into a skein of red soil. After letting ourselves in through a sliding gait we wandered our way through Lofanga village. Tongan villages are encircled by fencing to keep the pigs from wandering away, and each home, in turn, is fenced to keep the pigs from wandering in. It seemed a languid day. Our arrival prompted some glances and a few timid waves. “Malo e leilei,” a Tongan hello. It wasn’t until we passed a residence swarming with children further along that the interactions began. Tongans are taught English as a second language throughout their schooling, but the use of English is so limited here in the remote Ha’apai that conversation doesn’t tend to extend much beyond the niceties. We learned the children’s names and ages, determined that they were home from school (in uniform) for their lunch break, explained where we were from and that we came by sailboat. We were offered mangoes, and then their mother approached us with smiles and a gift of bananas. The life here is simple, scratched out of the earth and shared with pigs, chickens and dogs. There is a notable lack of industriousness, but little pressing need as the fundamentals are easily obtained from the surroundings. The quality of life is spare and could use some improving—the Peace Corps sends its troops for this purpose—but whether the locals feel it needs improving is a question we can’t answer. Some Palangi (ex-pats in Tonga) are cynical, as incoming aid to Tonga is evidently quite plentiful, but funds seldom make it to their intended target. The village of Hunga received aid to create a more usable and sorely needed track from the beach; it went instead to a big screen TV. Oh well.

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