Tonga, an independent country, is the only kingdom remaining in the South Pacific. It is, however, governed democratically by a parliament that is split between nobles and popularly elected citizens.
Small, with a population of only about 115,000 people, it consists of several hundred, primarily small islands in geographically distributed groups that total about 750 square kilometers. It is not a wealthy country. While it counts on tourism (followed by agriculture and fishing) for most of its revenue, it subsists largely on the basis of remittances (Tongans who live in other countries and send money to relatives) and foreign aid, with China playing a growing role.
Our trip was limited to the Vava’u Island Group, the furthest north of the nation’s three primary archipelagos. Consisting of one large island (Vava’u) and dozens of small, beautiful, emerald coral-based islands in a sea of turquoise and blue waters, the archipelago is home to the activity that brought us to this country. The opportunity to snorkel with humpback whales in their summer mating and birthing season.
We landed on Vava’u Island, the largest of the group with about 16,000 people. After being picked up from the airport, we went the Neifu, the largest town with about one third of all the island’s people. It was not much to see on the sleepy afternoon we arrived. There were few people on the rather nondescript main street or in the stores. The highlights were the impressive Catholic Cathedral and the large harbor, which capitalizes on the region’s popularity for sailing among the chain’s many small, scenic islands and secluded beaches. After a ride down to the island’s southernmost point, we were picked up by boat for a short, 20 minute ride to our destination, the tiny island, of Kapa.
The town, however, looked like a totally different place during our late morning return. The open air produce and fish markets were fully stocked and filled with people doing their daily shopping. The main street, meanwhile, was lined with tables displaying the stores’ merchandise and teaming with window (or in this case, table) shoppers. These drive-throughs, unfortunately, were our only chances to visit the town.
Kapa Island, a short boat ride from Vava’u, is a different world. It has a total population of about 160 people, spread primarily across three microscopic villages, each with a few homes, run-down empty buildings and its own church. While the island is home to dozens of cows and hundreds of pigs, it is served by a grand total of two cars!
Our destination was the Reef Resort, the island’s largest draw and its primary business. With a total of five units, it is hardly a mega-resort. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in intimacy and personal service. They are happy do give you tips as to where to go and what to do and to take you there by boat.
It is also beautifully situated on a beach, with a rise that led up to our villa, (large bedroom/sitting room, bath and kitchenette) with a wall of windows and large front porch that looked out over the pretty bay and four islands that are literally close enough to swim to.
Japanese Garden Snorkel
We did, in fact, swim (or more accurately snorkel) between islands on our first afternoon. Upon our request, the staff took us by boat to one nearby island (Mala), from which we snorkeled through the shallow Japanese Garden coral garden where we saw a small, but relatively nice selection of hard coral (primarily elkhorn and brain) and sea anemone of colors ranging from white to one that was black with bright yellow stripes. While most of the hard coral was beige and white, there were occasional patches of blue and especially orange.
Although the coral was relatively limited and spread out, most heads were surrounded by large numbers of pattered and brightly colored fish. As we approached, most, as would be expected, drew in much closer to the coral and some of the most colorful (those that I was most anxious to photograph) hid among the branches, While these were primarily black-stripped sergeant majors and especially small blue and turquoise-colored tangs, we also saw some yellow butterfish, parrotfish, angelfish and even a couple of beautiful emperor angelfish
Our greatest surprise, however, were the starfish. We saw one large (about 12 inches across), spindly, bright blue fancy brittle sea stars munching on a head of coral and a veritable colony of huge (up to about 18-inches across) black icon starfish.
These, not to speak of the black and yellow anemone, were enough to turn a merely satisfactory snorkel trip into a discovery experience.
But, while Japanese Garden was not the most sensational of our snorkeling adventures, we did not make a special (not to speak of expensive and time-consuming) trip to Tonga for the snorkeling. We came for a much more unusual—indeed unique experience. We came to snorkel with humpback whales. And not just any humpbacks, but with mothers and their babies. And that’s the subject of our next blog.