Saturday, 17 October 2015

Tongan paradise

Just back from an incredible holiday in Tonga – yes indeed this was a HOLIDAY!  Pretty rare that we get away on an actual holiday, but I guess most people consider my life to be one big holiday!

We had heard about Tonga and the beauties of it through several friends, and thinking more and more about it decided to take the plunge…literally.  The draw of swimming with humpback whales was the main motivation, but then sandy beaches, with beautiful coral reefs, great diving and somewhere a little warmer than Hawkes Bay were all good reasons.  After doing a little research it seemed that a little resort with a big heart called Matafonua Lodge was getting pretty good raps, both from people that had visited, and people that hadn’t but had heard great things.  We planned and booked, as they were already pretty fully booked for the whale season, we took what we could right at the end of the season, arriving there on there on 5 Oct.  The normal whale season runs from July through to early October, so we booked, hoping that the whales would stick around long enough for us to get in a couple of days on the water with them.

Arriving in Tonga, and spotting a breaching humpback calf out the window as we approached the runway, we did a quick tour of the sites with a local taxi driver, who showed us around the main island – the blowholes (which were pretty cool and you could well imagine how impressive they would be in a big swell), the King’s Residence, the Royal Tombs, and a small market.  Then it was time for the smaller flight out to Ha’apai in a 20-odd seater turbo prop.  Coming in to land at Ha’apai showed how spectacular this little island group looks from the air with lots of white sand beaches and crystal clear water revealing reefs in abundance.

Matafonua is right at the northern end of Foa Island, in the northern part of the Ha’apai chain.  Perfectly situated for spectacular clear waters, great diving and cooling breezes, it is also unfortunately a pretty exposed spot, as Darren and Nina (the owners) found out in January 2013 when Cyclone Ian tore through Ha’apai.  The Lodge was completely destroyed, with just the foundations of buildings left, a pretty horrifying experience, and the rebuilding of the Lodge shows Darren and Nina’s tenacity and love for the place.

Arriving we were greeted warmly, shown around, given the run-down and then taken to our beautiful little fale right on the beach overlooking the lagoon just off to the east of the Lodge.  Paradise!  It only took the first evening to realize all we had heard about the food here at Matafonua hadn’t been pure hype…it was all true!  The first night we had beautiful mahi mahi cooked to perfection, followed by a spectacular dessert…and every evening was a similar culinary masterpiece.

The next day was windy, this time of year it can happen.  But we headed out on the ‘whaling’ boat – a whaler with a difference.  Julia, our guide for the day ran through safety, the procedure, and then we set off.  A little chop and windy conditions didn’t help, but it didn’t take long to find our first whale…a mother and calf that turned out to be a pretty nice example of how an operation like this can act as a window into their world, for just an hour and a half.  We had three opportunities to drop into the water, four at a time with the guide and this mother and calf stayed pretty calm and close, diving to the deep every now and then, but often just sitting just under the surface.

The video below – shows our first day.  What a special day out, a chance to really see these guys up close.  I have seen literally thousands of humpback whales above the surface from boats and ships, but seeing them below the surface, you are really seeing them in their element.

The next day we decided to take it easy, and then a couple of days of diving.  The diving was superb – really great tunnels, caves, clear water and lots of small fish.  We did see a few snappers and things like that, but I missed a white-tipped reef shark that some of the others saw.  I was probably trying to take video of nudibranchs or anemone fish!  We then had another go at whale swimming, and were lucky enough to see a small pod of false-killer whales, which cause a little trouble with the humpbacks around here – targeting small calves.  But these guys were moving rather than feeding, so no graphic images!  Then we found several mothers and calves, but their behavior had changed from the previous day.  These guys were far less settled and they definitely seemed to be thinking of heading south.  We did get a couple of great encounters with a mother and calf, but we really had to work for it.  Below is the second video.  We also saw a few spinner dolphins, which bow-rode briefly.

We then spent a couple of days relaxing around Matafonua Lodge, and exploring the reef and lagoon area right beside the lodge.  We managed to find a few Spanish dancers - Hexabranchus sanguineus - a dorid nudibranch.  They are a Gastropod, related to sea slugs, and many nudibranchs are just the size of a thumb-nail, where as this one was the size of my hand, and they sometimes get much larger.  This species gets its name from its colour and the fact it looks like a Flamenco dancer when it moves through the water, actually swimming.  There are several clips of the animal moving along the reef, then seemingly feeding on a sponge, a short scene showing scale, and then two clips of its incredible movement through the water here in this video.  A really stunning beast and really one of the highlights of the trip.

I managed to do a few time-lapse sequences and will post them once i have worked on them a little and put something together.

So, I’m now about to head off to Fiji on my next adventure – a Zegrahm Expeditions trip from Fiji to Tahiti through some of the South Pacific Islands – including three stops in Tonga!  Will be a great trip with some good friends, and visiting some great places…more on that later!

Enjoy the pictures below!

The blow holes on Tongatapu, about a mile of them along part of the coast

Pacific flying foxes roosting during the day on Tongatapu

Inside of the fall, with stunning view out of the window

The view from the fall...not bad waking up to that!

Looking from our fall towards the north and towards the dining area in the middle distance

Night shot towards the milky way, one of the first images on a time lapse sequence

Diving through some awesome canyons

Mother and calf humpback from in the water snorkelling with them

Same mother and calf, just incredible to be so close and in the water with them

Pretty happy after the swim with hum pies!

Awesome tunnel we swam through whilst diving

Saw spinner dolphins on several occasions during the trip, but they never really performed, although did bow ride briefly

Brief but close views of some false killer whales which swing through the area and cause havoc with the humpbacks

Great frigatebirds were present and breed on a small island nearby

Mother humpback on the surface

Young calf taking a look up out of the water

Young calf having a 'whale of a time' tail slapping

Our fall, what a spot!

The line of falls along the top of the beach

Paradise found!

Tonga feast night, this suckling pig was front and centre, on his way to the fire

Being tidied up over the fire

Three hours cooking time, being hand turned over the coals - this was undoubtedly the best suckling pig I have ever had...and I've had my fair share before!

Nearly done

Photo-bombing the time lapse I had set up of the pig on the spit...Abbey shows off!

Then Lily...

And then about wildlife!

Our last sunset looking back down the beach towards the south-west

Ollie the wonder dog on the beach at sunset

More sunset

Pacific flying fox at dusk flying over from a neighbouring island

Petroglyphs that are just down the beach from the lodge and dated at around 850 years old, a bird (pigeon) on the right

New friends - we had an awesome groups of people that we spent time with at Matafonua, so much fun!