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Tonga 2012 Reflections

Oh Whale…

Reflections from a FreeDiving trip to Tonga

We have been dreaming about this trip for the past year. The first few weeks since we returned from Tonga last September were full of whale dreams, blue water and white sands… when will we swim with the whales again???

It is 9am and I am sitting at the resort, eating my breakfast and watching 3 whales that are logging on the surface less than 800m from our table. A year has past since our last trip and I am seriously considering dropping the computer and swimming to the whales….

It’s 12:00 and I am back from a nice long swim… The whales were relaxed but did not let me get too close. I did however see some stingrays, schools of reef fish and the visibility was just perfect.

I have had a chance to see whales in Australia – both from a boat and in the water when a whale approached me while we were spearfishing- to be honest, being caught by surprise in 5m vis’ was not the most “relaxing” experience…

 Something for everyone…

The plan this year was simple- Find a resort where there are not many people around, on a “deserted island”, with comfortable bungalows and good food, with clear deep water and good snorkelling not far from shore.

As all of our FreeDiving and whale swim expeditions to Tonga take place in the Ha’apai group we are always a bit isolated. Most people fly to Vava’u for whale swim and have to “share” the whales with many other people.

We have researched for a long time and finally found “Serenity beaches” – A tiny Eco resort operated by Patti – An american woman that had a dream of living on an island…

As usual – we were using Whale discoveries as our platform for the training and whale swim. Dave and Tris share our love for the ocean and provide us with the very unique program that we require.

 The schedule:

We started every day at 07:30 with a nice, easy yoga session led by Ally. The session was held in the main open Fale- 20m from the waters edge. Half way through the sessions you could hear people saying “oh – I see a mother and calf just outside the reef in front”.. Cant wait to get in the water!

After a massive breakfast we boarded “Wildlife” – a 54ft Catamaran and took off towards one of the nearby islands or sea mounts.

On the way, we practiced breathing and went over the plan for the day. Depending on the weather and our goal for the day, we would pick the best dive location: either a sea mountain coming up from 60m+ or a bommie next to one of the islands.

We would then drop the lines and train for a few hours.

The area we visited has minimal current and there is usually around 30m+ visibility! We had over 40m vis’ when we have Freedived the Arch!!!

After the session we would have lunch on the bat and go looking for some whales to swim with. We finish the day at around 16:00 and have a break before dinner, followed by theory for those who do a FreeDiving course.

This was the plan….

On the first few days we did not manage to follow the plan as we always had whales very close to the resort. We would then spend most of the day swimming and not training much.

On the third day we have decided to be strong and not to get “tricked” into jumping in the water straight off.

We boarded the boat and lifted the anchor. within a couple of minutes we have spotted a couple of whales resting on the surface and the skipper announced: “Group one get ready..”.

I approached Dave and told him that today – training comes first and that the whales will just have to wait. We then proceeded to sail for around 40 minutes to one of our favorite spots – a beautiful sea mountain. For some reason, all the way to the dive site the whales were following us 🙂

We have jumped into the water and began our session. 8 FreeDivers on 2 lines. I was swimming between the setups giving instructions and corrections.

20 minutes into the session the whales arrived! two of them came within 20m from our lines, performed a perfect Duckdive and just hung below the surface while we were all screaming from joy.

A few minutes later two more whales showed up below us, joined the other two and swam away to begin a 30 minute long display of fin and tail slapping, chasing and breaching. Truly a spectacular sight!

 The whales:

There are many amazing places to FreeDive around the world but nothing compares to FreeDiving while listening to the whale songs!

We have had the most amazing encounters this year. On one occasion one of the groups had a mother and calf surrounded by more than 8 other whales. It all took place in shallow water near in island so the swimmers had a fantastic opportunity to get “close and personal” with the whales.

There is no other experience in the world quite like it! when a 20 ton whale swims up to you and you make eye contact you feel as if there is some sort of deep bonding and communication. The whales choose when to allow us to swim with them and how close we could get. Mothers would actually push their calves towards us once they decided we are not a threat…

We have also planned 3 extra mini experiences this year: a trip to the arch, a trip to the Caves and a trip to Tofua – a volcano that holds a crater lake said to be 50mm deep and crystal clear!!!! And best of all – no-one has ever freedived it.

 The Arch:

This site contains what is said to be the larges underwater arch in the pacific. It sits at 29m of water and surrounded on three sides by amazing reef walls. FreeDiving this spots makes you feel very small. Especially in days where visibility tops 40m as we experienced.

The second time we visited the arch we had the chance to scout around and we have discovered a few “unexplored” caves and swim-throughs that we have decided to dive next year. We have also discovered there is a cave that begins below the arch, goes through the island and opens up on the other side in a small bay. The whole length of the cave is not suitable for Freedivers as it is dark and long but the entrance on the bay side is really fun to explore.

The arch provides hours of fun and allows for depths of up to 70m and beyond if needed.

 The caves:

The caves are a series of rock formations along the reef of one of the near islands. Last year we spent half a day there and explored around 10 swim-througs. This year, we spent a whole day and realized we have not even scratched the surface! There are at least 100 different options ranging from open toped shallow swims (2-5m), 25m long canyons at varying depths (6-15m) and options such as the “Green cave” that is a potential 100 swim at depths of up to 18m.

 The Volcano trek:

Last year, we have tried to climb the volcano Tofua and reach the crater lake inside. As it turned out – none of the people we asked knew exactly how long the climb would take and we ended up having to turn and return to the resort (70km boat ride) and go back to research.

This year we allowed a whole day for the trip.

We left the resort at first light and traveled to Tofua. Everyone were excited and prepared for a “very long day of climbing”. As last year’s climb was tough we expected a difficult climb again, but the day ended up being even harder than expected!

It took around 2 hours of non stop climbing to get to the point in which we began the descent into the crater. The view was amazing! one cant realize how big the volcano is until he stands on the crater rim.

We have only had around 30 minutes in the water of the lake before having to pack up again and begin the slow hard climb up to the rim.

The lake was not as clean as we were led to believe but it might also be related to the fact that there was a lot of rain in the previous month and that the algae made the water very green (Reminded me of lake Eacham in QLD).

On the climb up to the rim we have stopped to look into the crater and saw a bit of lava 🙂

It took roughly 6 hours of non stop walking and on the way back on the boat most people just fell asleep… Lucky it was the last day of the trip.

In the evening we talked about the trip and the guys asked us to use the term “Grueling” when describing the intensity of the climb.

On our future trips we might have a volcano trek but unless we plan an overnight stay on the island we will just climb up to the rim and enjoy the amazing view across the lake.

Training:

As the water temperature is around 23 degrees, deep and clear Tonga is a great place for FreeDive training. We had divers that set a goal to freedive to 40m and they have easily achieved this goal.

The 54ft catamaran is a perfect platform and we even have a counter weight system in place for deeper dives.

It is important to mention that the trip is not only for experienced FreeDivers – we had families with kids, couples, keen FreeDivers, Snorkellers and whale lovers from all around the world this year.

We cant wait to be back in Tonga.

We would like to thank all our friends that joined us thins year and we are looking forward to getting back to Tonga.

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