Soloman Islands

How about swimming with the whales

and then diving at unspoiled tropical sites with extraordinary visibility, stunning drop-offs, swim-throughs and tunnels, soft corals, dramatic walls, caves and a harbour wreck? Or maybe a day or two of kayaking around uninhabited atolls and snorkelling in idyllic palm-fringed turquoise lagoons would suit? Perhaps catching a record fish from one of the big game charter boats is your bag? I’d suggest taking at least one day off and checking out the authentic handicrafts markets and spectacular local scenery before lunch – beside the sparkling waters of one of nature’s loveliest playgrounds . Vava’u, in The Kingdom of Tonga, is one of the few relatively undiscovered gems of the South Pacific.

Swimming with Whales. The Kingdom of Tonga is one of only a few places in the world where you can legally swim with whales. These gentle giants return each year between June and October from the icy waters of Antarctica to calve and mate in the sheltered waters that surround the many small islands that comprise Vava’u.

I joined a package whaleswim expedition that offered nine full days in Vava’u, with seven days out on the water with the whales, we met the first of these wondrous creatures on day one, only 20 minutes out from the town of Neiafu.

A mother and calf pair were cruising near the shore of one of the larger inner islands. Just 15 minutes after our quiet approach the skipper had determined that the whales were okay with our proximity and our first group was in the water and heading toward their first encounter.

We were a somewhat nervous lot to start with. Snorkelling 50 metres away from the boat in very deep waters toward a 15 metre, 30 tonne animal and her baby. It was a challenge. Within moments of seeing her, nervousness had turned to wonder. The mother was resting about five metres below the surface and about 20 metres away from us. She seemed to be quite at ease with our presence. While gazing reverently at this majestic mammal the calf appeared from nowhere and surfaced beside me. He had come to play! Circling slowly past, he opened a saucer-sized eye and looked right at me. My heart stopped and I entered an absolutely timeless space. It was a life-changing moment. I felt an incredible sense of connection with this most ancient of beings and could happily have abandoned everything and swum off into the blue with this five tonne baby. He stayed with us for about five minutes, spy-hopping and swimming around the group before heading back off to mum.

We had a number of similar encounters over the next six days, and at times had both a mother and calf coming right up and thoroughly checking us out.

They were absolutely unforgettable and heartwarming experiences and there was no question about the gentleness and precision of their interactions with us. We had many more interactions with the humpbacks during our expedition, including a grand finale involving seven whales and 50 or so spinner dolphins about five kilometres off the coast. The regulated whale swimming guidelines state that no more than four people, plus the guide, are allowed in the water with the whales at one time. There were only 12 of us on the boat, but I can tell you that the swimming rosters were always being closely monitored. We were all so intent on getting as much ‘whale time’ as possible that it was a challenge to patiently wait your turn.

The thrill continued even when not swimming with them, as during many of our scuba dives we had the eerie accompaniment of humpback song. Courting males were roaming the blue waters throughout the season, serenading and trying to find the buxom beauty that would be swayed by their particular charms!

Diving Vava’u

The waters around Vava’u are very protected and most of the spectacular dive sites have little or no current or wave exposure. Sites offer excellent (often superb) visibility with 25 metres being the norm and 40 – 50 metres vis not unusual. The stunning coral gardens, enormous areas of vertical walled hard coral fingers, caves, swim-throughs and trenches, are in the clearest, most intensely cobalt blue-hued waters you could imagine. It is certainly as spectacular but less frequently dived and still with many, many unexplored areas out there for the adventurers.

There are over 50 islands in the Vava’u group with many dramatically different dive sites. There are only a couple of licensed dive shops in town, but dive and charter boat operators, Dolphin Pacific Dive, looked after us well, for both the whaleswim tour part of the trip and the separate diving expeditions. They run an excellent operation, with good, roomy and well set up boats and, as the original discoverers of many of the dive locations in the area, are able to lead you straight to a sensational day (or nights) exploring. (see page 85)

Days and Nights in Vava’u

Our evenings in Vava’u were lots of fun. I was, for the main part, with our expedition group and as part of the tour we ate at a different place every night. The cafes and restaurants are small and often eclectic but they offer a variety of food styles. It may not be haute cuisine but it is fresh, clean, tasty and abundant. A warning though, avoid the ghastly canned corned beef. The bars are a hoot. With boaties galore and more than a sprinkling of international funsters, there’s often a sing-a-long underway and you’ll need to be firm with yourself to ensure that early start in the morning. If you’ve had enough of the bright lights on a Friday night, stop at the local hall and listen to the men’s singing groups practising while they give the kava a nudge. You’ll find heavenly voices and lots of seriously laid-back blokes – very different from what you’d find in one of our bars on a big night out.

Given the relative isolation of Tonga, food and drink is reasonably priced. I had to give away a few of my more high-brow pretensions but got used to it pretty quickly. Quite honestly, after a couple of weeks in Vava’u I was feeling pretty darn healthy and very darn happy with this particular Pacific holiday.

Caring for Swimming with Whales

There are many ‘from a boat’ whale watching ventures operating throughout the world but the unique opportunity to snorkel with these magnificent cetaceans is becoming a precious draw-card to a very beautiful but remote and previously rather inaccessible location. Fortunately the Vava’u whale-swimming industry is being carefully managed.

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