Tonga: Jewel in the Crown. By Lee Czerniak

Tonga: Jewel in the Crown

By Lee Czerniak

There is a group of islands in the Pacific Ocean that are the jewels in a royal crown. The Kingdom of Tonga is where time begins, as it straddles the international dateline across a 425 km stretch of the South Pacific ocean. With only 37 of its 170 islands inhabited, a trip to Tonga is a step back in time where you can feel the warmth of the people and the magic of being in a land fit for kings. This archipelago has some of the most beautiful scenic diving locations in the South Pacific. We wished to explore some of these, maybe discovering new, undived areas as well as enjoying some of the amazing sites already known.

Tongatapu Group

Nick, Julie, Ron and I flew into the capital, Nuku’alofa, from Auckland with Royal Tongan Airlines, who were also going to transport us around the various island groups. Nuku’alofa is situated on Tongatapu, the main island of the Tongatapu Group, and is where the king resides and the main business of Tonga is conducted. Our first destination was Atata Island, where we were to stay at the Royal Sunset Resort. This is how heaven is supposed to be: the most superb hospitality, in a tranquil setting of white coral sands, swaying palm trees, and a turquoise-blue lagoon. This was to be our diving base.

This year the trade winds have been a little confused due to El Nino, with winds of about 25 knots and moderately rough seas we were pretty sure that there would be limited diving. Wrong! The Royal Sunset Resort has over 25 dive sites, so no matter what the weather does, there will always be somewhere to dive. All are great sites, but some were to be better than others. It was just a matter of what each of us wanted. There are 15 sites that are quite close and can be reached most of the time, as well as the offshore dives which are really quite spectacular. In the middle of nowhere, where reefs just pop up, these are still not more than 25 minutes from the resort in the bigger boat. So if you are lucky enough to enjoy a week or more here, you can have two dives every day and still not double up on the sites.

Our first dive was at a location known as The Boiler, because there is a boiler from an old shipwreck sitting on top of the reef. The site features a nice big old anchor from one of Captain Cook’s ships. This is a great reef dive that is close to the resort. Petoni, our dive guide, was very good and showed us all the interesting features. That evening back at the Resort, we enjoyed a relaxing drink, looking out over the lagoon to watch the sunset and the colours of light playing on the water. This was heaven, further enhanced by the amazing meal that was served to us in an open island-style dining area. The chef at Royal Sunset would be world class by any standards. Certainly her menu was a culinary delight, making it a highlight of each day to decide what to choose for dinner. One could increase one’s girth without too much trouble – just as well we were getting plenty of exercise from all the diving.

The next day the wind was still blowing, but again Petoni was able to find us a great spot. We headed over to the lee of the main island, and just out from the surf line of Ha’atafu Beach we dived on a reef that went from about 9 metres below the surface down to around 30 metres. There are a number of sites along this face that are good dives, with big caves and caverns, some with complete chambers like rooms in a house. This is very obviously an old volcanic area, with caves, tunnels, and walls with soft corals and hydroid corals, as well as a wide variety of hard corals. The reef drops away to a sandy bottom which reflects the sunlight back, giving you that amazing lightness that only seems to exist in the tropical seas. With the high wind and churned-up sea, the visibility was not as good as it usually is, but still 24 metres plus is not something to complain about.

After a quick trip back to the resort, a very civilised lunch of mahimahi, and some surface time, we went on to the next dive. This was to The Corners, so named because it’s the corner of the main reef. There’s a break in the reef that is also the channel through to the lagoon and resort. It’s shallow, and is often used as a second dive in the afternoon. There are lovely coral canyons to just glide through and experience the coral vista. A lot of the dives out of the resort are quite close, which means not a lot of travelling time, giving you the chance to enjoy some of the other activities that are available free of charge at the resort. We had a game of petanque, went kayaking, snorkelled just off the beach, and of course had the chance to bag a few rays.

There are dives further in towards town, and even some wrecks right up in the harbour. These are neat dives, and have a bit of history about them. One of these was a 19th century ship, accidentally found by an Australian serving with the Tongan Defence Service. He was actually looking for another wreck when by chance he came across the old relic. Following the find, some Australian navy divers raised a 770-mm swivel gun and several pieces of pottery, which were presented to the King of Tonga. The identity of the ship is still a mystery, but research into its history is continuing. There are believed to be more than 30 undiscovered wrecks in the Tongatapu area alone.

The resort also runs a live-aboard yacht called Impetuous. It is on this vessel, a 51 foot Beneteau, that you get the chance to travel into the untouched coral seas, travelling the three main groups of islands with one of the most experienced and knowledgeable divers of the region. This is a charter that I would love to experience sometime, not only to see the group from the water, but also to experience some of the unexplored dive sites. Our time with our great hosts at Royal Sunset Resort, Dave and Terri Hunt, was too short. After making new friends among the other guests and the local villagers who work for the resort, it was with sadness but anticipation that we moved on to the next leg of our journey.

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