Tonga: Jewel in the Crown

By Lee Czerniak

Vava’u group
Ron and I had been to Vava’u before, but it was all new for Nick and Julie. We were to stay on the new vessel Tikiti-boo, a sailing catamaran from the Sunsail charter fleet. Having seen the vessel in New Zealand before it went to Tonga, I knew what to expect – a very sleek machine with all the mod cons. This was to be a live-aboard diving situation, trying out a rendezvous diving programme. We were greeted by the Sunsail crew like long-lost friends, and it was really great to catch up with them.

We settled onto the boat and arranged tanks and weight belts with the dive operation, Dolphin Pacific. I talked over our idea for rendezvous diving with Carwyn from Dolphin Pacific, and he was more than happy to accommodate our needs. So with tanks loaded for a couple of days, we were happy to spend that time cruising and exploring dive sites for ourselves. We enjoyed a meal ashore at one of the local restaurants on the waterfront for our first night, and planned to head out of the harbour the next morning.

As mentioned, the winds really were not in our favour, so first thing we went ashore and checked out the weather fax. The forecast was for strong winds of 30 to 35 knots, but we didn’t want to stay in the harbour, so with a reef in the main and a reduced headsail we headed out to Port Maurelle. Now, if you want excitement, this was really a great sail. We managed a good 12 knots of speed while navigating our way through the islands to our anchorage. The wind, as usual, was coming from where we wanted to go, so no direct course could be taken. It certainly was an exhilarating sail and we all arrived feeling that we had done some work to get there.

Port Maurelle offers some pretty snorkelling that you can experience while waiting for the weather to improve. Julie and Nick experienced a visit to a local village for the first time. A charter like this gives you more freedom, allowing you to do what you like and explore the islands as you wish. You really get a chance to meet the locals, and get the feeling of actually visiting the islands and becoming involved, not just being an observer. Entering the village, you can see how the people really live. The pigs roam around, and the children are playing, as friendly as children anywhere. That evening we watched lights on the reef: the villagers were out looking for crayfish and other delectables. The reefs provide much of the food consumed by the people; they are communal areas providing resources for daily living, work and recreation. These opportunities are not so readily available when staying in a resort.

It was a couple of days before the weather gave us the chance to go diving. We decided that a dive on the outside of Hunga Island would be sheltered from the winds, and hopefully the sea was going to be calm. The sail over was really great and showed us that this catamaran really was a comfortable cruising vessel. Being twin hulled, there was no heeling over and she rode over the waves with ease and comfort. No major stowing had to be done like with a monohull, but you still get the enjoyment out of sailing. We arrived at our dive site having seen whales on the journey but not close enough to really get a good look at them. The weather conditions had sent the whales off to deeper waters, and there were few to be seen close in. No chance to get in the water with them.

Getting suited up on the cat was really easy, with tons of room for each person to have their own spot in the very large cockpit. Entry into the water was also made easy, with steps down each of the pontoons so you weren’t tripping over others. This site, and all along this side of the island, is very pretty. We found big guts and archways with beautiful, brightly coloured and very clean-looking coral. The fish life was in abundance, as well as a couple of reef sharks that nosied in for a look. It always amazes me how perfect in colour and form the fishes of coral reefs are. The definition is always sharp and the colours are so vivid.

After completing the dive, we went into Hunga Lagoon, which is a very large area of about one by two nautical miles, with a very small entranceway that is only about 45 metres across. At low tide there is only two metres of water over the reef. But it is really well worth going in, as the high ground that surrounds this perfect harbour gives you really good shelter as well. As the winds were still piping, we decided this would be perfect for a nice quiet night – and it was. The next day we rendezvoused with Carwyn of Dolphin Pacific, and after he had completed his diving with a charter he joined us for lunch on Tikiti-boo as we headed off to a dive site that would offer us some shelter from the wind as well as a good dive.

This we found, around a small island with a tunnel that Guy Kidd had told us about. Once again, I marvelled at the wonders of having so many superb dive sites in such close proximity to each other. It certainly proved to be very successful having Carwyn on board as our guide and divemaster. He was there, but not in a way that was encroaching on our own space. At the same time he was a valued crew member for the day. He was picked up by his staff at the end of the day when we were back at our safe overnight anchorage. A very successful day. We had arranged that the next day we would try diving from Dolphin Pacific’s boat. They were to pick us up in the morning and we would dive one of their regular dive sites with them in the morning, and in the afternoon perhaps go for an exploratory dive.

Carwyn arrived bright and early, and after a very upmarket breakfast of smoked salmon omelettes cooked superbly by Nick, we loaded our dive gear onto the dive boat. As the site we were going to was not far away, we decided that our surface interval could be back in the comfort of Tikiti-boo, where we all knew a good lunch would be served! One thing we didn’t skimp on was our meals, not only quantity but five-star-plus quality!

The morning dive was in an area called Split Rock, and it was here that Julie first encountered sharks. It was the first time she had ever seen a shark for herself, and at close quarters. Her one concern about the trip had been, ‘I won’t see sharks, will I?’ I had assured her that, no, they wouldn’t be around where she was diving.

Well, for someone who has always been paranoid about sharks, she now knows that usually they are more scared of you than you are of them. Split Rock’s two resident sharks are known to the local divers as Sandy and Andy, and are completely harmless as they get to see divers on a regular basis. Julie frightened these sharks with her own antics, including a flooded mask which was cleared with so many bubbles that I think Sandy and Andy might even move to another address for fear she will come back again. As if this wasn’t enough, she even threatened them with her knife – one of those little toothpick-like ones. Sandy and Andy retreated back into a cave, never to be seen again … well, for that dive anyway.

We did our surface time and had the great lunch that was promised. Then it was off to see what could be found off the normal dive track. We headed around the main island to a spot by the light that marks the entrance to Port Refuge. We anchored just under the light on a very flat, rocky, uninteresting plateau, but about 30metres away it dropped off to a spectacular wall which went on forever. It has all kinds of overhangs, and Nick and Ron discovered a nice tunnel like a chimney. All kinds of fish were feeding on the wall, and there was fan coral, black coral, gropers down at the bottom, and coral trout. The only thing we didn’t see was sharks.

There is some great wall diving around this area. To come over a drop when you are at about 15m, and just launch yourself out over a wall that goes down forever is sensational. You can glide down by just exhaling. This was Nick’s first real tropical diving. His comment was, ‘Your sense of freedom is unbelievable. You seem to experience the weightlessness more, you’re not restricted by the confines of a suit and you can see so much further, it’s just amazing, just floating.’ So with a sense of well being we returned to Tikiti-boo and the early evening pre-dinner drinks and things. The rendezvous diving certainly proved to be successful and is a great way to enjoy diving in these waters.

The next day was Sunday, a very relaxing day, as local custom and religious beliefs dictate that nothing should be done. We did go out to dive Mariner’s Cave and have a real lazy day in the sun, and I believe the wind even started to drop. We had some amazing diving in the waters of Tonga, even if the weather wasn’t the best. We hadn’t been able to get to the extreme dive sites and the wrecks we had hoped to, but for my money I think these islands offer you a holiday that can include some really off-the-wall diving as well as being a place of pure magic to enjoy. Nick and Julie, who have a boat here in New Zealand and can experience some really good diving and boating, said that even with the mediocre weather they thought it was the best holiday they have ever had – ‘A chance to have the holiday of a lifetime.’ To see all three of the island groups, to realise that these islands are new on the tourist track and untouched with so much to discover and enjoy before they become commercialised – a step back in time to an island paradise.

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