After five days spent exploring the main island of Tonga, Tongatapu, we headed east to the small island of Eua. It is here where we spent five days on the search for Humpback Whales,
Our journey started with the ferry ride to Eua. There are two ferries a day from the main island, the fast ferry and the slow ferry. Although we had plans to ride the fast boat, rough seas led to this being cancelled. However, the slow ferry was still running so we saw no trouble with hopping on this. There were very few tourists apart from us and another lady called Natalie who was travelling from New Zealand. We soon found that she was also staying in the same accommodation as us and we had a few fantastic days spent with her.
As we got settled on the ferry and started to move out of the safety of the island's lagoon the sea started to get rougher. The cabin crew handed out sick bags whilst the locals tried fruitlessly to hold onto the small TV on wheels as it was tossed from one end of the boat to the other. I'd like to mention here that I have never truly been sea sick. Maybe felt a bit queasy before but never had an issue with rough seas. But as the boat tipped more alarmingly to the side and our current situation got more precarious it brought on the worst sea sickness I have had in my life to date. Not only was I seriously worried for the fate of the boat and us, and I'm a confident sailor, but I could only really think about my breathing as I tried desperately to not throw up or pass out. Only the former occurred, luckily into the bag provided and me and my friend Holly held hands over the table as we both tried to keep it together.
Seeing land in sight had never felt better as we slowly came into the calmer waters of Eua and disembarked the ferry. I had to lie down on the wharf, probably a little dramatic but it felt right at the time. We both dreaded the ride back but tried to keep this at the back of our minds to enjoy the next few days.
Our accommodation on the Island was Ovava Tree Lodge, a short two minute walk from the ferry wharf and a short stroll to the beach. The lodge is run by a family and they were really so welcoming to us. Each morning we had a hearty and fulfilling breakfast of porridge and toast, they even packed us sandwiches for the day and in the evening made fantastic meals. I dabbled in some fish here as well as some vegetarian dishes but everything was delicious. The accommodation is on stilts and is up in the trees making for a really unique setting.
The rooms are basic but the novelty of being in a tree house with a view of the ocean makes up for it. For the first few nights we stayed in a double room and for the final two nights we were upgraded to the family room which gave us more space and our own bathroom. That evening we went for a walk to shake off our scary boat experience and to take in what it's like to walk on a beach in the middle of the ocean.
The next day the family we were staying with informed us that today would be our best chance of seeing whales. With it being the end of the season and the seas forecast to get rougher as the days went on, we were urged to have a quick breakfast and jump in the family's small boat. The Tongan family who hosted us ran two businesses. The wife was in charge of the day to day running of the lodge whilst her husband ran the whale swimming and dive shop. Together they made a great team.
We had chosen to go to Tonga for this specific reason of swimming with whales. Swimming with humpback whales is banned in many countries due to the large numbers who would flock there to overwhelm the mammals. It is therefore only allowed in a handful of countries with strict regulations attached to it. Our boat could not go any closer to the whales than 650 yards and we were only allowed to have four people in the water with each animal. Tongans care deeply for these creatures and as we headed out to the open water we were told of the importance and reason these great mammals swim in these waters.
Humpback whales go North to the warmer waters of the Pacific and Equator to give birth and raise their young each year. When the weather starts to get warmer in the Southern waters they head back down to Antarctica and cross the Tongan trench for the good food and currents that make the journey easier. It is therefore common to find a mama humpback with their calf which is what we had the fortune to see and swim with.
Within 15 or so minutes our guide had spotted a mother and calf in the distance and we were on our way to see them. We were dropped off and told to swim as fast as we could to the whales. The seas were quite rough and despite a guide with his hand up to signal where to go, with each swell he would disappear making it quite scary. You also realised pretty quickly how deep the water was where we were swimming with only blue below. With no life jackets on and not being the strongest swimmer I kept my focus on reaching the whales so as to not become overwhelmed with the riskiness of the situation.
We finally made it and the calf was curious straight away. Whilst their mother floated below, the calf showed off and checked us out, they nearly came to break on top of me but luckily spotted me and moved out the way! It was absolutely amazing and looking into the eyes of these wise and magnificent creatures was such a privilege. When the mother felt the time was right she called for her calf to follow her deeper into the depths for a dive. Feeling exhilarated, we were able to meet them at their next spot and watch the calf and mother again.
After this our guide said it was best to leave them and we made our way back to the shore. On the way we also went snorkelling near the island and saw a leopard shark on the reef which was also incredible. We were so lucky to see the whales on our first day at the end of the season as we spoke to others who hasn't had a chance to see them even if they had put aside four or five days. Although it was pretty scary swimming in such deep water, seeing whales in their natural habitat and taking care to give them the respect they deserve was amazing and an experience I'll never forget.
Due to our seasickness the day before, our new friend Natalie had kindly given us some tablets for our whale watching trip to help with the heavy swells. However these didn't seem to kick in until after we came back from swimming! They were very strong and we so we spent the rest of the day napping and trying to get rid of the high the seasickness tablets had given us. It led to some very giggly rounds of cards!
With three more full days to fill on the island the next day we decided to take the advice of our hosts and hike to Fangatave Beach. This hike involved looking for a bucket lid to mark the route, and scrambling down the cliff to get to the beach. Luckily there were ropes to help with the decent and ascent. This was a great challenge and the reward was a beautiful beach with no one on it! We relaxed and sunbathed here enjoying the novelty of such a remote beach. This took up the whole day and that evening we headed to a neighbouring resort to watch a Tongan rugby match against new Zealand. In Tonga, Rugby is a huge part of their culture and they love to support their team. Many people have a Tongan flag of support outside their homes and before the game there was a procession of cars going around the island showing words of support. One van even had a group of guys sitting on the back roasting a pig! The game was fun to watch and although Tonga didn't win, spirits were still high and we enjoyed spending some time with locals and taking part in their pastime.
The next day we headed to the Southern end of Eua to walk the rock garden path. This land is where the original dwellers of the island lived and there is ancient relics of this remaining with the position and placement of rocks. There are also wild horses living here. They are naturally curious of humans and around four decided to follow us through the bush on our walk. We ended up turning around as we were confused if we were following a human trail or a horse trail only to turn around and find four horses right behind us! They let us pass to head back though and it made for an interesting walk. This also took up much of the day and that evening Holly took advantage of the cheap lobster on the menu.
Our final full day in Eua was spent finding all of the other tourist spots on the island. This included the sunrise spot which is one of the first pieces of land to welcome the sun every day around the world, a natural land bridge and the Ovava tree of which the lodge was named after. This tree is the oldest in the pacific and is huge as it takes surrounding trees into its own as it grows larger. It seemed to have a whole eco system on its head. Another fun find was a hole in the cliff called the rats cave. Crawling through this hole you find a small cave big enough for two or three people to look over the national park of Eua which consists of a huge jungle until it meets the sea. This was a fab viewpoint.
By the final day we felt we had really seen and done everything there was to do in Eua. It was a fantastic island with some great walks, hikes and scenic points but is very isolated from the rest of the world. I gave my parents quiet the panic when I didn't have access to Wifi or internet for three days after my whale swimming!
We headed back to the main island on the dreaded ship however this time we were prepared and had taken sea sickness tablets before bed. We therefore slept through the whole ferry ride and weren't disturbed by any swells. We had another three days in Tonga which we spent at a resort on the west of Tongatapu but I'll save that for another post...