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Friday, October 10, 2008

October 1 - Neiafu, Vava'u Tonga

The rain has been persistent and consistent here in Tonga, Vava'u. We stayed at the anchorage by Ano & Tapana Beaches for another couple of days to wait for pretty weather so that we could snorkel the Coral Gardens which boasted the most beautiful coral, and abundant sea life in the group but it became clear that we would be waiting for a while so we cruised over to another anchorage at a place called Mala Island where the local resort's restaurant has begun featuring Monday night football. Because
we are a day ahead of the USA out here, we sat and watched the Chargers vs the Jets at 1:30 PM on Tuesday, dining on Lobster Pizza and getting to know fellow cruisers. We stayed for just one night and then ventured back into the main harbor at Neiafu the next day, dismayed that we didn't have a chance to snorkel at Mala because we had heard that there were Lion Fish, cone snails (both deadly by the way) and lots of pretty coral and starfish varieties there.

We found that Ryan had indeed found himself aboard yet another boat departing for NZ and left on Tuesday. It is a little early to be heading to New Zealand just yet so we prayed for his safe passage and speedy arrival. We got together with some other boats, Baraka, Estrellita and a scattering of other folks to go snorkeling with the whales on Sunday (yes, we were surprised that they allowed this on Sunday!). Tonga is one of the last places in the world that allows humans to swim with the Humpback
Whales. Hands down, this was the most amazing adventure we have yet encountered while cruising. The guides literally took us out to swim with a mother and her calf. There were 11 people on the boat and each of us got to go into the water twice with the whales. We watched them surface and dive, playfully turn belly-up on the surface, and then lazily roll onto their sides "waving" at us. It was mesmerizing. At times we were so close to them I found my heart racing with sheer adrenaline. These
creatures are huge and yet so graceful and gentle. This is one of the few experiences I just cannot put into words, but do have some photos to post that even still cannot depict the moment. This is a once in a lifetime encounter which few will ever have the opportunity to experience. We feel privileged and blessed to have been able to do this.

In recent days we have been bidding many friends farewell that are headed to Fiji and then onward, causing Vava'u to leave us bittersweet memories. The Peasleys on Imagine left us while in Tapana, Andy and Melissa on Spectacle had just departed from Neiafu and now Bill and Amy (Estrellita) were leaving on Tuesday so we wanted to do something special with them. After a very stormy Sunday night, Monday dawned to reveal blue skies and perfect wind and sea conditions; hence we sailed out to Mariner's
Cave with Bill and Amy aboard while towing their dinghy. Mariner's Cave is accessed by snorkeling up to a wall on the face of an island called Nuapapu, and then free diving down 8 feet underneath the surface to a 14 foot wide arch passage, which you continue under before ascending up into a dark cave within the rock structure. Of course there is a story to the cave and a reason we all want to dive it: "A young Tongan chief had fallen in love with a maiden from a family that was marked for extinction…"
(a gal from the wrong side of the tracks so to speak). "…In order to save her, he spirited her away from danger and hid her for two weeks in this cave. There he brought her food, water and promises of love and a future of safety to sustain her until he was able to prepare an expedition to Fiji. He picked her up en route, married her in Fiji and then when it was safe to do so, returned to Vava'u with his bride and they lived happily ever after…". We wanted to visit this mystical fairy tale place.
Because the water is too deep to anchor outside the cave, only three of us could go in at a time while one person stayed on Destiny to make sure she didn't drift into the rocks - or out to sea. Bill and Amy both had underwater video cameras and the plan was for each of them to video each of the rest of us diving into and back out of the cave. I went with them the first time. The cave is not visible from outside, so we used GPS points to locate the entrance. The only way you can see that you
are approaching the correct spot is to look for a deeper blue area in the water. Amy and I swam to the entrance and were waiting for Bill to approach when all of a sudden, I watched Amy take a big breath and down she went. She popped back up to inform me that she had located the entrance point to the cave, then after taking another deep breath back down she went and this time didn't pop back up. Not sure what to do or where to really go, I quickly took a big breath of air and pursued Amy downward.
Whether I didn't take a large enough gulp of air, or my previous years of smoking had taken their toll on my lungs, or the underwater distance was much more than documented, I thought my lungs would burst before I got into the cave. It was eerie and surreal swimming into utter darkness, kicking for all my might hoping to clear the ceiling of the arch in time to break through to the surface before passing out, or involuntarily gulping water. Finally seeing Amy's fins fluttering below the surface,
indicating to me that she was floating above, I let out my last few puffs of air and popped up like a cork. Bill arrived some minutes later asking why we didn't wait for him so he could video us going in. Amy said; "we'll do it again so you can film us." I said' "No, I'm good - it was fun, I'm done". They just laughed at me as Amy repeated the maneuver for Bill to capture on video while I floated to catch my breath and look around the cave. It was bright and clear one moment and then as though
on cue and with a strange rhythm, my goggles would completely fog up my ears would pop, the cave would become filled with a thick greenish fog and feel pressurized, and become ensconced in total darkness. This phenomenon repeated over and over with the ebb and flow of the water within the cave. Although the story tells of a ledge where the maiden stayed while awaiting her lover's return, there was no place that I could see for a person to climb up out of the water. I could not imagine the courage
and stamina of that young girl's heart, staying in there for 2 weeks. Bill and Amy returned and we floated around for a short while looking at the formations and colors within and then I spent a few minutes calming my heart and mind, trying not to think too much about trying to get back out of there. As before, Amy suddenly took a deep breath and away she dove. I looked at Bill who must've seen the saucers I'd grown for eyes, and he just said; "Calm your mind and the rest will follow, Barbara
- take your time, oh and I will be filming you". I followed his instructions, added a prayer of my own and away I went, feeling very relieved to see that I was swimming into light this time and could see my surroundings as I made a much easier passage of the dive back out. I swam back to Destiny, and tagged Frank for his turn. He took off like an anxious pup. When he approached the entrance to the cave I noticed he went down, came back up and waited a few minutes and then headed back down when
Amy came out to direct him. When they got back to the boat I noticed Frank had a large gash and a smaller one on the top of his head. My stomach lurched at the site because I'd heard that coral cuts can be very dangerous as they contain living organisms that can get into your system and become severe infections. He said that his dive suit had made him far too buoyant and he had really struggled to stay down under enough to make it through the arch. We scrubbed and cleansed his wounds and although
it probably caused him more pain than the actual injury, he healed up fairly quickly.

Amy and Bill left in their dinghy to return to Estrellita and get ready to depart for Fiji and Frank and I sailed over to "Anchorage #16" to meet up with Morning Light and some others. Fortunately the fair weather stayed with us for another 2 days and we finally had a chance to do some snorkeling. We took a few pictures but our camera just cannot capture the colors we have seen. We managed to film some blue and purple starfish and a couple of curious squid. The coral here is amazingly well preserved
for being in such shallow depths. We really enjoyed the anchorage there and got a chance to meet Rennie and John from Scarlett O'Hara. Then the reports of severe weather threatened once again to end our fun so we returned to Neiafu for our last few days in the Vava'u group before heading south to the Ha'apai group.

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