As we continue to explore the central Polynesian islands we’ve moved to the Kingdom of Tonga for three weeks. We spent the first week on Fetoko Island in a place that is almost a fantasy of remote island life. It’s a tiny island, just three acres, where native San Franciscans Ben & Lisa, along with their two dogs and cat, run a beautiful six-fale resort. Small, you ask? So small that Google Maps doesn’t even think there is land there; it shows the area as just water.
First, just a word about Tonga. Located south of Samoa and east of Fiji, Tonga has about 100,000 people living on 36 islands spread out over 270,000 square miles. In other words it’s just about the size of Texas with – if you’re doing the arithmetic – less than one-half of one percent of the Lone Star State’s population. Interestingly, unlike other South Pacific lands Tonga was never fully colonized. From 1900 until 1970 it was a protectorate of the UK, which “managed” the country’s foreign policy, but the country never relinquished its sovereignty; today it is the only kingdom in the region. Only recently has Tonga become a constitutional monarchy; the first representative elections were held in 2010. The current king, Tupou VI, has ruled since 2012, succeeding his childless older brother.
Now, back to our little three-acre plot of heaven. Fetoko Island is in the very northern part of Tonga, near the much larger island of Vava’u. Besides the general beauty of the area the big reason people come to Vava’u is to swim with the whales. Yup, in Fiji we snorkeled with sharks but in Tonga we swam with whales. From May to October humpback whales migrate up from Antarctica to give birth before heading back south for the summer. We were comparatively late in the season and the tour companies couldn’t guarantee we would find whales but, along with six other fun people from our resort, we gave it a try.
For much of the day it didn’t seem as though it was going to work. We were on a small boat and the seas got pretty rough; a sweet 13-year-old girl traveling with her parents and sister spent an unfortunate amount of the day puking over the side of the boat. We’d probably been out for three hours before we finally found our prey: a mother and her maybe five-month-old calf. Even then, after all that time searching, we had to hold back for quite a while as another boat had found them first; if too many boats and people converge at once they’ll scare the whales away.Once the coast was clear, though, we put on our masks and fins and jumped into the water. During that first dive I didn’t really know what I was seeing. Way down deep there was … something, mostly just not doing anything. We’d come here after two German women we’d met in Samoa said swimming with the whales near Vava’u was one of the coolest things they’d ever done but … that’s all? After a few minutes we got out of the water and I thought “Wow, that was a waste of time.”
The day was not lost, though. Our boat continued to track the whales and after another 20 or 30 minutes they decided we should go in again. This time the whales were much closer to the surface. Still way down and still just lying around, but now you could clearly see the outlines of both mother and calf. Then it got really exciting. First the calf started swimming around and surfaced before going back down to mom. A couple minutes later they both started moving and swung around to swim to the surface. As we’d been pretty much directly above them they both swam remarkably close to us; at one point I was just looking her right in the eye. It only lasted a few seconds but those seconds were really worth it, just that close to such a massive animal.
Otherwise you really shouldn’t get the impression that we did anything in our week on the three-acre island. The first four days we were the only people staying there, so there was no competition for the great hammocks. Instead I finished one big reading project – Ken Follet’s Century trilogy, historic fiction covering World War I, World War II, and the Cold War – and started an even bigger one. Shortly before leaving the States three-and-a-half years ago I bought William Manchester’s three-volume, 3,000-page biography of Winston Churchill but I’ve always shied away from taking it on. I decided that with three more weeks still in the South Pacific this is the time.
The one thing that deserves special mention from Mandala Resort was the food. Needless to say there were no restaurant options for us, so we ate whatever they were cooking. We’d explained our somewhat limited diet, though, trying to avoid carb-heavy foods like potatoes, rice, bread, and sugar. They were remarkable. Not perfect, mind you – how were they to know that lentils and chickpeas are loaded with carbs? – but they went over and above the call of duty in catering to our peculiarities. And the food was great. They employ a young Swedish woman who is vegan and lunch in particular was always creative, tasty, healthy, and vegan (they’d serve meat and fish for dinner, but lunch was vegan). I’m not sure I’d have thought that was possible but she made it work.
Our first week in Tonga – more Samoa and less Fiji – was a great start. From here we head south to the main island and capital before catching a flight up to another island group. No surprise, but I’m becoming a big fan of the South Pacific.