Week Three in Tonga

eyeLots of wind, few whales, more calfs. That, in short, best characterises this past week.

After the Full Moon Party
One observation that I've heard consistently from my friends here is that the whales disappear around full moon. I have to admit I was sceptical about this for a long time, but the more time I spend among the humpbacks, the more it seems that there might be a correlation.

Recall that toward the end of last week, there was a lot of whale activity, with multiple heat runs, mating activity, whales peeing, singers returning, and so on. The full moon came and went over the weekend, and things changed dramatically.

On Saturday, there were plenty of whales, but they had switched from "party-hard" mode to "yo-yo" mode. In contrast to the frenetic, energy-charged atmosphere of the days leading up to the full moon, all was quiet. Whales settled in single and pairs, resting for extended periods of time underwater, surfacing to take a few breaths, then submerging again to rest for extended periods of time. Up, down, up, down, up, down...hence the term "yo-yo" mode, which I've coined to describe this state of whale being.

I've experienced this many times before, when most of the whales around the islands simultaneously become yo-yos. This seems to happen often right after the full moon, almost as if the whales party too hard and need some time to rest and recover.

The frustrating thing for whale watchers, of course, is that yo-yos are...dull. They don't do much, so there's nothing much to watch (unless you're trying to figure out overall long-term patterns of behaviour, and even then, it's rather boring). From time-to-time, if you're fortunate enough to find whales resting at relatively shallow depth, you can float above them and wait for them to come up, take a few breaths and sink down again, but that's about it.

Whether there's a one-for-one correlation between the full moon and yo-yo mode I'm not sure, but the working theory I have for now is that heat runs, mating and other related social activity peaks in the week or so leading up full moon. At or around the full moon, mating and births take place, and thereafter, there's a period of rest before activity picks up again.

Many other cycles in the ocean and on land correlate to lunar phases, so it's not an unreasonable possibility to consider.

This observation has held up for the past couple of seasons (since I started paying attention because I began putting more credence in a possible correlation), and it's something I'll keep in mind for future visits.

Of course, the full moon also brings calf births, so usually, there's an increase in mother/ calf encounters just after the full moon. With that in mind, following are my daily notes from the week's activities:

Saturday: All whales seem to be at rest, consistent with past experience. Stark contrast to the heightened activity last week during the few days leading up to full moon.

Sunday: Winds have shifted, coming from north, bringing warm and humid air. Today, the one day we didn't go out on the water because we needed a break, our boat found a mom and newborn calf (probably born during full moon) sitting completely still. Argh.

Monday: Yo-yo mode. Up-down, no interaction. Saw a mom and escort with a really big calf, so big that I mistook it for an adult when I first spotted them. The baby might be one of the first born this season. Was able to confirm that it was a calf by watching its behaviour and getting in once to see them underwater. They were moving too fast to get photos though. Proliferation of particles in the water, which makes for terrible visibility and awful photos.

Tuesday: Yo-yos, yo-yos everywhere. Rain with calm conditions in the morning, morphing to strong winds and generally miserable weather later. Vava'u needs the rain because fresh water supplies are running low, but it's a bad start to the week for the group of friends who've just arrived.

The only activity of note was a relatively cooperative mother and calf that another boat found early in the morning. Other boats spent all day with it, so when we swung by for a look toward the end of day, we dropped in to take one look then left them alone.

This was the first cooperative mom/ calf I've been with this season (though I know there were others). Didn't spend enough time w/ them to note any distinguishing marks on the calf, but it's easy to ID the mom from her unique fluke. There was no escort. Dubbing this calf "Scratches" for the markings on mom's fluke.


It's been a rough year for calf ID-ing. It seems that most of the calfs are not settled. Most have had escorts that kept them on the move. I recall similar conditions in 2003, whereas in 2004-2006 calfs were plentiful and many were cooperative. Last year we had 13-14 uniques ID-ed, and I thought that was a bad year. This year, I have one mom/ calf pair ID-ed so far, with a few more sightings.

The coronation of Tonga's new King took place recently in Nukua'lofa, and the King is on a tour of Tonga to visit the people.

When his bright-red plane arrived in Vava'u on Sunday, we waited on the road amid the hastily erected welcome arches and other decorations that had been set out for him. We were the only ones. Not a single Tongan in sight, due in large part to the fact that it was Sunday, when no commercial activity is allowed (including flights, unless you're the King), but perhaps(?) also a reflection of the feelings, or lack thereof, for him. He never showed up, and no one knew where he was or when he was going to show up. He was also supposed to show up for a Church service Sunday evening but didn't do so.

The parade for the new King's Coronation was today. It literally "rained on his parade". Later, we tried ordering vanilla ice cream after dinner, and were told that the King commandeered all the vanilla ice cream on the island.

Wednesday: Nothing in the morning, with a pick up in heat-run activity around mid-day. Lots of activity with unusual behaviour (that I personally haven't seen a lot of previously), such as full-body barrel rolls at the surface followed by lying belly up for extended periods of time accompanied by tail swishing, almost as if playing and putting on a show for each other and us. Several hours of this with three whales.

Other boats picked up the same mom/ calf (Scratches) from Tuesday.

belly up

Thursday: Two mother/ calf pairs today, which I've subsequently named "White Stripe" and "Scar". White Stripe has white stripes on the dorsal side of its posterior region, between the dorsal fin and tail. Scar has two vertical scars on its right side, just posterior and dorsal to its pectoral fin.

white stripe

Bad, bad viz in both cases, though there were no other boats around. Winds were really up, so there were choppy and difficult swimming conditions, but we had good swims and interaction. The first was a mom and calf (White Stripe) with a really laid back escort, not at all aggressive. The second pair (Scar) was unescorted.

So this is now three mom/ baby whales I can photo ID, with a couple more probable uniques that I've seen but can't necessarily ID again. Still...low compared to previous years.

There were other whales around. Some yo-yos, a few breaching whales, pairs and small heat runs. Activity at low-medium level. Major obstacle is strong winds coming from E/ SE, which restricts our mobility and ability to spot whales.


Friday: Winds really bad. No whales, not a blow in sight.

There were two mom/ calf pairs. We were able to get in with one (White Stripe) we had encountered yesterday. The other was occupied by another boat, and went too far out into the rough areas, so I didn't get a look for an ID.

I learned something today. At one point, White Stripe (with mom and escort) came to rest very near to a singer. The song was loud enough to resonate at the surface, though we never saw the singer. I had assumed escorts would steer their mom/ calfs clear of singers (i.e., other males), but obviously not in this case. This was a very relaxed, easy going escort (big contrast to the aggressive one last week), so maybe "personality" played a role, or perhaps it's not unusual at all.

Anyway, it's a reminder not to make assumptions. For an escort to go so near another male (and be so relaxed about it) still doesn't make sense to me, but it actually happened, so there's no debating the point.

Moms and Babies
calfMost people who visit to see the whales want to see a mother and calf...there's something about seeing a baby whale playing with its mom, and being able to experience the maternal bond.

As reflected in my daily notes above, the 2008 season has been a difficult one for mom/ baby encounters. In a really good year, we're well into high double-digit mother/ calf pairs (I can't be more specific because I wasn't methodical enough in my counts during earlier "boom" years, though I'm confident there were more than 20 unique pairs in 2004 and 2005).

Last years, with 13-14 confirmed IDs, I thought we had a bad year. This year, with three (plus a few probables), the count is really low. There was a lot of heat-run activity last year, which I had hoped meant many babies this year, but I'm not seeing any evidence of that so far.

Of course, jumping to conclusions isn't the right thing to do. As far as I know, no one has any idea what kind of cycles, if any, humpback births have, and no one knows whether whales that mate here necessarily give birth here or not. They may go elsewhere, which could mean that there's a banner year of babies somewhere else in the South Pacific.

I tend to believe that the humpbacks cycle around different locations, with some places being popular one year, and not so much in others, sort of like the way the popularity of restaurants, nightclubs and other entertainment venues waxes and wanes in our world.

Anecdotal observation that supports this view includes sightings of whales with highly unique markings every few years as opposed to every year (of course, we don't necessarily see every whale the comes here), and the appearance from time-to-time of whales with odd physical characteristics like all-white pectoral fins and all-black bodies. This year, there's a whale that's nearly all-white/ grey, which some people here believe they saw several years ago (difficult to confirm without photo/ video footage).

white stripe

In any case, after three weeks of observation, there's no doubt in my mind that there are fewer calfs here than at any time since 2003. It's possible that there will be a boom in calf births in the coming weeks, but we're well into the season now, and late births mean fewer months for the calfs to grow big and healthy to survive the trip back to the Antarctic. All things being equal, earlier births are better.

If there's anyone anywhere else in the South Pacific who's seen a particularly high or low number of calfs this year, please let me know.

On Aggression
Jeff Hartog asked a question regarding some text in my post last week about aggressive behaviour by an escort. Specifically, he wanted further elaboration on what characterises aggressive behaviour and whether there have been any incidents with the whales due to such behaviour.

With animals as large whales, i.e., considerably larger than we are, it's easy to feel intimidated when you see them in the water (particularly given the fact that things look larger than they are underwater).

One of the most frequent comments I hear from people who have an opportunity to get in the water with a whale is something along the lines of "That was really scary!". Most, I believe, weren't truly scared. More likely, they were amazed by the bulk (since there are no real parallel experiences on land) and understandably wary of being in close proximity to such a large, wild animal in a foreign element.

In such a heightened emotional state, you can imagine that it's easy for people to project their own emotions upon the actions of the animal. Hence, if the animal moves toward you, you might literally freak out and think it's trying to attack you.

Reality, could be (and usually is) quite different.

With that in mind, when I use the term "aggressive", I should probably be more accurate and use the phrase "highy inquisitive".

The difference is intent.

Bubble-blowing, snorting, whacking one another with their tails, bonking each other on the head...these are acts of aggression that whales engage in during heat runs and when they communicate displeasure with one another. I've seen all these actions from above and underwater, and there's no mistaking the aggressive/ hostile intent. The loud thud of whales crashing into one another is a dead giveaway.

With the escort last week, and with the other incident I can recall, the whales actively come in to inspect you, often at high speed. If you can imagine, having a whale zero in at high speed with eyes locked on you can be intimidating...to understate the point.

In scenarios like this, it's been my experience that the whales are curious (perhaps overly so), and they can come really close, or perhaps even make physical contact. Whales are obviously intelligent, and like people, they no doubt sometimes feel the need to check things out.

The escort last week made no threatening moves (along the lines of what one whale does to another when it's pissed off), but its body language, speed of approach, look in its eye...all felt too close for comfort. In all probability, it was genuinely curious.

After the one look in the water, we probably could have gone in again without any incident, but all things being equal, it's better to be safe than sorry, so we didn't go back in, and instead watched from above.

Finally, as far as I know, there have been no accidents or incidents involving whales here and people. My own working theory is that whales are too intelligent to risk harming themselves with unnecessary body contact. They may come close, but only in very rare circumstances will they make contact. They're incredibly agile animals, and can avoid hitting objects by mere centimetres if they so choose...which means, of course, that they could also smack you silly if they so choose.

Fuel Prices
Doug Hoffman wrote asking about tourist numbers this year, noting that tourist traffic is down in Hawaii due to high fuel prices.

The same seems true here. In this remote corner of the planet, escalating fuel prices mean that there are few taxis around, fewer yachts than normal, lower tourists numbers and less business for everyone.

As an example, the hotel where I'm staying was booked solid from July to October last year. This year, only August and part of September have high bookings.

The price of boat charters has escalated, and the price of travel to reach Tonga by air has shot through the roof.

Those of us who reside in cities feel the pain from the recent fuel price surge, but places like this bear a disproportionate brunt of the knock-on effects.

Where to Eat
One of the biggest challenges about travelling for an extended period of time is food. I've learned to adapt to most conditions, and I can/ will eat just about anything that's not off-the-charts disgusting or awful.

However, going months at a time without Asian food sucks. I long for sushi, pad thai, nasi padang, szechuan chicken...anything Asian...but alas, most of the time I have to do without. Last year, there was a cook from China here, so I had Chinese food at least three times a week. He's gone home this year (don't blame him given the horrific working conditions he was placed in), so we're back to non-Asian food. Sigh.

jbActually, the food is decent here, much improved from when I first started visiting. For the people who've written me and are headed to Vava'u, following is a list of some places to eat. It's not an exhaustive list, and there's nothing wrong with venues I don't mention. These just happen to be the ones I've been frequenting this season.

Aquarium Cafe: Owned by a young American couple, Ben and Lisa, the Aquarium is an internet cafe, coffee shop, restaurant, tour booking agent and general social area. It's a good place to visit if it's your first visit to Vava'u. You'll meet other travellers and can get the latest information on what's going on. Great desserts...even I get tempted sometimes.

Compass Rose: Specialises in kebabs, though the stir fry is really good too, as well as other dishes. The view from the balcony is excellent. If you have a large group, the large balcony area is nice for get-togethers and general socialising in a pleasant, semi-private atmosphere. Tina runs the place, with seemingly limitless energy. Closed Tuesdays and Thursdays.

The Crow's Nest: Steve makes delicious fresh bread daily, and his wife Tess makes incredible sandwiches and other dishes. The fish burger here is to die for. Unfortunately, they're only open for lunch except by special arrangement. Tess is of South Indian ethnicity, though she's lived all over the world. I've only had one of her Indian meals so far...but it was fantastic.

Mana'ia: A new place this season, on the water, adjacent to The Mermaid. The pizza and calzones are excellent. Try the La Vela if you like olives. There are non-pizza dishes as well, depending on what ingredients are available. Everything I've had here has been really good. Mary is the head chef, and she turns out consistently good food.

The Mermaid: The Mermaid is a Vava'u landmark. It's a bar/ restaurant situated on the waterfront. They've been around forever, and it's the place where many yachtees hang out, especially Friday evenings after the weekly yacht race. The bar counter is a favourite on weekends, and it's a social center for meeting both travellers and people who live here permanently or semi-permanently. This is the place to go to immerse yourself in a laid-back South Pacific atmosphere and to meet interesting characters. Good food too, though it's best if you're not in a hurry.