Tuesday, August 31, 2010

August 30, 2010 Savusavu, Fiji

16? 46.6'S 179?19.7' E
Welcome to the eastern hemisphere! Yay! When at sea, the passages turn into a big blur. But on the charts, it is a significant event to be crossing a certain mark such as the Tropic of Cancer, the equator (to the southern hemisphere), the international date line, and now to the eastern hemisphere. During the last five months, whenever I make a phone call to Korea, I realize the time difference between my location and Korea is decreased. I think the last time my parents and I were on the same date was 14 years ago.
We had a relatively benign four day passage from Vava'u, Tonga to Savusavu, Fiji. The first three days were rolly polly going dead downwind. Mike had a birthday en route. Good thing we had an early celebration with friends. After we passed the easternmost Lau group, the seas were calm for the last 120nm. I said "benign" passage, but to be honest, I'm much relieved to be done with this passage as it was loaded with uncharted hazards.
(Mike:) I'll expand on Hyo's description of uncharted hazards. Before we entered Tonga, we passed over the Tongan trench. This feature in the earth's crust is a subduction zone where one tectonic plate is being pushed under the other and results in a very active geological area. The trench we crossed over reached a depth of over 9,000 meters (29,000 feet)! We passed over the deepest place at night and while it was not technically different than any other of our crossings, it was kind of eerie to know there was over 9 km of water under the keel! Also, given its remoteness, it remains one of the least explored regions of the sea depths. I spent the night wondering what beasts must be watching us pass above aboard tiny IO. Tonga is then on the other side of the interaction, the part where the opposing tectonic plate is being pushed up above the ocean's surface. West of the Tongan islands lies many "hotspots" where volcanic activity is widespread. You may recall a while ago an email was passed around where a sailboat was sailing past a new island that was being pushed up out of the sea right before the sailor's eyes. Magma was being spurted out to form new rock and in a very short time, an entire new island was formed. After we left Tonga, we sailed passed this and 50 other such sites of "new land" that no one has had a chance to chart properly. We had a sketchy list of "uncharted dangers" that was compiled from other sailors that had either seen one of these anomalies or had been wrecked on one in the dark and had survived to tell the location! I must admit I was nervous on that 3 day passage and kept getting up in the night and looking out expecting to see a volcanic eruption dead in our path. At times the sailing business is bloody stressful!
We are now in the northern island of Fiji called Vanua Levu which apparently has a very large East Indian population from way back when they moved here to work on the sugarcane plantations. Upon arrival, as usual, we went through the check-in process with the Health inspector, Customs & Immigration, and Quarantine/Agriculture. While completing the paperwork, one of the customs officers sitting in the cockpit asked, "What is that contraption?", pointing to our propane heater inside the cabin. We explained that we once had three inches of snow on deck in Victoria two winters ago. We received blank stares of disbelief. Once the "ship's master" (me) has signed the form detailing that we did not have plague, cholera, dysentery or any deaths aboard during our passage caused from these illnesses, we were permitted to go ashore and had very authentic curry for dinner.

Hyo-jung & M

August 29, 2010 Tonga

Hmm.our Tonga experience. What can I say? Eric on Oso Blanco told me that he had a bit of a writer's block for putting an entry in his blog because he felt that he did not want to sound like a "grouchy American tourist". I'm afraid I share this sentiment. We had not written much this time, not because we were having a blast like in Suwarrow, but because there was nothing significantly positive and only a few negative things to write about. It is true that, were it not for our friends Totem and Oso Blanco, we probably would have left much earlier. But it is what it is, so here goes..

Of the four major island groups in Tonga, we visited the northernmost one called Vava'u. The numerous limestone-cliff islands provided a different kind of stimulation for the eyes compared to the atolls. We had come quite further south and the cooler temperature was a welcome change. Breathing in crisp cold air in the morning was very refreshing! As we took an evening walk through the residential part of town with Totem, the frequent sightings of pigs and adorable piglets, which apparently exceed the human population, had us all giggling.
Over the course of the following two weeks, our experience was a bit tarnished due to the ex-patriot business owners who dominate the local businesses. The morning radio net on channel 26 gave us a glimpse of the vibe of the cruiser community and ongoing issues. There's always one vocal person who likes his stage personality a bit too much and there is always at least one of those in every cruising community. One issue that seemed to be the subject of debate was regarding safe whale watching practices. While similar industry in the Pacific NW went through growing pains perhaps 20 years ago, both Canada and US currently have well-established guidelines. What we observed was that a guideline existed but it was set by the Whale Watching Association of Tonga which is not an actual authority and is composed of the eco-tour business owners -say, conflict of interest?
(Insert Mike:) This is apparently the last place on earth where you can swim with the whales. Even one of the companies is named "Endangered Encounters". While every other country with an eco-tourism industry has deemed it unwise to put tourists in the water with whales, Tongan businesses have exploited this lack of insight by the Tongan Kingdom and base their businesses on a "swim with the whales" theme. There was some tension between some cruisers and ex-pat business owners who then try to claim that is not safe for cruisers with their own boats to go and swim with the whales and that it is only safe if you pay for the service with a local operator. One would then expect, based on this argument, that the local operators have specific training or knowledge that allows safe whale viewing. Our friends on Oso Blanco who paid to go on one of these whale excursion trips reported that when the whales were found, the boat went full throttle towards the whales and these were the exact words from the boat captain: "Get in and swim as fast as you can at the whales!" Evidently, there is a double standard in practice: The whale watching company was not following their own guidelines to 1) keep the distance of 300 meters between whales and humans, 2) have a dive flag up, or 3) have no more than 4 people in the water at a time. Yet when it came to cruisers, in the name of protecting the whales, our friends in their dinghy were harassed by a whale watching boat even though they were complying with the so-called regulations.
It became obvious that these business owners view Tonga as basically the wild west where anything goes, and you grab what you can when you can. It was a very disappointing experience to see how the foreigners exploit the local Tongan resources without regard for established first-world eco-tourism practices and treat the place as a money grab without regard to the true locals or wildlife.
Another interesting but disappointing observation was regarding a capsized catamaran. A few weeks ago, a 57-foot catamaran named Ana had capsized en route to Tonga. The owners were rescued off by a freighter and their boat drifted towards Tonga. You see, there is something called salvage rights - whoever comes upon an abandoned boat may claim a finder's fee up to the full value of the boat. Although I did not hear the details, just having the radio on revealed a glimpse of the tension between the vultures out there looking for the capsized boat. Imagine being the owners of the boat, having gone through a traumatic event of having your boat capsized, having to abandon it, and be rescued. Your boat is badly damaged and it must be stressful enough moving on from there without other vultures to deal with. And for such activities to come from other cruisers!
On the contrary, none of the above were noticed when we visited various anchorages and villages away from town. Natural beauty does not hide itself and it was lovely to walk through the iron-rich red soiled islands, seeing a tapioca tree for the first time. Together with Totem and Oso Blanco, we were invited to visit the local government public schools to meet the kids and teachers and exchange gifts. The kids sang us traditional songs (and what voices they carried!!) and we left school supplies and toys. Thanks again to the Mulhollands who brought many donated items for children. We found them very useful and much appreciated by the locals we met. The children go to school in the villages until age 12. Starting age 13, they must stay find a way to live in town for the remaining school years, either by living with relatives or by having the family split during weekdays and reuniting for weekends. We learned from a man who gave us a tour that the population in these islands is decreasing as young people move to New Zealand or elsewhere for employment and take their parents with them.
Christianity is huge in Tonga. Nowhere else had we felt such presence. It was in the school uniforms, cross necklaces, and in the Sunday morning songs carried from about six different churches. We learned that the Mormon church spends more money on infrastructure than the King. We asked the local villager about Tonga's traditional religious beliefs and he answered that it is similar to the Methodist church. I did not know what to make of that.
In town, visiting the local market was probably my favorite part. I felt it was easy to make friends with the ladies at the market. It was a learning experience on how to trade our items for their handi-crafts, tapa cloths, and coconut shell bowls (for kava). On the day of departure, we were blessed to have a rare shipment of apples from New Zealand. I had not had an apple in about four weeks, since Bora Bora, and was never so happy to take a satisfactory bite into a crunchy apple. Also, thanks to Behan on Totem, in a place where yogurt was not available, we started making yogurt ourselves and enjoyed it every day. Pure joy in the simplest things!
So overall, it was a strange mix of different vibes we felt in Tonga. In our observations, we have not forgotten that there are exceptions: like the lady in town who is apparently interested in the education of the local youth and supports the library. Overwhelmingly, it was our friends that made the experience enjoyable.

Hyo-jung & M

Friday, August 20, 2010

I have to take the time to write about this one.

August 19, 2010

After spending five marginally fun or downright miserable days in Neiafu, we are now back with our comrades Oso Blanco and Totem where every day is truly a new adventure. We are back to the usual routine of snorkeling, spearfishing and exploring each new reef. The reefs here harbor tremendous biodiversity with many new faces and numerous color changes on old faces compared to the reef life at Suwarrow or the Society islands. Also the Southern ocean Humpback population is here for calving season and many whales can be seen spouting in close to shore.

Yesterday we heard from a local Tongan man that snorkeling on the reef at night is often very productive for catching lobsters. Until now we have not done much night snorkeling on the outer reef because that's when the Tiger sharks come in to forage. Of all the close shark encounters we have had so far, that's not one I'm willing to risk. However, we were assured by this local that there are no big sharks at this location at night, so off we went, lobster spears and flashlights in hand. The reef we were perched on was on the outer side of all the Tongan islands and abruptly drops off to over 1000 meters (3000 feet) deep. Eric, Jamie and I entered the dark water and snorkeled around a bit enjoying the night reef life. An abundance of nocturnal squirrelfish, pufferfish, seafeathers (crinoids) and shrimp were about, but clearly no lobsters were to be seen. While at the surface of the water you can hear both the water splashing on your head and your breathing through the snorkel, while at depth during a dive, there is only the sound of the reef, that being mostly the snap-crackling of the snapping shrimp. However, on this night while holding your breath underwater, you could clearly hear the billowing song of the Humpback whales that were not so far off in the distance.
As we ended our snorkel and approached the dinghy, the three of us turned off our lights and just floated above the moonlight reef. There, on the edge of that abyss, we hung weightless, while basking in a personal concert of whale-song as it was carried off into the ocean deep.


Monday, August 16, 2010

Nejafu, Tonga

August 16, 2010

We are currently in the town of Nejafu, which is the main harbor in the Vava'u group of Tonga. Getting here was not much fun as the seas were rough and uncomfortable to the point that I got seasick, not something that has happened in a long time. The town is interesting and obviously poor. Oddly there are a large percentage of Canadian, American and British business owners here, which has added a very first world flavor to the otherwise rundown and poor community. While shopping for fresh vegetables at the local market we were presented with ample opportunity to dispense many of the toys and school supply's that we have been carrying with us. I had often grumbled about having to store this stuff in our limited hold but the smiles of the children more than compensated for that burden.

We have not yet explored the local islands as we have been trying to reprovision and get some email done. I have already spent over $25 on internet fees and countless hours to try to upload our new shark filled Suwarrow Atoll video and still have not been able to get it loaded. I also got a bad case of food poisoning and have been down for a couple of days. So far we have not thoroughly enjoyed Tonga but we hope to get out of the main harbor and begin to do so.



Sunday, August 15, 2010

Suwarrow Atoll, truly remote, truly pristine

Our time at Suwarrow Atoll. An oasis in the middle of the vast Pacific, 1300 km from the nearest populated island, lies this tropical paradise.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Hell, Heaven, Hell, repeat!

August 8 2010.

Soon it will be august 7th! We are about to cross the date line and loose a day. We are currently about 170 nautical miles out of Tonga. I have not written in a while because we have been having a horrible set of passages broken up by a week in true paradise where I was too exhausted from having fun to write!

We left Bora Bora and had a hellacious 8-day passage to Suwarrow Atoll. The only cool thing I remember from those 8 days of wind driven hell, was being outside at 3 am and watching a large moonlit ghostly shape slide up next to IO. This creature was about the same size as IO as it paralleled our starboard side. It did not break the surface, it only hung illuminated under the full moon, then submerged under IO. A moment later a 2-meter (6 foot) dorsal fin pierced the water and rose to the height of our deck only meters from IOs port side. It was the unmistakable dorsal fin of a large bull Killer Whale silhouetted against the moonlit water. Briefly, a second and then a third shape moved past IO, then disappeared into the darkness. I never heard even so much as a breath.

Suwarrow turned out to be my absolute favorite place on this voyage so far, a true paradise. My only regret is that I did not write about our adventures there every day. I was too exhausted from those adventures. The reef was pristine; the animal life was how I imagined a pristine coral reef to be. There were so many sharks and our tolerance of them grew daily. What on day one seemed like stupidity, on day 3 became the norm. We spearfished with the ranger every day. We gutted the daily catch standing in knee deep water surrounded by blacktip reef sharks waiting for scraps. Every day spearfishing along side three species of reef sharks brought new adrenalin, new experience and thankfully no new scars. Along with the crew of Oso Blanco and Totem and Apii our ranger host, we explored every corner of the tiny atoll. We lobster fished at night on the outer reef, and had sharks chew freshly speared fish off the end of my spear. We feasted on massive coconut crabs that were abundant on the tiny islands. We shared our catch every night ashore with friendly potlucks and the carcasses went to the sharks. Apii shared his knowledge of the reef life and sincere smile while James (picture a Polynesian Hagred from harry potter) demonstrated his Bar-BQ skills as these kindly hosts shared this tiny island with us. We found pure fun in that heaven, a thousand kilometers from nowhere. Don't worry, I have footage!

It is day 5 and we are now 160 miles from Vava'u Tonga, the weather forecast is deteriorating and by tomorrow we will be beating into 25 knots of wind strait on the nose. These passages got old thousands of miles ago. The islands we visit are paradise, the passages between are hell.