Dear, dear Tonga. I always go there with an open mind and heart. This rickety kingdom in a far flung part of the Pacific Ocean consists of many beautiful islands with friendly and optimistic people who want to make you happy and have a charmingly unpretentious attitude towards visitors. But be warned. If you are going to a Pacific island then Tonga is the real thing. If you are a stickler for time, detail or perfection and cannot cope with the unexpected, I suggest that Tonga is not for you.
I was on the lookout for the spume of whales in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and feeling very close to the end of the earth. Beneath me was unimaginably deep royal blue water. No matter what lay below I was determined to throw myself into that ocean with no fear – and join some of the world’s most majestic creatures in their natural environment.
We scanned the horizon for hours before spotting the unmistakable sign of a whale. The skipper turned the boat and we followed what turned out to be a mother and baby.
They swam and played close to us but never stopped long enough for us to join them in the ocean. I was disappointed but certainly appreciated the ethics of the whale-watching crew not wanting to harass or worry the whales. I hoped another opportunity would come along before the end of my trip.
We headed back to the island of Mounu, a simple, superbly comfortable eco-resort owned by New Zealanders Lyn and Alan Bow. After three nights in this paradise, we left for Neiafu, the main town of Vava’u. Vava’u is a Tongan island group world-renowned for whale watching and sailing. We discover why when we wake up the next morning and look out the window of our motel to see a pod of whales heading up the harbour.
When we went out on the water again, we came upon a mother, her baby and two escorts. They turned on the most amazing spectacle, playing, diving under the boat, resurfacing and showing off like mad.
Then there came a quiet moment and our Tongan crew told us to dive in, four at a time. In our excitement, we did so without thinking, plunging into the sea. The mother was resting, the baby was playing and the escorts were alert but unafraid, just as we were unafraid of them.
I love the sea, so for me diving in was not a big deal. It was for my friend Annie, who is not adept with the snorkel, but the glory of it all soon overcame any anxiety. We went in twice and the whales stayed with us for some time.
When I got out I found myself crying – it was an emotional experience, a sort of wonderful shock; a reality check on my place in the world and one of those memories I knew would stay with me forever.