Fair warning, this is a long post... thrilling and wonderfully written, but long... so grab your favorite mildly radioactive device and have a seat.
Dad is involved with an association of water and wastewater professionals around the Pacific region (Pacific Water and Wastewater Association). This year the annual conference was held in Tonga. Now if you look at a map you might think that would be a relatively easy trip.
But, thanks to cabotage laws and airline carriers, Dad took the path below. I must digress here for a moment because the existing cabotage and FAA laws are also the reason flying to and from American Samoa is exorbitantly high. Hawaiian Airlines has a monopoly here and flights to Hawaii cost between $900 and $1,200, this flight distance would cost about $300 to other destinations. We have a Class III airport which should raise the rates, but not 3-4X.
Anyway... back to the trip. At the scale of the map below American Samoa and Tonga disappear, hence the labels.
The trip between Auckland and Queenstown wasn't necessary, but thanks to some strange algorithm of the inter-webs, adding that flight made the whole trip cost $300 less.... weird right? So since I would have had a 15 hour layover in Auckland without the extra trip, and never having been to New Zealand, I went ahead and included the Queenstown flight and extended the layover a bit.
Oh... did I mention it's winter in NZ and Queenstown has some awesome skiing? This is the first time I have had to pack ski goggles and snorkel gear in the same suitcase!
Western Samoa on Friday, 78 Degrees F 45 minutes and a trip across the international dateline later.
About 5 hours later in Middle Earth... I mean in Auckland, New Zealand, very early Saturday... 50 Degrees F
About 8 hours after that in Queenstown, New Zealand,
Sat. morning 20 Degrees F
Then... 18 hours later and after some much needed rest, atop a mountain!
I skied at the Remarkables resort, it was awesome. Queenstown makes everything really easy. The day prior to skiing I purchased a scan-able card and loaded it with my customized purchases... I rented boots, ski's, a jacket, snow pants and got my lift ticket for $175. Pretty cheap and all I did was swipe my card at each location and picked up my purchase, no need for a lift ticket the card served that purpose too... just swipe it as you approach the chair lift (that's either fancy technology or I am getting old).
I skied the majority of the day, headed straight to the airport, and that night I was back in Auckland, got 3 hours sleep and on a plane to Nuku'alofa, Tonga!
The majority of the flight went smoothly, however, there was a little weather as we approached the Tongan runway. Our landing approach resulted in a butt-puckering moment that I don't wish to have again... the plane was descending and getting close to landing, close enough to easily see people on the ground, when the pilot gunned it! The engines revved up and we went in to a steep climb. I sat there bug-eyed waiting for an explanation that never came! A long five minutes later the pilot tells us the first approach was unsuccessful... yeah, I hadn't figured that one out. So, the second approach went smoothly and, with a much more alert load of passengers, we landed safely. Two hours later I was at registration and engrossed in water and sanitation talk.
The four day conference consisted of presentations and speakers, but the big value here is having so many members of small island communities sharing ideas and solutions. That's all I will bore you with about the conference.
On three of the evenings we were treated to entertainment. Prior to living out here in the Pacific I may have said Tongan and Samoan cultures are the same, but there are definitely differences. Some of the entertainers teased the other islands light heartedly because the Kingdom of Tonga is the only Pacific island to have never lost sovereignty or be colonized. Additionally, most of the island represented at the conference were taken over during the Tongan Empire back in 1200 to 1500AD.
One of the little differences in Tonga from Samoa is the during the dance performances. In Samoan culture, and many others in the world, it is common to throw money at a performer/dancer. In Tonga they will either stick the money in the performers clothing or literally "stick" the money to the usually well oiled skin of the dancer. Locals were surprised to hear that an American might get offended if you walked up and shoved a dollar in their shirt, in Tonga it's more of an issue if you don't!
Another unique experience was our dinner plates one evening, we ate off of fresh bamboo sections. The food was great, I particularly enjoyed the seaweed (the little green balls) it is like a vegetarian caviar. We actually do have the seaweed in American Samoa, but its much less common than in Western Samoa or Tonga.
A great thing about the current situation in Tonga is Prime Minister 'Akilisi Pohiva. He has to be the most down to earth and available Prime Minister around. The Prime Minister is working to resolve many issues that the King of Tonga (and predecessors) have left in their wake before relinquishing much of their power in 2008. I chatted with the Prime Minister a little during a cocktail hour, he is a firm believer of action over feasibility studies, policies discussion and less productive activities. We even talked about whales.... he is a man of the people.
Compared to Samoa, Tonga has placid waters and a larger area of shallower seas. I took an evening walk down the shore and got some great photos....
In addition to its shallower seas offshore, Tonga differs greatly from Samoa in that it is flat. I mean super flat, the few 3-4 story buildings were the only high profile things on the island. The island rises slightly from north to south, but you really only notice from the air because the south side of the island has small cliff dropping of to the sea. The picture below was taken from the air. To give you an idea of the island size, you can see over a quarter of the whole island in the picture. Tonga is made up of several islands but this is the "main" island and holds Nuku'alofa which is the Capital.
The main street of Nuku'alofa is short, but convenient and the immediate surroundings are residential areas that included beautiful shorelines and homes. The picture and accidental selfie below are taken in the center of Nuku'alofa's main strip.
As if this trip hasn't been exciting enough, I had one more amazing activity to do.
Swim with humpback whales!
Tonga is a destination for whale watching and swimming, the humpbacks migrate here to mate and give birth. Tonga also has more lenient laws allowing closer encounters with the whales. Now, I consider myself an environmentally conscious person and this wasn't a decision made without debate. Some people argue that swimming near whales may stress them or impact their behavior, so to be prudent I looked into the local situation. Each company running these tours has to have a special license and they have a whale expert on staff. Speaking to whale expert (from Australia) it was clear that this wasn't taken lightly. Nobody is allowed to swim with the whales unless both herself and the boat Captain give the OK, they make the decisions based on the whales behavior. If the whales are breaching, potentially mating or even avoiding the boat then nobody swims. Only when the whales are curious, investigating the boat and appear calm do they allow swimmers to enter the water and never get very close to them. So based on this information, along with the fact it would be an amazing once in a lifetime experience, I decided to swim with the whales!
The day didn't go perfectly, this is after all a little Pacific island. Two minutes after leaving the dock the boat engine died, just as they began talking about refunds they got it running at about half capacity so we trudged outward. It wasn't long before we saw whales breaching in several locations, this is awesome but obviously not a whale you want swim next to. They didn't admit it, but the engine condition definitely kept us limited to the slightly shallower and much cloudier/murkier waters. Still we found amiable whales.
Now... the logistics of swimming with whales is a crazy, adrenaline filled, chaotic fire-drill of an experience. As you can see, we were on a relatively small boat, but you have to be ready at all times. Ready means having your fins on, snorkel mask ready (hopefully not foggy) and of coarse keeping your camera handy. Eight people on a little boat, all wearing dive fins and goggles is a very "clumsy" situation, but there we were on the boat ready and waiting.
Absolutely nothing could have prepared me for the first dive. We had spotted whales and the Captain said they were coming over..... "get ready"! I looked over the right side of the boat and there it was belly up, a humpback whale, right there, directly under me!! I could have put my hand in the water and touched it, all the water in my vision was white. I felt like I went cross eyed and I was completely at a loss, my brain just froze in a series of exclamation marks. Meanwhile the whale guide is screaming for everyone to jump off the left side of the boat. Still blown away by the whale, I was late in the water and didn't see the whales in the water. I did however realize that our experience would be limited because the water visibility was very poor, this was disappointing but that disappointment paled in the face of the experience itself.
We got in the water three more times and became more efficient at our snorkel fire-drill each time. The next two times in the water were heart pumping, adrenaline filled and wide eyed searching the murky water for the whales, then a shadow would appear, turn into a whale long enough to create awe and a "oh-sh*t that's a whale" moment before they were gone. I should add that my heart may have been pounding a little faster than the rest, because in my research I had discovered that a woman was killed by a tiger shark dong this two years ago and attacks in Tonga aren't relatively uncommon..... yay murky water! I waited until the ride back to tell the others that, after which our guide told us that sharks were the real reason she kept yelling to stay together, not to attract the whales attention as she told us earlier.
The final swim was the best as three whales swam past us all, it was truly a unique experience. The two pics below were taken right after each other, the bottom pic was first just before the whale stuck his fin in the air.
I wish I could have gone again in better conditions but time was short and I had a plane to catch the next day.
The next day I was on a short flight to Fiji, jumped on a another to Western Samoa and yet another back to American Samoa. Being an engineer isn't as boring as you might think!!
The Jaskowiak Family
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