December 9, 2022Paul Ellercamp
We don't take you just anywhere.
Narrabeen on a Sydney, early summer morn. Who'd want to be there? Image by Steve White.
Our first brush with whales
We run here our report from our first inaugural oceanswimsafari to swim with whales in Tonga, in 2015. Our Tongan oceanswimsafaris have changed substantially since that first one. As our experience grew, so has the quality of the experience. For example, we now do three days of whale swimming, not one, and two days of ocean swimming, not five. We've come to know the best place to stay in the Vava'u group of islands, a guest house run by a local family in Neiafu, and we've become friends with the family and their staff. They've had a tough time over the past few years, what with covid, and with exploding volcanoes not far away, and cyclones. We've had a lot more, and a lot closer experiences with whales themselves, too. Check out our video account of our encounter with an adolescent male who wanted to play with our group (Click here). We're looking forward to going back to Tonga, at last, in July-August 2023. This piece gives you a flavour of the place...
Nothing to do with Tonga, but some evenings on Heron Island really take your breath away.
We had several brushes with the King when we visited Tonga. It’s that kind of place.
Eyes were agog in early July when meeja focused on the coronation of the new King of Tonga. The king of where? The King? Only Yrpean countries have kings, don’t they? And where’s Tonga?
We should all know of Tonga. It’s one of Stra’a’s closest neighbours and the source of many of our prominent footy players. It’s where Jonah comes from. Jonah Takelui. The Angry Boy from Summer Heights High … But that’s about all we know about Tonga, apart from the fact that it’s in the Pacific and it’s Polynesian. And whales go there.
And footy players come from there. Right now (at the time of writing, in 2015: oss.c), the Tongan brothers in the news are the Fifita lads, two high-spirited rugby league chaps who got into trouble for off-duty monstering of junior referees out Penrith way. In Neiafu, the main town in Vava’u, there’s a shop called Fifita Fashions. Doesn’t sound quite right to us… Drinking in the Bounty Bar in Neiafu one evening, we raised this link to be told, ‘Yes, they’re from here. You just walked past their dad down on the waterfront’. On the waterfront in Neiafu, a bunch of blokes had been assembling the infrastructure for the Vava’u Royal Agricultural Show, coming that weekend. They were putting up a dais, some marquees, and filling in the rocks that form the new small boat harbour with sand, so that Neiafu will have something of a waterfront promenade. The show is a big event in Neiafu, as it is anywhere. No ferris wheel, however, or fairy floss.
Tonga. We knew it was out in the Pacific somewhere; and we knew it was Polynesian; we even knew it had a king, an absolute monarch, and we knew that well before the meeja focus a few weeks before our visit. Back in the mid-80s, we briefly met the Crown Prince of Tonga at a South Pacific Forum meeting in the Cook Islands. We were representing Stra’a, as it were. Our briefing for the meeting explained the monarchy in Tonga, and it’s where we became aware that the then King (Taufa'ahau Tupou IV) had a virtually unpronounceable name, rendered from the Polynesian to us, in the shorthand that characterises all these things, as King Toffee Apple. This comes about because Stra’ans generally lack the patience to read a word or a name with an unfamiliar structure carefully enough to work out how to pronounce it. It’s actually simple enough: “Towfa-Ahow”, with the apostrophe simply indicating a prununciative separation of the vowels. Indeed, HawaiI really is Hawai’i, “Haweye-I”. The Tongans are a respectful community, hospitable to visitors, and reverent towards their sovereign. They seem to have a remarkably stable system of governance for a microstate at once slowly developing and strongly traditional, coming to terms with life in a global marketplace.
Much hope is held that the new king, Tupou VI, will nurture stable, transparent, altruistic gummint based on principles such as the incorruptibility of the public sector. We didn’t hear this from HM directly, mind you, despite our several brushes with HM and his Queen. We heard it most strongly from where you hear most of these authoritative things, from a cabbie in Nuku’alofa, whilst transferring between airports. We didn’t actually get to chat with Tupou VI, on the grounds that, on each occasion, he was cruising past us in his motorcade through the streets of Neiafu, as part of his post-coronative national tour. We did get to speak with his private secretary, however, who was in the Bounty Bar on the final night of our visit. That lad has some stories to tell, were he minded to, we’d wager.
Mum and calf.
Of the Pacific island states, Polynesian and Melanesian, Tonga stands out as the only one, to our knowledge, that was never formally a colony of either the Poms or the French. When all around them were subjugated, Tongans tell you proudly that Tonga had retained its national identity and its monarchy, although it had been for many years, by treaty, a British protectorate. Some would see the difference as technical; the Tongans see it as crucial.
Mind you, like all those other Pacific states, Tonga was colonised by those competitive creeping colonists, the Christian churches, and it remains a staunchly Christian (note the large “C”) nation to the point that nothing opens on Sunday apart from a few businesses run by expats. There are sprinklings of Poms, Stra’ans, New Zealanders, Yanks and Canadians in Tonga, and a couple of other expat nationalities, such as a non-Basque-speaking San Sebastiánen running a tapas/pintxos restaurant, and a Swiss running another place on the waterfront. Paying our bill at the Tropicana Cafê in Neiafu, we asked the owner, Greg, how much we owed. “Are you Australian?” he said. “Yes,” we said. “25 plus one,” he said. “I don’t want any Kiwi jokes.”
If we sound like know-alls after a week-long visit to Tonga, then bear in mind that we are hacks. As Pierpont pointed out in the Bulletin many years ago, “One of the great traditions of journalism - as well as fiddling expense accounts - is that within minutes of arriving in a new country, you become an expert on it”.
We were there; most of you weren’t. So we’re one step ahead of you.
Our mob in Tonga.
At oceanswimsafaris.com, we’re always looking for new and interesting places to take you. Not just anywhere, and especially not just places that everyone already goes to (We ain’t been to Bali, too), but places that you might not even have heard of, and where you might not ever otherwise go, but for us offering you the chance. We (used to) go to Vanuatu; to Fiji; we’ve been to the Solomons, and we still hope to take you back there in the near future; we’ve been to Samoa, a beautiful place but which disappointed us as a swim venue; we’ve looked at New Caledonia; as we write, we’re in Greece, then heading to Spain; and we’ve just been to Tonga. All of these places offer beautiful water that often is absolutely unexplored by mug punters like us. In many places, we reckon our small but enthusiastic pelotons are the first such groups ever to ripple these waters. Plenty have dove (as the Yanks would put it); some may have snorkeled; but usually none before have ocean swum. This first occurred to us some years ago down the back of Tavewa island in the Yasawas in Fiji. It occurred to us on all of our swims in Tonga. Motivated by that broad objective, we were pointed towards Tonga by a dive operator who for 14 years has been taking groups there to swim with whales.
You can go whale watching without leaving Stra’a, of course, even in Sydney, and in plenty of places around the globe. But there are few places where whale-watching has become such an intense industry in itself. Another is Hawai’i. We visited Mau’i during whale season this February past. The water between Mau’i, Lana’i and Moloka’i (note the apostrophes and the separations (we figure, if a mob of people is hospitable enough to take us in, then the least we can do is to respect their language) is an ancient volcano crater, shallower and warmer and safer than the deeper seas outside these islands, and in February and adjacent months, there must be thousands of whales there visiting, mooching, calving, breaching, tail slapping, blowing off and all ‘round having fun.
Ditto Tonga between July and November. Local regulations keep whale-watching boats at distance from the whales in most places. The difference in Tonga is that you are allowed to get in the water with them.
This, too, is regulated: groups can be no more than four plus guide at any one time, for 15-20 minutes per group, and boats can carry no more than eight punters each, plus guides and skippers. And there is a distance rule: 10m, we understand. There is no reason why groups can’t get in repeatedly, on rotation, as it were. Much depends on the whales: when confronted with a small gaggle of gaping tourists, do they wrack off; or do they stay to play? It’s entirely up to them.
Vava'u Royal Agricultural Show. (Image by David Helsham (@glistenrr))
The archipelago off Vava’u’s southern coast is a good place to get up to this kind of thing. There are myriad islands, bays, straits, channels and reefs, forming a crucible of “whale soup”, as one cobber put it. There is a host of whale watching businesses in Neiafu and during whale season they are out there each day a’-huntin’ fer whales. You feel as Cap’n Ahab, sans harpoon, scouring the horizon for the tell-tale blows, or tail slaps, or breaches. Sometimes – often – a whale will surface right next to your boat, totally uninvited. If you’re lucky, as happened to us, it will be a mother with new calf.
When the skipper sights a whale, they take off at knots towards it. There is an etiquette governing these things as well as gummint regulations. If another boat “has” a whale, then its theirs and you don’t muscle in uninvited. You need to find your own whales, although some hunters might give you a go when they’ve had theirs already. In actuality, there’s a lot of co-operation amongst the whale boats out of Neiafu: they share, but there is a priority. The skippers of the various boats spend a lot of time on the phone talking to each other throughout each day’s expedition.
We got ours first one, a mother mooching about in a strait amongst three islands. We had three groups. Group one got in, had a look, and found her sitting on the bottom, just below them; just sitting there. Group 2 got in, had a look, and found her sitting on the bottom, just below them, just sitting there. Group 3 got in, one armed with a little movie camera, and, likewise, found her just sitting on the bottom. We swim-mooch sans snorkel, so we have to come up for air, just like a whale, although we come up more often than they do. Having studied her below us, just sitting there, we came up for air, and when we went down again, she was moving.
We’d contemplated what might happen when she moved. We thought, she might feel like a good breach after sitting there so long. She might just come straight up at us, rapidly accelerating to shoot out of the water. And if we’re in the way – we were right above her - we might be shot sideways or upwards with her. We might be knocked high out of the water, appearing to distant observers like a mossie disturbed in its grazing. We might be knocked out, concussed, by her fin. She might spear us with her snout. But she did none of those things: she rose, gently, and with a graceful two flicks of her tail, she was gone, surfacing 50 metres to the south, where she blew, took a big breath, and ambled off again, gracefully.
We reviewed the video when we got back to our pub. We thought we might have some of it on fillum. And we did. But we had even more. As she rose and she took off, she sang, once… twice… thrice… Three eeks, it sounded like, each a few seconds apart. And we got it all on the camera. You know, we reckon the sound recording is more exciting than the vision. Maybe she was talking to us. Maybe she was telling us to wrack off. Maybe just, Get outta tha way! But a whale talked to us. Our new cobber.
And the crowd builds up... (Image by Daavid Helsham @glistenrr)
Whales were all around us, even on swim days, and we couldn’t help it if something blew off, slapped or breached next to us, eh? We did five swims along different parts of island coasts and channels, each day heading out, way out, and back. Our swims were all in whale territory. But the highlight was as we came back in towards Neiafu one day. Our skipper, a Shire boy named Andrew, who runs whale watching tours, was dropping us at a resort for lunch and a sticky beak. A kilometre out, we spotted a mother and her calf, gently rising for breath, the mother heading steadily towards the same resort, although we doubt she had a booking as we did, her calf gamboling playfully around her, sticking her/his snout out, tail slapping, blowing, etc. As we neared the resort, they neared it too. The residents saw her coming, anticipating it for half an hour or more, and they lined the beaches and filled a pontoon floating just off the resort, cameras a-clicking.
We watched and followed. And we watched as that mother whale and her calf passed that pontoon filled with peering punters barely three metres away from them. Check out Glistening Dave’s photograrph of this occurrence in these pages…
They rounded a point into a bay. It gave us breathing space to unload onto the pontoon. Then they came back to a point about 75 metres off the pontoon, where they stayed, just mooching, sniffing around, for another two hours. Whale boats heading into port stopped by and disgorged swimmers into the sea. One group of four bobbed around in the water 10 metres from these two whales, the mother just sitting there, her calf playing between her and the swimmers, for their 20-minute allowable session. Who knows? They could have darted here and there farther out all day and seen nothing, only to run into this pair when they’re almost back in port.
Such are the vagaries of whale swimming.
Neiafu Harbour protected the town from the worst of the tsunami effects of the recent exploding volcano.
Whales return to the same waters annually. The whales you see migrating along the Stra’an coast each year are the same whales. The whales you see blowing around in the sea of Mau’i each year are the same whales, native to those waters. The whales we made friends with in Tonga go back to Tonga each year, to the same places, to give birth and to develop an affinity with a winter homeland. Next year, that calf will be back, only bigger. It struck us that, as the mother mooched slowly along the shore, she was showing her little one around, showing them around the manor. “This is Uncle Jonah’s bay… And this is where your daddy took me by surprise (Too much information, mum!)… And here’s where your granma had a run in with an eejit tourist… Here’s where he left his mark… And here’s where I was born…”
Sometimes, they’re as curious about us punters as we are about them, so they will stay and watch. We wonder, do they go back to the Antarctic and regale their cobbers with slide shows about the weird marine mammals they ran into on their winter hols?
Next day, we headed out for our final swim. We passed the resort on the beach with its pontoon, deserted now, and headed out across the strait. We turned left, aiming for a village and an island at the sou’-eastern entrance to the archipelago where we were to swim along the bay and across the reef to the island… And there, on our right, 50 metres away, was mum and her little one, shadowing us again.
It was special.
Ever respectful. (Image by David Helsham (@glistenrr))
As were our brushes with King Tupou VI. Not so much brushes, perhaps, as gestures. Walking back from lunch on Sundee, we saw flashing lights approaching. There aren’t many motorcades in Tonga and, aware that HM was in town, we guessed we were about to be passed by ‘im ‘imself. Indeed, it was ‘im and the cheese. There were two motorcycle outriders flashing their lights, and as they neared us, one of them blew his horn, loudly. They don’t have much cause for that kind of pomp up there, so it’s any post a winner for the copper. Yes, yes, we notice you… We took our hats off, doffed them, and we waved. And off he went, and off we went, in opposite directions.
Half an hour later, we heard the noise again, more flashing lights, no loud horn blowing this time (the copper knew us by now), but readier (us), we dips our lids again, and this time, he waved, and Her Majesty waved, too, and on they proceeded, processionally in all their circumstance.
Not for us
We left the next morning, early. Our flight was delayed. Another plane sat on the tarmac, a Twin Otter type, double props, light, a commuter aircraft between islands. A bunch of formal looking Tongans entered on the tarmac. They unfurled a red carpet leading to the aircraft steps, which also were special. A mob of officials ambled out and boarded the plane. We spotted our royal private secretary cobber amongst them. Then a kingly vehicle appeared, rolling silently out to the steps. And HM emerged from the car, gestured at surrounding punters, smiling benignly, climbed the steps, and the plane took off, for another island as part of his first inaugural national tour.
Three brushes in one week. We felt like Court Correspondents of The Times.
Swim start in Ocean Swimming Stadium, Mana Island.
Travel to swim in exotic locales in 2023
Vigorous response to travel packages
We're rapidly filling travel packages for our oceanswimsafaris in 2023. Packages are online for The Philippines (May-June), Sulawesi, in Indonesia (June), whale swimming in Tonga (August), Mana Fiji (October) and for Heron Island (three dates in June, October, and November). Two spots have opened up for French Polynesia (May).
Sea life in French Polynesia. You, too, can swim here.
French Polynesia, May, 2023 – We have two oceanswimsafaris to French Polynesia. These have been rolled over several times since the pandemic hit, but we'll to get them away finally in 2023. One is full, but the other (May 18-27) has two spots available. Check the details and get in touch quick and smart… Click here
The Philippines, May-June, 2023 – We’re off to The Philippines to swim with whale sharks, etc. We stay on the island of Negros Oriental in a five-star resort, which we use as our base for swims around the area over some of the best coral reef you will ever see, and in some of the clearest water. This location, at the northern end of the Celebes Sea, offers the highest diversity of marine life in the Indo-Pacific. We already have good sized group booked. Looks like it will be much fun. Dates are May 29-June 6… Click here
Very nice water in Sulawesi.
Sulawesi, June 9-17, 2023 – We’re heading to get back to Sulawesi, the weird-shaped island in the nor’-eastern Indonesian archipelago. This is at the southern end of the Celebes Sea, the other end from our venue in The Philippines (see above), again in the area of the greatest diversity of marine life in the Indo-Pacific. More glorious coral reef and tropical water, lots of turtles, different banquet every night, and some of the most panoramic views you will ever get from a resort room. Just 1-2 spots (1 room) left… Click here
Tonga, August, 2023 – Come with us to swim with whales in Tonga. This has proved to be one of our most popular oceanswimsafaris. In 2023, we have filled our first set of dates; now we have a second set of dates open (August 7-15). We spend three days swimming with whales and two days ocean swimming around and between islands in the Vava’u archipelago. Dates are August 7-15, 2023… Click here
The end of a big day, San Sebastián.
San Sebastián, Spain, August, 2023 – Back to Spain! We’re planning on running our San Sebastián oceanswimsafari over the week of August 22-28, anchored by the annual 3km swim around the island of Santa Clara. San Sebastián is one of the ancient world’s most colourful cities. San Sebastián sits at the point on the Basque/Spanish Atlantic coast where the Gulf Stream hits the coast, so the water at that time is comparable with NSW-SE Queensland and Perth in summer. Have you heard of pintxos? Excellent food in San Sebastián, and we make it another focus of our visit there. The Basques have their own, very special cuisine… Click here
Dr Lanie Campbell explores the entrance to a sea cave off Catalonia's Costa Brava. Not many punters get to experience this.
Costa Brava, Spain, September, 2023 – And back to the Costa Brava, the wild coastline of Catalonia between Barçelona and the French border. We’ll swim from France to Spain around the end of the Pyrenees, follow the most spectacular coastline in the world, and sample some of the best food and wine you will find anywhere. We’ll immerse ourselves in the world of Salvador Dalí, who was native to this area. And we'll visit our favourite wine bar in the entire world, run by Pau, a cigar-chomping (outside only, thankfully) sommelier and ex-war photgrapher. There’s something for everyone on this oceanswimsafari, whether or no you’re a swimmer. Sadly, 2023 dates are full, but we've had already considerable shows of interest for 2024. Dates September 12-20… Click here
Mana Fiji, October 17-22, 2023 – We are off to Mana Fiji for a five-day carnival anchored around a 10km (solos or 3 x 3.3km relay) swim on the Thursday, and a choice of 5km, 2.5km, or 1km on the Saturday. Mana’s North Beach is Ocean Swimming Stadium of the Pacific, one of the best stretches of water in which you’ll ever do a swim event… Click here
We sail around the Northern Sporades, in the wake of Jason and his Argonauts.
Greece's Northern Sporades – We pioneered oceanswimsafaris around these lesser known (to Antipodeans) Greek islands, around locations for the movie, Mama Mia. Imagine, lazing around these islands, in some of the world's clearest water, on a yacht for a week. We live aboard, but we have some nights on land, and we dine each night at a different taverna by a different little cove. We can take groups of 6-8, but if you have around double that number, we can use two yachts. This is an oceanswimsafari done to order. Give us a yell... Click here
Lots on offer; lots to do; lots of swimming in some of the world’s most beautiful water.
Our advance deposit scheme
You can reserve your place in any oceanswimsafari with an advance deposit of $500 per head. When we finalise the packages for each trip, we’ll give you the option of accepting or declining. If you don’t wish to proceed, we’ll refund your advance deposit in full. But in the meantime, you will have your space set aside.
See oceanswimsafaris.com for more.
Get your View gogs
Best gogs, etc, at best prices
Yet again, still, we're continuing our 'never-before' offer of View gogs. The folks at View have adjusted their prices in a small way recently, so we have had to adjust ours correspondingly, but we've kept prices down. We reckon these are the best value gogs you will get, in terms both of quality and price. This is in our our experience, mind you, bu this does go on a bit.
Some of our bargains…
- View Selene Swipes – $36
- View Wide-eyes Swipes – $36
- View Wide-eyes Swipe Mirrored – $42.50
- View Xtreme semi-masks – $37.50
- Prescription goggles – Swipe Optical goggles – choose your lens strength in each eye – $66.50
Here's the link to order your new gogs. Click now and we'll get them away to you quick and smart… Click here
Not a bad joint for a swim.
2023 Heron Island
Dates open for June, Oct, Nov
Our Heron Island oceanswimsafaris were heavily booked in 2022. We've had some terrific groups come with us, and we're looking forward to tip top conditions in 2023. We're heading to Heron in June, October and November. June is the beginning of Manta ray season around Heron. October and November are early in turtle-laying season.
Best get in quick and smart. It would be good to have you with us.
We're taking bookings now for our 2023 Heron Island dates –
- June 14-19
- October 25-30
- November 8-13
Find out more and book… Click here
New model Swipes
Prescription gogs now in Swipes
Big news from View: our very popular prescription goggles now also come with high-anti-fog Swipe technology.
Our Swipes, so far in both Selene and Wide-Eyes versions, have been a big hit, offering what View (the makers) describe as 10 times the anti-fog capacity of other gogs. We've been using them for almost two years now, and we know that it works. We've sold over 1,000 pairs of Swipe gogs since their release just prior to Xmas 2019, so many of you must agree, too.
Now the Platina prescription goggles come in Swipe versions, too. Lenses come in strengths ranging from -1.0 to -10.0, and +1.5 to +6.0, and you can have different strengths in each eye. Just select the strengths you want when you order your gogs online.
View's new Swipe prescription gogs are available at $66.50 a full pair, which is cheap compared with how you will pay at a spectacles shop.
Be aware: View is phasing out the old versions of prescription goggles, currently selling for $A57.85. Some lens strengths are no longer available, and strengths will not be replaced as they run out. Your alternative is to order the new Swipe Optical goggles, which offer 10 times the anti-fog capacity of the older versions.
You can order your new Swipe Optical (prescription) gogs online now… Click here
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