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Whale swimming in Tonga

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You don't get much closer to a whale than this, without paying for it or being one: Mum puts on a show for the mob at Tongan Beach Resort. BTW, all the good pics in this report are by Glistening Dave. The ordinary ones are by os.c/oss.c.

Our brushes with royalty

Whale-swimming in Tonga

1st Inaugural Tonga oceanswimsafari, July 29 - August 6, 2015

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Glistening Dave, our staff photograrpher, came with us to Tonga. Dave has produced a stunning picture book on his tour, which you can check out and, if you like, purchase... Click here

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. In the final episode of Summer Heights High, Jonah’s dad sends his delinquent son back to Tonga to stay with his family, as punishment. Then the first episode of Angry Boys showed Jonah in Tonga, giving his family the pips, them sending him back to Stra’a to live again with his dad. 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.

We first heard of Tonga when, as little children, we heard of two players for the St George Dragons, the Toga brothers, Inosai and Apisai. Inosai and Apisai Toga. They were from Tonga. Knowing how the missionaries, in the olden days, transcribed the languages of island nations in often weird ways – eg, in Fijian, the letter “q” is pronounced “…ng”, and “d” following a vowel is pronounced “… nd” -- the Toga brothers may well have been simply the Tonga brothers, or the brothers from Tonga. Mind you, the rugby league types would have sorted that out, you’d think.

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Recidivist oceanswimsafarist Tony Midolo pays his respects from the side of the road to King Tupou VI, and HM waves back.


Right now, the Tongan brothers in the news are the Fifita lads, two high-spirited rugby league-type 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. Incongruous. 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 were assembling the infrastructure for that weekend’s Vava’u Royal Agricultural Show. They’re putting up a dais, some marquees, and they’re 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. Tonga is no different. No ferris wheel, but. We understand Fifita Sr is not the same as John Fifita, another Tongan who also played for the Saints, in the 80s.

Whale call, Tonga from Paul Ellercamp on Vimeo.


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 irreverent 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 between 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 him 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, you see, seeing as how he was cruising past us both times 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.

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After lunch, mum and calf stayed around. Maybe she was hoping for table scraps.


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, Tonga retained its national identity and its monarchy, Tongans tell you proudly, although it became 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 Chris’Jan churches, and it remains a staunchly Chris’Jan (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.

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Left field

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 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 (Pl: pelota) are the first such groups ever to ripple these waters. Plenty have dived; some may have snorkeled; but often 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 –n 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?

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Dive of the Month.


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 it’s 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. It must be like huntin’ lions with cameras. Poor Cecil.

We got ours, 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 gracefully off again.

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.

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And the result... Don't try this at home.

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Youth brass bands are big in Tonga.


We had one formal whale-watching day, but as with these things, our subsequent five swim days were whale-watching, too. They were all around us, 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… ‘Strue, ‘strue.

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.

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The show, Breast Cancer Fundraiser, Neiafu.


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.

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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 his missus waved, too, and on he proceeded, processionally in all his circumstance.

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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 the Court Correspondent of The Times.

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Next year...

Next year's 2nd inaugural Tonga oceanswimsafari (2016) is planned for August 10-18, although these dates are still to be confirmed. If you're interested in joining us, email us and let us know. As soon as we have our package together, we'll let you know and you'll have a drop on everyone else to book... Click here

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Night falls over Neiafu.

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