Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Letter Home - Tonga - Part 4

Part 4 of 5 of Liz's letter home:

Swimming into Mariners Cave
As I have mentioned, Vava'u has a very different feeling from the Ha'apai.  The first indication that we were in a new environment (besides the dozens of boats that popped up on AIS as we approached Neiafu) was the availability of a dedicated cruiser VHF channel repeated across the entire group, complete with a morning radio net seven days/week, hosted by local businesses that cater to yachties and visitors.  There are over 40 anchorages (all numbered) all within about 10nm of each other, and there is always somewhere protected to anchor.  Everywhere we looked we saw boats going by: an average of 500 boats visit Vava'u each year, and there are also almost two dozen whale swimming operators, with over three dozen boats in the water on any given day, so all in all, it seemed much more crowded to us.  On the bright side, this did mean that there were more kid boats, and there was even Friday night racing.

One of the advertised highlights of Vava'u is the opportunity to swim into Mariner's and Swallows Caves.  We anchored at Nuku (a very pretty spot where I was also able to do some yoga on the deserted beach), packed a picnic lunch, and headed out by dingy to see both caves. The caves are similar on the inside, with lots of beautiful rock formations, but totally different in the approach: a dinghy will fit into the entrance of Swallows, while the access to Mariners is from under water, so a person must dive down and swim about 12ft to access the cavern.

Our first stop of the day was at Mariner's Cave.  We sent Max first, then Johnathan and Max, then Victoria and Max, while I 'volunteered' to watch Benjamin in the dinghy.  Finally, there was no avoiding the fact that it was my turn.  With all the time I have spent on my yoga mat in the last ten years, I knew I would be able to hold my breath for the entrance, but I had never quite gotten around to the practice swims under the keel that Max had suggested.  On the other hand, I had read on various cruising blogs that Mariner's was not to be missed, so I was not going to let either my fear or lack of preparation get in the way of seeing it.

All this made sense to me as we were planning the outing; however, I must admit that as I floated on the surface, looking at the dark and shadowy entrance six feet under the water, and considering the anemic glow from my dive flashlight, while endeavouring to do deep/steady breathing to prepare myself to dive and hold my breath, I was not having any success at steadying the hammering of my heart!  Johnathan told me that it would take 15 seconds to arrive in the cave.  When I finally got myself under the water and began stroking strongly through the dark under the entrance, counting slowly in my head, it seemed like the longest 15 seconds of my life! It also seemed like it might be my last 15 seconds! I wondered how on earth I had gotten myself into this situation, and in fact, had to remind myself firmly that "we can do hard things" (a favourite quote from Glennon Doyle), and to keep swimming.  As it turned out, having been told not to come up too early at the risk of knocking my head on an overhanging rock, I swam pretty much half way across the cave before surfacing to gasp for breath :)  Once inside, I felt a mix of the elation of accomplishment and the dread that there was no way out of the cave except underwater.  At least this time I would be swimming towards the light.  I am not sure if I was hyper-ventilating from the swim itself, from the shock that I had made it and was still alive, or from the actual sense of accomplishment, but suffice to say that it took a few minutes to get my breath back!  

Inside Mariners Cave.  Note the fog that forms as the ocean swell changes the pressure in the cavern.

While we were in the cave, the air was constantly fogging and clearing, as every wave hitting the underwater entrance reduced the air volume and raised the pressure enough to cause water droplets to form (and our ears to block); they dissipated and the air cleared instantly as the waves backed off.  We didn't have to go far for our science lesson on this day!!  My return to the surface was kind of funny:  I dove down, swam towards the light, felt a sense of relief to be outside the cave in the clear, and then noticed that I still had six feet to swim before I could actually breath because I was still deep under the water!

Liz and Johnathan on the surface while I dive down for a better picture
Once back at the dinghy, I realized that, having survived it, I didn't really want to go back into the cave.  I took this as my cue to do it again: I wanted to know (to prove?) that my first visit was not a fluke.  This time it was Victoria's turn to do a mother/daughter cave swim.  It took me just about as long to psych myself to dive for the second time as it did for the first, but after a couple of aborted attempts (not quite coordinating the dive down with the entrance to the cave), I managed to swim in and come to the surface just inside the mouth of the cave, which turned out to be much easier!  I felt kind of proud to have done something that everyone knew was outside my comfort zone, and it inspired me to consider free-diving some more (maybe even with a course).  I'm pretty sure that without diving at Mariner's I would not have heard the whale song when we returned to the Ha'apai, as I would not have swum down our anchor chain to listen.

Victoria playing with the fish in Swallows Cave.
After Mariner's, Swallows Cave was quite uneventful!  We dinghied over and anchored at the mouth of the cave, picnicking while we waited for a tour group to finish, then we all went inside, including Benjamin who, having sat out the morning was quite pleased with himself for swimming into a cave.  Swallows is famous for its late-afternoon colours, so we timed our visit for the end of the day.  In addition to the obvious features of schooling baitfish and beautiful light, Johnathan and Victoria worked together to hold the dinghy under one of the vertical outcroppings, then Johnathan channelled his inner monkey to climb up and leap off.  The water was clear and deep, so he was perfectly safe, but I had to admire his bravery, using fingers and toes to climb a good 2-3x his height up a narrow vertical edge (ie not a wall) before jumping.

Walls are of course made to be climbed ...

We spent as few days as possible in Neiafu (the capital of Vava'u) as we preferred to be out at anchor, but we were fortunate to be in town for one of the weekly Friday night races organized by a waterfront bar.  Racing isn't really my thing, but Max went ashore to see if he could crew with someone, and the result was an enjoyable evening for all of us.  There were three boats at the pre-race meeting, one of which was a catamaran with quite a big contingent.  They invited him to join them, but his eye was caught by a quiet couple in the corner who seemed a little more like his type of sailors.  In his words: "A catamaran with a massive and loud crew offered me a position but there was a quiet couple who were not seeking any crew.  I asked if I could go with them and what a good call that was.  Not only did we win - which is always nice - but the boat was really well set up and run extremely well by the husband and wife team.  Later I found out why they were such great sailors - the husband used to be the professional skipper of Steinlager II and the wife is the daughter of the late Sir Peter Blake.  Great folks.  The rest of the crew were some great Tongan guys who were good sailors and had great stories from setting up the whale watching industry in the early days.  The race flowed into a few after race beers to a full blown party ashore."  

Fluenta in the middle of the race course.  A nice evening of racing with great sailors.
Victoria volunteered to be our designated photographer with the 'big' camera, so she and I stayed on the upper decks of Fluenta, and watched the race along the harbour with front row seats :)  Along with our friend Paul from Romany Star, who happened to be in Neiafu for a couple of days, and whom we had previously invited to Fluenta for dinner, we had a great evening with friends both old and new at the post-race party.  [Aside: When the Romany Star visited Tonga last year, they decided to return with laptops for the highschool in Niuatoputapu, the remote group north of Vava'u, and after a year of fundraising, Paul had flown to deliver the laptops as far as Neiafu, after damage to Romany Star prevented him making the trip himself.  Another yacht took the laptops the rest of the way the following month. Hats off to the Romany Star for seeing a need and finding a way to meet it.]


Stay tuned for the final installment shortly ...

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