Wednesday 24 October 2018

Swimming with Whales and Other Close Encounters

One of the highlights of a trip to Tonga is of course the humpback whales.  They migrate from their feeding grounds in the Antarctic to Tonga to give birth to their calves every year.  While most of the whale watching industry is in Vava'u, there appeared to be more whales in the Ha'apai and and there certainly were less tour operators.  After doing some research and meeting the owners of Matafonua Resort (check out their website if only for their great photos), we decided to book a day out whale watching with them.  They are professional and have a very respectful attitude towards the whales.

Liz videoing the mum and calf.
The first few photos are from our whale swim day and then some photos of whales from our travels around the Ha'apai.

The calf looking at Liz.
The mum and calf swim past Johnathan.  Looks like he is getting cold.

Trying to get into a good position for a photo.

That's better.  A better perspective looking up at the mum and calf.

The photo from below.
More trying to getting a photo but not getting in their way.

Mum and calf.

The mum nudging the baby to the surface.

Nap time for the baby.

and then swimming down to nuzzle with mum.

More nuzzling.

The calf seemed to enjoy swimming around the mum and showing off his talents

The calf seemed to enjoy swimming around the mum and showing off his talents

Being watched by the whale

During August we constantly saw and heard the whales no matter what we were doing.  Going for a SUP trip - see whales.  Going spearfishing - hear whale song and once got buzzed by a mum and calf at high speed.  Going for a hike - see whales in the distance ! Kiting - more whales !
In this case a calf decided to come over and check out our dingy as we were coming back from snorkeling at Ofolanga Island.

and then the very big male escort swam very close under our dingy.

Hanging on the anchor chain listening to whale song.  At about six feet it was like a switch being turned on.

Almost always whales visible from the Fluenta while at anchor.
In this case, we are motoring through a calm and I saw whales off to port.  We slowed down and altered to starboard to give them more room and what did they do but dive down and come up close on our starboard side !

Monday 22 October 2018

Cautionary Tale - Iridium Emergency Plan Disabled last June !

An expensive piece of kit we hope never to need.  Testing in Auckland.

We found out on the weekend that one of the layers in our risk mitigation strategy - the sim card for our handheld satphone - had been disable months ago and we had not been notified by our airtime provider. If you have, or think you have, a Iridium Emergency Annual Plan we recommend you check with your airtime provider.  Iridium changed the plan and rather than the common-sense solution of waiting until annual contracts had expired and then simply charging the new higher price, they simply cancelled the cards with minimal notice (or in our case, no notice).

It is shades of our friends on SV Rebel Heart dramas of a few years ago.  One element in the loss of their boat and the rescue that garnered large amounts of visibility in the mainstream American media was the unsolicited cancellation of their satphone sim card while crossing the Pacific (by a different airtime company than we are using).  Wavetrain wrote about it here:


Not surprisingly since we often travel to relatively remote locations with our family onboard we are quite conservative in our risk management.  It is best of course to avoid having any need to use the safety equipment but if there is a need, we need to have confidence that our kit works.

Our emergency communications plan follows that philosophy.  Our regular day to day long range communications are through our Iridium Go device which gives us basic email, voice and data.  This is backed up with our High Frequency radio/Pactor modem that provided our primary comms for the first few years of cruising.  In the event of an actual emergency we have an EPRIB backed up by two PLBs (one in the cockpit and one packed in the liferaft).  

In theory this should be sufficient but I learned a few nuggets of info when teaching a  VHF Restricted Operator Certificate (ROC(M)) course (the qualification in Canada to operate a marine VHF FM radio - I used to be an examiner for the qualification) a few years ago.  Some of the students were from the local Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) and they were describing assisting a Canadian vessel requiring rescue in the Brazilian RCC area of responsibility.  The Brazilian RCC kept insisting that it was likely a false alarm and were delaying initiating the rescue.  The takeaway lesson was that with a satphone one can call straight to RCC - the local one and/or the "home" one - and confirm it is really a no duff emergency and not a false alarm.  Knowing some of the good folks at the Halifax RCC, I would be calling them first to act as our advocates.    Because of this, we have an Iridium Extreme Handheld that lives in our primary ditch bag that would come into the life raft with us.  I have the local and Halifax RCC numbers in the speed dial.

The Iridium Extreme Handheld.

One of our pre-passage checklist items is to charge the Iridium handheld.  This time I checked that it would actually dial (not a cheap check at $US7.00/minute) and got a sim card error.  I checked on my account with the airtime provider to find out that my account had been deactivated in June (only weeks after I had confirmed it worked before leaving NZ)!  We also have our Iridium Go airtime with the same company so they have been happily sending us bills for the Go monthly via our Gmail and Sailmail (our at sea email address) email accounts every month.  Once I found a real person to talk to at the company they told me that Iridium had cancelled the Annual Emergency Plan in June and following an email going out, everybody's plan was cancelled.  Unfortunately we did not receive any emails on either of the email accounts we have registered with them nor did they mail a notice to our "shore office" (Liz's parents in Halifax).

The Iridium Go

The Iridium Go is also waterproof and we have a waterproof case on our iPad so this combo could act as a back up to the EPRIB.  However, based on my limited experience in life rafts at sea or in the wave/wind pool on sea survival courses I am not sure I want to rely on these tools in a bouncy and wet liferaft.  The Iridium Go is on our list of items to bring in the liferaft if we have enough time as one cannot have too much redundancy but it not our first choice for comms from the liferaft.  The Go also has a "red button" one can press in the event of distress but we recently found out ours does not work and the device is outside of its warranty.  We tried to see if our airtime provider could get it fixed for us even though it is out of warranty but that was a dead end.

At this point, we are not sure what we are going to do.  To reactivate the Emergency Plan we need a new sim card from the US and it is debatable how long it would take to ship to Savusavu, Fiji. As much as we love Savusavu we need to get moving north before the cyclone season starts in earnest.  Another plan would be to ship the sim card to the Marshall Islands and plan to not sink in the almost 2000nm between here and there.  RCC Halifax: if you get an EPRIB signal from us, assume it is not a false alarm please...

Now to reduce my blood pressure after writing about this mess ... dreaming of returning to Ailuk.

Wednesday 17 October 2018

Cruising in Vava'u - Camping, Mega-Super Yachts, Sailing and School

After sorting out our logistics and admin in town it was time to head out into the super easy and pretty cruising grounds of Vava'u.  Moorings has published a guide to the islands numbering each anchorage so many of the yachties referred to each spot by its number vice its name.  Compared to the Ha'apai and places we normally visit it seemed really busy to us but it was a nice place to visit and the kids enjoyed having more "kid boats" around.

Heading into Nuku anchorage.

Johnathan checking the route for us.

Kid boats !  Camping ashore at Gau.

Benjamin enjoying being ashore

More kid boats and more camping.

and some school too.
and more school.
and chores.

and trips to the Barber Shop.

Benjamin making "creature power discs" modeled after his current favourite show: Wild Kratts

I also had a chance to go racing.  I showed up at the skippers meeting hoping to get a crew position.  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.

There were quite a few whales in Vava'u but we did not see as many as we saw in Ha'apai.  When we did see them though they were usually being pursued by at least one, if not two, whaling boats.

We detoured a bit to cruise closer to look at this ketch.  She is the largest performance ketch in the world.

and a few hours later she anchored next to us.  Look at the crew member on the main mast to give you an idea of the scale.

Look at the crew member on the main mast to give you an idea of the scale.

An interesting neighbour.
We were anchored there to see the "Tongan Feast".  The show was okay and the food good but the highlight had to be a glimpse into the megayacht world

The German owner of the yacht prefers German beer and wine so he has it flown in.  Here the Chief Engineer is trying to set up the keg ashore.
There was a minor crisis when it did not work so more engineers were recalled from the yacht to help.  Anyway, the owners were very nice and interesting people to talk to for the evening.  And they shared their tasty beer and wine ...
On the other end of the spectrum ... Trickle out sailing near Gau
Nice beaches.
One of our favourite anchorages was off Kenutu.  Here is the view from the windward side.

and the leeward side.

Fluenta anchored off Kenutu

and on the sandbar near Kenutu.  A great kiting spot which I cover in another blog post.

And some kiting on Gau in a westerly wind.  Most crowded spot we kited.