Nuie and it’s Whales

The island of Nuie is roughly midway between The Cook Islands and Tonga and is one of the smallest countries in the world with a pollution of only 1400 people on a land mass 10 miles by 5 miles. It is a raised atoll sitting on top of a volcano with sheer limestone cliffs riddled with caves and chasms to give a dramatic look to the landscape as seen from the sea. As we came into the bay of Alofi a whale breached ahead of us, jumping out of the water to land with a mighty splash. It repeated this breaching several times across the bay towards us and eventually passed by us a matter of 100 yards away. An amazing sight and a great welcome to Nuie, home of the humpback whale. 

One of the many whale sightings off Nuie

We picked up one of a dozen mooring buoys just off the concrete wharf in the capital village of Alofi. We decided to try to get ashore by kayak to check in that afternoon, if we had used the dinghy it would have to be craned out of the heavy swell onto the jetty but I had no lifting eyes fitted so the kayak seemed a better option. It proved a difficult process however, getting out of a kayak in a 3ft swell onto a landing which is above you is not easy. A rope had been suspended to steady people from boat to shore but they were already standing up in their boats we had to get there first so we could use the rope. I managed to stand up in the bucking kayak with more than a little difficulty and then time our swing ashore on the rope, monkey style off the”bucking kayak”. I made it without a ducking but only just and then it was Gills turn, she doesn’t have much strength in her knees and it proved quite a challenge but with the aid of two ropes and a heave from me she made it. All I had to do was pulled the kayak up behind us and between us we hauled it up the steps out of the surge.

One of Nuie’s many limestone caves

We checked in with the officials there on the quayside health first of all, I answered a few questions , have you been sick recently, of course we answered no but I wonder if you were ill would they send you back yo sea to die there. Next was immigration and customs, only 4 double sided forms to fill in, they must have big filing cabinets, then customs and more forms. When it comes to declaring the booze we wonder if we declared it all if they would confiscate it or bond it so I always err on the light side just in case. In practice no officer has ever been interested, they don’t even read the forms except the bit about firearms. We don’t carry any because I don’t know when and if I would ever use it if I had one. Lots of fisherman have approached our boat during our travels, any of them could have been pirates but how would you know they no longer fly the Jolly Roger, if they ever did. All of our visitors have been trying to sell or give us fish/crabs/lobster and in these cases shooting them would have been a bit over the top. Even out at sea we have been approached but most want a bottle of water or just to say hello and ask where you’re from. The only time you could use a gun would be if you were boarded at night at anchor so we have alarms and big kitchen knives.

Back to the wharf and our check in process, there are no checking in fees for landing in Nuie but strangely we had to pay $34NZ each to leave. It took about an hour to check in by the time all the forms had been completed. When we had finished were greeted on the quay by Neil from The Red Thread, they had arrived the day before and were sorting out a trip with the whale research team. We had registered our interest by email when in Papeete but heard no more. The Nuie Whale Research organisation is an NGO with very limited funding and they were asking yacht owners to take researchers out to sea to track and photograph the humpback whales which migrate here every year during the months from late July to September and to record this year’s hit whale song. The whales travel up from Antartica to the warmer waters of the tropics around Nuie and Tonga to mate, calf and return to the Antartica there to feed on the tons of krill they find down there. Neil asked if we would like to come with them and we jumped at the chance.

The following morning we joined Jessie and Neil on Red Thread and researcher Fiaa and her volunteer helper, Leni who also had a full time job at the local supermarket and was a waitress at a restaurant at night, a busy girl with a big personality. We hadn’t travelled a mile before we saw our first humpback, they grow to around 20 metres and weigh up to 45 tons so you don’t want to get too close and Fiaa was quick to get Neil to change course if she thought the boat was obstructing the whale’s path. This was to be the first of many we saw that day, we saw some in groups or pods, some loners, probably hopeful males and some mothers with calves. Fiaa had brought a hydrophone with her on a 10 metre cable which she dropped over the side to listen to the whale song, it was amazing to hear. The songs change each year and are sung by males looking for females, there are several verses to each song and these are repeated by every male with the same verses. Neil and I jumped in over the stern of the boat with our snorkels to listen to the whale song underwater. It had a cathedral quality to it and at its height it can reach 180 decibels, loud enough to travel for 100 miles. We looked around underwater to see if we could spot a whale and although the visibility was 100 metres we couldn’t see anything. While they are singing they are suspended head down in the water waiting hopefully for a female to come by. I was sorry not to see one from below but the sound of the song was something quite amazing, so sole full and haunting sounding through the depths. When we travel around the world we come across many special situations, each different and we never get tired or blasé about these. It’s always such a privilege to be there and be able to participate and quite humbling.

The next day we found a quayside ladder we could access from the kayak which had been hidden by a couple of patrol boats tied up to the jetty over the previous day’s and this made getting ashore much easier. We then used the self operated dockside crane to lift the kayak out of the sea and deposit it on the top of the quay while we went ashore. We found we could get internet at the “biggest little yacht club in the world”, Nuie Yacht Club, so it was an opportunity to catch up with a few weeks worth of backlog emails. We also met up there with Sue and John on Marilyn, David and Ghitta on Aros Mear, old friends from past ports. There were around 10 or so other boats on moorings in Nuie and we met some new folks that night at a get together at the yacht club who kindly stayed open beyond there normal 6 o’clock closing so we could party. Afterwards everyone headed to the local Indian restaurant for a curry, just like back home!

Gill and I decided to go snorkelling along the reef the following day, which fringed the coast line inshore of our mooring. We dived in off the boat and were suitably amazed, the visibility was the best we had ever seen at around 100 yards. The boat was tied to a mooring buoy in about 15 metres of water and you could see all around the boat to the bottom with its deep chasms and coral beds disappearing off into the blue. We could see fish swimming on the bottom around coral heads as clear as day it was a marvellous and quite unusual sight. We swam towards the reef face where we could swim up gullies and over the top of the reef where the waves broke, here were hundreds of fish feeding. Gill saw a group of about 100 going mad over some tasty food in a feeding frenzy. Deeper down were larger fish, parrot fish, grouper, box fish, needle fish and reef sharks, which just cruised by looking for a more fishy meal, I still kept a wary eye on these 8ft carnivores but they never bothered us, they probably thought we were too old and grisly for them to eat. For the first time in our travels we saw sea snakes, small ones at around 18 inches and the largest at 5ft, they seemed to prefer Gill to me and she had a few scary moments when they mobbed her. These are some of the deadliest creatures in the sea, one bite and it’s good bye Columbus, your history! The good thing about them is they only have small mouths and backward facing fangs to hold their prey so they can only bite the flesh between your fingers. Fisherman are sometimes victims as they pull in their nets by hand and the snake comes up unnoticed. Their black and white banded bodies are quite easy to see in the water unless they swim just under the reflective surface and one or two crept up on me unseen in this way. A quick flick with a fin sent them off, they’re not aggressive however just curious and fearless but I didn’t want them too close to me just in case. This was one of the best snorkelling experiences we have had on our travels, the visibility was incredible and the variety and range in size of fish probably the best we have seen from small and pretty to large and menacing, I half expected a whale to come cruising by but it never happened although they, reportedly, do come close to the reef from time to time.

The next day was August 15th and our friend Neil’s 35th birthday. A group of us yachties had decided to hire a car and a people carrier to transport 11 of us around the island for a bit of exploring along some of the “sea tracks” as they are called here. These are coastal paths leading to great views, caves, swimming pools, whale watching etc. Our timing was good as it was low water which allowed us to walk along the exposed reef and visit some of the incredible limestone caves with their beautifully sculpted stalagmites. Next we walked a couple of miles along a rough coral track through the woods to a cove which had some fantastic arches. We stopped here for lunch and a rest and then it was back down the trail and on to the Kings Pool where the kings of Nuie in times gone by bathed in this private place. The pool is in a chasm about 6 metres deep and 100 metres long with a blowhole link to the sea. The blowhole creates a groaning and puffing sound as the sea rushes in and out, creating an eerie atmosphere to the place. 

The King’s Swimming Pool

Our next stop was at Luna pool which had a couple of pretty coves for swimming, the water was a mix of fresh from underground streams and salt from over the reef making the water shimmer which distorted our vision through our diving masks as the layers of salt and fresh separated and created an unusual lens effect. 

A beautiful arch carved out of the limestone by the sea.

 By now everyone was getting thirsty so we decided to stop at the Sail bar on our way back to the harbour. The bar is perched on the cliff top and gives a superb view over the sea below where we could watch whales making their way north. Once back in town we inflicted ourselves on the local Indian restaurant for dinner and a few more beers, well we had to celebrate Neil’s birthday in style!

Gill had made a cake for the occasion so Neil and Jessie came back to the boat for a slice or two.

We decided to leave the following morning as there was a two day weather window forecast with favourable winds for Tonga. This meant going to the customs office at the airport some 4 miles away to get our clearing out papers and pay our dues but fortunately the family off the Israeli boat moored next to us went by in a hire car and gave me a lift. The customs officer then drove me back to the boat so my legs were spared a long walk.

The following morning we set sail for Tonga about 340 miles due west. On our second day out I was sitting in the cockpit watching the waves role by when I saw a whale surface and blow. It was a big one and about 100 yards behind us. We were right in its path, I called Gill and we waited with bated breath for it to surface again. This it did but now 50 yards behind so I changed course 30 degrees but the whale followed us. I changed course again and so did the whale, it was as long as the boat and a lot heavier it then surfaced 20 yards behind us and we were getting alarmed, if he hit the rudder it would just snap off. I let out more genoa in an effort to outrun him and our speed increased to 7 knots, I changed course again to come close hauled. Gill had gone down below to get her camera but was too riveted by this encroaching mammal to remember to take a photo.

I had no idea what the top speed of a whale was and we could only hope he would tire. He was coming up for air every couple of minutes so I guess he was breathing pretty heavily. Whether it was aggression and he was chasing us off or it was innocent curiosity we will never know but after our last manoeuvre to starboard we never saw him again. Being chased by a big whale was not something I would like to do again, we had no means of defence and if he had hit us and taken out the rudder we were 100 miles from Nuie with little chance of rescue any time soon but we lived to sail another day!

One thought on “Nuie and it’s Whales

  1. wow! you are in AUS!! really amazing. it’s been two years from we met in Gautemala coffee farm. hope you visit south korea. take care! – haeree and jeong woo

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