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February 2015    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 41, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Nai’a, Tonga and Fiji

two trips for seeking whales and diving Fiji’s reefs

from the February, 2015 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Note from Ben: The Nai'a is a popular liveaboard among our readers, so this month we have two reviewers traveling on different itineraries -- one scouting whales in Tonga, the other diving reefs in Fiji. Here are their reports.

* * * * *

Dear Fellow Diver:

I was finning 20 feet above two 40-foot, 40-ton adult humpback whales cavorting and interacting with each other, and permitting me to photograph them up close. I was thrilled! But I was also cold -- the adrenaline produced by the excitement kept me in the water, but it wasn't keeping me warm.

In 2010, I read an Undercurrent story about a humpback whale-watching trip to Silver Bank in the Dominican Republic, in which four people extolled their experiences swimming with humpbacks in Tonga compared with Silver Bank. I had been thinking about that ever since, and finally booked the Tonga whale trip with Nai'a.

Nai'aDuring August and September, humpbacks from Antarctica arrive in Tonga's waters to mate, give birth and wean their young. Nai'a, a Fiji-based liveaboard, travels to Tonga for 10-day trips focused on whale watching and swimming with whales, with a few afternoon dives on local reefs if the whales have disappeared. Mornings were spent looking for blows and trying to get close enough to determine if any whales would stick around long enough for snorkelers to get into the water with them. If they did, everyone jumped in. The crew was constantly searching, but the real directors were the whales themselves, whose whereabouts and willingness to play are what sets Nai'a's course. If you book this trip, you must be willing to dedicate 10 days to almost nothing other than searching for and snorkeling with humpbacks. Alternative activities aren't planned, but the crew on my trip accommodated guests who tired of whales 24/7.

Seventeen passengers of the 19 booked arrived in Nuku'alofa, on the island of Tongatapu, at 6 p.m. the day before the boat sailed -- but half their bags didn't. Panic turned to anger when a Fiji Airways representative explained that the turbo prop was overweighted so the ground crew in Fiji had unloaded bags randomly. Somebody called Nai'a's co-owner, Alexx Edwards, in Fiji, who saw to it that the bags reached the Nai'a before passengers boarded at 2 p.m.

After spending the night in Nuku'alofa and hiring a taxi to drive me around the next morning, I boarded Nai'a to be greeted by Captain Jonathan, who has been with Nai'a for nine of the past 12 years, and cruise directors Amanda and Joshua, both with Nai'a just 11 months after coming from a dive resort in Zanzibar. Joshua speaks four languages, which came in handy because 11 whale watchers were European. Also on board were Wanda from Shanghai, Aurelia, a Mexican woman working in Australia, and three generations of an American family, including precocious Alex, 12, and Carolina, 11, who charmed us by becoming the "cookie delivery system" after every lunch. The Europeans -- mainly Germans, but also an Austrian couple and a Swiss photographer -- had individually booked through a German travel agency. They understood English but understandably preferred to speak German, and pretty much stuck together. One woman had obviously studied the pre-trip information -- she was the only one who always had the right clothes for the cool weather, while I bemoaned my failure to do the same and keep warm.

Nai'a, Tonga and FijiAs Nai'a got underway toward the Ha'apai group of islands, we were served an excellent dinner of grilled salmon on a bed of spinach with couscous. Chef Mita's meals were impressive and tasty, but sometimes there was a disconnect, like the morning I was expecting a Spanish omelet and received an egg pancake covered with olives. What the heck -- most everything tasted fine. Then it was off to my tight cabin, made so by beds that could be converted to kings. My dive buddy and I were always squeezing by each other (politely, of course). Regardless, I appreciated the cleanliness, ample drawer space, updated plumbing fixtures, and amenities such as shampoo and fluffed towels daily.

At orientation, Joshua and Amanda explained that everybody on the two skiffs (each held nine) was to enter the water head-first on the driver's count, avoid splashing, stay together, follow the cruise director, and stop when we saw whales below. After breakfast the first morning, Nai'a cruised around looking for blows. At 11:30 a.m., Joshua spotted some groups and we got into the skiffs. After 10 minutes heading toward one group and getting close, we entered the water with Amanda in the lead, swam with our eyes peeled below and came upon a couple of two-ton, two-year-old juveniles right under us! They interacted with each other, surfaced with spyhops, and stayed with us for almost two hours. Wanda, who was so taken with the massive creatures, could not help herself from screeching loudly as she snorkeled. Her (subconscious?) carrying-on not only annoyed the rest of us, but may have been what finally drove the whales away. There needs to be a pledge not to harass the whales or other guests.

I was cold, tired, hungry, and ready for lunch (stir-fry beef with cashews), which was served at 2:30 p.m. Later, a male escorting a female and her four-week-old, 11-foot baby -- which already weighed 3,000 pounds -- appeared, so we spent another hour in the water, watching mom teach her uncoordinated calf how to breach until her male escort led them away. That first day spoiled us all, creating expectations of daily multiple close encounters for the duration. It didn't happen.

Nai'a is a 120-foot-long, steel-hulled motor-sailer that was built in the mid-70s. Edwards and her brother, Rob Barrel, purchased it in 1992 and refitted it as a liveaboard. In 2010, when the Nai'a was in dry dock for maintenance, an explosion occurred that killed two workers. The nine cabins below deck were demolished, so they were rebuilt and updated. The salon is also the dining room, so with lots of inside time due to cool weather while the captain was searching for humpbacks, it was crowded with passengers fooling around with cameras, editing photos, reading or playing cards and games. The two kids brought homework. Stuff had to be cleared before every meal. The only other options were to hang out at the bow or on the upper sun deck watching for blows, or head for one's bunk.

Breakfast had two hot choices, plus fresh fruit and muffins, and three choices of entrées for lunch and dinner. Suliana, a Fiji native who's been with Nai'a 15 years, managed meal service with efficiency and grace, but it was rush, rush, rush. She brought out breakfast as soon as I arrived for my wake-up coffee, and often started clearing dishes before my tablemates and I were finished eating. There's a fancy Swiss coffee machine in the salon that turns out wonderful cappuccinos, but too often it hadn't been replenished with beans and water (simple enough to correct, for sure). Three-course dinners included soup, salad or appetizer, entrée and dessert. Vegetarian selections were offered daily, and the kitchen accommodated dietary issues. Tea, coffee, hot chocolate, soft drinks, fresh fruit and packaged cookies were on hand all day; popcorn and cookies, cake, or brownies were served in the afternoon.

Although there were sightings daily, the whales didn't hang around, and some days we spent uncomfortable hours on the skiffs or in the water with no encounters. On Day 6, we started looking for whales as usual at 8 a.m. At 11:30, Jonathan and Koi, our Tongan whale guide, spotted a few. We got into the skiffs but as we approached, they dove. We fruitlessly bounced around for another 75 minutes, finally returning to Nai'a for a late lunch. At 2:30, three humpbacks stayed close for 50 minutes, tail and pec slapping, head standing, breaching and showing off tail breaches called peduncle throws. I didn't need to get in the water to catch the breathtaking show.

Although there were whale sightings daily,
some days we spent uncomfortable hours on
the skiffs or in the water with no whale encounters.

Whether they were maneuvering to get in front of the whales or helping divers don tanks to back roll into the water, skiff drivers Joji and Koroi were competent and accommodating. While trying to swim with the whales, we could be in and out of the skiffs half a dozen times or more, but they never tired of plucking us out of the water or running a tired snorkeler back to Nai'a.

Despite my 4-mil wetsuit and hooded vest, I was constantly cold, whether in the water, on a skiff or aboard Nai'a. While pre-trip information made it clear that winter in Tonga can be cool and windy, I wrongly presumed air and water temperatures would be in the 80s. After all, I was going to a tropical country, right? But it was mostly cloudy and windy, with highs in the mid-to-high 60s, even when the sun came through, and the water stayed at 73 degrees.

Scouting for Whales (photo by Sue Bradley)We made five afternoon scuba dives, the first on Day 3 at The Patch. Joshua told us that, years ago, while divers were on a reef at about 40 feet, three whales spent 35 minutes with them. (It's illegal to use scuba gear to approach whales in Tonga, but there's no prohibition about whales approaching divers.) While no whales showed up, I appreciated the reef's beauty -- large, healthy patches of lettuce coral plus small stuff such as crabs, nudibranchs and plenty of black and yellow pennantfishes. Visibility wasn't more than 20 feet, and I never got below 70 feet. The next dive came on Day 5 at Unoku, a shallow site with several giant clams and beds of lettuce coral. Although night diving was offered, Aurelia was the only person who did them, and she said they were "nothing special."

We made two dives at Palako's Reef, featuring three pinnacles covered with patches of lettuce coral, and lots of action at 50 to 70 feet -- reef sharks, large tuna and tons of fusiliers. Our last dive was at Nakulei Reef, which was healthy but shallow and offered little to see. Maybe it was the cold water, exhaustion from swimming with the whales, or bouncing in the skiffs for several hours, but there wasn't much enthusiasm for diving. On one of the few sunny afternoons when a dive was offered, many passengers opted for a few hours on an uninhabited island beach.

On the morning of Day 8, boredom was setting in, even though the sun was bright and there was less wind. We spent three hours in the skiff following a female with a calf until it became clear that mom didn't want us anywhere near her baby. That afternoon, we visited the village of Ha'afeva, where we observed a family preparing a funeral feast, toured the village school and medical clinic, and watched boys playing rugby with some of the Nai'a crew.

Nai'a's large dive-preparation deck has plenty of room to store gear in individual tubs, hang wetsuits and gear up. There's also sufficient bench area for dive briefings and hanging out with the crew on a couple of nights when they sang and played ukuleles and guitars. One evening, they hosted a kava party, which was the reason, perhaps, that many of us appeared late for breakfast the next morning. The spacious photo room, adjacent to the dive-prep deck, had sufficient charging stations and ample shelf space for all photographers on board.

Nai'a, Tonga and FijiAll in all, it was a good trip, despite the cooler-than-expected water and weather. The quality and competence of the Nai'a crew, their willingness to accommodate passenger needs and preferences, the excellent food, outstanding service and comfortable cabins far outweighed any minor annoyances or inconveniences. The passengers were a congenial group despite being unable to freely communicate with each other. However, if you're not passionate about searching for humpbacks, this may not be the trip for you. But I would do it again -- just as soon as winter in the Southern Hemisphere gets warmer. .

-- S.M.

Nai'a, Tonga and FijiDivers Compass: A 10-day Tonga whale trip costs $5,500 per person, double occupancy, plus a fuel surcharge; that price is roughly the same for 10 days diving on Fiji reefs, while a sevenday trip runs about $3,500 . . . Nitrox is $7.50 per fill, though unnecessary for the dives offered. . . . Soft drinks are complimentary, as are beer and wine with dinner; there's hard stuff on board as well . . . Tips were expected, but no specific amount or percentage was suggested; crew members share equally in the tip pool and tipping individuals was discouraged, and on-board charges (including tips) can be settled in cash or by credit card . . . While one changes planes in Nadi, Fiji's international airport, to get to Tonga, the Nai'a docks just a short ride away from it for its Fiji trips . . . Fiji Airways, a partner of American Airlines for mileage purposes, flies to Tonga from LAX with a connection in Nadi for under $1,400 . . . Website:

* * * * *

Dear Fellow Diver:

Several years ago, I cruised the waters of Tonga on the Nai'a and had an incredible experience swimming with humpback whales, so I was looking forward to returning to the liveaboard, this time to dive Fiji's splendid reefs. I arrived at the dock on a warm spring day in October, a few weeks after the previous reviewer was in Tonga. As I boarded the boat and met the crew, I was pleased to find several of them remembered me from my previous trip. My experiences on the boat were like the other reviewer's -- including excellent food and too much of it -- although I found the new foam mattresses to be hard and uncomfortable. So I'll focus on the diving . . . and one angry passenger who made my diving miserable.

Upon arrival, I set up my gear, and that afternoon, we did our checkout dive at Samu Reef, not far from the port of Lautoka, on the western side of Viti Levu. With lots of particulate matter causing poor visibility, this was not a signature dive, but I found lots to occupy my time. Scattered bommies -- what the Aussies call coral heads -- rose from the bottom, as they did at most sites. Dozens of shrimp goby pairs were excavating and guarding their shared burrows. Anemones hosted at least two species of anemonefish. A scattering of reef fish, including Moorish idols and damselfish, completed the scene.

Our "real" diving began the following day after motoring overnight to Mount Mutiny, a pinnacle rising from 3,000 feet down. Sheer walls were covered in hard and soft corals, including leather, cup and gorgonians in a rainbow of colors. Some brain corals were more than a meter wide. Pink- and orange-finned anemonefish nestled into purple-tipped and bubble anemones, schools of anthias, lunar fusiliers, and Moorish idols (one as big as both my hands with fingers outstretched) surrounded me, and three white-tip reef sharks lazily patrolled the area. A second dive here yielded a school of blackfin barracuda, a grey reef shark, a spotted eagle ray and a small hawksbill turtle. These fine dives were typical of what I experienced for the remainder of the cruise.

At Nigali Passage, I twice rode the incoming tide down the sandy channel through the barrier reef. Schools of big-eye barracuda watched us fly past until we stopped at a rocky outcropping named The Bleachers. I settled onto the rocks and watched two dozen female grey reef sharks (and a sole male) move effortlessly about. After 10 minutes, I let the current take me around the corner and into the lagoon, to a vast field of pristine lettuce coral where scissortail sergeants poked in and out of the "leaves."

Dive sites were typically either bommies, both large and small, or walls. Lovely corals were at most sites, although some sites tended toward either hard or soft corals, depending on the conditions. While my dives were fishy, I rarely saw immense schools, which is disturbingly common these days. At various sites, I encountered iconic creatures like banded kraits (sea snakes), a blue ribbon eel and even slingjaw wrasses fully extending their jaws. Interestingly, I saw fewer lionfish here, where they belong, than I have in the Caribbean.

My last dive was at Gomo, off the coast of Vatu-i-Ra. I descended to 69 feet and landed on a rocky area near a huge bommie, using all my strength to keep the current from ripping me away. I had the foresight to leave my camera rig behind, as I would have had great difficulty handling it here. Divemaster Amanda had us wait five minutes to see the grey reef sharks that love this current, but seeing only two was not worth the unpleasant conditions. When I let go, I sped past spectacular soft corals covering the wall, but it was impossible to pause and get a good look. The group and I rose to the top of the bommie, where I was able to get purchase with my reef hook and perform my safety stop. Even with many hundreds of dives under my weight belt, this was one of the most difficult.

The Nai'a schedules between four and five dives a day, with no time limit on day dives (night dives were limited to one hour of bottom time). Twentythree of my 31 dives were more than an hour long, and that was a lot of diving. I actually sat out the entire last day when rain and winds made conditions less than ideal.

I pushed him firmly away, but Mac turned,
took a swing and hit my hand, then flipped me off
and yelled its meaning into his regulator.

While I enjoyed the diving and Nai'a's Fijian crew, I can't say the same for a certain guest. One American -- let me call him Mac -- was oblivious of his poor buoyancy control, but he seemed to think his large camera rig and expensive gear made him a good diver. I, as well as several other guests, complained repeatedly to Joshua, our cruise director and divemaster, after we watched Mac thrash about and destroy coral on nearly every dive. Regrettably, Joshua's reply was simply, "This guy has been diving since the '70s, and you just can't talk to a guy like that." I find this unacceptable. A divemaster's duties include stewardship of the reef, and by his not confronting this man, the reef was being destroyed, fin kick by fin kick.

The situation got personal. Once I was calmly observing an animal when he swam over, grabbed my BC and gave me a sharp jerk. Back on the boat, I asked him why he did this, and he said, "Oh, I wanted to show you something." I let him know that was not the way to get someone's attention. I later discovered that Joshua saw this happen, but said nothing to the man. Toward week's end, when I was hovering in the water waiting for the divemaster, Mac swam under me, close enough for me to feel his bubbles, and then lurched up, slamming his tank into my body. Startled, I pushed him firmly away, but Mac turned, took a swing and hit my hand, then flipped me off and yelled its meaning into his regulator. Back on the boat, he came up to me immediately and began calling me names. Again, I complained to Joshua, and although he didn't talk to Mac, he accepted my suggestion and moved him to the other skiff so we would no longer be diving together.

I am a female diver. Mac did not acknowledge me as a capable diver, but rather asserted his "authority" by always assuming he was correct and I was wrong, without having a discussion with me. Not wanting to play his power game, I tried to ignore him. Having been on many liveaboards, I know the importance of getting along with the other passengers in close quarters. For this reason, I did not escalate the situation by going around and discussing my experiences with the others guests, but now I wonder if other women on that trip, or other liveaboards, have likewise swallowed poor treatment in the name of appearing affable. Sexism does exist within the recreational diving community, which is all the more reason for cruise directors and divemasters to speak to divers about whom they have received such complaints.

While the Nai'a is generally a fine boat offering excellent diving, my trip -- and that of the other travelers -- was marred by an extremely rude and inept diver. Sadly, the cruise director refused to address that diver, apparently not wanting to offend him, but the Nai'a may have lost my business.

-- S.M.

A comment from Ben: Mac behaved like a bully. Our writer had a GoPro video of the underwater incident shot from behind, and it's clear Mac is an oblivious photographer -- he shoots with his fins on the reef, breaks off a hunk of coral and is unaware there is a diver above him. When he finishes shooting, he rises from below and slightly behind our writer -- without looking up -- then bumps hard into her. She gives him a firm push. He turns and takes a swing at her, hitting her hand, then gives her the finger and you can hear him yell "F.U." His overreaction was inappropriate, out of control, even threatening. Underwater is no place for hitting people and flipping them off. This man needs anger management training.

While the crew has no excuse for tolerating such behavior, it's unlikely they have much training in how to handle such things. After all, Mac was a longtime diver, a successful man who pays big bucks for dive travel and a candidate for a big tip and return business. In the middle of a dive trip, how does one tell him straight on that he's a bully and to back off? Separating him from our writer was a wise step, but the crew cannot ignore complaints. They must also set limits, explain that such behavior on board -- coral breaking and bullying -- is forbidden, and ground the diver if it continues. The other passengers would let out a thankful sigh of relief.

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