Humpback Whales of Tonga

Fiji, is an island nation in the south Pacific about 1,000 miles northeast of New Zealand. It is archipelago made up of 330 separate islands only 110 are inhabited.

Yasawa Island Resort. The Yasawa is a group of islands originally formed by volcanic activity to the northwest of the main island of Viti Levu. After a beautiful flight on Island Hopper Airline we landed on the grass air strip on Yasawa island and drove a short distance to the Yasawa Island Resort the only lodging on this small Fiji island. The resort original was build in 1990’s and consists of a number of beautiful buras. The there is open air dining area overlooking the ocean and pool.

After a restful night and breakfast we took a boat around the island the the Blue lagoon caves, the sight of part of the movie Blue Lagoon which starred Brooke Shields in her youth. The lagoon is a limestone cavern with a short swim through into a small cavern.

Yesterday we had a visit to the village with Manasa who was one of the original builders of Yasawa resort and the village messenger. We visited the church, school and shell market. Renee Blodgett another one of the me of the children sang for us. Manasa told us the the children love to sing and are always singing at school or in the church.

Breakfast waffle with Nutella at Yasawa. Breakfast of champions. This afternoon we return to Nadi on Viti Levu to fly over to the likliku island for our next adventure.

Likuliku Lagoon Resort is on Island of Manolo off the coast of the mainland Viti levu. Beautiful setting and excellent food with friendly people. Today we did a snorkel trip to Castaway reef which appeared to be healthy with a variety of coral and fish. I saw two hawksbill turtles gliding through the deep just off the reef.

This morning little cloudy in Fiji. We’re off to snorkel and explore another smaller island in the Mamanuca islands today before our trip to Tonga this evening.

Last night we watched the torch lighting followed by a kava ceremony. Kava is a beverage that is made from the roots of the kava plant. The dried root is grounded into a power then mixed with water in large bowl. It has a peppery taste and muddy appearance. It is used in welcoming ceremonies, weddings and other important events for the people of Fiji.

We just finishing our visit to Fiji and heading to Nadi airport for our flight over to Nuku’alofa capital of Tonga. Late arrival there then to our first stop on Fafa island just 7 kilometer of the coast.

Kingdom of Tonga, is a Polynesian sovereign state and archipelago comprising 169 islands, of which 36 are inhabited. It has a population of 100,651 people, of whom 70% reside on the main island of Tongatapu. Tonga is across the international dateline and an approximately an 13 hour flight from Los Angeles but requires a stop in Fiji.

The climate is tropical with a distinct warm period (December–April), during which the temperatures rise above 32 °C (89.6 °F), and a cooler period (May–November), with temperatures rarely rising above 27 °C (80.6 °F).

Our first stop in Tonga is the Fafa Island Resort. After a late night drive through the capital we arrive at the wharf and took a small boat across to Fafa island. The Fafa Island Resort is different than the previous two place we stayed in Fiji. There are 13 individual bungalows built in the traditional style of homes or fala in Tonga using natural materials. The resort has solar power and batteries for night. Water is collected from rain or desalination of sea water and heated with solar hot water heaters. The island is surrounded with coral reefs and we can walk around the island at low tidal.

The island is 17 acres with tropical vegetation such as coconut palms, mangrove trees and assorted vines. There are Koki parrots there were originally from Fiji and long ago established a colony here. The night is clear with very little light pollution and we could see Mars. Venus and alpha centurion tonight before moonrise.

Wednesday we did a full day tour of the main island of Tongatapu and the capital Nuku’alofa. The king was home as the flag was flying over the palace. Next was a visit to the royal tombs. The Tonga people honor their deceased relatives and decorate their burial sites. The graves are covered with sand and can be seen all over the island.

Next was a drive to the western end of Tongatapu and site of Abel Tasman’s landing and a group of Blow holes, Mapu’a Vaea. Afterward we returned to Nuku’alofa for a lunch at “Friendly” restaurant which seen to be a local hotspot for Tongians and travelers. I really enjoyed a banana milkshake and Peggy had mousaka. Have lunch we drove to the grounds of the Mormon school and church that our guide belongs too. The campus has a number of classroom buildings, dorms for students from other islands and neat housing to teachers. Students from the various schools wear uniforms with their school colors. The people of Tonga seem to be well educated with a high literacy rate.

Today we are having a quiet day on Fafá island and took the bush walks around the island. There are a number of birds it otherwise we didn’t see any other mammals or reptiles.

Nai’a

We joined our Humpback whale experience in Nuku’alofa the capital of Tonga after leaving Fafá island. With a welcome Bula we joined our trip directors Chad and Vanessa and the Fijian crew of Nai’a. The Nai’a is a 120 foot ship based in the Fijian islands with a crew of 14 many who have been a member of the staff for years.

After a brief orientation we unpacked our gear and clothes in our cabin and had dinner before our overnight travel to the Ha’apai region of Tonga and the playground of the Humpback whales were they start raising their new calves and also mate. During the winter the mother whales don’t eat but raise their newborn calves and teach them whale behavior and swimming. As all mammals they nurse there newborns. Humpback whales nurse frequently on very rich milk. The newborn consume between 400-500 liters of milk per day. The newborns gain as much as 100 pounds per day and continue nurse until they are weaned at 11-12 months. The newborn and mothers have a very close relationship and share a lot of physical contact and frequent vocalization.

After breakfast we change into our wetsuits and climb into one of the two zodiac boats with our dive guide, skipper and 8 members of our group. We then look for the whale blow or other behaviors such as spy hopping, tail or pectorals fin slapping. One our first day out we learned how to approach the mother and her calf. When we find a pair relaxing half of our group done our googles, and fins and slowly slide over the side of the skiff. The mother whale is resting but keeping an eye out for us and her calf. Humpback whales require sleep just like other land and sea mammals. They sleep on the surface or under the water rising to the surface approximately every 15 minutes to breath.

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On our second day on the Nai’a we find and follow a group of 5 males who are racing along and intermittently pec slapping and general roughing with each other. We followed this rowdy group for over an hour as they try to establish dominance and possible right to mate with female humpbacks.

Tonight we are anchoring by Uuleva island and plan a night dive on the reef.

September 5th

Here our captain Keni navigates us into our night harbor by Uuleva island. There are a number of small resorts here only accessible by boat or small plane. Each night on the Nai’a we anchor in a sheltered site for dinner and a peaceful nights sleep. It is really amazing to look out for the deck and see beautiful uninhabited island with trees and sandy beaches. Unfortunately when we visited one of these islands we found assorted plastic waste that has washed up on the shores, such as plastic bottles, large nylon rope and a large orange buoy. Seeing the plastic refuse makes it real how we need to decrease the amount of plastic that makes it into the oceans of the world.

This is our afternoon snack. We have had excellent meals each day and home baked desserts which is amazing with our small kitchen.

Friday September 7

We start a slow cruise to the west today and were treated to all sorts of Humpback behaviors. A calf, mother and escort whale were cruising in front of our bow. The baby was trying all sorts of behaviors such as spy hopping,head lunge and pec slapping. The weather has been beautiful with clear skies and warm temperatures. Today we noted the the sea has picked up a little and more clouds. The winds have been mostly out of the east.

After lunch a group of three males lead the charge in front. One of the whales did tail slapping repeat for over 4 minute. The activity of the males is very active improving tail slapping, pec fin slaps and all sorts of activity under the water as they race along. This behavior is probably related to dominance to who gets an opportunity to mate with the females as they come into estrus.

 

Saturday September 8th Haapai Group Tonga

Last night we set anchor in a small bay across from a village of approximately 200 people. After a breakfast of banana pancake we start to west to find more humpbacks. We continue out to the western part of the playground when we encountered a mother and her calf. The calf was very active repeatedly breaching and head lunging as their mother kept cruising close by. Eventually she decided to show her calf a breach and gave us a treat. The humpbacks don’t dive down much before they breach, just a few flex of their tail to propel themselves out of the water. They then crash back into the sea with a explosive splash.

The calf repeatedly jumped and twirled ahead of the mom in what appeared to be pure joy of playing until it exhausted it’s self and then rested next to mom.

We were able to quietly roll into the water off of skiff and found ourselves hovering over mom and baby until decided to take off again and mother glided away from us. The mom and calf are very close during the first year and especially while in their wintering localization. During this time the adults don’t eat and mothers can loss 1/3 of their massive weight fasting and feeding their newborns.

The Humpback whale breath through two blow holes in the top of their heads. They exhale upon surfacing. When wind is calm their breath can look like a heart shaped and can be seen at a distance. The babies need to breath every few minutes at first but gradually can hold their breath longer and longer. The adults can hold their breath for 15

Haapai Tonga September 9th

Our last day before our overnight cruise back to Nuku’alofa continued to amaze with a long in water experience with a mother and calf. The calf and mom seemed to be doing some endurance cruising in preparation for their upcoming migration back to Antarctica and the summer season in the Southern Hemisphere. The whales with spend the summer months eating krill and other small fish to regain the weight they have loss in the Tonga area. The humpback population was almost completely destroyed by whaling in the 1950 and 60’s. In 1984 the king of Tonga banded all hunting of the Humpback whales that spend their winter in the waters of Tonga. They have slowly rebounded but are still at risk from changes in the water, plastic waste and loss of their food in the Antarctic.

Tongapata September 10th

After an overnight cruise back to Nuku’alofa we said goodbye to Vanessa and Chad as well as to the crew of the Nai’a.

We’re now on a turboprop ATR 72 enroute to Nadi and our trip back to Phoenix.

Moab Weekend

Over the weekend of May 14-17 we flew up to Canyonland Airport outside of Moab, Utah for a visit to Arches and Canyonlands National Park, Moab, and Deadhorse State Park. It was an easy flight from Phoenix to Canyonland Airport in the Cessna 182 across the high desert and along Marble Canyon and then over Lake Powell.

After a lunch and settling into our hotel in Moab we set out for late afternoon and sunset in Arches National Park. Arches is a smaller park with unique geologic formations created by wind, water and the uplifting of the Colorado plateau.

Pine Tree Arch

Dead Horse State Park Utah

Katmai Wilderness and Brown Bear Expedition

I recently returned from a photography trip to the Katmai National Park and Wilderness Preserve in southern Alaska. Katmai was declared a national monument in 1918 and designated a National Park in 1980. In the summer brown bears gather at streams to feast on salmon and fatten up on the sedge grass.

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We started our trip with a seaplane flight from Kodiak across the Shelikof Strait landing in Kukak Bay to board the Natural Habitat’s  Ursus. The Ursus  is a converted Crab ship from the Bering Sea and had a starring role on Discovery’s Dangerous Catch as the original Time Bandit. We landed on a beautiful sunny day on Kukak bay on of the coastal inlets along the Katmai peninsula. The is a ridge of volcanic peaks forms by the coalition of the Pacific and North American plates.

The last major eruption in historical times was the simultaneous eruption of Mount Katmai and Novarupta in June 1912. Novarupta’s eruption produced a pyroclastic flow that covered a nearby valley with ash as much as 300 feet (91 m) thick. At the same time the summit of Katmai collapsed into a caldera. As the valley deposits cooled, they emitted steam from fissures and fumaroles, earning the name “Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.”

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Katmai is the home for brown bear is one of the most omnivorous animals in the world and has been recorded consuming the greatest variety of foods of any bear.[85]  Certainly no other animal in their given ecosystems, short perhaps of other bear species and humans, can claim to feed on as broad a range of dietary opportunities. Food that is both abundant and easily obtained is preferred. Their jaw structure has evolved to fit their dietary habits. Their diet varies enormously throughout their differing areas based on opportunity.[7][246] In July, we saw bears eating a lot of  grasses, shoots, sedges and forbs. They were like lawnmowers or bison working their way through the sedge. In other areas fruits, including berries, become increasingly important during summer and early autumn. They also hunt for clams along the beaches of the Katmai coast. 

Brown Bear Cubs

The newborn cubs are born after a relatively short gestation allow the mothers are hibernating only weighing about a pound at birth and nurse from their sleeping mother until they emerge in the spring. The female is solely responsible for raising the cubs and they remain with her for about 3-4 years.

Brown Bear Cub (1 of 1)

Kukak Bay in Katmai National Park

Summer is also the time for new lover and procreation. Female bears go into estrus after they have separated from their cubs and are receptive to the males. Large boars will fight over the rights to mate and the fights can be very brutal until one give up the right to mate. The females delay the implantation of the embryo until the winter and if she has not gained enough weight it may not occur at all.

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Katmai is also home to a large number of sea birds and other migratory birds. One of the most colorful is the Puffins.

Tufted Puffins Pair

These colorful sea birds make their nest in the soil at the top of rocky cliffs. Both the female and male incubate the single egg that is laid and feed the newborn chick born after an incubation of 45 days. After fledging the young puffins spend the next few years at sea until they are ready to breed. The puffins are not great flyers but their short compact bodies are excellent for diving for fish.

 

Iguazu Falls

Starting to wrap up our trip to Argentina with a stop in Iguazu Falls. Amazing place now listed as a wonder of the world and UNESCO site. The Falls and Parana river is a dividing line with Brazil which we can see across the river from our hotel. Yesterday we did an all day adventure following the lower and upper circuit followed with a hike up to the Garantu de Diablo. There are over 270 falls and water was at about 70 percent level now. The river and falls are feed from rains across Brazil and not from the Ande mountains and travel into the Atlantic via a large estuary. Tropical area with black face capuchin monkeys, Coati, multiple butterflies and birds. The monkeys are real characters and you have to keep your window and doors closed when you leave room. The monkeys will enter your room and open minibar taking coke and breaking open the bottle, as well as, taking any food. They skip the small bottle of alcohol I guess for health reasons or they just didn’t like the feeling, silly monkeys. 

Quebrada de Humahuaca

We have had a busy three days traveling through the valley of Humahuaca in Jujut province. Route 9 goes from Buenos Arias to Bolivia winding up the Quebrada past small and large towns with people descended from Inca population. Beautiful landscape of amazing geology formed over 400 million years of beautiful white composed of limestone, purple of lead and calcium, yellow of iron hydroxides, reds of iron oxides and green of copper oxides. We drove up to over 14,000 feet and did a short hike to see Paleta de pintur or Painter’s Palette. Also hike to the gargunta de diablo or devil’s throat.

Pumarmarca is a lovely town of 6,000 which is a Argentinian and international travelers destination usually busier in the summer months. We have been blessed with great weather sunny and warm. This area receives very little rain and most of agriculture in from river and high mountain runoff. Landscape is similar to Arizona with arroyos, erosion and a cactus very much like Saguaro but arms start lower and are more numerous. Would love to see them blooming later in spring like our saguaros.

Aconcagua 

Today drove up Argentina route 7 heading towards Chile and Aconcagua the highest summit in the Western Hemisphere at over 6000 meters or about 23,000 feet. Still winter down here and the climbing season doesn’t start for a few more months. We were traveling with Lena are guide, who’s husband is a teacher and works in the summer as a climbing guide on Aconcagua. Route 7 is the main east west highway to Chile and there is tremendous amount of large truck traffic on this 2 lane highway. It was windy and cold at the ranger station at the park and a few tourist looking toward the towering summit above us which require 3 or more days to climb usually depending on the weather. 

Driving back we stopped in the small town of Uspallata which seems to be entrance to the mountain area with a number of small hotels, restaurants and store outfitting hikers, some skiers and climbers. We had lunch at a popular restaurant for typical Padrilla meal with is a grilled meats cooked over a wood open air fire. We had carne Assada, pollo (chicken), sausage and ribs following the first courses of empanadas, salad and papa fritas. Excellent lunch but a lot more then we could or should eat. Tomorrow we are off to Salta de Linda another beautiful area of Argentina.