The Vava’u group of islands in Tonga isn’t just a wonderful place to see whales, it is a fabulous cruising ground for us yachties. With so many possible anchorages with reefs and islands to hide behind, protection from just about any direction of wind can be found. Miles of sandy beaches to stretch the legs and hunt for shells, clear water to swim and snorkel, what more could we possibly ask for. The outer reefs do a great job of breaking down the Pacific Ocean swell leaving just wind-chop inside the group when the wind piped up, which was actually quite frequent.
We found an interesting reef to snorkel off Mala island with dozens of starfish, hard and soft corals and plenty of colourful fish. We also spotted a few fascinating Crown of Thorns starfish which we have never seen before. Unlike an ordinary starfish it’s quite flexible and has multiple arms, up to 23 infact, and each arm is covered in thorn-like spines which are quite venomous. It preys on hard corals, feeding on the polyps by extruding its stomach out through its mouth over the coral surface to about the same diameter as its body! Digestive enzymes from the stomach are then excreted and the liquefied coral cells absorbed, leaving behind a bleached white coral skeleton. Apparently a single Crown of Thorns starfish can consume up to 6 square meters of living coral reef per year, so they can pose a threat to a healthy reef when found in large numbers.
We particularly enjoyed the eastern islands which seemed far less popular, perhaps as to get there a yacht has to cross an awkward area of reef. With the assistance of Google Earth (via a great app called Ovitalmap, which downloads Google Earth maps and stores them in a cache for viewing offline) we were able to define the best route to take across the reef. I kept a lookout for coral heads at the bow as we zig-zagged our way across the reef without seeing less than 6 metres of water under the boat. The reward was some beautiful anchorages and a network of small islands, some inhabited with a single village where the residents are certainly less use to seeing tourists. As we wandered through the narrow car-less streets of Oloua island to the beach, followed by a very friendly local lady who seemed to be keeping a close eye on us, a small child pointed at us and said “Palangi, Palangi” which means foreigner!
Back on the main island at the town of Neiafu, we could stock up at the wonderful local fresh produce market where the lovely ladies often put extra ‘gifts’ of produce in our bags.
After the simple process of renewing our visas for another 30 days it was time to move on, with the wind briefly shifting from a strong southeasterly to a much kinder 10-15 knot easterly over night this would give us a better sailing angle to the next Tongan islands, the Ha’apai group just 65 miles south.