Posted 09 February 2009 - 10:11 AM
My wife and I went for about ten days at the end of August/beginning of September of 2008. I'd been a Peace Corps volunteer in Ha'apai for two years back in 1999-2001, so we decided to go there and skip Vava'u, because I never cared all that much for Vava'u other than its outer islands and superior amenities. So, we went to Ha'apai and went on one whale cruise with the lone whale/dive operator there, which is called both Happy Ha'apai Divers and Ocean Blue Adventures, I believe. They use a catamaran for their whale trips, and they sail as much as possible when conditions permit. The weather was terrible most of the time we were in Ha'apai, and it kept us from getting into the water with the 3-4 humpbacks that we saw just off of Foa and Ha'ano. In fact, only one quartet of divers got in the water at all, but the mother and calf swam off and that was that. And some of those people had already been out 3-4 days, and hadn't had much luck on those trips.
The operator is very conservative and cautious with the whales. The are definitely one of the operators that doesn't allow weight belts or swimming without a wetsuit. (They want to make sure everyone stays at the surface.) In general, the vibe on their boat was kind of like 'we're doing whale research and you, the paying customers, are just along for the ride.' The boss literally told us to think of the cruise as "a nice day's sail, and anything else would be a bonus." I really hated that attitude. (Don't tell me how to think or feel about an excursion for which I'm paying the equivalent of two weeks' salary for most Tongans!) And I also didn't like that the only Tongan employee of the entire operation seemed to be this one guy from Foa whose job was to deal with moorings and do all the heavy lifting on the dive boat. He was physical labor, and nothing more. The rest of the crew was made up of Kiwis, Aussies, and Brits, none of whom were particularly interested in the customers. They couldn't even pronounce the name of Ha'apai's main town, Pangai. (It's pahng-AI, not PANG-ai.) After a day on the dive boat—very nice sites, but a very crowded boat—the phone lines were down and we couldn't call a cab to pick us up and take us down to Pangai. After taking our money for the dives, the operators basically just wished us luck as we lugged our gear down the road. Five minutes later, that lone Tongan employee rode by on his rusty bike, on his way back home in the nearby village, and he asked me why we were walking. I explained, and five minutes later he was loading us and our dive/photo gear into our van for a ride to Pangai. The operators could learn a thing or two about service from that guy. He was making about $20 a day, yet he seemed more interested in hospitality then his bosses.
Anyhow, as in Vava'u, it's hit or miss whether you'll see whales or get in the water with them in Ha'apai. On the other hand, the whales can be seen right from Ha'apai's leeward, and the beaches are much more accessible in Ha'apai. If you're absolutely set on seeing whales, you might look into a trip on the Nai'a, which comes over from Fiji for Tonga's whale season. I think it's about US$5000 for a ten-day trip, but they seem to have better luck with the whales, and obviously you'd be dedicating more time to it.
We flew Chathams Pacific and had no problems. Again, if your focus is the whales and you don't want to risk being stuck on the main island b/c of plane issues, you might want to get on the Nai'a. It leaves from Nuku'alofa and heads all over Ha'apai, including out by the big volcanic islands, Kao and Tofua, which are spectacular.
If you need to kill a day or two on Tongatapu, Maka Paradiso is a nice place to stay. The owner, Paki Maka, spent most of his life in New Zealand but wanted to retire back in his home country. He's got a very nice new place, gated and secure, that's outside of dusty Nuku'alofa. And he will pick you up from the airport and give you rides to town. Hot showers, a/c, and fresh fruit and bread for breakfast.
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