Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The rest of Ha'apai

Ha'apai was great. Definitely our favorite part of Tonga. The locals seemed kind of shy and didn't seem super inclined to interact with us but the underwater scenery was fantastic and we had a lot of that "out in the middle of nowhere" feeling that I kind of missed in Vavau. We saw enough of our boat friends to be entertained but not so much that we felt crowded.

Shalimar had planned to leave for New Zealand sometime around the middle of October but the anchoring incident that I wrote about in our last post hosed that plan up pretty good. It turned out that Ryan's finger was pretty badly broken. His wedding ring had apparently got snagged by the anchor chain. With the broken finger and the lack of available parts, it took several days to repair / jury rig the damage to the boat and get Shalimar ready to sail again. I helped out a little bit because I had two fully functional hands but Ryan did most of it single handed - literally. He managed to get everything functional again except the windlass (the mechanical doo-hicky that helps to raise the anchor). Shalimar has a much heavier anchor chain and anchor than Architeuthis does (which stands to reason because Shalimar weighs about twice as much) so raising the anchor without a windlass was quite a chore. Raising the anchor one handed without the windlass is nearly (but not quite) impossible so we stuck with Shalimar through most of the rest of Tonga. When it was time to leave an anchorage, I'd dinghy over to Shalimar, pull up their anchor, dinghy back to Architeuthis, pull up our anchor, and then we'd set off. It gave me some extra exercise and a new found appreciation of our much lighter chain and anchor.

Christine and I did abandon Shalimar for a couple of days to sneak off to Tungua island all by ourselves. There was a surf break near the anchorage there that we wanted to check out. We dinghied over and had look at it. It looked rideable but ti was another fast, shallow reef break. Given our isolation and the level of inconvenience that would be caused by even a minor injury we reluctantly decided to forego the surfing. The fact that we were so out of practice played into it too. We wanted to surf but it just didn't seem worth the risk with the passage to New Zealand so close. We still had a great time at Tungua. The anchorage was a little bit rolly but the beach was beautiful and completely deserted. There was a village on the island but it was on the opposite side and we didn't see any people the whole time we were there.

Ryan's finger injury did have an upside. ...for me. As we travelled across the pacific, I'd gotten more and more into spear fishing but instead of a proper spear gun, I only had a second had pole spear that didn't even have the correct band on it. Ryan, on the other hand, has a big fancy speargun. After Ryan's injury we came up with a deal where we'd swim around together and take turns with the speargun. It only takes one hand to fire it but it takes two hands to load it so I'd do the loading and we'd take turns with the shooting. Then, when Christine and I went off to Tungua island, Ryan let me take the speargun with me. My crap-tastic pole spear only has a range of about 2 or 3 feet so I was pretty limited in the types of fish I had any chance of spearing. I had a lot of fun with Ryan's speargun and managed to get some tasty fish that I hadn't been able to get anywhere near hitting with my pole spear.

I'm sure there's more I could write about Ha'apai but I'm way behind on the blog updating so I'll just suggest that you look at the pictures and read the captions.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Well that wasn't very fun

We just sat out a near gale at anchor. It blew a sustained 30 knots with gusts upward of 35 knots. The really exciting part was that we weren't expecting it. We downloaded weather forecasts yesterday and the forecast for today was for some rain showers and around 15 knots of wind. We were going to sail off with Shalimar and head to another anchorage but we woke to some decent rain and overcast skies and decided to wait until it cleared up before we left. We were watching a movie when it really started raining and blowing. It was blowing out of the east and where we're anchored off of Lifuka island is fairly protected from that direction. The proximity of land to windward kept the waves from getting too big but it was unnerving to look outside of the boat and see driving sheets of rain and wind streaks on the water. We had to move some stuff around on deck to make sure it didn't blow away and had to reconfigure our dinghy situation a bit to make sure we didn't lose any gear but we didn't have to do anything too drastic. We were anchored on a sandy bottom in about 18 feet of water and I had let out around 125 feet of chain so I wasn't too worried about dragging.

After a movie and a half, things got a bit worse. The wind shifted around to the northeast and that meant that the wind had more of a chance to blow over the water and build up some choppy waves. This makes the boat bounce around and makes it harder for the anchor to do its job. Architeuthis ended up doing fine but Shalimar had some problems. Their anchor snubber (stretchy thing that you use to keep the anchor chain from jerking on the boat too much) broke. When it broke, their anchor chain had an altercation with the rigging on the underside of their bowsprit. The anchor chain won the altercation and the rigging lost. Their dolphin striker (yes, it's really called a dolphin striker - google it, I'm too lazy to explain exactly what it is) got bent and, in the ensuing battle to get their snubber situation sorted out, Ryan's finger got hurt. Certainly a bummer but the dolphin striker shouldn't be too hard to repair (and it has to be repaired before Shalimar can sail again) and it doesn't sound like Ryan's figure dislocation deal will be too debilitating.

Meanwhile, aboard Architeuthis, we hustled to set up a back up anchor snubber to avoid similar problems. By the time I finished setting it up, the wind was starting to die down. Oh well, I guess not everyday can be perfect and given the fact that we're surrounded by reef here I suppose things could have been a lot worse.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Zebra Shark and Squids Doin' It (with other squids, not with the shark. that would be weird.)

We're anchored off of Ha'ano island in the Ha'apai group of Tonga and we love it here. The island looks pretty nice but it's the underwater scenery that we're really excited about. In fact, we haven't actually gone ashore yet but we've been snorkeling a lot. There are really cool coral pinnacles everywhere that shoot up from 30 to 50 feet deep in vertical walls and there are little caves and swim-throughs all over the place. It's definitely the most dramatic live coral formations we've seen so far. The range and quantity of critters is quite good as well. It's not quite as pristine as what we saw in the Tuamotus but it's probably the runner up for what we've seen since we left California. There are snappers, groupers, and unicorn-fish in the 2 plus foot range. Basically there are all sorts of tasty fish that were much more rare in the Vava'u group. We've even seen a couple of sharks and that's twice as many shark sightings as we had in all of Vava'u.

One of the sharks we saw here was one we hadn't seen before and was especially cool. It was a zebra shark (Stegostoma fasciatum). The shark had spots all over it (apparently the juveniles have stripes and that's where the name comes from) and a ridiculously long tail fin. Ryan (from Shalimar) saw the shark first while we were out spearfishing and pointed it out to me to see if I knew whether or not it was dangerous. I immediately recognized it as a zebra shark because Christine had found it in our fish ID book a long time ago and said, "That's cool, I want to see one of those." I knew I'd be in trouble if we scared off the shark before Christine had a chance to see it so Ryan and I backed away and left it sitting on the sandy bottom between coral outcrops in about 50 feet of water. I popped my head out of the water and yelled at Christine and got her to swim over to us. Our shark friend was still parked in the same place so Christine dove down to take a picture but her ears weren't clearing well and she couldn't make it all the way down. I borrowed the camera from her and was able to get to the bottom and get a couple of shots. The shark apparently didn't know we were friends so the second shot is of the shark swimming away from me. I'm not sure how rare these critters are but it was the first one we'd seen and it was pretty cool looking so we were excited.

Today we went snorkeling again to see if we could bother the zebra shark some more. We didn't find him but we found something that I think is even better. We found a group of about 20 bigfin reef squid (Sepioteuthis lessoniana). These squid are close relatives of the caribbean reef squid that I spent three months studying (and harassing) in Bermuda. We've seen the bigfin reef squid in Vava'u but those were individuals of fairly small groups (like 3 or 4). The group we found here was made up of fairly large individuals ranging from about 8 to 12 inches long and they let us swim up within a few feet of them. They didn't actually pay too much attention to us because they had something else on their minds. They were doing their whole mating thing. There were large males battling it out by flashing different colors and bumping into each other and there were males passing sperm packets off to females with their special modified arm. I floated around with them for around an hour. Basically, until I was to cold to stay in one spot any longer. Then, while swimming along with Christine, she pointed out another pair of squid to me in a different place. There was one really large one (over a foot long) and a smaller one. They were near the bottom in about 40 feet of water near the edge of the reef. As I watched, they sank down to the bottom and the big one waited while the smaller one scooted under a ledge of coral and popped back out again after 30 seconds or so. I'm pretty sure the smaller one was a female and that she was laying her eggs under the coral while her mate was guarding her. I've spent all sorts of time reading about squid reproductive behavior (what, doesn't everybody?) so it was really cool to see it in action. The only bummer about the whole thing is that we hadn't brought a camera. Christine's camera housing has been fogging up a lot lately and our little video camera is only good down to about 10 feet so I didn't want to bring it and be stuck at the surface the whole time.