Travel report #5: Fiji and Tonga with Birgit Standhartinger

The fifth round of the #apneaworldtour: Fiji and Tonga
The next destinations of our #apneaworldtour are the islands of Fiji and Tonga in the South Pacific, where Birgit Standhartinger spent her time with shark diving and humpback whale snorkelling together with our Apnea Diver Automatic. In her detailed report she tells of her encounter with unforgettable people and animals and newly discovered paradises:

After what felt like an eternity, the plane finally touched down in Nadi, Fiji. The flight from Zurich to Hong Kong took around 12 hours, then after a 9-hour stopover, it was another 10 hours’ flight to Fiji. From Nadi, which lies in the west of the main island, it was another 2.5 hours by car, then we crossed over to Beqa Island by small boat. On Beqa, I was greeted by a group of local inhabitants with traditional songs, grass skirts and flowers in their hair. The cliché had become reality.

During the flight from Hong Kong to Nadi, Fiji, one of the predominantly male stewards could have been the brother of Dwayne the Rock Johnson. Only wearing a skirt and with flowers in his hair. Which made him no less manly. Never before have I seen passengers listen to the security announcements so reverently as on that flight. Nobody wanted to provoke the anger of the giant!

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We set off the very next morning to dive with sharks. During the night a bad storm had passed over my little bure (what the huts are called here, without any real windows, but luckily mosquito nets at all the openings), so I was already worried we wouldn’t be able to dive that day. However, the rain had eased somewhat, although unfortunately the same could not be said for the waves. Another diver parted with her breakfast on the boat. Which didn’t stop her from jumping into the water a short while later, Tough lady.

The sight of the water would have rendered me speechless, had my diving regulator not already done so. I have never seen such vast quantities of fish – in all sizes from minuscule to huge bull sharks. I also saw my very first lemon sharks. And, a moment later, a tiger shark – a very curious fellow that explores the world using his mouth. But neither he nor the bull sharks were the least bit interested in us divers. You don’t look particularly tasty clothed in thick neoprene, which is hardly ever thick enough for me. I quickly began to freeze, but the unique spectacle kept me deep underwater a while longer. Who knows whether or when I would ever experience anything comparable again.

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The days in Fiji passed much too quickly. Unfortunately, the weather hardly improved and the locals said it has been hard to separate rainy and dry seasons for some time now. Probably another consequence of climate change. I got to know many other travellers, most of the New Zealanders. They are open and engaging folk, and their stories sounded so great that I already began forging my next travel plans.

A hibiscus flower was pressed into my hand as a farewell, which I was meant to throw from the boat into the sea. This means that I will return again. With a sad backwards glance, I listened to the songs of the local inhabitants as the boat left the island. The inhabitants of Fiji really are the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered. I hoped the custom would prove true as I threw my flower into the water.

After a stopover in Tongatapu, the capital of the kingdom of Tonga, the journey continued to Foa, one of the Ha'apai islands. When my hand luggage, which was rather too heavy with all the wet neoprene inside, was weighed at check-in, the woman behind the counter looked at me and made me climb onto the scales with my rucksack. Then everything was okay. Very pragmatic people, the inhabitants of Tonga.

Having arrived on Foa I simply couldn’t believe my eyes. Here was paradise, as shown in so many travel agency advertisements. There were pink and red flowers everywhere, lots of luscious green, endless dream beaches and the sea shimmering in 20 different shades of blue and turquoise. I had never realised quite how many shades of blue there are.

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After a short exploratory trip with the kayak, it was already time for dinner. On the veranda at breakfast the next morning I had my first whale sighting in Tonga. A whale leapt up out of the water again and again. Breach is the name of this trick. I was extremely excited about joining him and his relations in the water. We soon set off into open water. Once a whale had been spotted, the boat approached it slowly, then the engine was switched off and the boat was allowed to drift closer still. We put on our flippers to cover the last few hundred metres. There were three of us: a Swiss man, a guide from South Africa and me. A maximum of 4 people is allowed near a whale for no more than 1.5 hours. I think it’s good that interactions between man and whale are restricted in this way. The size of the group changed during my stay, but we were rarely ever 4. The whales come to Tonga every year between July and September and birth their young there.

During my time in Tonga we saw all sorts of different characters. A lot of whale mothers with their babies that you can only approach very carefully. When we encountered a whale baby (that I called Splish-Splash) for the third day in a row, I fell in love. His mother was sleeping around 5 metres under the surface and he was obviously bored, so he came and showed us his best loops. When I dived under the surface and spun slowly in a circle with my arms spread wide, he accepted the challenge and came to me again and again and turned around in circles. He spun around in the water so quickly that I couldn’t see him for all the bubbles. Once one of his fins grazed me in passing, it was really quite hard to the touch. Otherwise, he had an excellent feel for where he was moving his body, which is really quite impressive considering his size. You can’t say the same of us people. How frequently it happens that someone treads on your toes and doesn’t even notice!

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We took a short break and returned to the boat for lunch. When we got back into the water Splish-Splash came shooting straight towards me – he had obviously recognised me. I won’t be able to forget that little one again in a hurry and it was with a heavy heart that I finally left him.

When we had to leave Splish-Splash to rest after playing with him for an hour and a half, we encountered another highlight. A whale mother was sleeping vertically, a little one was swimming around her and in the depths, an escort was singing. The little whale chirruped along with him. When the escort sang my whole body vibrated underwater. Unbelievable.

Unfortunately, my time in Tonga was also over much too quickly. But I will carry my memories with me for the rest of my life and will never forget playful Splish-Splash.

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