Saturday, December 1, 2012

Snorkeling Tonga

This is the first of several posts about Tonga which I was unable to make while we were still there.

The post should more rightly be called “Snorkeling Tonga’s Vava’u Group,” because all of my snorkeling experiences in Tonga were in that island group. Further south, the Ha’apai Group reportedly has excellent snorkeling; but due to weather I didn’t get to sample it while we were there. Niue and Tonga have a different feeling than French Polynesia, not just from an economic and cultural perspective, but from a biological perspective as well. In Tonga, we began to see healthier coral reefs, a lot more diversity in the reef invertebrates, and many fish species that we hadn’t seen before. We did not make a stop in the Cook Islands, but I’ve heard from other cruisers’ reports that these new species start showing up there as well, with the coral gardens in Suwarrow being particularly gorgeous and memorable.

My most memorable snorkeling experience in the Vava’u Group occurred while I was snorkeling off the southern end of the island of Kenutu. While snorkeling in the pass between Kenutu and Lolo, I saw something that sent a shudder through me far greater than any induced by the sharks I’d seen on our journey thus far:  a stonefish, the most venomous fish in the world! People can inadvertently step on a stonefish and get dosed with venom through the fish’s dorsal spines. This stonefish was not sitting on the bottom; instead, it was resting along the side of a piece of coral rubble with its venomous spines folded against its back. I first noticed its pectoral fin, which was the only clue that I was looking at a fish. I searched for the rest of the fish until I finally located its bugged out eyes and large, upturned mouth. This was an ugly fish! But the beauty of nature sometimes lies in its cleverness:  Can you believe how well the stonefish blends into its surroundings, especially with those ragtag bits of seaweed hanging off its head and body?

Stonefish---or possibly a Devil scorpionfish?
But I’m getting ahead of myself…
My first snorkeling expedition in Tonga was along the edges of Port Maurelle. Here, I saw for the first time some of the invertebrates common to the region that I would see on almost every snorkeling excursion thereafter.

Blue sea star

Greenfish sea cucumber

Granular sea star

Snakefish sea cucumber---these look like vacuum cleaners

Slate pencil urchin

Cushion stars...

However, the highlight of my snorkeling experience in Port Maurelle was the anemonefish colony another cruiser pointed out to me. Although there were some anemonefish in the Society Islands, I did not see any; while I have now seen many in Tonga. I have learned that not all anemonefish are clownfish, and I think most of the fish I’ve seen in Tonga are more properly called “anemonefish;” however, they are popularly known as clownfish---or to very young children---simply as “Nemo.”

I shot a couple of other fish at Port Maurelle as well.

Hawkfish-These small fish are often found sitting on the bottom

Royal damselfish
From Port Maurelle, we also took a dinghy excursion to the west side of nearby Ava Island. There was nowhere to anchor the dinghy as the island was steep-to, so Patrick ran the dinghy offshore while I snorkeled. I offered to take my turn at the helm while he went snorkeling, but he declined.

Snorkeling at Ava Island was one of the most exciting snorkeling experiences I’ve had. The reef edging the perimeter of the island drops off to a steep wall that goes some 50 to 100 feet to the bottom. 

Wall on west side of Ava Island
The wall was covered with a variety of feather stars (crinoids) in every conceivable color.

Gold-flecked feather stars on Ava Island

Teal feather star with sponge

Vermillion feather star
There was also a multitude of colorful fish, including several species I had never seen before; however, they were concentrated a bit below me and difficult to photograph while free diving.

Thanks to the steep wall and immediate depth, pelagic invertebrates could approach right up to the edge of the island. I was startled when I looked outward from the wall to see this cuttlefish or squid. 

(I have the name of this beast narrowed down to a broadclub cuttlefish or a bigfin squid; but the latter are nocturnal hunters, while the former hunt by day---so I think it is the former.) Then, I noticed a squadron of two identical cuttlefish flanking the first. I was excited beyond words. This snorkeling experience was more like a scuba diving experience than any I have been on so far. Almost as soon as I noticed them, the cuttlefish started folding in their body parts and sinking back into the depths, apparently as startled to see me as I was to see them. 

Later, I spotted an octopus on the wall below me. It too, took evasive maneuvers by playing possum. I saw the octopus make a ball of itself and literally roll down the slope as if it was dead. Then, it unfolded itself but hid under a coral head where it was no longer visible. 

The octopus has rolled into a ball, but you can see its bulbous head and the tentacles on one arm
While anchored at Lape Island, we visited two well known coral gardens called the Coral Garden and The Coral Wonder. Here, we finally encountered what I’d imagined coral reefs to look like before actually seeing them. There were so many different varieties of coral in varying shapes, sizes, and colors, the effect was spectacular; and had we had clear, sunny weather instead of overcast weather while visiting this area, we might have been stunned speechless by the glory of the colorful coral shrubs lit by the sun. As it was, the muted pastel colors of the corals---lavender, rose, neon green, blue-green, peach, cornflower blue, yellow, and gold---provided a muted backdrop to the endless panorama of reef fishes zipping in and out of crevices in the coral and hovering over, under, and around them. Several of the cruisers sharing the anchorage with us at the time had lived in England, and they drew the natural comparison between the pastels of the coral gardens and fields of blooming heather.

Coral polyps on a leather coral
My friend Jess on a snorkel trip to the Coral Wonder

I saw myriad fish species in the Coral Wonder, including this amazing Clown Triggerfish:

Clown triggerfish

  A blenny-type fish resting on sponge or coral

Most of the black-spotted puffers we saw had a white belly; this one was unique because it had a yellow belly

Saddled butterflyfish

What follows is my pictorial ode to wrasses. It's a poorly executed ode, because they're very difficult to capture still photos of. Wrasses are the hummingbirds of the sea---they are some of the most colorful and interesting fish on the reef---but they flit and dart about incessantly---stopping to hover over a coral head for only a split second before frenetically dashing off again. The cleaner wrasses which help keep moray eels and some fish clean, belong to this interesting family. My pictures (taken at the Coral Wonder and Tapana Island) don't do the wrasses  justice.

Bird wrasse

Surge wrasse?

Unidentified wrasse-possibly a red shoulder wrasse?

Yellowtail coris
I don't know what these wrasses are called, but the variations on their color schemes were endless. Compare the colors on their heads, head stripes, and bodies:

The wrasse isn't very clear, but doesn't this coral look like a butt?

I don't know what it is, but it's gotta' be a wrasse!

In the Coral Wonder, I also saw my first leopard shark. It was sitting on the bottom, and I stared at it a long time to ascertain that I was looking at spots and not the stripes of a tiger shark! You can barely make it out in this photo, but I include it for the record:

Leopard sharks rest on the bottom by day

There were some familiar invertebrates in colorful new varieties:

These Christmas tree worms also came in royal blue
I spent more time in the Coral Wonder due to rough weather conditions at the time of our visit. It was a large area broken into corrugated channels and chasms of coral, with a shallow reef at the top. The Coral Garden, in contrast, was a vast coral wall---but with a gradual slope---unlike the steep wall at Ava Island. The density of the coral was greater in the Coral Garden, and I had a bird’s eye view of the colorful reef fish darting below me and popping in and out of holes in the coral. Directly off the wall, huge schools of fish hung offshore in the sapphire blue abyss. I kept one eye on the abyss for the approach of sharks but saw none. I was only able to spend a little bit of time in the Coral Garden before we had to take the dinghy back over the reef in the building wind, and I would have liked to have visited it again. I think the Coral Garden would make an excellent dive spot because you could get closer to the reef and the fish than you can while snorkeling.

There were some nice snorkeling spots inside the bay around Lape Island as well---some with huge coral fans and other nice coral formations. I saw a gigantic porcupine fish there, a barracuda, a bubble coral, and many small and colorful wrasses; but in general, the snorkeling inside the bay was not as dramatic or interesting as on the outer reefs.  

In the protected anchorage at Tapana Island, we encountered a sandy bay dotted with eel grass beds:  a first for us in the South Pacific! Swimming over the sand in the anchorage was like entering a strange, upside-down world, in which the seafloor was studded with constellations of sea stars like the glow-in-the-dark stars adorning a child’s bedroom ceiling. 

Here’s what one of those sea stars looked like up close:  

This may be the one my field guide calls a "chocolate chip" sea star

We learned that the eel grass beds around Tapana Island only grew there after the destruction of the coral reef first, by living organisms, and then by the Chinese vessels---hired by the Tongans---to clean up the organisms destroying the coral reef. (We were told by an ex-pat that the beche de mer---a type of sea cucumber---was the organism destroying the reef; but it is more likely that it was the crown-of-thorns sea star (since sea cucmbers are filter feeders.) The crown-of-thorns sea star is a carnivore that feeds on coral polyps and can be highly destructive to reefs when aggregated in large numbers. Chinese vessels were probably legally harvesting beche de mer as a food source---not to clean up organisms destroying the reef---but this fishery probably did contribute to the destruction of the reef.)

A crown-of-thorns sea star
However, like eel grass beds everywhere, the eel grass beds now around Tapana Island are serving a useful function as a nursery for juvenile fish. Snorkeling over them, I could see juveniles of common reef fish like the Titan triggerfish and the humuhumu (Picassofish or white-banded triggerfish.) Also, there were numerous tiny fish species impossible to name. 

Anemonefish surrounded by juvenile fish in eel grass bed

It was here, in one of these eel grass beds, that I got a much closer look at a sea snake than I had on Niue.

Sea snake

Tapana Island also had a resident sea turtle, although it was quite wary.

Tapana's resident sea turtle

I got in the water with my snorkeling gear on after spotting it at the surface one day. As I swam off in the direction I had last seen the turtle, I saw it sitting right on the bottom, which was a surprise---who knew sea turtles did that? ---but it took off like a shot and swam away from me. The visibility at Tapana is not great (cloudy), and the turtle’s speed (I know, right?) was such that I lost it.

Due to the habitat degradation around the anchorage, the best snorkeling I found near Tapana Island was on the other side of the bay, under the ledge running out to the tip of the peninsula. There is a large reef at the tip of the peninsula, but large sections of it have also been destroyed. The wall under the edge, however, held a large variety of fish as well as some interesting invertebrates---including honeycomb oysters and solitary tunicates. I took several pictures of the large, solitary tunicates with their incurrent and excurrent siphons and gill baskets plainly visible, but they were all blurred due to my inability to hold my position while free diving (in a short neoprene wetsuit that wants to float) and take pictures at the same time. Scuba divers with a weight belt have a definite advantage when it comes to underwater photography!  

We checked out the snorkeling at Afo Island, hoping for another Ava Island experience, but it was disappointing. I did find myself temporarily magically suspended in a school of juvenile fish.

Here are some of the other animals we saw in this area:

Honeycomb oyster

This may be a gorgonian or sea fan

Hexagonal grouper

These rock boring urchins occurred in great numbers in degraded reef habitat

The Vava’u Group’s easternmost island of Kenutu was also a disappointment from the snorkeling perspective. We had heard there was excellent snorkeling and diving there and that the pass between Kenutu and Lolo was “magnificient.” I did not snorkel outside the reef here, and perhaps that was the difference, but at the pass between Kenutu and Lolo, I found most of the coral reduced to rubble. There were still a lot of fish in this area, but the coral gardens had largely been destroyed. Likewise, the majority of the staghorn coral heads at the north end of the island were dying and turning black.

Nevertheless, I saw two amazing creatures in all of that coral rubble:  the stonefish described at the beginning of this post and a snowflake moray eel. The snowflake moray eel was in one of the dying staghorn coral heads, snaking in and out of the channels created by its branches. I wasn’t sure if I was looking at a juvenile or if snowflake morays are just typically small eels. At first the eel was extremely wary of the huge masked and finned creature observing it; but after awhile, curiosity got the best of the snowflake moray and it came out for a closer look.  

Here's the snowflake moray looking like a curious caterpillar

The snowflake moray looking more eel-like
Our last snorkeling stop in the Vava’u Group was off Eua’kafa Island. The coral gardens on the western side of Eua’kafa again held a lot of rubble, while the gardens on the southern end of the island were intact and beautiful. 

Coral garden at Eua'kafa

Coral vase

Feather star

There were many fish in both areas, including a few we hadn’t seen before.

We saw a Palette surgeonfish for the first time

A toby---in the puffer fish family

Chromis damselfish are everywhere, but they are really hard to photograph

When we returned to Vava’u after our trip to the Tapana, Kenutu, and Eua’kafa anchorages, I asked a local dive shop about the degradation of the habitat I’d seen there. The blackened staghorn coral was possibly attributed to the water being too warm. From what I’ve read, coral “bleaching” results when the water is too warm and coral eject the symbiotic algae living inside them (that coincidentally, give the corals much of their color); so I wasn’t sure how the black, slimy stuff I’d witnessed on the dying coral would result from the water being too warm. I learned that some of the physical damage to the coral was from people anchoring in the wrong locations, but that the majority of it could probably be attributed to cyclones in the region. 

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