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Published: August 20th 2011
Snorkelling with whale
Photo taken by fellow snorkeler Brendan from NZ
I've been lucky enough to spend the last week in Paradise a.k.a. Niue and it's been for work. Most people's reaction to being told that I was going to Niue is "Where on Earth is that?". Well, it's in the Pacific Ocean, north, northeast of New Zealand, east of Tonga and just on the other side of the dateline. Niue is a single, raised coral atoll and so doesn't have much in the line of beaches. Instead most of the coastline is comprised of 20 m or so cliffs dotted with caves at water level. There are plenty of paths down to the water's edge and once you get there the swimming is perfect. More about that later.
There is only one plane into and out of Niue per week. We left Melbourne last Friday morning and spent that night in Auckland before catching the plane to Niue on Saturday. We arrived just after lunch on Friday (remember the dateline) and immediately started work. First we visited the NZ High Commission and talked with the High Commissioner about our project and learnt of various issues and other programs currently going on in the country. After that it was a quick
visit to the Met Office to visit them and catch up on arrangements for our workshops for the following week.
We stayed at the Matavai Resort which is on the western coast of the island. The resort has 20-24 rooms and is very low key compared to other resort hotels. The focus of the resort was the deck where we sat for dinner, breakfast and just to relax. From here you could watch the waves crashing along the cliff faces and you could watch the whales passing by just offshore.
Then it was the weekend and what a great weekend it was. In the morning I went for a walk along the main coastal road and in the afternoon I went on a snorkelling trip with whales and dolphins - we'd organised this from Melbourne before we left. The snorkelling (and dive) trips go out in large inflatable boats (Zodiac-style craft) with a maximum of 6 people per boat. We were lucky enough to have only 4 on our boat - colleagues Jo and Gillian and Brendan, a bloke of English origin but now living in Wellington (NZ). It wasn't long before we had found a whale to swim
with and so after a briefing we were in the water with 2 whales. I don't really know how far away from the whales we were but they were easily seen side on. Unfortunately they didn't want to interact or stay around us and after a short while they disappeared into the depths. Then we started looking for the next lot of whales. We didn't have much luck here but seemed to do a far amount of motoring along the coastline while looking out to sea. After a while the plan changed and we started to look for Spinner Dolphins. It didn't take long before we had found a pod of these wonderful creatures. These dolphins are much smaller than the Bottlenose Dolphins that we get along the Australian coastline and they get their name because they "spin" on their long axis as they leap from the water. Snorkelling with the dolphins involved just 2 people getting into the water and holding on to the rope along the side of the boat with one hand while the boat motored along following the dolphins. This method is used because it is the boat that the dolphins are interested in rather than
the snorkelers. The dolphins were a bit hard to see while they were “dolphining” along the surface but once they dived the views of them swimming along were great. Hanging on to the side of the boat with one hand was quite tiring and so we didn’t do that for too long. After that it was back into the boat and the search was on for the next lot of whales.
Eventually we found a whale relatively close by (I spotted it) and we were back into the water following it. This whale seemed to be just hanging at a depth of 5-10m or so and so we hardly had to kick to keep following it. After a short time it too decided that it had had enough and with a slight movement of one of its flippers it disappeared into the depths. So, back into the boat for us again. I mention this because it wasn’t that easy. This involved the person in the water trying to heave themselves over the side of the boat using a rope strung along the inside of the boat and then getting their legs, complete with fins (flippers), into the boat while
Jo (in the distance), John, Andrew and Gillian
attempting not to knock over the others already in the boat. I needed help getting my lower body back into the boat.
So, by now we’ve had 2 whale encounters and we’ve swum with the dolphins but I think that we were a bit disappointed that we hadn’t been super close to the whales -one of our other colleagues had done the whale trip in the morning and had regaled us with tales of his close encounters at lunch time. By now I was also beginning to feel a bit seasick and starting to think that all I wanted to do was go back to shore when Ian (the dive shop owner) spotted a pod of whales that had started to do tail slaps and fin slaps. We watched them for a while and I think that it was this pod that we eventually swam with, once they had quietened down. There were 5 whales in this last encounter and like the other encounters they swam off after a short time. However, this lot circled around and came back towards us and passed us very close by. I wonder if they were vaguely interested in us also. Wow, what
a buzz this was. They came by in two pairs swimming very close together with the fifth whale a bit further away. I don’t know how close they were but it seemed like it was only a few metres. It was more than that but have a look at the photos taken by Brendan to see what we saw. We were four very happy snorkelers when we headed back to shore.
Sunday was less of “an experience of a lifetime” but still great. After breakfast we headed off with cameras, towels and snorkelling gear to visit the highlights of Niue. This was likely to be the only chance that we would have as the rest of the week would be taken up with work. Our first stop was one of the caves (Palaha) along the coastline. The cave had both stalactites and stalagmites in varying shades of red and green. Some of the formations had joined into large columns. Next we stopped at Hio sea track which led down to a small sandy beach and access to the reef flats. We went swimming here and eventually found a couple of deep pools in the reef flats. The fish life
was lovely – bright orange and yellow fish, neon blue fish, yellow pipe fish, black fish with large orange spots ….. The variety was pretty good and we had a lovely time snorkelling here. By now it was lunchtime so we headed back to the “Washaway Café” for lunch and a beer by the beach. After lunch we circled the island via the coastal road. The coastal road goes through a forest area where we stopped for a bit of a look and then a couple of other villages. Our final stop was for a swim at Matapa Chasm. As its name suggests this swimming pool has high cliff faces on 2 sides. It’s of historical interest as this is where Niue’s kings used to bathe. Cool fresh water flows into the sea here and so the water is cold on the top and warmer below – the opposite of what we consider normal. Snorkelling was weird here also as the 2 water masses hadn’t mixed properly and you could see the different optical propertied of the cold, fresh water and warm, salty water.
Now the weekend was effectively over. We had work-related workshops or training sessions from Monday to Thursday. However, work in Niue goes from 8:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. and so on 2 days we were able to head back to our hotel, change into swimming gear and head off to go snorkelling at yet another pool. Our first expedition was to Avaiki Cave. This was a sea cave with a beautiful swimming pool in its base. There weren’t so many fish here although there was a small school of silver pipe-shaped fish and I managed to find a small scorpion fish. On the second day we went to Limu Pools. These are very beautiful and must look truly spectacular with the sun out. By the time that we got to visit them it was overcast and late afternoon. The fish life here was magnificent. The same fish as many other places but we also saw Moorish Idols (Angelfish) and huge bright blue Parrot Fish. Unfortunately we couldn’t swim here for as long as we’d have liked as the tide had started to come in and so the currents in the pool were becoming a bit strong.
Our other activities in Niue were visiting a couple of restaurants for local food and traditional dancing and spending a lovely last night with the staff from the Niue Met Service. The highlight here was the sing-along with John from our team and the beautiful Niue farewell sung by Tasi (Director of the Met Service) and his family.
Now, I’m in Auckland, the rest of the team are on their way back to Australia. I’ve stayed over for the day and will soon be collected by Gary (Terry’s son) , Oana and Christian for what I imagine will be a lovely day spent with them. Back home tomorrow.
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