My dad held the boat off the steep cliffs of the small island that housed Swallows Cave. He had just snorkeled it and reported that it was intriguing, but that did not prepare us for the coming experience. Pauline and I put on our free diving gear and jumped off the side of Nor’Easter into the chilly water. The sea was close to 90° Fahrenheit in Tahiti, but only 83 in Tonga and the air was similarly cooler. I actually thought about wearing my wet suit. We swam toward the cave, looking through our diving masks at a large coral shelf with many colorful parrot fish. Once we passed the shelf, we entered the cave and were amazed at the spectacular beauty. There were thousands of small silver fish inhabiting the cave glinting in the late afternoon sun like diamonds. We swam through them, and the school shifted around us making beautiful patterns. I had never seen anything like it.
We could have spent hours playing with the fish, but I was sure my dad would be ready to depart so we headed back to the boat. We had a busy day planned so we had to keep moving.
The next stop was Mariner’s Cave. We approached the coordinates from the cruising guide, and once again my dad stayed with the boat since the water was too deep to anchor, requiring us to take turns snorkeling. Pauline and I swam along the shore until we spotted the underwater entrance. We didn’t know how far the tunnel went before it opened into the cavern, but figured it wouldn’t be too far if it was mentioned in guide books. We took a few deep breaths, I turned my flashlight on, and we descended into the hole. After about 40 feet, we surfaced in a fully enclosed cavern. There was enough blue light from the entrance to make my flashlight redundant. Since the cave was completely enclosed, when waves or current entered it would pressurize and depressurize, requiring us to equalize our ears. We swam around for a few minutes, but realized the interesting part was the challenging entrance. We swam out of the tunnel and to the boat, ready to warm up and dry off.
We continued motoring towards “Blue Lagoon”, but by then it was late in the day and we did not want to navigate the narrow passage with multiple coral “bombies” with the sun in our eyes, so we decided to visit Port Mourelle instead. Just outside the harbor, we saw many birds dive bombing fish. It was a frenzy, and I wanted to get the boat moored quickly so I could go fishing in the dinghy before they returned to deep water.
We picked up a mooring and I made Nor’Easter fast. I grabbed the fishing pole, gaff, fish billy, two lures, and Pauline. As I drove the dinghy towards the birds, Pauline held the pole with the drag lightly set. We started with a squid-like lure, but after 30 minutes of chasing birds we had no luck. We thought that since the birds were likely feeding on small fish, our baitfish lure might work better. However, at this point the birds vanished. As we headed back towards the anchorage, we suddenly spotted another large flock and as we got closer, we could see small tuna leaping out of the water. We motored through the center of the commotion and the familiar sound of the drag running interrupted the squawking birds. I killed the engine and Pauline handed me the pole, not yet ready to tackle reeling in a large fish.
I assumed we had a tuna, but had not caught anything from the dinghy yet, so did not know how exciting the fight would be. It fought hard, dragging us around the area before diving deep on a strong run. Eventually, I could see the flash of color as it got closer to the surface. I gave Pauline the pole and grabbed the gaff, ready to haul it into the dinghy. My gaff attempt was poor, and the tuna just got pissed off and made another run under the boat. I took the pole back and slowly worked it back into gaffing range. I instructed Pauline on the correct way to gaff a fish, and she nailed it on her first try. Do as I say, not as I do. We hauled the beautiful yellowfin tuna into the boat, happy to not have to make pasta for dinner, and although we knew we could catch another one if we followed the school, we decided that one was plenty for the next three days.
That night we had a spectacular meal of seared ahi tuna with my classic marinade, salad, good tunes, and wine. I promised Pauline that I would teach her how to dive into the ocean, since somehow after 27 years of life and all of her talents, nobody taught her. My dad ended up doing most of the teaching but we had a great time swimming late into the night under the nearly full moon.
Our first day exploring Tonga was a memorable one, and one of the best of the trip to date.