Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Cave Day
By Michael

Eleanor looking back towards the
entrance to Swallow's Cave.
[NOTE: For those who missed the update at the top of the previous blog post, Del Viento survived cyclone Ula unscathed. We were very relieved to hear this from friends in Neiafu. Now, from California, some more highlights from our time in Tonga.]

The rocky cliffs of many Vava’u island shorelines are comprised of limestone and elevated coral reef rock. In some places, the rock is split or worn to create fantastic caves and caverns. The largest and most well-known of these is Swallows Cave.

It’s large enough that we could dinghy straight in. That’s what we did. With our friends aboard Vagrant, with the former crew of Wondertime, and with at least one venomous, air-breathing sea krait (a sea snake common throughout Tonga, they avoid humans). There was no place to anchor outside the cave, so at least one adult hung out at Del Viento’s helm, waiting for a turn to explore.

When it was my turn, I went with Eleanor. Once inside, after the novelty of the echoed shouts died off, after we’d surveyed the graffiti on the walls left by sailors from centuries past, Eleanor got ambitious and scrambled up some rocks towards what looked like a large, dimly-lit extension of the cave. She convinced me to go with her. I secured the dinghy, she leapt off, and I followed, barefoot. At the waterline, the rock surface was sharp and I wasn’t sure I could go on. But just beyond, my feet found the softest, most foot-pleasing walking surface imaginable: hundreds of years’ of bat guano deposits. It felt like walking on a bed of something that is cross between thick, spongy moss and cotton candy. It covered the walls I used for balance. Don’t touch your face, don’t touch your face. I said to myself.

“Eleanor, don’t touch your face, your hands are really dirty.”

“Okay,” she called back. “Dad! This is soooo cool.”


“You’ll see.”

Then I saw. It looked like I’d stumbled on the set of an Indiana Jones movie. The bone props were scattered about. The obligatory shaft of light shown down through the ceiling. Bats flew chaotically, their squeaks echoed around us.

Windy circling Del Viento outside
Swallow's Cave.
“Stand in the middle of the light, like you’re a goddess.”

After about 40 minutes, our turn in the cave was up. I rowed back to Del Viento. Sara and Leah from Wondertime followed.

Because it was cave day, the 10 of us aboard Del Viento headed for Nuapapu Island for another, very different cave adventure.

When we arrived at Mariner’s Cave, there was nothing to indicate we’d arrived. The rock and scrub brush cliffs here looked just like the rock and scrub brush cliffs that stretched for miles. Mariner’s Cave is special in part because it’s hidden. The only entrance to the cave is underwater and there is no evidence of it visible from above water or on land. But GPS waypoints are published in guides and handed down from cruiser to cruiser. We were there.

The cave is named after William Mariner, a writer who lived in Tonga for four years beginning in 1806. Mariner wrote a popular story about this cave. Apparently, a young noble once hid his lover in this cave, fearing that if he didn’t hide her, the king would kill her. Day after day, the young noble would bring his secreted girlfriend water and food to keep her alive. Ultimately, he built a craft and sailed her to safety in Fiji.

I would not want to spend much time in Mariner’s Cave.

I swam down first, trusting that the pitch dark hole in the rock, about seven feet underwater, was an entrance to a passage that would ultimately bring me to a cave in which I could breath. It was. And it was an experience I wanted to share. I swam back out to get the girls.

They’d been practicing for this. They were eager to do this. They knew some adults were uncomfortable entering Mariner’s Cave and I think they both wanted to test their mettle. A month earlier, Windy had worked an exercise into their school curriculum that would prepare them.

“If you guys can swim from the surface on one side of Del Viento, underwater and under the keel, to the surface on the other side of Del Viento, you’re good to go.”

Now treading water above the entrance to Mariner’s Cave, I asked Frances if she was ready.


“Follow me.”

Eleanor standing in bat guano
among the bones.
I dove down and then rolled on my back so I could watch her, swimming behind me. Soon I was in the hole, kicking my fins and moving past the sharp coral reef rock about 8 inches above my face. Frances was still behind me. Then we weren’t moving. I was still kicking and I could still feel water moving over my body, but I was stationary, fighting an outflowing current. When you’re holding your breath, and you still have a ways to go to your air source, and your progress towards that source is thwarted, it’s not comfortable. Frances kept kicking. I hoped she wasn’t aware that she wasn’t going anywhere. Then the outflow slowed to a stop. We started to move. Then we moved faster, caught up in an inflow current. The rocks sloped up. I swam upward and broke the surface. Frances popped up next to me.

“You did it!”

She laughed, “Yeah. Why is it foggy?”


The thick fog inside the dark cave disappeared. Twenty seconds later, it reappeared.

“Dad, my ears are popping!”

“Yeah, this cave is sealed. As the surge comes in, the water level inside here rises, raising the air pressure—that’s what’s making the fog come and go.”

Down below us, the underwater entrance that had appeared pitch black from the outside now glowed like blue neon.

“Ready to go get Eleanor?”


Frances following me in to Mariner's Cave. (courtesy Michael Johnson)
Some very old graffiti deep in Swallow's Cave.

Sara and Leah kayaking out of Swallow's Cave.

A gaggle of girls on the bow as Del Viento passes through
a cut on the way to Mariner's Cave.


  1. Just reading this makes my fear of dying-a-watery-death-shredded-by-jagged-rocks-etc... go wild! Thanks for the thrill and the relief that now I don't have to go there myself! Tammy-in the Bahamas where there are only un-scary caves... Thingswedidtoday.net

  2. Glad to hear Ula passed by Del Viento's crew safely. And thanks for the inspiring photos!

  3. Amazing! Slow down so we can play together! :)
    Afamilyafloat (SV Shawnigan )

  4. Great pics and story, and happy to hear Del viento is fine! From rolly anchorage in La Cruz, Bliss crew


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