Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Fish Balls and Freediving
By Michael
Ha'apai, Tonga

My bride.
Remember that school of non-descript fish in Finding Nemo, the one that formed shapes to communicate with the lost little clown fish and send him in the right direction? Well, I don’t think it is the same school that hangs out in the shadow of Del Viento here in Tonga, but Windy insists our school does make coordinated shapes—specifically that of the much larger fish they seem to be hiding from. Not a day after she made this pronouncement, another cruiser said the same thing. Anybody ever observed this?

So while our personal school is cool, we heard that in Swallow’s Cave there are schools of fish that must number in the hundreds of thousands, if not larger. “Really? We’ve been in there, we didn’t notice.”

“You’ve got to be in there at exactly the right time of day, roughly 3:00 pm this time of year, when the sun is perched just above those hills and the light goes straight into the cave opening. It doesn’t last long, but what you see will amaze you.”

Sounded to me like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones in the cavern, staff and crystal planted on the floor, waiting for that moment the sun shone through and aimed a beam of light on the map model on the floor, indicating precisely where the Ark of the Covenent was buried.

Such was our motivation for returning to Swallows.

“Eleanor!” the three of us called from the dinghy. (This is our thing these days, waiting on Eleanor. Doesn’t matter where we’re going, for what occasion, we’re in the dinghy waiting for Eleanor. If Del Viento ever sinks mid-ocean, rest assured Frances, Windy, and I will be in our lifeboat waiting for Eleanor.) There is no place to anchor near Swallow’s Cave. Last time we did what many boats do, leave one person to drive the mothership in circles while everyone else explores. This time, we opted for a long dinghy ride from Port Maurelle.

We got there late, the light was already illuminating the inside of the cave. It was a much different place. The schools of fish were immediately apparent. The girls jumped in the water.
Looking down at the bottom of
Swallow's Cave.

It was a blast swimming with the fish, as though we had a force field that would part the school as we swam through them, and allow them to join up again behind us as we passed. It was surprisingly difficult to get good photos. I didn’t figure out until the end that, counterintuitively, it makes more sense to shoot into the light.


Eleanor is the family freediving champion.

In French Polynesia, we got used to anchoring in clear water. I’d challenge the girls to dive to the bottom and bring me back sand to prove they’d made it. It became a thing and soon 15 to 20 feet was, literally, child’s play. Then 25 to 35 feet became easy. Recently, they both grabbed sand at 40 feet.

Then, working with another family (Hi Exodus!) to retrieve the blade of our Torqeedo prop that snapped off at the hub in 55 feet of water, Eleanor surprised us all. The father of this family and his teenaged boys are accomplished freediving spear fishermen. They were all in the game that morning—finding that broken prop was the order of the day. Tim was using an anchor with a line attached to pull himself quickly down to 45 feet where he could scan the bottom for a while before he ran out of air. Suddenly, there goes a determined Eleanor, kicking with her fins straight down, to the dark depths of 55 feet, where she grabbed a handful of sand (not my prop) and swam easily back to the surface, a huge smile on her face.


Do they spend their entire lives in the cave?

It looks like the fish are forming a human
figure to challenge Frances.

I seriously need one of those boxes that let me get above
water and underwater simultaneously.

Eleanor swimming through a fish ball.


  1. Wow! That looks amazing! We're going to take off cruising in 3 years and 11 months (but who's counting), and I'm starting to keep a list of places I'd like to see. This definitely makes the list! I've been enjoying your blog for quite some time now, and always look forward to your posts. Kimberly

    1. Thanks for the nice words Kimberly. Yes, Tonga is an interesting, beautiful, and largely and comparatively unspoiled place. I definitely recommend it. We are in the Ha'apai group of island now, south of Vava'u, and there are even fewer people here and the topography is different, more like the Tuamotus. We enjoyed some terrific snorkeling yesterday...and I forgot to bring the camera. Best wishes for your cruising plans. Don't over-acquire the stuff; for much of it, you can always wait to learn what you really need/want and acquire it while you cruise. Take care, Michael

  2. Awesome, Del Viento! Please keep feeding us these great stories and inspirations for places to visit. We for sure could use some good snorkeling and freediving (way to go Eleanor and Francis) while sweating in triple digits in Arizona. Hugs, Bliss crew.


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