Tropical glow tarnished

The Vava'u group in Tonga is lovely, but there's a strange vibe.

The first sign was the morning VHF net. We haven't experienced one since Mexico: it's a morning radio session where people announce who is coming or going, share local weather information, and help solve questions (such as where to get a propane bottle filled). In Vava'u, about half of the net is taken up with advertisements from resident expats for their restaurants or business services on shore. Commercial use of the frequency wouldn't be allowed in other places we've been, but in many ways Tonga is a throwback to the wild wild west: the usual rules don't seem to apply here. It's stunning to me that this net takes place during business hours on a channel that uses the only repeater to allow signals across the island group- the same frequency used by the port authority. It's embarrassing to listen to boats arriving from passages to the islands, calling for a check-in with the port authority, only to be told they just have to wait a few more minutes for the commercials on the Net to finish before they can talk to customs. Who is in charge here?

Walking around town, almost every shop we entered was owned by an expat. Many have been here for years, looking for a way to make their own home in this slice of paradise. It started to feel strange when after a day of popping in and out of most storefronts on the waterfront, we realized the only Tongan shopkeepers we had encountered were in the grocery stores.

Things started to sour when we were introduced (via the VH radio, again) to the ongoing dispute between visiting cruisers and the whale watching operations based here. Tonga is a migration destination for humpback whales, and we've seen them routinely in the islands. At issue are the regulations for being in proximity to the whales. The (expat run, again) tour operators for whale-watching have taken the international standard used by fisheries in the US and Canada, and adapted it to give significantly preferential access to members of the operator's association. If this were based on a genuine desire to keep the whales safe, we'd be sympathetic. Unfortunately, it seems to have more to do with protecting business and making a buck. Our friends have paid the fees for a tour, and experienced first hand how the operations truly function. Gunning their boats straight at the humpbacks, they are more interested in giving tourists their dollar value- not sensitivity to the whales. "Jump in, and swim toward them as fast as you can!"

We've seen similar cavalier behavior by the operators. In our own observation, the operators were not even complying with their own rules on the water: too many divers in the water (oh yeah- you can swim with them), no flag displayed, too many boats in a circumference of the whale's position. There have been shouting matches on the water between cruisers and commercial boats. Out marveling at the leviathans one afternoon, we were harassed by an operator, who circled, tailed us, and cut us off- all while we complied not only with international standards but the more rigid local interpretation. It was rude, reckless, and entirely unnecessary.

This was all capped off recently when we were treated to four letter words being slung about the VHF one day, as salvagers competed for the overturned wreck of a catamaran on the beach. It's safe to say we've had enough of the wild west for a while. We're looking toward our next destination, and plan to depart for Fiji this coming week.

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