Friday, May 1, 2009

Niue in August 2008 & a whale shark

Niue is another of those special places. Niue is probably the smallest country in the world. It is a very small island a few hundred miles east of the Kingdom of Tonga. Niue may now be independently governed, but it still receives about $5,000,000 dollars of support annually from New Zealand. The island of Niue is affectionately known by the inhabitants as "The Rock." Because that is about all it is -- one big rock of limestone. There is very little soil to support vegetable crops, but they do manage to grow enough to get by. Along with the support from New Zealand.

There are no ports at Niue; no anchorages of any kind; and virtually no beaches. It is theorectically possible to anchor off the main town on the western side of the island in 100-120 feet depth. But the bottom is craggy limestone with deep chasms and it is very likely that any anchor dropped there will be lost. The limestone also will eat right through an anchor chain like a hacksaw. There are a total of 20 moorings in place and if the moorings are all filled, then it is best to continue on your way to Tonga.

The dinghy dock at Niue is famous with cruisers. It is a very high concrete dock. The sea surges very strongly (especially as the tide changes) and landing a dinghy is impossible. Instead, there is a crane on the top of the concrete dock and you use it to lift your dinghy up onto the dock. This is a feat in itself as the sea surges and you try to climb out of the dinghy onto the stone steps without slipping and falling as the water swirls up around your knees during high tide. Then you swing out the hook to your dinghy driver so he can connect it to your lifting harness and then you haul up the dinghy. Then swing in the lifting crane and lower the dinghy onto the concrete dock. Then drag your dinghy out of the way so the next person will have room to land. If the crane isn't working then you cannot go ashore or you cannot go back to your boat. There is no other way of getting shore. I don't know how single-handers manage this, as it required both Bill and I to accomplish this task.

We stayed at Niue for a couple of weeks. Rented a car and toured the island, which does not take long. We drove to the eastern side of the island and hiked out to Togo where there are fabulous limestone formations that go on for miles and miles. The limestone looks like jagged stalactites ranging up to 25 feet high, and so close together that walking is impossible. There is one path that allows you to walk through the limestone to reach a picture-perfect pocket beach of sorts. It is not right on the ocean, but seawater finds its way to the white sand "beach" between enormous boulders. There are several palm trees found here and it is quite picturesque. When you arrive at the beach, you must climb down a 20-foot ladder to reach the sand. On one of the stone walls is a collection of sandals and shoes. I cannot imagine how this custom got started as it is postively impossible to walk back out of there barefoot.

There are many caves on Niue. In fact, the inhabitants lived in caves even into the late 19th century because the caves made such perfect homes on this island. Trees are not plentiful and timber is scarce.

A conference of Pacific nations was held in Niue while we were there. I can't remember what this conference was called, but it is similar to the G-8 conferences that the USA participates in. Anyway, the leaders of most Pacific countries were in Niue that week. Because of this conference, there was also a local festival held. This was a blast. There were a lot of New Zealand military present as security for this conference as well as police from many countries, and they participated in many of the competitions at this festival. Not surprisingly, most of the competitions involved coconut palms in one fashion or another. There were various races using different parts of a coconut palm tree and/or coconuts and spear throwing contests. Lots of music and just a lot of fun. The woman in this photo with Bill is wearing leaves from a coconut palm. In the old days that is all she would have been wearing, but today she is being traditional while still being modest by our western culture ideas.

We were visited twice one day by a whale shark right alongside our boat on the mooring! This was such a very special experience for us as we had never seen a whale shark. And this one was huge. It was about 35 feet long and 8 feet wide across the head. I can guess at its length based upon where it was placed alongside our boat. Its tail was even with our outboard engine mount on the liferail, and its head was past the forward shroud toward the bow. That means the it was more than 30 feet long but not more than 35 feet long. This thing was big!! At first we thought it was a whale and I ran downstairs to get our whale identification booklet. We quickly determined that it was not a whale. It stayed right next to our boat for almost a minute and then slowly moved off to the right several hundred meters. Several minutes later it returned and again stayed right next to our boat in the same place. This time it remained only about 30-40 seconds and then again moved slowly off to the right to the same area. We assume it was feeding over there. A whale shark is a baleen shark; that is why the head is so wide. It has no teeth and is positively nothing like any other shark; very prehistoric creature; and I think it is the largest fish in the world. These fish are reported to be gentle and curious. They have been known to almost surface next to fishermen and stay for a long time, as if they are curious about the little fishing boats.

This sighting was one of the highlights of the South Pacific for us. The photos with this posting are taken from Google images. We were so flabbergasted by watching the whale shark that neither one of us thought to go below and get a camera.

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