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SEA Currents: SSV Robert C. Seamans
October 06, 2016
Botany and Marine Biology in Tonga
18°39.2’ S x 173°59.1’W
Alongside in Vava’u, Tonga
Absolutely gorgeous! (Hot & sunny, but breezy)
Today I woke up at 0600 for my dock watch to a beautiful sunrise in Vava’u, Tonga, and it set the tone for what was going to be the best day yet of this trip. After an awesome breakfast made by Cooney, our honorary steward, and reassured the incoming cargo ship was not going to kick us off the dock, we were let loose to explore the market before heading out for the rest of the day’s activities. The market is a wonderful place to see the different handicrafts in Vava’u. One woman, Nati, explained to me how she makes her pearl bracelets, necklaces, and earrings, and there is also Betty who is known for her wood carvings, baskets, and paintings. The market is a great place to buy gifts to bring home (looking at you Shehan family + friends)!
After a solid morning in the market, we reconvened at 0915 on the dock to meet taxis to take us to the ‘Ene’io Botanical Garden, which has over 600 species of plants. The man who runs it, Haniteli Fa’anunu, was inspired to create the garden after reading the Garden of Eden story in the bible while growing up, and wanted to recreate it here in Tonga.
After spending three decades of cultivating the land and gathering different species of plants from all over Tonga and the world, he opened his garden in 2006. On the tour, his dedication to the garden was evident as he told a story about practically every plant he had there. He shared how the giant mango tree in the center came from a seed he brought back from a trip to India, and how gave seeds from his vanilla plant to Mel Gibson’s son so that Mel could grow vanilla on his Fijian Island. This is just a small sample of the stories. It was inspiring to see this man, who is in his 70s, talk about this life project with so much passion, especially when, as he explained, many people in Tonga don’t understand why he is doing what he does. We were lucky enough to continue our conversations with him while we ate lunch and went snorkeling at the beach on the property after our tour was finished.
If snorkeling once today was not enough, we got to snorkeling again in the afternoon, which was really exciting for me because I had never been snorkeling before!! While our lunch snorkel was leisurely, the purpose of our afternoon snorkeling adventure was not just to enjoy the incredible views. This time we went out with VEPA (the organization we met with yesterday), and helped them count crown of thorns starfish, an invasive species here in Tonga. We set out on the Whalesong, a borrowed whale touring boat that loved to play remixes of See You Again, and went to the reef. The water here is absolutely gorgeous and the views only got better beneath the surface. Weaving throughout the coral I saw fish that ranged from rainbow hues to bright turquoise to zebra striped patterns. When not getting distracted by the fish, I kept an eye out for crown of thorns. Today we were only able to find and remove two but it was better than not having a chance to remove any at all! Even though everything was beautiful, these reefs are not immune to coral bleaching, and we could see the effects of storm water pollution, the crown of thorns, and global warming. The silver lining to the environmental degradation we have seen has been all the incredible work we have witnessed here in Vava’u. We have learned about action on the individual level at the botanical gardens, where Haniteli and his wife, Lucy, are planting vegetation to prevent runoff, and we have seen community education initiatives carried out by VEPA on the community level.
We arrived back to the boat with a couple of hours to prepare for the high school students that we had invited to the boat for dinner. Our numbers on the boat suddenly doubled and the boat was filled with conversation about studies, especially questions about the boat from students taking a navigation class. Dinner was quite the occasion on the quarterdeck as the school group open the meal with a prayer and a song. I have never heard such harmonization in a group, each student knowing the exact moment to come in and out of the melody, and the sound rose up from our ship and across the shipping yard. I never thought that the shipping yard we are in could be stunning but tonight it was when then sang to us again when they departed.
The meal concluded with the presentation of their gifts to us and a speech from one of the teachers, Sia. In her speech, she spoke about how our groups were now interconnected. Here we were in their home of Vava’u, but at the same time she recognized that they were also in our home, the R.C. Seamans. She also renamed our boat ‘Univesiti he Vahanoa, the “traveling university” and wished us the best of luck as we continued our voyage through the Pacific to learn more about this part of the world. The night ended on a perfect note when our post-dinner singing turned into Jake teaching all of us a square dancing routine. Throughout the whole night the students kept thanking us but we had to thank them because the experience they helped create is something none of us will ever forget. I hope SEA can come back to Tonga and cross paths with these students again!