Monday, May 11, 2015

An Island is Born

In December 2014, approximately 28 miles northwest of Nuku'alofa, the sea exploded. A submarine volcano between two small islands (Hunga Ha'apai and Hunga Tonga) began to spew first steam and, and then steam and ash up to 30,000 feet in the air on some days. The volcanic cloud could be seen from Tongatapu. Local and international flights were canceled.

Picture taken from Sopu. The eruption is not coming from the island seen in the foreground.
From Queen Salote Wharf - downtown Nuku'alofa
The island of Tongatapu bottom center. The plume of steam from the volcano can
be seen almost due north about 1/3 of the way from the top of the picture.
The discolored water zig-zagging down from the plume towards Tongatapu was
felt to be caused by smoke and ash released beneath the surface of the water.

By the end of January it was over, and a new island was born. It was estimated to be 1 km wide, 2 km long, and 300 meters high. The explosion completely denuded the nearby island of Hunga Ha'apai.
Aerial view of Hunga Ha'apai-Hunga Tonga before
A new island being formed
The local ferry company advertised a trip aboard their ferry to see the new island. On April 25, 2015 we, along with many other senior couples, boarded the 'Otuanga'ofa (the same boat we took from Niuatoputapu to Tongatapu Christmas 2013) and set sail. Of course, being in Tonga, we left the dock 1-1/2 hours late.

Looking towards the bow of the boat - stage is just to the right, BBQ is
straight back against the railing, and the big blue tub with a #4 on it
is the tub of chipped ice. The two women on the bottom right are not
sitting on chairs - they're sitting on cases, and cases, of beer

The deck was arranged with tables and chairs, a stage was created at the back of the boat where a DJ played music (VERY loudly) during the entire cruise. There was even a BBQ set up, complete with fire, at the very, very back of the boat. I suppose the location was in case things got out of hand, they could quickly throw things overboard? They withdrew the gangplank just slightly later than the departure time, but still we waited. We found out we were waiting for the chipped ice to arrive (to keep the beer cold, of course).

While we waited passengers continued to arrive. Instead of putting out the gangplank again, the passengers just climbed aboard one of the forks of the forklift, and they were lifted on board. I believe that's known as "Tongan Ingenuity." :) It worked!

We FINALLY departed. Nobody was quite sure how long it would take us to get to the new island - some of the workers thought two hours, some three. It actually took almost four. There was talk that perhaps they would let us get off and walk on the island, but no guarantees. They would need to let the survey team (who was also aboard) land first, check out the safety of the island, and then they'd let us know.

We finally saw all three islands in the distant haze, and the excitement grew as we drew closer. That is, it did among those who were not partying down on the bow of the boat. Soon after departing the dock, the passengers quickly divided into two groups - those that were there to party, and those that were there to see the island. Those that were there to see the island went up top, towards the bow of the boat, and as far away from the music and partying as they could get. We were part of this group.

Hunga Ha'apai-Hunga Tonga, with the new island in the middle
Senior missionaries scoping out the islands in the distance

We were excited to see the new island as it grew closer and closer. As we approached you could see that the rim of land holding the lake inside had washed away and was open to the sea. The survey crew was dispensed. However, it looked like much of the away team was made up of Friendly Islands Shipping (ferry) crew.

Back side of Hunga-Tonga (I think) - the island to the right of the new island.

They decided to circle around to the back of the island, so we followed.

The back side of the new island

The survey crew cruised from one side of the island, stopped without landing, waited. Then cruised to the other end of the island, stopped without landing, waited. Then went back to where they originally started, finally landing. Those of us waiting on the boat thought they'd look around to see if things were safe, and if so, they'd send the boat back and start transporting passengers back and forth. That is NOT what happened. The crew started hiking along the ridge towards the top of the crater. Then they  hiked along the rim of the crater all the way across to the other side of the island. Then they disappeared. We waited, and waited, and waited. Meanwhile, the party below decks was going stronger, the dancing less inhibited, and the drinking steady.

Frigate bird(s)
We waited some more. It was a pleasant wait, however. You could see birds - probably hundreds - soaring high above the tops of the trees on the closest island to us. (The other had been completely denuded by ash from the erupting volcano.) The currents carried the birds high into the sky. But several came to check us out, and we had some up close and personal encounters. They were mostly frigate birds and I THINK some giant petrels. Whatever they were, they were fun to watch. AND, I saw a bird I've been wanting to see. It was a fleeting glimpse, and there was only one. But, I saw a white Tropicbird. Life is good.

Finally, after a couple of hours, we saw people hiking back along the rim of the crater, back down to sea level, and they boarded their small boat. By then we were pretty sure no one else was going to be able to board the island, but we were still hopeful. We still had an hour or so before sunset.

But, no. They took the boat back across - away from the ferry - to the opposite end of the island - where they'd already been once before - and just sat there. We were wondering if they'd decided to anchor up.

They FINALLY decided to return, and steered the boat back towards the ferry. By then we knew for certain no one else would be able to get off and walk on the island. But, by then, we were so tired of waiting, that we were just glad to be heading somewhere, even if it was back to Nuku'alofa.

Dad and Sister Wood

This is where Dad spent most of his ride to and from the new far up the front of the boat as he could get. It could have been because it was the farthest away from the loud music. But, I think he secretly loves boats, and wishes he could ride the high seas, wind blowing through his hair...oh wait. Too late for that. He did come back with the top of his head pretty red.

The breeze was pleasant, the evening warm, so we decided to stay up top for the return home. We were favored with a beautiful sunset.

And a very nice gentleman who was part of the landing crew had felt bad that we weren't going to get to set foot on the island. So, he gathered some small rocks in his hat, and began to pass them out to people. Garth was one of the lucky people who got one of these rocks!! Although we didn't get to pick it up ourselves, we have a piece of the newest island on earth.

It's very likely the island won't last much longer. It's made up mostly of ash and small rocks...nothing substantial. The sea has already carried away a good portion of the lower rim, and the waves as they crash against that part of the island are murky and dirty.

Even though we didn't get to put our little feet on virgin land, fresh from the depths of the ocean, we did get to SEE what is undoubtedly the newest island on the earth, and we have a little piece of it that will endure, even after the island itself is gone.

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