An expedition to set foot on Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haʻapai
The Kingdom Of Tonga / October 2016.
I’ve always been fascinated in remote, uninhabited Islands. Part of the allure is the extreme challenge of making landfall. So, when I found out about a brand new volcanic island (Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haʻapai), I just had to go.
Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haʻapai is a submarine volcano located approximately 42 Nautical Miles North of Nuku’alofa. It’s wedged between two islands, Hunga Tonga and Hunga Haʻapai.
To understand just how epic this place is, let’s go back to one of the earliest available (clear) Satellite images. This image was taken in early 2008. It shows two Islands (Hunga Haʻapai on the left and Hunga Tonga on the right) which are the remnants of the western and northern rim of the volcano’s caldera.
The next set of satellite images (March 2009) show evidence of multiple eruptions from at least two craters. These series of eruptions created significant new land form, however devastated the Island of Hunga Haʻapai. Tonga’s chief geologist, Kelepi Mafi, reported lava and ash issuing from two vents on March 21.
George Kourounis, visited (what I believe was the Southern Crater) shortly after.
From 2009-2013, erosive forces reclaimed the land and it disappeared beneath the ocean.
Satellite images taken from 2013 show the majority of the new land form reclaimed by the ocean. Vegetation is beginning to regenerate.
Everything was calm until Nov 2014 when a series eruptions occurred between the two Islands and an area to the South.
The approximate location of the new Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haʻapai volcano.
Eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haʻapai (New Zealand High Commission)
The Eruption sent ash plumes as high as 9 kilometres. It could be seen from the Capital, Nuku’alofa.
Tongan officials declared the eruption at an end on January 26. Within the space of a few months, a brand new Island was created and in the process, connecting both of the former Islands.
So, this is where the adventure begins. To make landfall on this new Island.
Two of us headed to Tonga on a 3 hr flight from Auckland. We arrived on a stormy night with huge ambitions, but with virtually no plan on how we were going to get there. Trying to plan and book ahead via the Internet in a place like Tonga is impossible. Next morning, we visited the local port to scope out a boat and a daring skipper to take us there. Almost all of the boats lacked any form of sea worthiness…and I do go on these expeditions to survive! We then came across the Wee May.
While it wasn’t the biggest boat in the marina, it looked well kitted out and the Skipper had over 20 years experience in the surrounding waters.
We got together supplies including almost 1km of rope and set out just after 10am in calm, clear conditions.
They journey was meant to take 3-4 hours. Well after 6 hours we were still weren’t there.
6.5 hours later, we saw our first views of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haʻapai
The sea was treacherous. There was no way we could land, nor get close enough to swim. Our skipper decided to try the Northern side. As we made the journey around, cruising directly over the 2009 crater, our sonar sounded a warning alerting us to just 2 meters of clearance under us. Then was fast as we could respond, the undersea crater plunged into the depths of the ocean giving us over a thousand meters between our boat and the sea floor. A skippers worst nightmare.
Hunga Haʻapai (looking East). Note the devastation cause by the recent eruptions.
The Northern side was calm, so all we had in front of us was a swim in shark infested waters. Our gear went into multiple dry bags and we jumped overboard into the unknown. It was quite a relief to feel the gravel under my feet, making it ashore safely.
My first concern was the stability of the land mass we suddenly found ourselves on, carefully treading each foot-step. The ground was toasty hot with some sections too hot to walk on. There was a pungent stench of SO 2 in the air.
Our landing spot – the Northern side of the Island. Hunga Tonga in the distance (one of the original Islands)
Our first job was to ascend to the summit and navigate where we would go. We managed to get half way but quickly turned dangerous. The terrain was giving way and we could have ended up falling over ten meters or worse still, fallen through the flank entirely.
The new Island connected to the existing Island of Hunga Haʻapai. There is a small lake/wetland which I believe is probably breached by the ocean during storms.
We walked over to the Southern End (where we had attempted to land prior) and got attacked by nesting birds (they were everywhere).
Relentless erosion is changing the topography rapidly
Heading to the opposite (Eastern) end of the Island, we confirmed that the Island is also connected to Hunga Tonga. There is evidence that this connection is breached during storms (note the salt deposits below).
Despite the hostile conditions, life has a very special way of adapting and thriving. Bird life is abundant.
A lone coconut has washed ashore and has sprouted.
Further around, again, back on the Southern side of the Island, the crater walls give way to crater lake. This lake is not connected to the ocean but will soon be with the relentless erosion taking place.
Knowing that an eruption could occur at any time, we took some photos and video a made a hasty retreat back to the boat.
During the return swim, I got attacked by jellyfish which caused a rather painful and perilous journey back.
One final glance…
The cruise back turned bad. The wind got up and and so did the currents. I headed downstairs to the bunk beds and tried to sleep off the danger ;-). Then, just as I thought things couldn’t get any worse, we ended up crashing into a reef at full speed. The boat was stuck and potentially taking on water. The skipper ordered his crew down below to investigate. Thankfully the hull had not been breached. It took us over 30 mins to free ourselves. A close call.
We finally arrived back in port at 12.30am. Standing on terra firma was the best feeling in the world.