Swallows Cave on Kapa Island is not hard to find, and a small boat can motor right inside. Inside Swallows Cave is a rock that rings like a bell when struck, and in front of the entrance to another cave next to Swallows is a huge round coral that looks like an underwater elephant. There are also sea snakes here and an exciting vertical drop-off. These caves face west, so the best conditions for photography are in the afternoon.
Day trips to these spots usually include a picnic on Nuku Island, where the snorkeling is good. One of the customary owners of Nuku may show up to collect a small fee, one of the few places in Tonga where this happens.
The cost of trips to the caves vary depending on where you book, how many people are going, and whether lunch is included. The guesthouse owners should know which boats are going and they generally depart from the Bounty Wharf daily except Sunday at 1000, so long as at least four people have signed up.
The classic day tour at Vava'u encompasses Mariner's Cave, Swallows Cave, and Nuku Island.
If you enjoyed the Mariner's Cave tour and are staying longer, ask about the eastern islands boat tour from Neiafu's Old Harbor to Umuna Island (interesting cave), Kenutu Island (sea cliffs with huge breakers), and Ofu Island (nice beach). Neiafu tourist cafes are good sources of information about all tours and activities around Vava'u, and can quickly put you in touch.
Mariner's Cave is a hollow in Nuapapu Island, southwest of Neiafu. You can approach it through an underwater tunnel in the island's stone face. The story goes that a young noble, fearing a despotic king might kill his sweetheart, hid her in this secret cave, coming back each night with food and water. Finally the young man and his friends built an oceangoing canoe and spirited the girl away to safety in Fiji. The cave gets its name from William Mariner, who told the story to the world.
To find it, go west along the cliff about 600 meters from the northeast tip of Nuapapu, watching for a patch of dark, deep water. White calcium deposits speckle the rocks to the right of the underwater opening; a single coconut tree standing high above also marks the place. Snorkeling gear is recommended for entry, though a strong swimmer could go in without.
The opening is about one meter below sea level at low tide, and you have to swim about four meters underwater to get through (it's comparable to diving under a yacht). The water is illuminated by sunlight, but come up slowly to avoid banging your head on a ledge. Wave action causes the air inside to change constantly from foggy to clear.
Swimming into Mariner's Cave is a bit like doing a bungee jump: it's certainly not for everyone, and claustrophobic souls should give it a miss. On upscale tours, a Tongan guide usually swims behind each guest to make sure they don't stop halfway.
Snorkeling on the Mala Island reef and along the dropoff at A'a Island are usually included in the Mariner's Cave trip.
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