By Eleanor Gee
It’s rare to find female sailors in Tonga, but 'Aunofo Havea Funaki is not your average Tongan woman - she has been working in a male dominated marine industry in the kingdom for the last 26 years. A passionate advocate of sustainable tourism, 'Aunofo is concerned about the number of whale watching operators in Vava’u, and how they operate.
'Aunofo owns and operates a whale watching company, Vaka & Moana Co. in Vava’u. She is also the founder and Managing Director of the Tonga Voyaging Society and a member of the Okeanos Foundation, which promotes sustainable sea transport.
A passionate advocate of sustainable tourism, 'Aunofo is concerned about the number of whale watching operators in Vava’u.
“There are too many whale watching boats in Vava’u. Too many boats affect the whales – noise pollution and too much fuel in the sea,” she said.
'Aunofo sees too much traffic in small areas around Vava’u for whale watching, and believes the number of whale watching operators in the area “should be less than 20”.
But she says it’s up to Tonga’s Government to make the decision for the whole of Tonga
“It’s too late now. But I trust after the Whales in a Changing Ocean conference our leaders will come up with a greater decision to make Tonga a sustainable tourism location...the top in the world.”
The conference in Nuku'alofa, saw experts on whales and government officials gather last week to discuss the importance of conserving whales and the emergence of new threats to whales such as climate change, marine debris and pollution, noise, entanglement and by-catch in fishing gear.
Discussions over three days culminated with 11 Pacific countries signing the Pacific Whale Declaration focusing on stronger whale conservation.
For Tonga, whale watching and swimming is an important revenue earner and looking after whales is crucial, not only for Tongans but for the marine ecosystems they sustain in the ocean.
Last year 'Aunofo had a chance to trial a clean energy vaka or kalia ‘Vaka Motu’, a traditionally built Polynesian designed sailing canoe that runs on solar panels and sails, organized by the Okeanos Foundation.
“I was captain and I used the Vaka Motu last year here in Vava’u for whale swim and whale watching.”
This was featured in a video shown at the Whales in a Changing Ocean conference highlighting the benefits of sustainable tourism.
Vava'u says 'Aunofo, "is one of the perfect places for the vaka with clean energy to start teaching people to move from something that’s polluting the ocean to something that‘s clean energy.”
“And then not only is it good for the fish, for the environment, it’s good for whales as well. It’s more quiet.”
As for being a woman in a male dominated industry, ‘Aunofo says she may be Tonga's only female captain.
“As far as I know I am the only [Tongan] female captain on yachts and kalia in Tonga as well as international.”