Thanks to Claire Stucklen for these iPhone photos! She’s a fabulous masseuse, who was visiting Sandy Beach from the Four Seasons Resort Wailea, Hawaii.
On the 29th of September, around 6:50 in the morning, I was out early on the beach hunting for shells. I didn’t even notice the mild shaking, which others described as around a magnitude 5 earthquake. It was our last day at Sandy Beach, in Ha’apai, Tonga. I finished packing, and we went to breakfast a little before 8 A.M. It was while we were sitting there, enjoying our morning fruit, that someone pointed out that the ocean looked “funny”. The water was swirling over the reef, but otherwise seemed normal. I didn’t think much of it, until we started noticing the breakers disappearing out in the deeper water. The tide seemed to be getting very low. When I noticed that the local gardener was staring intently at the ocean, I started getting worried. Luckily, we had a phone with a working internet connection. According to the NOAA Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, an 8.0 magnitude earthquake had struck in the Tonga Trench, near Samoa, and they had issued a Tsunami warning for Tonga.
We kept a wary eye on the ocean as we ate our breakfast, but every minute or so I’d hop up from the table and run outside to stand next to the gardener and look out at the bay. I figured I’d follow the gardner’s lead, since he was the one who had lived next to the ocean his whole life. It was while I was standing there that I saw the water get sucked out of the bay. In one big slurp, the water level went down by around 7 feet. The sight was strangely mesmerizing. I just stared at the dripping hunks of exposed coral, knowing I should be running(?) but not really believing that all of it was really happening. It seemed like a big joke.
Still, everyone rushed out of the breakfast room (mostly to stare at the strange sight), and we started walking (kind of) quickly to the highest point on our narrow strip of island. The spot we were headed was pitifully low, but still… As we saw people strolling to breakfast, we told them to turn around because of the tsunami. I tried to sound dramatic, and give the statement some sense of urgency, but I felt a bit ridiculous.
We only made it about halfway to our “highest point” when the water came rushing back in. We were very lucky that where we were, the tsunami “wave” only reached a little over the high tide mark. The rest of the morning, the tsunami pulled and pushed the water on our little beach. I got the sense that the entire ocean was one big sloshing bathtub. That kind of thing makes you realize how small you really are.
Later that afternoon, we caught a delayed flight to Vava’u, the next island group north. For some reason, we decided to snorkel in the shallow water close to our little fale. The experience was like swimming in one of those lap pools with an artificial current. No matter how hard I swam, I couldn’t make any forward progress. And then, every few minutes, the current would switch in the opposite direction. After fifteen minutes of flipping back and forth, swimming like crazy to stare at the same piece of coral, we gave up.
We were very lucky that day. The tsunami caused very minor damage in Ha’apai and Vava’u. Further north, in Niuatoputapu, Tongan villages suffered major damage, and hundreds were killed in Samoa. I learned a few lessons too: if you feel an earthquake in a low lying, beachfront area, remember that the earthquake could actually be very strong at the epicenter. If there is a tsunami warning, don’t wait for the water to recede, go immediately to the highest point. If you wait around long enough to actually see the water draw back, RUN.
In contrast to our own sobering experience in Tonga, the Los Angeles Times described the scene on September 29 back at home in Venice Beach: “Dozens of people stood on the Venice Pier around 9 p.m., about the time when the swell was supposed to occur. Many were in a rowdy mood, shouting “tsunami” while three wave riders bobbed in the water.”
For a few more pictures of the water in the bay, click here.