Monday, June 21, 2004

Fakarava, Tuamotos

June 6th – June 21st, 2004

By Chris


Fakarava is the second largest atoll in the Tuamotu’s with two passes, one on the north and a smaller one on the south. We entered the northern one and motored sailed to the village in the North East corner. The village was much bigger than the one on Kauehi, with two “stores” and a bakery. We anchored in front of the church (the bakery was right next door) and met up with Island Sonata who we hadn’t seen in a while.

They had two friends from Toau (the neighboring atoll) onboard, who they had met while staying there. They are both younger fishermen who sell their catch in Fakarava every week. Ciguatera is a toxin that gets stored in reef fish and works its way up the food chain, it can cause sever pains and nervous system problems in humans so you have to be VERY careful. I guess most of Fakarava had a problem but Toau didn’t, so these guys had quite a good deal going. They played local music on a ukulele, while MJ tried to play with them on her keyboard. It was funny to hear songs that we knew with French words. We went out to our first dinner in a while, and enjoyed catching up with old friends. The dinner wasn’t bad, steak and fries for $10, but the steak was a little chewy to say the least. Hey, beggars can’t be choosers.

The next day I paddled in at 6:30 and got us some fresh baguettes hot out of the oven. The other specialties like croissants, plain and chocolate, were already gone. I guess you have to get there right when they open at 5:30 for those (which I did for the rest of our stay). We did a little provisioning and got some phone cards at the post office (which was in an outhouse size building). We met up with Renaissance 2000 and went to the local black pearl farm for a tour. I didn’t realize how complicated a process making a black pearl is, I thought it was like a regular pearl (maybe that’s why I didn’t find one in Kauehi). In this case, to make them black, they actually take some shell membrane from another one and cut it into little pieces. This is the membrane that causes the inside of the shell to grow colored (green, blue, champagne and mostly black). They take a seed (actually a round rock from the Mississippi), and place it in a sack in the oyster. Then the small slice of membrane has to be inserted with the shell side touching the seed, so that when the oyster (more like a scallop) coats the seed it uses the genetic material from the shell coating. I got to dive in a fish park to get the two shells we would open. He showed us the entire process of seeding and then the removal of the pearl. They seed when the oyster is young and then wait about a year and a half before the pearl is ready. During this time they hang them in the water from buoys with nets/baskets and have to clean the shells every month or so. This farm was rather small but still made about 10,000 pearls a year. Most of them are imperfect, with small bumps or color changes. We got to look through his bags of cheaper pearls as well as his REALLY nice jewelry. I thought I was “safe” because KT said she didn’t really like pearls but once we got there she sure liked some of the more expensive stuff. Luckily the pearl we got from our shell was worth about $100, which wasn’t bad considering we paid $17 for the tour.

We then walked about six miles to a hotel in the beating mid-day sun to get to the only Internet place on the island. It was pretty expense ($16 an hour) with a French keyboard and no I/O devices. Oh well I guess our Internet connections in the South Pacific were going as well as planned. Most people have email on board, but I didn’t think we could justify the cost (I’d need a new radio $1500 and modem $1000). I didn’t realize that they also keep track of your position, and have easy access to weather data, which is VERY handy (Maybe in NZ). We decided we deserved some ice cream, but the place was closed!! The next day we rented bikes and went with Bobulona and Waking Dream on a tour of the island, it was rather strange being on paved roads with not much around (must be nice to have the French government picking up the tab). Waking Dream used these motorized skateboard things that got quite a stare from the locals. We stopped for lunch (hamburgers and fries) before returning for some well deserved ice cream (our legs were screaming from the abuse we gave them).

South Anchorage

The next day we decided to move to the south anchorage where the snorkeling/diving was supposed to be unmatched. We motor sailed the entire way, arriving late afternoon and played a game of Canasta with Island Sonata (hey you’ve got to do something out here). We went snorkeling the next morning in the pass,.. it was soooo amazing, there were sharks everywhere. I (black box man) brought a Bahaman sling spear in case they got too close. The visibility was over 100 feet and you could see the gray reef sharks on the bottom in 60 feet. There were 100’s of them. The white tip reef sharks stayed between the bottom and about ten feet while the black tip sharks stayed on top of the reef down to about ten feet. They were so amazing to watch. We must have hit the pass at perfect slack tide because for the next couple of days we could drift with the current back to the anchorage.

When the current is moving the gray sharks tend to school in certain areas, the divers would actually drift right through the packs. Rick had learned a Fijian shark call, which would literally turn them right towards you. We got some good pictures and video but nothing will ever do it justice, the energy/excitement in the water was electrifying.  (View short video clips to get an idea of how many sharks there were:  clip 1,  clip 2 (if the video does not start automatically go here for help). There was some amazing tropical fish near the reef including a huge Napolean fish that was as big as us and would stare at you with his big beady eye no matter where you were. It was literally like he had eyes in the back of his head. KT dropped my spear into 60 feet and I had to free dive to get it .. I almost didn’t make it back up (lost a few black box points on that one). She also had an exciting incident a few days later where she was “followed” closely by a six foot white tip for about fifteen minutes. She had wandered off on her own (more points lost) and the white tip took interest, we found if you hang with a group of divers they don’t bother you.  (Read about KT's shark experience here, additional link at bottom of this page).

The rest of the time was spent doing the typical cruisers stuff, more snorkeling, playing Canasta, watching movies, and drinks on other people’s boats (usually with deep conversations). We reviewed the video footage that Rick had shot in the pass, the funniest part was a big trigger fish that fell in love with his reflection in the lens and started kissing it. He could make some money off America Funniest Home Videos (see part of this clip here ... if the video does not start automatically click here for help). We paddled over to the other side of the pass and discovered a whole different landscape, small motus with shallow light blue water, and multiple passages out to the reef. The outside of the reef looked like a lunar landscape, harsh jagged coral grayed by the sun. On the inside there were lots of palm trees and more than one perfect postcard picture of the sandy beach with the palm tree bent out over the water. There was even a pink beach. We decided to have another potluck on the beach over there to get some other boats over to experience it. We started it around 2:00 so people could head back across the reef to the anchorage before dark. Of course no one did and we all swapped “well that was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done” stories the next morning. We had six people in one dingy with some pretty good size waves coming over the bow. Gordon (from Ascension) was our wave deflector, KT our bailer, and the rest of us just hung on for dear life. We “only” ended up on the reef twice.

You’d think we would have learned. The next day we kayaked over to Island Sonata, who had moved their boat for the party. It was getting dark but we thought we could make it back easily in the dark. On the way over we had played with some very small reef sharks (one foot). On the way back the tide was out and we kept running aground, we didn’t have any shoes on so we couldn’t get out and walk across the reef. Every once in a while you’d here a pretty big slash and we’d shine our flashlight into the water and see a black tip sticking out, must have been the babies mothers/fathers. Then we had to paddle against the current back to the anchorage, which was rather scary at times. The view of the stars was incredible; you could almost guide yourself by the starlight.

The next day a few of us decided to dive the outside of the atoll so we headed out in two dingys to a place just east of the pass. As we slowed down to have Rick look at our location underwater, the tube he was sitting on exploded. We were right behind them and I thought that someone had dropped their wetsuit in the water because it looked like they were dragging it behind. It turns out that a shark attacked the dingy; he was going for the propeller but got the back end of the tube. We didn’t discover this until AFTER our dive, right in the same waters; Yikes!!! It must have been a pretty big one because the bite mark was about 9-12 inches in diameter; he “only” got half his jaws on it. We all had a new found respect for the creatures we had just spent a week playing with. KT spent a couple of hours diving with Rick. They started out in shallow water, but ended up going to 60 feet because KT was so comfortable. She loved it and may look at getting certified in Tahiti or Bora Bora. While KT dove I hung out with the locals and fed the sharks and Napolean fish. Magmell spent their entire stay hanging out with them and learned how to fish, gather coconuts, and weave baskets in the traditional way. We ended our southern pass anchorage stay with a steak dinner on Emerald (oh to have a freezer), we brought chocolate fondue and we all slept like babies in our food induced comas.

North Again

There was supposed to be northerly winds coming, so we moved back to the north anchorage (with only one mile of fetch instead of 28). The wind came from the north for the first night but then shifted back to the southwest/south for two days. With 20 to 30 knot winds, we had some pretty big swell in the anchorage; sometimes our transom was half under water and we buried the bow about once an hour. I had to constantly be on the lookout for chafe on our anchor snubber lines, it got so bad that people were making fun of me. At first they would see me go out and check (once every fifteen minutes or so), and they would follow suit. Finally they realized that I was having problems and stepped it back a notch. They all joked at dinner that every time they went out, they’d look over and there I was. The snubber takes the shock load of the swells as the rope stretches, instead of passing it directly to the chain. Because my line stretches so much, it moves in the chocks that guide it cleanly over board. These chocks have the designer’s logo in a raised casting EXACTLY in the spot where the snubber rubs when it is fully loaded up (nice job guys). I burned through 2 sets of hose, a new thin set within ten minutes. A couple boats snapped their snubbers, it was pretty touch and go because they were sitting about 50 feet from a bunch of huge coral heads. It was VERY uncomfortable and we couldn’t get off the boat for two days. Of course we celebrated our “release” by having another steak and fries dinner with an ice cream chaser. After the blow we all dove on our anchors to find them completely wrapped around coral head … ours was like a figure 8, with our anchor and boat at the bottom and a huge coral head at the top. It took Rick from Emerald, suited up in full dive gear, to get everyone’s anchor up before we left for Tahiti.

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