Saturday 18 April 2015

Tuamotos, Fakarava South

We are anchored behind the reef, a million miles from anywhere.  A huge blood red horizon glows in the west, a scatter of black clouds drifts past like battleships; the sound of the surf on the outer reef is a muffled roar and on Juno all is still. The water is so clear that even at dusk we can see the reef sharks circling the boat. Between us and the ocean is a narrow strip of pink sand, dense with palm trees, a thin finger that stretches out and disappears below the dark surface. 

We are now at the southern end of the atoll of Fakarava, having sailed twenty-five miles through the lagoon, following the buoyed channel along the eastern coast, to the village of Tetamanu. The term ‘village’ is something of an overstatement: there is a small hotel consisting of a handful of beach huts in the palm trees and a small bar on stilts over the water and of course a church; white, simple and functional.  There is no internet, no shops, and therefore no restaurant, as the hotel only has enough supplies for its residents.  But being Fakarava there are two dive schools, and we plan a drift dive through Tumakohua, the southern pass into the lagoon.

The southern pass is much smaller than the north, only one hundred metres wide and fifteen metes deep, so the sharks are concentrated into a narrow area as they gather to feast on the oxygenated current that flows into the lagoon.  Jamie, Andrew and I are with three other divers and a beautiful French dive instructor called Dominique who speaks fluent and heavily accented English in a husky voice. We follow her down to 25 metres and find hand-holds on the coral in an area known as the Wall of Sharks. At first we see just a few in the distance but as they become used to our presence other sharks start to congregate, joining in the orgy of oxygen, swimming within a few metres of us, they drift past then turn to head back for another dose of elixir. There must be hundreds of them: black tips, white tips, bigger reef sharks around two metres in length, cruising up and down the wall, watching us but apparently not in the least alarmed by our presence.  I wonder if diving anywhere else will compare with this.

We decide to move Juno to an anchorage just inside the outer reef; reputed to be one of the most beautiful in Polynesia.  However, like every beauty it has its sting, and this one is fiercely protected by a submerged reef that surrounds it with only a narrow channel of deep water to access its charms. Even inside the channel there are isolated coral heads, appropriately known as bombies. These are clumps of coral the size of a small car that crouch on the sea floor, always under water but occasionally rising up only inches below the surface and lethal to plastic boats.   Andrew and Caroline are on the bow, I am at the helm and Jamie is up the mast in a harness where he sits on the upper spreaders, 20 metres above the water, spotting for bombies through Polaroid sunglasses. 

We set off using the chart plotter to skirt the outer edges of the reef, inching along at two knots, eyes straining to see the dangers that we know lie ahead.
The walkie talkie bursts into life;  “11 o’clock, two boat lengths”.
‘Copy that’ I respond and turn slightly to starboard away from the danger.
More urgently this time ‘Dead ahead, one boat length, brake, brake!’
I put the engine in hard reverse, unable to see anything but blue water, listening intently for instructions from Jamie.
‘Starboard 30 degrees, bow thruster - now!’
‘Starboard 30’ I confirm and turn the wheel, using the bow thrusters and reverse gear to spin Juno on the spot.
Jamie calls again from the masthead, his voice more languid, ‘That was close, all clear now, port 10 degrees’.
“Port 10 degrees” I breath a sigh of relief and so we weave our way through the bombies, my 21 year old son in control, giving instructions from the masthead while I obey at the helm.

Once we are through the reef the anchorage is beautiful and lives up to its reputation.  We are in a pool inside the outer reef of the atoll, protected from the ocean waves that burst in brilliant white against the coral.  We lie suspended in 5 metres of clear still water over puffy white sand that shelves gently upwards to two small uninhabited islands, dense with coconut palms trees and separated by a narrow creek.  Warm shallow water, only a metre deep in places and coloured in dappled shades of turquoise blue and green covers the lagoon, broken only by low lying sand bars of coral pink, then finally one more tiny islet before meeting the outer barrier reef. Andrew swims to the islands and returns an hour later, his eyes sparkling, pronouncing it the most beautiful place on earth.

If someone had told me only six months ago that I would knowingly slip into the sea with sharks in the water I would never have believed them; but here I am cleaning the hull in the company of five reef sharks. They are nervy at first, keeping their distance, but after a while they pick up the courage to come in close and watch me, always on the move, continually circling the boat. It is very cool and peaceful under the water with just the sound of my breathing amplified through my scuba regulator, the air trapped under the hull in translucent bubbles that escape and drift up to the surface. Algae grows thick and fast in these water temperatures and I use a soft scourer to remove the green slime without disturbing too much of the anti-foul that still protects us from most of the marine growth. Two hours cleaning the hull could add as much as a knot of boat speed so it's well worth the effort and again I am thankful for having our own compressor on board to fill our dive tanks.

It is our final night in the anchorage and we arrange with the other ARC yachts to meet on the beach for sundowners.  Just before dusk our little armada dinghies through the shallows, dropping anchor in six inches of water and we take our cool bags of beers to the beach. We stand in the shallows, feet in the water, watching the sunset in companionable silence with our friends from Makena, A Plus 2, Garlix, Karma Winds and Aquillon III. It is a flat calm evening, the setting sun infusing the sky with a serene orange glow, and as darkness falls we say goodnight and head back to Juno, our home from home.

Tomorrow we leave the Tuamotos for South Sea Islands with evocative names such as Tahiti, Bora Bora and Moorea.


  1. A little envious -such beauty and peace - not forgetting skilful sailing, chart plotting and young eyesight aloft.

  2. Delighted to read this and see you all looking so happy and relaxed. What an adventure! Keep the updates coming. Love the Ossies xx