Friday 10 April 2015

Tuamotos, Fakarava North

We approach the island of Fakarava at dawn. The passes into the Tuamoto lagoons are notoriously dangerous. As the tide ebbs, a huge volume of water flows out of the narrow passes in the reef, surging through underwater canyons, churning up the surface and creating standing waves as it collides with the inertia of the open ocean. We have done our calculations to arrive at slack water, just as the tide is turning, but as we approach the pass, the horizon is boiling with white water and breaking waves that run a mile out into the ocean.

We have read that the north pass at Fakarava can be entered at almost any stage of the tide, as it is a mile wide and 30 metres deep, diffusing the power of the current; yet it is still a daunting prospect. We have clearly misread the tide tables and we have arrived mid-tide when the current is at its strongest. We skirt around the edge of the pass, avoiding the roughest water and we slip in by the reef, motoring at five knots but making little progress as the current runs at four knots against us.  Once inside the lagoon we escape the grip of the current and we are back up to speed, heading towards the anchorage.

The lagoon is huge, almost forty miles long and twenty wide, and strewn with reefs.  We can only see the Eastern shore and we follow the marked channel towards the village; the church spire just visible among the palm trees. We pick up a mooring buoy, two hundred metres from the beach to avoid anchoring on the coral heads, or ‘bombies’ as they are known here, and we take the dinghy ashore to explore.  There is a substantial concrete dock with a small inner harbour; the bollards are rusty, the buildings around are empty, flies hum in the hot morning sun. There is only one road on Fakarava, a concrete track that runs the length of the island. The occasional shanty style house with corrugated iron roof and a large plastic drum that catches rainwater, the only source of fresh water on the island. 

It is Easter Sunday and mass is being said in the small church, everything else is closed for the holidays. Having said that, everything else only comprises a boulangerie, a small general store and a handful of small restaurants on the beach.  The island has a wonderful tranquil, sleepy feel and whenever we see one of the locals they wave in welcome, ‘Bonjour, Joyeuse Pacques, Happy Easter’. We collect Jamie from the airport, tired but happy after his 30 hour flight from London and we have dinner at a family-owned restaurant with the other boats from the fleet, sitting on a wooden terrace watching nurse sharks nosing around the shallows, attracted by the flood lights. 

Fakarava is famous for it’s diving and there is a dive school in the lagoon, directly opposite our anchorage, where Andrew and Jamie begin their PADI diving course. It is also home to one of the most famous drift dives in the world, an underwater ride through the Northern Garuae pass, and after being checked out out by the instructors, I book my place. The big yellow inflatable dive boat takes us out to the pass, now benign at slack water, barely a ripple on the surface, just an expanse of sea between the two headlands. Jean-Charles, our instructor, tells us that as soon as we are in the water we will drop to 30 metres to escape the current. I hold my mask and regulator in place, roll backwards off the dive boat, and deflate my BCD, slowly sinking below the surface and into the world below.  The ocean floor drops off steeply at the entrance to the lagoon and we descend to the sea-bed, holding onto the coral to anchor ourselves in the current.

The scene is breathtaking, the water is crystal clear; I can see for a hundred metres in high definition, the sun high above intensifies the colours of this amphitheatre. Reef sharks circle above us, maybe thirty or forty, their distinctive muscled profile intimidating at first. Black lifeless eyes bore into us as they boldly approach within a few metres then turn away with a slow sweep of the tail.  I have dived many times before but never in water so clear and never with such a profusion of fish and I am spellbound. Jean-Charles taps his tank to get our attention and signals for us to follow; we release our grip on the coral and the current carries us swiftly up the slope towards the shallowest section of the pass. I concentrate on my breathing, trying to neutralise my buoyancy so that I float just above the ocean floor, my hands crossed in front of me, my fins balancing as I am swept along.  We fly through underwater canyons, deep serrations in the sea bed laced with fingers of rusty fire coral, laced fans in purple and blue that wave as we pass and tubed sponges, mouths open like chicks in a nest. 

Our instructor signals and we take a left turn down a gulley into the Ali Baba canyon. A wide valley opens out beneath us and it is simply teeming with fish. A shoal of big-eyed bream numbering in their hundreds hangs stationary in our path, their huge eyes watching warily but not intimidated in any way as they drift by, inches from my mask. A smaller shoal of yellow and black striped Moorish Idol fish are more coy and they hover just out of reach, their long fins wafting in unison in the current. Silvery jacks stare ahead, their downturned mouths and glum faces seem comical in this magical setting and we just stop and stare, my camera rolling to try and capture this huge aquarium.  We have been down for nearly an hour, drifting half a mile along the sea bed, our air supply is running low and our instructor makes a a cross with his arms, indicating the end of the dive.  We ascend slowly, resting at 5 metres to allow our bodies to decompress and then we are back on the surface and into our own world, waves splashing over our masks, the sun in our eyes, the dive boat circling to pick us up.  What an amazing experience; as I write I still feel a sense of elation.

The hottest time of the day here is the early afternoon. The wind dies, the clouds part and the sun bleaches out the colours as a blanket of heat engulfs us. We are in the dinghy, Jamie spotting for sharks in the shallows, when we hear the sound of drumming. It is fast and urgent, warlike and intimidating, the sort that would have made Captain Cook and his crew nervous as they manned their long boats to come ashore.  Yet as we motor in closer to investigate, we see a Polynesian woman dancing to the drums, a coloured sarong around her waist, a garland of flowers at her neck.  Her hands are to one side and they snake across her body as her hips gently undulate in time to the beat, the sarong flowing around her limbs. She has a beatific smile on her face and she waves to us in welcome.   We love Fakarava.


  1. Absolutely lovely photos! This place looks absolutely beautiful - and the sea can't be more blue than that. I definitely need to try to head to this place when I can, it looks like a hidden treasure. Hope you had a wonderful time!

  2. What a wonderful dive, for experienced divers only, I feel. Great description and photos as normal.