Swimming with sharks

Monday morning Avatar (Mike & Shelly) were so tired of the noise and activity at the Rotoava wharf that they voluntarily departed their rare mooring ball for the adventure of motoring through the uncharted water to find the motu with the single palm tree at the NW corner of Fakarava – the Blue Lagoon. Stephanie (Fakarava yacht Services) had told me about the how to visit the place, look for the motu with the single palm tree and anchor behind it, the stakes for the abandoned pearl farm will be directly behind you. I couldn’t find anyone that had been there, which made the place even more interesting.

The Blue Lagoon is an area of interconnected reefs and sand bars on the northwest edge of the lagoon interior, with a large amount of built-up sand (storm or wind driven?) that creates a wide belt of sand bars and reef structures. Reaching a half mile or more into the lagoon, the area is turquoise green thin water over the white and pink sand, and can really only be visited in light northerly winds as there is no protection when the wind is from any other direction. The Google Earth satellite imagery shows the area well, with big lozenges of bright blue water inside the sand bars.

Mike & Shelly have been waiting for repairs to their high pressure scuba tank compressor to be completed in Papeete, and then the unit was to be crated up and sent over to Fakarava on the supply ship. With news that all was ready they departed Tahanea (where there is no town, no supply ship) and moved up to Rotoava to await the arrival of the supply ship. Then word came back the compressor missed the first ship, it will be another week for the next one. That’s today (Wednesday) and they learned Monday that French Polynesian Customs wanted to inspect the crate before it left Papeete, therefore no compressor will be arriving today on the supply ship (which is here right now, in fact). I have no idea why Customs would be interested in a compressor that is not crossing a border – Mike & Shelly brought it into the country as part of their boat, properly imported as the compressor is working equipment on board a vessel in transit, it was repaired in-country, and is shipping in-country – but Customs is interested and today the crate is being opened and inspected in Papeete rather than being offloaded in Rotoava. It turns out that Avatar got so tired of the noise that when the forecast called for light north-easterly it looked possible to spend the night at the Blue Lagoon – and off they went in search of that motu with the single palm tree.

I had heard of the area the day I arrived at Fakarava from a cruiser that was waiting for good conditions to go over and see what the Blue Lagoon was all about. I asked around on the net, nobody had heard of it let alone been there, and that got Mike & Shelly interested. I did not want to take Beetle over there as there are no charts, and I figured a 10 mile run across the lagoon in the dinghy would be fine if done in good conditions, provided I could travel in company with a second dinghy. Shindig was interested but the timing and weather didn’t work out, and no one else was that keen to make the run. Until suddenly I got a VHF call from Avatar saying they were headed to the Blue Lagoon Monday afternoon. I immediately asked if I could join them via my dinghy Tuesday morning and we could explore together, they said, “Come on over!”

Yesterday morning was a quick one hour motor across the lagoon, very nice in flat water and running with the six inch chop. Hooked up with Avatar and there was the littlest motu I’ve seen so far, perhaps 40 feet on a side, with four shrubs and a short palm tree – it looked like something right out of Disneyland – perfectly cute. And we were out in the middle of nowhere, away from it all. At which point a dive boat arrived with 20 people on it for a day trip and picnic on the sand bar, they pulled alongside Avatar and the Guide pointed out that this was now a UNESCO no-anchoring area – oops! No wonder there was nobody here. Mike promised they would leave in the afternoon and pointed out they had buoyed up the chain to protect the coral, the tour boat move on and disgorged its passengers onto the sand bar. Suddenly it felt like we were on the beach in Florida with everybody. It was pretty funny how quickly the feeling changed from open wilderness to suburban park. But no problem, we had exploring to do!

We took the dinghies into the inner lagoon (you go in past the pearl farm stakes) and explored the area by dinghy. I went ashore on the beach south of an abandoned falling down red roof of a house, Mike & Shelly went snorkeling along a reef. There was a ton of plastic on the western side of the lagoon, perhaps 20 pearl farm buoys, string, rope, bottle caps, flip flops – lots of stuff littered along the beach – and this is inside the lagoon, that plastic was coming across the lagoon from the folks living on the east side. Shindig reported an amazing assortment of fishing-related plastic on the west side of Toau (next atoll to the north), huge piles of fish net, floats, polypropylene line, all sorts of stuff that comes in from the ocean and washes up and over the reef of the atolls – the atolls acts as a sort of filter, a lot of trash ends up here.

I inspected the pearl buoys that were washed up and found four that were not broken or punctured, so I collected those into the dinghy and headed back out to see how the snorkeling had gone – so-so was the answer, the sand kicked up a lot of silt with limited visibility in the water. So we dinghied back through the and bars to Avatar and decided to snorkel the reef surrounding the mini-motu. That was a wonderful dive, best one so far. Big fat clams that live embedded in the coral with only their bright purple/blue mantles showing, finger conchs with their big snail animals living inside, many different kinds of reef fishes, and a particularly large sea urchin with bright blue super-short nubby spines that made it look more like a pillow than a sea urchin – very interesting. I was busy taking a picture of the clams when a medium-size 4 foot Blacktip Reef shark drove by… oh. I didn’t realize they were here. But the sharks just kept driving on by, each one on their own, some more curious than others. The sharks behave very differently than the reef fish – the fish stop what they are doing and turn to watch you, hovering near their coral shelters to dash into hide or behind if you get too close. The sharks don’t have that stop and go approach, they are continuously gliding along slowly and their behavior makes them stand out from everything else on the reef. A couple of the sharks were curious and would make multiple swims back and forth, coming a little closer each time to see what you were but they would not come closer than six feet. They glide along slowly and disappear around a reef corner, and a couple of minutes later would came back headed in the other direction only a little bit closer this time (that or there were a lot of sharks and a different one was making each pass). I saw at least two together at one time so I know we had at least two moving around the reef. Very pretty animals to watch, and pretty quickly you stop looking for them after they’ve driven off out of view.

After the dive we hung out on Avatar for an hour, then I took off in the dinghy for the 10 mile upwind up-chop trip back to Beetle while Mike & Shelly decided to spend a second night there and split early in the morning before the tour boat showed up again. The ride back in the dinghy into 10 knots of wind and associated 10″ chop made me realize that the Achilles inflatable tube floor dinghy is not necessarily the best boat for that trip – it was semi-painful banging along into the chop. The hour ride over was a 90 minute ride back, bonk bonk bonk, and everything went fine, engine worked perfectly. I radioed to Avatar when I was clear of the pass, and again when I got back to Beetle, so no rescue party was needed! Very fun trip.

Back in town Ashika called to say that they had met a German girl looking to crew on a boat, they swung by on their way to evening sundowner drinks at the little French restaurant on the water. It’s interesting to meet people that are out doing the back-packer thing and for some reason they need to sail over to the South Pacific on a boat. Niki had been on an 80′ boat for the 18 day run from Hawaii to Fakarava, and that was the extent of her sailing background (though she had sailed on the tall ship Bounty some time prior to 2006). Things hadn’t worked out on the boat and she was looking for another boat; this is a tiny community to do that in, and Ashika and I both suggested she would have a significantly bigger boat selection if she went to Papeete and asked around there – so she is planning to get on this morning’s supply ship and ride it back to Tahiti. We gave Niki the contact information for Tehani and Tahiti Crew, perhaps Tehani can point her in the right direction. I was also able to give to Ashika three of my four new-found pearl ball buoys as a starter-set of anchor chain floats for them, they were very pleased to have them.

Now it’s Wednesday morning, today’s big plan is to clean out the the dinghy and wash all bits of sand and coral that are in there under the floor boards. The coral is hard enough to wear through the rubber and it’s a running job to keep the coral out (always rinse of shoes before entering, ditto for line or anchor that has touched the sand – no coral in the boat) and there’s been an accumulation since the beaches at Hirifa that I need to remove. I’ll do that (remove motor, deflate dinghy, remove floor board, inflate boat, spray everything out with the washdown pump hose, put everything back together), organize and work on pictures, be at Fakarava Yacht Services in the afternoon to use their internet to try and send pictures, then hit the stores and be back on Beetle late afternoon.

Oh, and Katie G (Chuck & Karen) arrived yesterday from Puerto Vallarta via the Marquesas – they are anchored nearby, I was talking with them by VHF when they were in Paradise Village Marina at PV and having work done on their windlass and generator – congratulations on them making it out here!

– rob

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