Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tuamotu Noel

My calendar can't possible be right - is Christmas really only a few days away! It feels like a million miles from now in these tropical atolls. But we've heard joyous holiday singing in the churches and seen a few sparkling decorations adorning coconut trees, so there can be no mistake - HAPPY HOLIDAYS!
We had an incredible visit with our good friend Sam and were sad to see him go as he thumbed a ride across the Fakarava lagoon a few weeks ago, bound for good surf and great times in Tahiti and Moorea.
Our days have been one awesome experience, adventure and dive after another, and they all seemed to blur into a sweet montage of life under and above water. The southern pass of Fakarava (16'31"S, 145'27"W) is a "10" - hands down - phenomenal diving, easy fishing, kiteboarding off a nearby motu, fires on the beach, dinners with other cruisers from Pacific Bliss, Aquamente and Dream Time, and picture perfect surroundings.
The activity underwater continues to amaze and astound us. The scuba expeditions opens our eyes to the staggering volume and variety of sealife in the Tuamotu's. After spending so much time down there, I've witnessed an awesome display of fish, shark and ray behavior. The giant Napolean wrasses (2-5 feet in length) have big searching eyes that nervously and constantly scan the waters. Titan and yellow-margin triggerfish appear agitated by human and other fish presence near their holes. Rainbow, painted and silver parrotfish school together and noisily munch the coral. The bright orange clown fish aggressively protect their beloved anemone, while firefish hover in tight spaces, seeming to protect everything else from their poisonous sticks. Bicolor cleaning wrasses are efficient, like a drive-thru car wash, and courageous as they service and clean the gills and scales of the resident sharks, big groupers, and even massive dog-tooth tunas. Amidst the massive gray reef shark parade in Fakarava's south channel, a few blackfin and silvertip sharks meandered through the neighborhood.
The uninhabited and national park reserve of Tahanea, just 55 miles southeast of Fakarava (16'50"S, 144'41"W), provided Namaste and our Dutch friends on Aquamente with another playground. The eastern coast of this picturesque atoll boasts three passes within a couple miles. Upon our arrival, we were escorted by a pod of gigantic bottle-nosed dolphins, who were quick to take advantage of our bow wake.
Most of our diving explored the north pass in search of mantas. We had two spottings, one underwater and one on the surface, but not nearly as much as we hoped. There must be some successful shark breeding there, as we spotted 20-30 baby grey sharks in the pass, as well as a group of 5-6 tiny blacktips inside a protected lagoon, both an unusual sight. On the drift dive into the lagoon, we passed over massive branching coral gardens that house and hide schools of yellowtail dascyllus, damselfish and tangs.
The south pass is shallow, perfect for a drift snorkel, and filled with jacks and snappers. The atoll was populated within the last 10 years, and a few rustic fishing camps, a shell-adorned church, and a couple graves line the shores of this channel.
Near our middle-pass anchorage, two local families from nearby Faaite were on holiday. Hard to believe they'd leave their island paradise to voyage there but I guess everyone needs to "get away." They were busy collecting sea cucumbers, which are eventually shipped to Japan, as well as other more edible island delicacies - the kaveu crab and lobsters. They shared these delicious crustaceans, which they hunt at night on the motus (crab) and in the surf just outside the reefs (lobster). The coconut-eating kaveu is an incredibly prehistoric-looking creature with a head, tail, and legs that resemble a lobster, surrounding the body of a crab. It's shells are tinged with red and blue, and two giant pinchers actually rip open the tough nuts, their diet producing super sweet delicate meat. It's indescribably delicious. The spiny lobsters were chopped up and tossed in a chipotle cream sauce with the last of our zucchini.
During our Tahanea visit the wind shifted to the north, a very rare direction, and amped up to 10-15 knots creating an uncomfortable wind chop in our anchorage. We hauled the hook and motored seven miles to the calm northeast corner of the atoll, where we spent a few days swimming, paddling and snaring coconuts. I had an improbable experience at the nearby motu one day while I was collecting shells and meandering along the rugged coastline. A small swallow appeared from under a bush and appeared interested and very unafraid. I dropped to my knees and held out my hand, and the bird almost jumped in it!
Tahanea is also home to the very rare, insect-eating Tuamotu sandpiper. It's believed there are less than 200 mating pairs left. The island also boasts thousands of resident boobies and frigates, especially Motu Manu near the western edge of the lagoon, where they gather, nest, hunt, and circle above.
After a blissful 10 days in Tahanea, we returned to Fakarava for one more south pass dive, before heading to the thriving metropolis of Rotoava. We reconnected with some friends we'd met in Rangiroa this past April, who are currently working on a dive-carter catamaran. We lived it up in the "city" - eating poisson cru with locals, riding bikes along the paved road, diving at the north pass with our friends, drinks on their boat, and an authentic, outdoor Austral massage from a new friend, Teavai. I don't know if it was incredibly scented oil, the ocean breeze, the wind chimes, or Teavai's amazing touch, but it was a special experience.
On Monday, with a fridge full of beer and a few fresh veggies, we sailed 13 miles back to barely populated Toau (15'59"S, 145'53"W) and anchored in the southeast corner. We dinghyed over to the close partially sandy motu, disturbing two, 7-foot sleeping sharks that were resting in the shallow waters. The island is teeming with incredible shells, but most are home to the thousands of hermit crabs that make the coral beaches move under your gaze. There are little colonies gathered under big rocks, hiding from their ferocious aerial predators.
While it sounds like all play and no work, I haven't gotten to the part yet where Chris has spent 4-5 days in the past three weeks elbow-deep in watermaker grease. The shaft and pulley are damaged and Chris has been jumping into his Macguyver suit to fix it without the proper parts or tools. We've been fortunate with fill-ups from our friends, but we're on rations and trying to run the testy machine as little as possible. Freshwater is scarce in this part of the world, with very little to no ground water on the motus that line the lagoon. On top of that, it's been unusually dry during this normally rainy season and locals have been struggling without rainwater to fill their cisterns. We've had some relief from the unrelenting sun the past few days as squalls are rolling across the ocean and dumping huge amounts of rainfall, while atmospheric heat lightening lights up the ominous clouds above. Chris also fastened a sweet-rain catcher by inverting our front awning to help keep our tanks topped off.
We want to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and fun New Year's! We'll be missing and thinking of you all! We're home to Tahoe on January 5th for our first winter in four years - brrrr. Oh, and I asked Santa for Sierra snow, so we should be good.
Manuia! (cheers in Tahitian)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Tuamotu's with Sam

Locals bounty for Sunday feast in Faaite

Our Faaite tour guides

Speared marbled grouper, tastes like sea bass

The captain and the admiral

Chris livin' the life

Blacktips circling the paddleboard

Our 'Dreamtime' friends, Catherine and Neville

Sam, doing what he does best

Clams before they see me

Perch perching on the coral

Shark parade in Fakarava

Shallow waters in Fakarava channel

Giant Napolean cruising

Good friend, great times
The sweetest tasting, coconut Kaveu crab 

Island paradise - oh yes!

Hiding hermit crab