Friday, August 10, 2012

Current Whereabouts

We have been anchored near the South pass of Fakarava atoll for a week. Fakarava is the second largest atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago (Rangiroa is the first) with a length of about 30 miles. We had a mellow evening/overnight sail to Fakarava, under a scrap of a headsail and a full moon, listening to the gentle lap of wavelets against the boat. We intentionally left while the winds were light (before the next bad weather system set in) and sailed under reduced sail to slow ourselves down. We didn't want to arrive at Fakarava too soon since we had to wait for slack water to go through the pass, and we wanted to leave Tahanea during the late-afternoon slack as well. We kept our average speed at around three knots and still arrived early---but not too early---which gave us some time to study the pass before going through. We tacked offshore until it was time to enter the pass.

Luckily, the pass is marked with range markers to line your boat up with the channel before entering, because there is a huge shallow reef just inside the entrance. We were in nine feet of water before making the left turn towards the southeast anchorage. Once there, we used some way-points we had gotten from another boat to select our anchor spot. As it turned out we didn't go quite far enough, and anchored among more coral heads than we needed too. We used a chain buoy to keep our anchor chain above the heads. On the bright side, our current position makes the dinghy ride to the pass---going around the large reef every time---a little shorter.

Fakarava has a reputation for being one of the best scuba diving and snorkeling locations in the world, and we can see why. On a good day, the visibility in the South pass is unparalleled. Neither of us are certified to scuba dive, but snorkeling here is the closest you can come to scuba diving without actually doing it. From a protected shallow cove with a sand bottom, you float out over a coral-carpeted channel in the reef. Every square foot of substrate on your magic carpet is completely covered in coral. To the left and right of you, all manner of fish are busily feeding on more coral carpet in the shallow two-foot layer of water between the air and the reef. Ahead of you, you also notice multiple layers of marine life, all going about their business. At the top of the water column is a layer of syringe shaped pipefish. A rainbow of reef fish dart in and out of the coral in every direction. Occasionally, or sometimes frequently, a predator sweeps through. As you exit the channel into the pass, the coral covered slope drops off steeply into the aquamarine abyss. You feel like a scuba diver!

Fakarava is best known for the multitude of sharks that haunt the pass. We've seen mostly black tip reef sharks during our snorkeling excursions, although gray tips and white tips also live here. The gray tips tend to hang out at deeper depths, so that's one thing a scuba diver might see more of here than a snorkeler. Divers might also see more barracuda, however, we have seen the occasional solitary one. As far as we can tell, there's not much of a difference between diving and snorkeling in the pass, because it's the most amazing snorkeling we've ever done.

Although it's a bit disconcerting at first, snorkeling around so many sharks, you quickly become accustomed to them. The black tip reef sharks are not aggressive towards humans and mostly mind their own business. Sometimes they head straight towards you, but if you make a motion towards them, they will generally veer away. It helped me realize how timid the reef sharks are when I saw one being chased off one day by a Napoleon wrasse (a large reef fish!)

The main attraction at Fakarava South Pass is its premier drift snorkel (or drift diving for scuba divers) experience. The idea is to drift along on an incoming tide in your snorkel gear while holding on to a tether to your dinghy and allow the current to carry you into the lagoon. At the end of the pass, where the channel shallows out, the current picks up speed and you fly along on your magic carpet seeing the whole spectacle of reef life pass before your eyes in brilliant flashes of color and motion. Traveling with your dinghy not only makes you more visible to other dive boats in the pass, but gives you the option of repeating the experience, or at least, returning to your boat without having to swim against the current to retrieve your dinghy. It also supplies the safety valve of being able to bail out if you feel uncomfortable at any time during the drift snorkel.

We've done the drift snorkel a couple of times. The first time, we started out near the entrance to the pass. We were both a little nervous, as we were unfamiliar with the procedure, so we started donning our snorkel gear on the way out to the pass entrance. As I attempted to put my mask and snorkel combination over my head, the mask flew off the two clips securing it to the strap and into the drink. By the time we got the dinghy turned around, it had sunk too deep to retrieve. Patrick chivalrously let me use his mask and stayed in the dinghy during our first drift snorkel. It turned out that the wind was pushing us in the opposite direction of the current, and Patrick needed to occasionally use the oars to keep us headed in the right direction. Even so, I had to bail out early, as we ended up in some uncomfortable chop caused by wind-against-current. For our second drift snorkel (I used an extra mask I had on the boat so Patrick could use his own mask), we started further down in the channel where the current really starts to pick you up. (I noticed that was where the most interesting part began on my first drift snorkel.) This time, there was less wind-against current, and we didn't have to bail out early. After being spit out into the shallows by the current, we tied the dinghy to a mooring buoy and swam back upstream to spend some extra time exploring the reef we had just drifted over. There were different varieties of fish here than in the area we had primarily been snorkeling, so it was fun observing them at our own pace.

We weren't planning on staying so long at the South pass, but we waited out two days of windy weather in which we were confined either to the boat or to exploring the motus ashore. The conditions were too choppy for snorkeling, and the visibility would have been poor.

The night before last, a huge squall passed over us. The wind changed direction, and even though we had our chain buoyed, we experienced our first major coral wrap. Our chain buoy was now under water, pinned down by a flange of coral at the top of a coral head. The part of the chain leading to our bow was trapped under a second flange. Our chain had run under the edge of a small coral head in Tahanea, but we were able to retrieve it by motoring ahead to relieve the pressure on the chain, then turning away from the head to remove the chain from under its edge. That technique was unsuccessful in freeing this wrap. We next tried to free dive on the wrap to remove it, but the wrap was too tight to budge. We set a secondary anchor to relieve the pressure on the primary anchor and tried to clear the wrap using the dinghy. First, we added more slack to the anchor chain. Then, Patrick attached a short loop of chain with a line tied on it to the anchor chain. The loop slip down the anchor chain as we traveled along in the dinghy so we could lift the chain closer to the coral head. We used the dinghy engine to pull on the line. This technique also failed to free the chain from the coral flange it was trapped under. Finally, we added more floats to the anchor chain in order to hold some of the weight of the chain, so that we were dealing with a shorter piece of it. After that, we were able to free part of the wrap using the line and the power of the engine from the dinghy. I was then able to dive on the last part of the wrap and pull the chain out from under the flange that was holding it. Our chain buoy rose to the surface with a great whoosh and we were free!

Another highlight of our visit at the South Pass is that we finally got to meet the crew of our sister ship, Dream Time: Neville and Catherine Hockley. Dream Time is Cabo Rico 38 hull #40; Silhouette is hull #43. We started following Dream Time's blog because it was about another Cabo Rico 38 and might tell us what to anticipate in terms of boat projects that lay ahead. We kept following it because the blog is very well written and because the Hockleys have spent more time than most cruisers (more than one season) in the South Pacific and had therefore, seen and done a lot in the area we were about to visit. We shared a beach fire with the Hockleys and their nephew, Tom.

Neville wanted to show Tom a coconut crab, and since I had never seen one either, I tagged along. We searched around with a headlamp in the dark palm forest on the motu for about fifteen minutes before actually finding a coconut crab. Neville declared the one he eventually spotted to be a "baby," and explained that the thorax part of the shell can get as big as a dinner plate. A coconut crab looks like a cross between a hermit crab and a lobster. The head looks lobster-like, as well as the long, segmented abdomen, with the exception that the abdomen is curled under the body like a hermit crab. (An adult coconut crab lacks the external molluscan shell.) The coconut crab has huge claws---strong enough to husk coconuts! Smaller pincers on its hind legs and spikes on the tips of its walking legs allow the coconut crab to climb trees, which it does backward! Another remarkable thing about the coconut crab was its exquisite cobalt blue color.

This morning there is hardly any wind. It is the calmest, most beautiful day we have seen since arriving at the South pass. We plan on doing one last snorkel before pulling the anchor and heading for Rotoava, the village at Fakarava's North pass. There, we will have access to groceries and internet, so some posts with pictures will be forthcoming.

Posted from Fakarava atoll via Ham Radio.


  1. Thanks for the update. I was geting concerned because you were in one spot for so long. Glad to hear and read your exploits. I do have one question. I see homes on the reef. Where do they get their fresh water?


    1. Sandor,

      Good question. Fresh water is a problem in the Tuamotus. Cisterns are big around here, like they were in Mexico (only in my post on Mexico, I think I mistakenly identified them as "solar water heaters" due to their black color. So the short answer is cisterns. The long answer (whether the supply in the cisterns is enough; whether there are seasonal shortages due to weather patterns; how the water in the larger, more public cisterns is distributed) is one I don't know yet.

      Homes on the reef: Some villages have been abandoned, like the one on Tahanea. Others still exist, like many on the north end of Fakarava. The one we're at now, Rotoava, has a paved road on the atoll and has landscaped with plants not normally found on the motu.

  2. Foggy SF day...
    I long for turquoise waters
    Or, at least, some sun!

    (Haiku from your sib in SF—who has not been in tropical water for WAY too long)