The iconic Tuamotus atolls

From the Marquesas Islands it’s a short 450 nm sail south west to the north westerly half of this island group, amongst the most remote in the world. The Tuamotus total 78 atolls and in the days prior to GPS, were rightly known as the ‘Dangerous Archipelago’.

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The atolls are low lying and only visible from a few miles off.

We had been surprised to learn that many of these atolls are as much as 20-30km long, some double that, and perhaps a third as wide, and most have one or more navigable gaps in the reef (passes) into the lagoon. Low reefs around the atolls have many cuts in them, permitting ocean water to flow in; more so when strong winds build the waves. This influx augments the tidal inflow at the pass and, when the tide ebbs, the outflow can reach 8-10 knots (14-18km/h) with quite formidable standing waves. So, estimating the time of ‘slack water’, when no current flows, can be important for a smooth entry.

Fortunately we had been put in touch with Alex and Carla on Yacht Ari B who were already in Raroia on our arrival and they kindly provided information regarding the entry into the lagoon and details on anchorages. We later learnt that most passes are navigable at most times in calm weather if you stay out of the main channel where the current is strongest.

We had intended to enter the Raroia pass at slack water around midday, but advice from Ari B encouraged us to try earlier, steering for a couple of waypoints they had provided. As we approached, the standing waves seemed to choke the main channel, encouraging us to keep them to our right and stay close to the north shore. Suddenly, however, Moondust was caught in a 5 knot tide rip and swept sideways into the white water which boiled around us. With both motors at two thirds power we made 1.5 knots against the current, slowly edging our way into the lagoon and the slightly quieter water to port. As we had deep water all around, we weren’t in danger but the situation certainly got our attention!

Once inside the pass the current gradually eased and Karin stood at the bow, watching for shallow coral ‘bommies’ rising vertically to near the surface from the lagoon seabed about 30 metres below. Once we established how easily seen these were, we hoisted the genoa and sailed for a few hours to the NE side of the lagoon.

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Anchored in turquoise water at Raroia.

Here the water was calm and clear and we were able to choose an anchorage with fewer bommies to entangle the anchor chain. In any event we adopted standard Pacific anchoring technique and thus tied floats to the chain at intervals to keep it off the bottom and prevent it wrapping around coral.

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The view around us was breathtaking; lush palm tree lined beaches, split by cuts in the reef leading from the ocean.
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Many different shades of turquoise water stretches out of sight towards the far reaches of the lagoon.

As we prepared to dive and check the set of the anchor we noticed several sleek, metre long black tip sharks swimming around Moondust. Reassured that they were harmless, we later saw many when we snorkelled and became quite accustomed to them.

The fringe of the atoll at that point is about 300 metres across from lagoon to ocean, where it drops precipitously into the depths.

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When we explored the reef with Alex and Carla we found that it’s composed of rough, sharp, coral residues.
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Between the lagoon and the reef coconut palms, scrubby bush and crabs abound.

After several days we contacted yachties who were on the west side of the lagoon and learned that diving in the pass was excellent. Keen to experience it, we made our way back and anchored just off the village jetty.

On our first snorkelling excursion we found that the pass is about 300m wide and averages perhaps 10m deep, so when we arrived that morning, an immense volume of crystal clear water (perhaps 7500 cubic metres a second!) was flowing seawards at about 5 knots. Intimidated by the flow, we decided to motor across it to the north side, stopping on the way for Karin to dip in and take a look. With her drag in the water we were fast going backwards towards the standing waves and the thought of a motor failure encouraged us to pull up on the north side coral beach. However, even here with just 2 knots of current it was hardly possible to hold onto the rocks to prevent being swept away. After dragging ourselves back to shore, we walked around the beach into the lagoon where there was very little current and enjoyed some great snorkelling.

Our first pass dive

Encouraged by what we had learnt, the next day we timed our arrival at the pass for near low tide, when there was only a gentle outflow and no standing waves. We could see about 30m before the water ‘blued’ out and sharks, parrot fish, grouper and many others swam amongst the longitudinally striated channels in the coral bottom.

We next motored about 300m to the outer side of the pass and swam in, now with a slight inflow, drifting us over fantastic coral and huge numbers of fish of all kinds; including blue, green and gold parrot fish, big, tame grouper, and black tip, white tip as well as grey sharks. They didn’t bother us and we kept telling ourselves that we weren’t worried about them. However, a diver had speared a parrot fish near to where we had snorkelled the previous day and in a few seconds four sharks ripped it off the spear, destroying the spear barb in the process.

We were enthralled, motoring out and drifting in a few times until, feeling chilled, we reached the inner end of the pass and the steep drop-off into the lagoon depths. Here there were also many fish and a greater number of sharks.

With strong SE winds imminent, we sailed back to the NE corner of the lagoon where we rode out five days of nasty weather in relative calm.

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Cabin fever got the better of us, so we snorkelled around the bommies and enjoyed a warm shower and coffee upon our return.
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One morning we had a short break in the weather, so we enjoyed a braai in among the palms with Angelo, Cecile and Lenni of Temptation.

We visited several more atolls: Makemo, Tahanea, Fakarava and Toau and discovered that each atoll and anchorage has a different ambiance, providing plenty of variety and new spots to look forward to.

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Enjoying sundowners with Alex and Carla on the beach at Raroia.
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At Fakarava south pass we weren’t able to dive deep enough to see the hundreds of sharks that frequent the depths at this famous dive site. (Photo: Fakarava South Dive School)

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Waiting at the Fakarava south pass for the tide to turn, Karin enjoyed the company of fellow South African, Antoinette, (left) and Bella from Germany.

We thoroughly enjoyed the snorkeling but had to be very cautious. Once I took both the camera and the dinghy tether to get a video of Karin diving down to the sharks on the edge of a pass. I needed to descend, and knowing there was very little breeze or current, I released the dinghy line for about 15 seconds. When I came up the dinghy had slowly floated into the shallow water covering the adjacent coral plateau! It was just a few arm strokes away, but the water was too shallow to swim in and the dinghy, with its flat bottom and the motor raised, was gently drifting across the razor sharp coral.

Unable to swim or crawl without carving ourselves up, our clumsy efforts to walk backward in flippers came to naught. By good fortune Alaine and Myriam on Alaïa, who had joined us, had shoes in their dinghy. Alaine was just able to walk 50m over the rough surface and retrieve the dinghy before it went any further. Karin and I were both a bit scraped and bleeding, so didn’t want to swim with the sharks around and instead went back to Moondust to lick (and dress) our wounds. It was a seemingly innocuous situation that could have gone badly wrong.

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At Fakarava we rented bicycles to visit a nearby pearl farm.
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At the pearl farm we learned that the black pearls of the Tuamotus are grown in the pearl oyster (Pinctada Margaritafera)  in a depth of 6 – 10m.
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Our final anchorage was at Anse Myot which is situated on the NW side of Toau atoll and consists of a false pass because the channel is blocked on the inner side by a coral reef.

We picked up a mooring ball because of the depth and number of coral bommies and were amazed at the sharks. Eight rather large oceanic black tips took an interest around us as we swam to inspect the mooring, two of them bumping the GoPro camera stick.

Whilst sailing we always put out our trolling lines, but recently with rather poor results, until we hooked a shark on our way up the Makemo lagoon.

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We cut this shark loose rather than put fingers at risk recovering the lure.

In Fakarava we landed a beautiful, fat, sleek 5kg Emperor Seabream.  Cautious of ciguatera fish toxin we asked if it was safe to eat and were disappointed to learn that this was not the case in the Fakarava lagoon, despite it being safe elsewhere.

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Finally our luck changed and we pulled in a small yellowfin tuna which made a deliciously fragrant yellow curry with coconut milk.

The residents of the Tuamotus had been a delight. They have been cheerful, friendly, obliging and polite and there has been none of the pushy salesmanship that plagues some of the Caribbean Islands.

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At Makemo we spent an interesting evening at the Miss Makemo beauty pagant.

Internet, if available, is slow in the Tuamotus, however we were able to get cellphone signal on most of the atolls that we visited to keep in touch with our family at home.

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The Tuamotus is a tiny spec in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean!

We came well stocked with provisions, but were surprised to find most of what we needed in the small atoll supermarkets which are re-stocked every week or two by a supply ship from Tahiti. Our fresh fruit and vegetables from the Marquesas lasted two to three weeks and then we sprouted the last of our mung beans, finally needing to go ashore to find purslane which is said to contain the highest yet measured level of omega 3 fatty acids in a plant.

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Purslane with its soft red stems and succulent green leaves grows wild on the atolls and its crisp texture and slightly tart flavour makes an excellent substitute for lettuce or cucumber on sandwiches.

We made some wonderful friends amongst the other yachties in the Tuamotus and were rather sad when the group broke up, as some would spend more time there and only later move on to Tahiti, to fly home for the cyclone season. We had to move west however as Karin’s visa for French Polynesia would expire on 2nd September.

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Karin with some of the wonderful friends that we’ve made: Ninni, Carla, Frances and Gabriela.
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Disposing of garbage can be a festive affair when the cruisers make a fire and enjoy sundowners while we burn our rubbish.

5 Replies to “The iconic Tuamotus atolls”

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