S loves clams almost as much as pelicans. We found a bunch of them in the shallow shallows of south Fakarava.
Ladies and gentlemen… a SiphonCam view of the inside of a blue clam. Who knew? They’re blue inside and out.
The mantas of Fakarava have lily white bellies…
… that remind us of our own cold-climate mayonnaise coloration.
The whiteness of these manta bellies is so striking that a waterman racing his dinghy across the blue atoll might see one from a considerable distance and stop to have a look.
This pair was feeding on a massive bloom of embryonic sealife.
The crystal clear pelagic water of the flood tide a few hundred feet away was murky with microscopic life just behind a reef on the edge of the pass. The mantas were here every day, never moving from this spot, leading us to suspect that something was hatching in great numbers on the upstream reef.
They spent the entire 6 hours of the incoming tide swimming inverted loops from the bottom to the surface, straining minute tasty wigglers from the water.
They were curious about K and would speed up from the bottom with pie-holes agape, aiming straight between K’s fins as he was looking down.
At the last second they would invert and roll…
and dive back down to the bottom, feathering their 8 ft wings with incredible agility.
It’s hard to believe the grace of these huge flying filter-feeders and we are humbled that this common beauty has been hidden in the deep, unknown to our self-absorbed species for almost all of history.
To get the pics: This series of pics actually took about 3 days to set up. On the first day K jumped in and then vaulted straight back into the dinghy when four big, very excited blacktip sharks came zipping though the area. There was a second day with no camera and several lurking grey reef sharks. Finally everything aligned and both mantas were still in place.
The on-rushing 1-ton mantas made it hard to focus on focusing…
and the murky water required even more frequent shark checks than usual. Happily there was only a single grey reef shark patrolling at depth.
This sort of thing only works in an environment where there is unlimited material and opportunity. Fakarava is the rare place where the solo amateur can freedive, tethered to a dinghy in current, watch for sharks in 3 dimensions, track two looping manta subjects, hang on to a shark stick, take pics one handed… and still get a couple of frames. If only we had a compressor!
The south Fakarava pass is a UNESCO World Heritage site for very good reason. It is a place where the frontier of development meets the interface between a large atoll and the open ocean.
The village of Tetamanu at the south end of the atoll is actually a set of bungalow pensions and a dive shop. There is also a church remaining from the days when it was center of regional government.
We motored through the pass with K in the rigging watching with wide eyes as the crystal clear flooding tide gave the appearance of much (much!) less water than we actually had under the keel.
We settled in to the deserted south side of the pass in a very small sandy patch and set off to explore the picture-perfect motus dotting the edge of the atoll.
Our favorite palm tree cluster ever.
There was a bedroom community for terns on a sand spit next to this islet were they spend evenings talking to their neighbors about property tax and the homeowners association.
The islands are separated by tidal channels that flood across the reef at high tide.
We kicked up the outboard and S rowed us up and down the channels.
It was a good workout and completed the alignment of numerous factors that allowed S to relax for the first time in her adult life.
She read a book for one whole day! K could only stand so much of that so back to the pass we went with a list of residents to find, including 200 grey reef sharks supposedly loafing around at a depth of 45 ft.
We began the search for the shark party with some poor 3rd hand directions, but how hard could it be to find 200 big sharks in a little pass? First we found a couple of whitetips asleep on the sand, then we drifted over a school of about 100 huge barracudas and kept going, then, sure enough, there was a large gathering of grey reef sharks, more like 100 than 200 and closer to 100 ft deep. K made an effort to close the gap for a picture but they were too deep and are exactly the same color as the bottom.
It was a vulnerable feeling to make free dives in 100 ft of water towards 100s of large greys with very little spatial reference and all the room in the world for a large tiger shark to come zipping up from the offshore depths.
A small dental issue prevented S from joining in the snorkeling fun, but she watched from above like a dinghy angel. She can’t help but smile at her manfish, even when he is about to get et.
There was other cool stuff on the edges of the pass including some friendly Napoleon Wrasses.
These things are about the size of a dinning room table. K knew one in the Red Sea who could inhale a whole pack of hotdogs at once. Alas he was shot by an Italian diving tourist who needed a dead handfed Chelinus Undulatus for some form of personal development.
Large school schools of trumpetfish were competing with the barracudas and grey sharks for superiority in numbers.
Even the butterfly fish were schooling, S Fakarava brings out the herd influence in fish and gringo sailors alike.
There was a high level of organization among the cruisers on the right side of the tracks to coordinate times and logistics for mass drifting of snorkelers. For some reason K usually ended up by himself in the pass playing the part of a floating hors d’oeuvre (that’s French for “little drifting snack with no associated school of co-specieslings”) .
But there were some other weirdos out there like this blue fringed unicorn fish.
and this odd triggerfish
and a lonely little whitetip.
South Fakarava has been grand but it doesn’t have groceries, fuel or Wi-fi so we must begin the inevitable spiral towards civilization after a month on our own.
We’ve all known this type, the fair-weather friend who provides great company as long as there’s the possibility of snack.
This little Shark Sucker opportunist was attached to an impressive blacktip …
… until he saw K.
At that point he could smell the bacon burgers that have seeped out of K’s pores since he was old enough to buy his own lunch. He immediately discharged from his boring shark and approached K with a look in his eye that said, “When you’re not looking I’m gonna suction onto your belly.”
“So long, Sharkee! See ya in the funny papers!”
And then he saw: The Dinghy. Immediately all thoughts of K vanished and he thought to himself, “Ah, new best friend, whatever you are! What a great white smooth belly you have, what wonderful messy meals you must eat when the time comes for you to eat whatever it is that makes you so big and voluptuous!”
It is a sad sucker who commits to an air-floor dinghy with a 9-hp outboard. Here endeth the lesson.
Tahanea has three main passes into the atoll. The smallest one is a playground for drift diving and fish watching.
The technique is to run the dinghy out to the mouth of the pass and drift with it as the tide is coming in, bringing gin-clear pelagic water into the atoll.
It’s a crazy ride at 4 kts across pristine low coral with hardly an inch of bare sand anywhere. Huge schools of blue Anthias stream across the bottom in clouds and conga lines.
The inshore edges of the channel give way to wide fields of shallow coral with less current
and lots of vibrant activity.
K was pleased to see this less common whitetip. S was pleased to practice her new sea-launch trick into the dinghy. “He violated my personal space,” she maintains.
The subsea features of Bird Island were every bit as interesting as the airborne ones. The west side of the island was covered in dense patch reef.
We anchored in sand in 90 ft. We could see the anchor from the dinghy.
There was great snorkeling in 2 – 10 ft of water.
S was not impressed with the welcoming committee
K spent his birthday playing a game called Hide & Shark where the human player tries to sneak into the reef and see how long he can stay there before the sharks show up.
If you can fin quietly, clear your snorkel with a couple of bubbles, stay submerged in one spot like an alligator, and not pee, it might take them 20 minutes to find you.
Between checking all around for blacktips K relied on the eyes in the back of his head and quietly began to document the reef residents.
Like the Redfin Butterflyfish (the red part’s really hard to see but the book promises it’s there),
the Double-saddle Butterflyfish,
the Convict Tang hanging with his homey Redfin Butterfly,
the Striped Surgeonfish,
the Blacksaddled Toby
(whose markings are even more interesting when viewed from above),
and let’s not forget the invertebrates!
There is a motu within Tahanea Atoll where no rats live.
There are very few such places on the planet. Among thousands of micro-islands strewn like strands of pearls across the Tuamotu Archipelago, Bird Island is unusually rat free, and unusually bird infested.
The primary residents are frigate birds,
mysterious white terns with beguiling eyes that we’ll call Fairy terns
and mysterious delicate black birds that we’d like to call the endangered Tuamotu Sandpiper but in fact must recognize as Black Noddys.
These noddys spend their days on other islands and can be seen crossing the atoll in great flocks to Bird Island each evening. When they get there they hang around in the trees and periodically hop up to fly around in circles.
The Fairy Terns like to sit inside the jungle canopy where it’s very hard to fly
they flit around with incredible speed
and hover in place…
until they find the perfect parking spot. Five minutes later they take off for a loop around the island and do it all over again.
The frigate birds are all “in the family way” or hoping to get there.
These frigate-faced baby birds are fearless of the photographer.
There seem to be a couple of grades, some unhatched, some newly hatched
and some toddlers.
And while the frigate bird is not high on the list of birds with beautiful facial features, they do improve with age.
Family rearing space is limited and drama does break out among the neighbors when an adult comes home after a hard day of harassing terns and has to compete for a ladybird’s attention.
We have indeed left our bulletproof anchorage tucked inside the lagoon near the main pass. We had a sweet, sweet spot in 10 ft of water with 270 degrees of coverage given by the island and low reefs. It took 3 anchors to keep us centered in our 150 x 60 ft sandy spot amongst the patch reef and we rode out a couple of nasty squalls there. But after a certain amount of time even the sweetest anchorage becomes dull and this perhaps is the recurring theme of our adult lives. It didn’t help that we went through a series of nightly thunderstorms and one completely overcast drizzly day that reminded us of Seattle in Juneuary. And so we named that bay “West Squalicum” in honor of Little Squalicum in WA, another favorite on our list of favorite squally places, and putted west into the middle the atoll to a rare rat free island, perhaps the only one left were birds reside in great numbers and raise their young free of rat fear.
Tomorrow we will visit these birds, take their pictures and reflect on what it means for K to be a year older. For those looking down this same barrel there is good news and bad news, you can still loose the gut (at least temporarily), but you might be searching for it beyond a forest of grey chest hair. But enough about grey chest hair, we are taking on the appearance and behavior of younger people for a short time and it has been pleasant. In fact there are no obvious greater benefits to God or country in our travels. We left our yuppie lives out of mental self preservation with a dose of longing for adventure. It was also an awakening of the sleeping traveler from his sedentary ennui.
If there were a message for those we love who are young and/or dissatisfied it would be this… “You have great options if you don’t paint yourselves into a corner” and maybe also… “You might not be as cornered as you might think” and possibly… “You don’t have to: (fill in the blank with any life choice).” K’s Mom would say, “You can do anything you put your mind to” so in some sense this is all her doing. And also S’s Dad who fed her pickled herring when she was a wee lass, telling her, “You can’t say you don’t like something ’til you’ve tried it.” That’s about all we can do for humanity; perhaps it’s a good thing we never did much good for anyone before or we could be disappointed in ourselves (although K is apparently immune from that in spite of numerous opportunities).