Slice of Paradise, complete with Sharks
03 May 2009 | Raroria - Tuamotus
Sorry for the lack of updates, this one will be chock full of all the cool things we have seen lately.
We had a very slow and calm passage to the Tuamotos and arrived in Raroia on Sunday just in time to enter the pass at slack water. This is the postcard perfect tropical paradise that we envisioned. We are anchored inside the atoll in beautifully calm water, with a full circle of protective coral reef surrounding the lagoon. Cooler breeze, white beaches, warm clear water, tropical fish, and friendly locals in outrigger canoes (competition canoes made of high tech epoxies); it is incredible and exactly what we needed. To complete the perfection, we caught a tuna just outside the pass and when we arrived we barbequed with the family from Hipnautical. Half with lime and garlic, and half with soy, garlic and wasabi. Yummmmmmmm.
There are roughly 100 residents of the island and all the houses catch their own rain water and have very impressive solar arrays for generating electricity. There is about a mile of coral paved road, an air strip with a weekly flight to Tahiti and a monthly supply ship that brings in all the basic necessities. It is wild seeing subsistence gardens in the shade of huge solar arrays and traditional canoes leaning against satellite dishes.
Yesterday, we walked and beach combed on the windward side of the reef. The coral island is only about a quarter mile wide and the pacific waves break onto the outside reef. It is an amazing sight, the palm tree-topped coral ends in brilliantly light blue shallows that abruptly turn dark blue where the reef plunges into the ocean. We collected pockets full of beautiful cowrie, cone shells, and delicate coral pieces until we forced ourselves to stop picking them up unless they were uniquely colored or an unusual shape.
The highlight of the visit has been meeting several local guys paddling their outrigger canoes in the lagoon. We invited them aboard and had a blast chatting with them in our rough French. Everyone laughed a lot and we swapped music for tips on where to go on the atoll. They invited us to go spear fishing with them on the outside of the pass which was truly an experience of a lifetime. I will run out of superlatives talking about it, but the basic story is that the Roger and Robin (the dad and son from Hipnautical) and Timothy and I went with three guys from the island out the pass into the open ocean in their old wooden speed boat and dove on the dropoff. Yes, the big scary dropoff just like in Finding Nemo! It went from about 30 deep to over a mile deep in a just a couple of hundred feet. I felt like I was swimming in the Monterey Bay aquarium and had the sneaking feeling that the aquarium guards would soon come running to get me out of the tank. The water was so clear that the bottom looked close enough to touch and it faded away into an inky blue over the edge. There were clouds of fish, big lurking groupers, 3-4' barracudas, schools of colorful tropical fish, snappers, parrot fish and yes, sharks - lots of sharks. I got into the water and was just in awe, looking at a living coral reef and more fish than I could count. My first thought was, "This is one of the coolest things I have ever done."
After swimming around scouting for a while, the local guys grabbed their spear guns and this is when really became exciting. They would swim down and with clearly a lifetime of practice pick a fish and nail it with a spear. I was wondering why they were not targeting one of the larger guys, but figured it out quickly. When they speared a fish, it turned into a frantic race to the surface as the sharks attacked the struggling fish, trying to tear it off the trailing spear. If you can get the speared fish out of the water and hold it over head, the sharks stop trying to eat it. Apparently, the sharks do not consider it caught until it is out of the water, up until then it is fair game. One brother would race to the surface trailing a speared fish and one or more sharks, and the other brother was always there covering him by hitting the surface to startle the sharks and if necessary shooting his spear at the swarming sharks chasing his bro. Once the fish was out of the water and into the boat, it settled back down and the sharks would resume cruising in lazy circles on the bottom. These guys are serious sharks, some up over 6 feet and looked much bigger than that in real life. At one point Roger speared a fish and there was a swarm of 5 or 6 sharks in a huge ball tearing off the fish and then continuing to bite the spear and following him to the surface. The locals were pounding the surface frantically and immediately called it a day, loaded us all back into the boat and later over drinks admitted that they were quite afraid for Roger. It was an amazing experience, and we came home with a box of fish for all of us.
We all shared drinks and talked late into the night on Hipnautical. If they can find a working battery, we are invited to go night diving tonight. They claim that the sharks are sleeping then.
On a much more chilling note, it was announced this morning on the radio net that one of the boats that we crossed from Mexico with was lost in the Marquesas either Sunday night or Monday. The wreck was found yesterday but not the crew or the dingy. Most of the boats sailing from the Marquesas and the local police have started searching, but there is nothing but open water for 1000 miles downwind of the island. It is very sobering and I rechecked all our safety equipment again this morning.