Of all the places Allora has taken us, North Minerva Reef, is a stand out. The reef literally emerges only 90cm at low tide, and when walking on what feels like the Pacific’s very precipice, we had the surreal sensation that we’d been transported to another world. I urge you to read this article from New Zealand Geographic, which lays out the inherent hazards and contentious history of this fascinating ‘land:’
We, like many others, made a stop at Minerva North, to break up the often difficult passage between Tonga and New Zealand. Most boats poise themselves to try to stop, but the weather conditions have to be right to enter the pass and take the time in ‘pause’ mode as opposed to continuing onward, so we felt lucky to manage 3 days in the fold of the protected lagoon. We weren’t alone, though! The 30 boats at anchor around us were dubbed, ‘The Minerva Yacht Club!’
Aka Marlon Brando’s atoll, aka where Obama went to write his memoirs, aka the weekend get away for Tahitian royalty for hundreds of years before those two. This is a difficult atoll, not very often visited by sailors. There is no pass to get your sailboat inside the lagoon, so you have to find a place to be on the outside, which means that conditions have to be just right. There’s a bay on the southern side, but the prevailing swell in these parts is south, and it has to be less than a meter and a half, or it’s just not tenable. The trade winds are east-southeast, so those have to be mellow too. The other big, big problem is that it’s super deep right off the reef. There’s not really a place to anchor. Charter operations out of Papeete have put in five mooring balls. Only one of those is really good for overnight, and if the conditions are right, the charter boats are guaranteed to be using them. We sailed in from Makatea unsure if we were going to be able to stay. In fact we had to plan our schedule so that we arrived in the early morning. Then, if we had to move onto Tahiti, we’d be able to get there before too late in the day.
As we approached after an overnight sail from Makatea, we could see two charter boats already arriving. Our only choice was to motor up to the catamaran that was unloading his guests to take ashore and ask if we could use one of the other moorings.
Now it’s really easy to imagine the response you might get to such a request in much of the rest of the world. Even a polite, sorry, these are private buoys would not be surprising. Less polite, not surprising either.
Obviously, we got an altogether different response. The captain of this catamaran had twenty or thirty guests that have paid $150 each to get there and were lined up to get ashore. He’s a one man show, from running the boat to making sure everyone has a life jacket. So he’s a bit busy. Nonetheless, without hesitation he pointed to the closest buoy and said, that’s the one you want. We asked are you sure, not one of the others, no that’s ours and it’s the best one. Can we stay the night? Absolutely, no problem. His name was Moana.
After he ferried all of his charge ashore he came over to talk. Remember the thing about Tetiaroa is THERE IS NO PASS. Meaning, no break in the reef that will allow you to sail to the protection inside. That includes shore boats. Marlon Brando and Obama got there by airplane. The only way to get ashore is to time your approach with the waves and surf your dinghy across the reef. When the surf is out, there’s a three feet wall of coral wall to slam into. This is what we’d been watching Moana do – dinghy runs with his guests. Seriously, it took our breath away. Obviously, it was possible. No doubt centuries ago Tahitian royalty were paddled across the same section of reef by young, strong paddlers. Moana offered to take us in, but he was leaving at 2:00 (we preferred more time on the inside), so we decided to launch Namo (our dinghy) and go for it. We went over to ask for tips and instead of letting us just try it, he took me in his dingy and showed me how to surf across. The key is to line up with a palm tree that has no top. The other key is that the waves roll along the reef so you can see them coming and gun it at the right time. It’s too late to just wait for the water to cover the reef, you have to be going full speed by that moment. Then to get out, the key is to know which coral heads you might hit with your propeller if you don’t aim right. Spot them, then gun into the white water of the breaking surf.
So we did it, surfed in with Moana cheering us on. Basically, you get across the reef and land in a pool, then if you turn hard right you can wind your way through the coral heads and tie off on shore. It’s also possible, but very complicated, to wind your way along the royal Motu (small island) and into the lagoon. We opted for anchoring Namo up at the spot where Moana left his guests and walking around the motu (the opposite way from which he took his clients) into the lagoon.
And what did we find there? Huge bonefish, as big as I’ve caught anywhere. Diana got lots of pictures. It’s illegal to fish inside the lagoon, but catch and release bonefishing is allowed. However, all of the charter companies have signed an agreement NOT to bring fishermen. So the only way, other than the way we did it, to fish in Tetiaroa is to go the the hotel. Where Obama went. Yep, $4,000 per night, not including airfare, for the cheapest room in the off season.
The next day another charter boat showed up. A smaller, private charter, same company, POE Yacht charters. They took the same buoy as the other captain had, but then once he’d off loaded his guests he came over to tell us that he needed the buoy we were on for the night. Once again, sorry sir, but this is a private buoy, you need to get lost. Right? Nope. He said that since this was the only safe buoy for overnight (capable of holding five boat in deep water off the reef), we could tie up to him and be his guest. He also offered to ferry us across the reef, and if we wanted we were welcome to come on the tour. When we asked if his guests would mind, he suggested that it was his choice and they wouldn’t mind anyway. These very friendly people were there to celebrate a daughters 25 birthday, so other than some Karaoke late into the night who could possibly complain?
I took him up on the ride in because Diana had discovered that the best snorkeling was on the outside reef edge anyway, plus, the sharks we’d been seeing circling Allora were Lemon Sharks, which we hadn’t seen before. Diana cannot resist swimming with sharks. While I was away, doing what I do, a mother and calf humpback whale swam right by the boat. Diana was so torn about whether to grab a camera, get snorkeling gear and a wet suit, or what, that she wasn’t able to get in the water with them before they passed, but she had a wonderful close encounter anyway.
We were so reluctant to leave the next morning, but the swell was up, and the forecast was for building southeast wind… time to sail for civilization. In case you’re there already and don’t quite realize, civilization equals ice cream, chocolate and internet. Not to be taken for granted. Especially since we were completely out of coffee, too.
Makatea is the name of the island, but also the Polynesian word for a coral reef that has been uplifted, above sea level. This makatea is the highest of its kind in the world. The dramatic cliffs make a stunning sight after months of low lying atolls, barely above sea level. They are limestone, and so they are riddled with caves and spectacular formations. The island was extensively mined for phosphate from 1917 until 1966. The mayor of the island of 90-something people, not counting children, is an eloquent and passionate man. Julien Mao is proud of his world travels as a choreographer of Polynesian dance, particularly coming from such a remote and isolated part of the world. Diana contacted him by phone to find out about the three rolly moorings they have off the eastern coast, and he met us at the dock and led a tour of the island. We arrived to find a sportclimbing team wrapping up after a week scaling cliffs on the west side of the island. They showed us drone shots of themselves climbing while humpback whales, a mother and calf swam just off shore below them.
Makatea is laborisouly working on unearthing the remains of the mining operation to create an open air museum.
Because there is no pass, no lagoon, Makatea is unique in the Tuamotus, and not an easy place to make a living. They dream of eco-tourism and climbers, but it is hard place to get ashore unless the sea is in a hospitable mood.
Our mooring was very, very close to the reef, and still it was set in 150 feet of water. The swell rolled by and then onto the reef uncomfortably close. Built out to the reefs edge are the ruins of the mining’s operation, the towers that used to support bridges for loading the ships with phosphate.
It’s not a particularly flashy mineral, but it must have been valuable. The first stop on the tour is a future outdoor museum being painstakingly reclaimed from the brush; all the machines and steam generators they used to fabricate the railways and infrastructure for getting the phosphate to market.
Not surprisingly, the early days of the mining brought almost no direct benefits to the islanders. Cheap labor to dig the phosphate was brought in from Vietnam and China. It wasn’t until World War II that Polynesians began to be employed in the mines. The video we saw of the work was all done by hand, digging phosphate dirt out of eroded holes in the top of the island. What was left behind reminded me of the beaches of Normandy, bombed incessantly in the weeks preceding the invasion. The forests are gone, most of the topsoil too.
For fifty years since Charles De Gaulle came to French Polynesiato announce that their future was in the Atom, there hasn’t been much economic activity on Makatea. Schemes were hatched and mercifully scrapped to turn it into an island for refining oil. There was an attempt at some commercial agriculture which also failed.
Julien has come up with a controversial vision for Makatea’s future, what he calls its new story, and it sounds like it may very soon come to fruition. He would like to team up with an Australian entrepreneur to mine phosphate again, though this time on different terms. The plan, which does not sound like it has seen much in the way of environmental impact study, is to initiate secondary mining on the northern part of Makatea where the potholes riddle the landscape, abrade a layer of topsoil off and save it, take a layer phosphate stone away and then fill the holes left with gravel and rehabilitate the area by reapplying the topsoil. Basically use secondary mining to rehabilitate the damaged part of the island.
What Makatea gets in exchange, besides a chunk of the action we hope, is a new dock and a commitment to restoration projects and conservation which the mayor hopes will lead to a boom in ecotourism.
I certainly don’t have the expertise to judge the merits of his project. More mining doesn’t sound, on the surface (no pun intended) like the greatest idea. On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be any other source of money out there that could be dedicated just to restoration, and a viable dock for Makatea.
We had a fascinating day on this beautiful island and counted ourselves really lucky to have the cooperation of the weather so we could. ~MS
The kids got to name the family catamaran. Alex and William made a deal. Whoever got to pick the boat name, the other got first call on bunks. Alex chose Chaos. Her choice is so recent, (they just bought the boat in Raiatea), that it’s not yet painted on the stern. We met the family in Rangiroa, when they offered us some Dogtooth Tuna and then later met us again by the SE bonefish flats. I took William and his dad for a little bonefishing expedition. The fish cooperated, but William’s legs were no match for his enthusiasm, so Scott had to give him a piggyback ride back to the dinghy. Converting a Kiwi to fly fishing should not be necessary. Scott said he had always planned to take it up when he got older, now I think he’s reconsidering.
They surprised us again by pulling into Makatea early on the morning we were scheduled to take our ‘tour’ of the island with the Mayor. Miraculously, they were ready to join us just an hour after picking up their mooring. The kids got a little restless during the Mayor’s presentation on the future of secondary phosphate mining while we looked over black and white pictures that for them might as well have been from the dark ages. But they had a blast exploring the limestone caves. These are filled with fresh water pools, so you swim through them with flashlights. Fresh water feels particularly good to salty sailors. Our guide for that part (Julien’s son) was barely more than a kid himself, which he demonstrated by climbing high up the walls and doing back flips into the dark pools.
That evening Diana proposed a movie night. Catamarans are made for screening films outdoors. She made popcorn and we brought over our Lenovo tablet/video projector, and set up the giant folding screen across their trampoline. Louise brought out every blanket they owned! The kids picked the movie which is a classic, apparently, in Australia, called “The Castle.” It was the perfect choice, quirky warm humor, and it gave us a glimpse of Haley’s new home of Melbourne.
They headed off for Raiatea early the next morning, bound for Tonga from there and then back to New Zealand, where we’re hoping we can catch up with them next year. ~MS
Pictures are going to do most of the talking here. Just think about the size of these amazing creatures, ten, twelve feet wing span (Manta Alfredi get up to 18’ across).Watching them move, like huge underwater birds, is mesmerizing. One bunch of six or seven literally bowled us over. You can find them in this spot pretty reliably because it’s a cleaning station. Diana was hooked. Another boat came to join us, Jacaranda, who we knew from their blog and got to know on the Single-Sideband radio net that covers this part of the South Pacfic (called the Polynesian Magellan Net, at 8173 USB, 0800 and 0600 local time). Linda is as crazy about looking for new fish as Diana, and she and Chuck had some amazing experiences hanging out with Manta researches on the remote island of Socorro in Mexico. I spent the morning writing, but Diana and her dive buddies got out with the Mantas early each morning. During one of their best sessions they watched a pair doing a courtship dance and then mating which is a rare thing to observe in the wild.
Diana dove with the Mantas twice a day for the week we hung out and took, you might imagine, thousands of pictures. Some of those she sent to an organization called the Manta Trust, (https://www.mantatrust.org) which uses the unique patterns of spots on a Manta’s belly to identify individuals. They encourage people to send in their photos, and then experts in each region identify and catalogue them. Diana sent them pictures of seven distinct individuals. Six of them had been identified before, and they shared some of the information they had from previous sightings, where when, doing what. One of them was brand new to the researchers. They told Diana that they have identified 70 mantas just in Tikehau, so now that’s 71. The next fun part, was that all seven had numbers for identification but needed names. So Diana gave them Polynesian names. Haley’s boyfriend suggested that ‘Liam the Manta’ would make a fine name, though inspiring a Manta name as that would be, it did not make the final cut.
Meet the Mantas:
Ma taa raara – (A shining, or bright eye)
Vavevave – (Speedily!)
Atae – (Surprise)
Marema re – (Sparkling as the saltwater at night)
Tamure – (Dance Together)
Atavai – (Elegant)
Manino – (Calm, Smooth)
Polynesian beauty with an Emperorfish. I brought the dinghy over to say hi and see what they were up to and she shared two fish with us for dinner.
Our first instinct, on our initial pass through the Tuamotus last year, was to avoid Rangiroa. It seemed too popular – with actual hotels for tourists, including those ‘elegant’ thatched roof bungalows out over the water that plague Bora Bora. But on our second pass this year, we ended up spending a month in this largest of the Tuamotus atolls.
I’ll keep my part of the motivation for staying so long to one sentence: Rangiroa has the best bonefishing in the Tuamotus. Okay, moving on. Okay, well maybe not moving on. I broke both my nine and eight weight rods on these fish. I used up my entire stock of number 4 hooks. I fished everyday, and there were bonefish wherever we went, even at the touristy Blue Lagoon. We’re not talking armies of tourists, lets say a couple dozen for a whole day in three or four small boats. One group even waved me over and fed me lunch. The tour operator was an avid fisherman and pure Polynesian friendly. He told about a spot where he’d seen a giant bonefish, so big that at first he’d mistaken it for a shark.
Unfortunately, I never got over there. The wind shifted and we had to pull up anchor – which is a short sentence for describing a pretty harrowing situation where our anchor windlass failed, and we had to untangle the anchor from some nasty bottom, manually, and then with a little luck and jimmying of the windlass control, we raised the Rocna, just as the waves and wind built in earnest. Fortunately, we figured out the wiring problem at the next anchorage and it was an easy repair. ~MS
Anyone watching us might have wondered what we were up to, bouncing back and forth between the anchorage off of Rotoava and a spot near the north pass of Fakarava. Part of the story is that you need winds with some north in them to be able to sit by the pass comfortably. There’s a nice public buoy by the channel marker and the snorkeling there is pretty awesome. Diana became quite familiar with its retinue of sharks and one particularly friendly triggerfish. I liked the spot because it’s a jumping off point for going to the far northwest corner of Fakarava. This is a nature preserve area, so no anchoring allowed. It’s about a five mile dinghy ride, but a pretty cool spot with some really nice fishing. Diana explored with me the first time, and I did the 10 mile round trip a few more times on my own. I brought a VHS radio in case I had any problems. Occasionally, a few boats brought tourists from visiting cruise ships to a place out that way they like to call the blue lagoon (every atolls got to have one). It’s a pretty spot and they bring lunch. I was lucky this time that they did, or not lucky depending on how you look at it. While I was off wandering across the endless flats in search of bonefish, one of these tour operators spotted Namo anchored by the shore of one of the motus. Apparently, he could not think of a single earthly reason that anyone would park a dinghy in that remote spot (not by the blue lagoon). So while I was out of sight, he “rescued” Namo and towed her away. It’s true that if one of the sailboats in Rotoava lost a dinghy this is where it would float to. Lucky for me there was still one other tour operator in the area, though it was a bit of hike to get to them. He was able to get one cell phone call out before he lost the signal, and after about an hour of chit chatting with the cruise ship passengers, Namo reappeared with the apologetic tour operator at the helm. ~MS