A Brief Glimpse of Makatea, Tuamotus

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 Polynesia  to 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

s/v Chaos

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

Manta LOVE in Tikehau, Tuamotus

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) 

We had hopes of finding the Mantas at this known cleaning station. We’d seen them briefly last year, but were drawn for more!

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.

 

Rangiroa -The Tuamotu Folks Have Heard Of

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

To Be A Dolphin!

I don’t know quite how to describe the magic of diving with dolphins. They played, they chatted, they rolled and swooped, they came over begging us to rub their bellies. We lost track of our depth and where we were. They came to see us two out of our three dives in Rangiroa’s Tiputa Pass. It was probably better the second time, because it was easier to slow down and take it in, rather than worry that they would only be there for a moment. It was wonderful to swim with them in their element, to watch one jump up out of the water, looking from below. In Baja we always debated which we loved more dolphins or whales (now there’s a silly argument), and it generally depended on which we’d seen most recently. I remember us saying, ‘dolphins, definitely dolphins’ once, and seriously just few minutes later a humpback breached out of nowhere and it was ‘whales, definitely whales.’ Guess what the sentence is now? ~MS

©DS You’d see them from a distance and then in a flash, they’d be swirling all around you, doing all the tricks you maybe once saw on Flipper?!
©DS Master swimmers, elegant gliders, they move as if in a choreographed, perfect dance.
©DS Something to behold!
©DS Not sure whether I was more enamored with their clicking sounds or their smiles?!
©DS They’d go up to the surface to breathe and we’d just wait and hope they’d come back down and find us! We met a family with young enough kids that they were just snorkeling, but they shared stories of these moments when the dolphins would come up playing on the surface as well.
©DS The rostrum is the hard, beak-like mouthpart. Their sense of smell is poor, with no olfactory nerves or lobe in the brain.
©DS This is a world class dive spot mainly because of these dolphin pods, so they are quite accustomed to human swimmers and their curiosity matches ours, or so it seems.
©DS They normally travel from 4 – 10 feet per second, but they can reach speeds of 26-31 feet per second for short bursts of time.
This school of Longfin Bannerfish lends a bit of scale!
@DS Appreciating the abstracts in-between forays with the dolphins!

The wildlife of these remote atolls, which were originally called the Puamotus (poor islands) where lesser chiefs were once exiled, is addictive. It never stops. ~MS

©BB The dive club sends out a pro photographer (Bernard Beaussier), so he has some fun shots which show the scale of these rather large and gentle lovelies and a bit of our awe!
©BB They’d disappear and then WHOOSH, they’d be back in a flash and spinning circles around us! AHHHH!!!

 

©BB The Common Bottlenose Dolphin has impressive measurements; an average of 3 meters and weighs about 300 kg!
©BB Sometimes I’d just pause with my own camera, to be sure to really take in the magic.

Return to Paradise – French Polynesia

Fakarava North

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

Toau

I think we’ve been to Toau four times now, maybe more. Diana’s posted about it before. The difference this time was that a new group of sailors was moving through, having done their crossing this year. It was interesting to see the island get new visitors, sailors who migrate through each year, visit the same spots, have barbecues on the beach, talk about their experiences crossing the big ocean, and think about the mysterious way the wind messes with the tides. There’ll be another group next year, too. We are so remote and still there is a steady presence. Toau is a popular spot, despite its tricky pass, for good reason.

Among the new crew were friends we made in Baja, Mike and Katie on Adagio. They have dive tanks and a compressor, so we got to do a little scuba diving. Mike is also a pretty fanatical fisherman and gets as excited about the subject as I do. He’d only been fly fishing once before, kind of on a lark in Yellowstone. But we grabbed a couple rods and went out a few times to see if he could hook one. Fortunately, he’s a good enough fisherman to understand that’s a pretty tall order for a first time, but he got a few shots, enough to get a fair idea of how addictive it can be. The fish were being tough in Toau this year, giving me a hard time, too.

We spent a little time on our own, too, doing what we do. Freediving to photograph fish, and yep, more fishing. Lots of water time.

We moved around to Anse Amyot, (the ‘false pass’ outside the atoll in the north),  for a little more diving with Adagio, which was excellent, including some caves in the reef absolutely jam packed with sea life. I fished a little more. We bought some wildly overpriced lobster from Valentine, the snaky operator of the business there and had a wonderful lobster dinner with Mike and Katie. Valentine tells the story that she came to Toau as a little girl from nearby Arutua in a small boat with a two horse outboard. She says she was brought by her father to keep her grandfather from stealing her. She has his name, is the explanation. She’s been there a long time. She’s very, very religious. But she doesn’t seem particularly happy with her lot. There’s a defunct phone booth on the motu and a very funky pension. They installed buoys for sailors ($5/night) from the time there was a village here. This is the first place we’ve been where we felt this proprietary vibe, but the option to tuck in safely on the outside was sure nice.  ~MS

Visitors in the Gambier and Fakarava

“This time is hard to find heaped under a mountain of machines and motivations all founded on hours and minutes.” ~Wyatt Stevens

The decision for Shannon, Josh and Wilder (3, almost 4) to visit came down fast, and within a week and a half we were picking them up at the little motu off the eastern side of the Gambier Archipelago. They dove in, they played, they pushed themselves. We laughed, we learned, we loved. It was a 3 week plan, which, in  hindsight, should have been simply spent in the lagoon, but Josh was keen to take an ocean passage, so we gave it a shot. Shannon was facing some real demons by even considering the feat. There’s a superstition in the sailing world about not undertaking a passage departure on a Friday. Well … not only was it a Friday, but guess what the date was?! Yep, the 13th!! Needless to say – we ended up shifting gears; they flew instead and we met them with Allora in Fakarava, 5 days later. Plan B worked out great! The memories from this adventure have been distilled into flashes of Wilder being wonderfully true to her name, snippets of her remarkable imagination with words (notably ‘Shit Bullet’) and scores of her laughter as she’d commune with the fishes. We were struck by a force from which we will never recover. Oh, and yeah, her parents are sensational, too!