You may have heard the expression ‘yum yum yellow’ – it’s a divers term for the attractiveness of yellow diving equipment … to sharks!
And I suspect has been the cause of our personal shark ‘experiences’ in the remote Tuamotas Archipelago.
The Tuamotas is the largest and least populated archipelago in French Polynesia with 76 low lying atolls covering an area of 20,000km.
The few boats that make it this far can bag their own private island. Our first ‘Baggy Island’ on Raroia Atoll comprised of 50 coconut palms, pink sand and coral beach, frangipani bushes, hermit crabs and birds with aquamarine under wings and bellies. It was surrounded by vibrant turquoise water with baby black tip reef shark playing in the surf.
Over the course of a month we’ve visited Raroia, Makemo, Fakarava and Taou atolls – each a big doughnut circle of coral with a calm ‘lagoon’ in the middle.
To reach the lagoon you have to enter via a tidal pass. Time it right and position yourself correctly you whoosh through easily. Time it wrong and you ground the boat, or meet standing waves that can flatten you.
And the excitement doesn’t end there.
Once you’re in the lagoon – which can be 30 miles from end to end – you have to find a sheltered anchorage and on the way dodge the bommies – coral pinnacles just below the waters surface. Hit one of those at speed and we could have sunk the boat.
But it was worth it. The passes are famous for one particular thing … they are ram jam FULL of sharks!
We saw them every single day – next to the boat, from the shore and every time we were in the water.
Paul has bright yellow fins – affectionately called ‘Fizzy Flippers’.
We first realised ‘Fizzy Flippers’ was causing interest when snorkelling round some bommies next to the boat.
Spotting a large grey fish out of the corner of my eye I turned to see four large black tipped reef sharks … seemingly following Paul. They came very close and there was a lot of eye to eye contact.
We then realised that EVERY time we went snorkelling we (Paul) attracted sharks, which would circle us curiously.
We did our first big ‘shooting the pass’ dive in Fakarava, claiming the worlds highest concentration of grey reef sharks – up to 7000 since they were protected from 2006.
Sure enough we encountered a ‘Shark Superhighway’ – hundreds of two-metre long torpedos each in a lane, cruising up and down in the blue just beyond the reef wall. And I swear every so often one would spot Paul’s yellow Fizzy Flippers and detour off the highway to take a closer look.
We thought we were getting used to the interest, till we dived the Toau pass.
Yet again, out in the blue, just off the reef wall the sharks were cruising up and down their swimming lanes. BUT – the current was strong and pulling us into them.
We finned to the wall and decided it was safer to surface – but the current pulled us back out as we ascended.
And as we did our six metre safety stop we looked down and saw a gathering of at least 30 sharks directly below Paul’s Fizzy Flippers!
The final straw came when Paul jumped in with his snorkelling kit one morning to check the mooring line after a rough, windy night.
The water was churned up and murky and the visibility was less than a metre … he never made it to the mooring. A shark suddenly loomed up directly beneath him and he shot back onto the boat.
That evening we were chatting to some other cruisers and told about a diver whose leg was bitten off by a hammerhead shark.
“The water was murky, so all the shark could see was a waving leg. Anyway he bled to death.”
Paul has now bought a second hand blue fin which almost matches the one he has (having lost one overboard in Bonaire).
And then I read.
“Sharks are also attracted to blue as it closely resembles the fish they eat.”
PS. Deep down we know we won’t be bitten. We respect the sharks home and are peaceful when they approach us. These poor creatures have far more to fear from humans and they are stunning … but those flippin’ yellow fins are history ….
On Island Time
We spent a month in the Tuamotos.
The wind howled and the rain was torrential during much of our stay, but life was simple. Days were spent independent diving, snorkelling, walking ashore and making friends with the very few other cruisers we met.
We had beach fires
There are no rubbish collection facilities so we burnt what we could and stowed the rest.
We built fires on the sand with dried sticks, coconut fronds and old coconut shells. Once hot enough the rubbish was slowly added, to ensure all the plastic burnt.
We then picked out any foil pieces to take back to the boat, extinguished the fire with sand and removed any sign it had been there. And cooked great jacket potatoes!
We improved our culinary skills
We successful dried a large quantity of our banana stock and mastered the art of bread making, sprouting and yoghurt.
We learnt about local life
Work: Large cultured pearl farms are spread across many of the lagoons – oysters suspended on long ropes. The oyster processing operation moves around different atolls – funded by a ‘ big boss’ who we heard likes visiting casinos!
We met some hardy looking pearl farmers, were given a beautiful shell and found their marijuana garden!
But I learnt that a pearl is really an oysters ulcer, caused by the stress of the surgically implanted irritant. A third are ‘re-used’ and the rest thrown away to die. At this point I lost interest in buying one despite the many ‘under the counter’ pearl deals on offer.
We gave the oyster farmers bananas because they don’t have any fresh fruit and they gave us fresh coconut milk, hacked down from the tree in front of and macheted open on the spot.
The other main line of work is copra farming – extracting the coconut flesh for export. Piles of coconut shells lay everywhere, alongside the discarded huts and debris of copra workers who just leave when the work was over.
Drinking water = rain
And there was A LOT of that. It’s collected from roof tops and stored in big containers.
Our water supply was topped up by helpful cruisers Ari-B, who had a water maker! And a municipal tap in Fakarava!
Fish is caught with homemade spears in the reefs, small fish traps and fishing boats. The locals are mindful of ciguatera poisoning in reef fish which eat toxic algae and are selective about which are safe to eat.
A local told us about traps being cut open by cruisers to set free trapped turtles. It was a warning telling us not to meddle with their way of life. But then we saw a very miserable giant wrasse caught in a trap … not his lucky day.
And we met fishing dogs – Rocky (dad), Goldie (Mum) and Goodie (Puppy). They took us for a walk in Taou and we were told that if they catch a fish they will bring it to us! They weren’t lucky on our walk but they certainly tried.
The bad weather meant the locals couldn’t fish. Poor atoll dwellers then eat conserves (tinned food), with flat bread made from flour, sugar and water and fried in oil on an open fire. The wealthier locals have solar powered freezers and fridges!
On Toau we were invited to church.
There were only two local inhabitants in the bay we were moored in – husband and wife Gaston and Valentine. But having buddied up with the crew on another boat the ladies decided it would be a great cultural experience – and the men wriggled out of it.
Five of us huddled together in a small hut with a makeshift altar. We sang rousing Tahitian hymns accompanied by mandolin; I read dramatically from the bible and we were given a heartfelt sermon. We were then invited to drink lime lemonade before returning to our boats.
On Makemo we discovered an enormous beach garden made from rubbish, shells and sticks.
Bouys and fishing floats hung from trees like baubles; fishing net was tied to trees in bows and shell and coral artfully arranged.
There were paths, seats, hammocks and viewing points and it covered at least an acre. It was an incredible secret discovery – only found by following an intriguing trail of cairns.
There were only two inhabitants on the isolated far side of this atoll – Hubert, around 50 years old and creator of the magical garden and Nolan around 30 years old.
Each lived alone in makeshift huts on sand spits about a mile apart. They farm the coconut trees for copra when it’s in season.
But money is of little significance to the people who live here. Apart from the weekly supply boat deliveries on many of the atolls there is nothing to buy or spend money on.
We gave them limes, a lighter, a pair of Paul’s deck shoes and tins of luncheon meat.
They showed us their homes, took us on a walk and gave us coconut water and shells.
And we dived … a lot
The compressor lived on deck and we were in the water as often as my popping fizzing ears would allow.
We buddied up with Belfast divers on board sailing vessel Karma of the East to provide mutual dinghy cover.
The best dive was called Yellow Dog in Taou.
The descent was into a seemingly bottomless canyon crevice which opened out into a bowl shape completely covered in rose petal shaped coral at around 30 metres.
It was my 550th dive and up there as one of the most remarkable dives I have ever done.
In other news ….
We started to meet our first long time ‘professional’ cruisers.
These folk have permanently packed in their land based lives to live on their boat and sail the world – living off the rent from houses back home.
It was an eye opener. They had water makers, freezers, pressure cookers, coffee makers and grow herbs on deck. They live off the sea and make bread and yoghurt, ginger beer, pickles and sprout. I learnt a lot.
They were savvy and inspiring. They had big stashes of long life veg, expertly stored, from months ago, from early morning markets we hadn’t heard about.
They caught fish effortlessly, spear fished and had lots of books, charts, films and more to share. Some even hunted octopus and land crabs.
By comparison we realised just how very low key, simple and fast our sailing adventure is.
But it does mean we have less chance of kit malfunction and – touch wood – Baggy has been a rock solid. And believe me, we’ve heard some horror stories!
We’ve also realised that what we are doing is not that normal. We haven’t met anyone else circumnavigating in three years – let alone plan to go back to work!
When we say we left the UK in August 2018 we are met with incredulity – one couple had taken FIVE YEARS to make the same journey.
But then (of course) comes the list of all the places we hadn’t gone to and absolutely should have. Columbia for starters – clearly in a renaissance from its no go zone drug baron days.
In Taou we had wind gusting gale force in excess of 47 knots.
Thankfully we were secured to a mooring buoy which was tied by chain to a lump of coral. We reinforced it by adding an additional safety chain and line and hoped for the best. Paul slept with half an eye open throughout the wildest nights.
And we made a new discovery – our wind metre has been under reading by around five knots the whole trip!
So – what now?
I’m writing this while waiting for the laundry to finish in Tahiti. And that means we have left the Tuamotus Archipelago and are now in the Society Islands.
We’re here for a week and then heading off to explore the islands of Moorea, Huahine, Raiatea and Taha’a. Then, sadly, our French Polynesia visa runs out and we’ll check out with customs before heading off on a six day sail to Palmerston Atoll in the Cook Islands.
Described as the ‘island at the end of the earth’ everyone here speaks with a genuine Gloucestershire accent – but that’s another story!
Manuia! (Cheers in Reo Mao’hi, the local Tahitian language.)
Keep on following us on Yellow Brick!
And here are a few extra photos … just because they’re pretty