Ultimate Snorkeling ?

The Tuamotus Diaries #15, Day 31 – June 28th 2016

This is probably going to be one of the worst posts I ever published on Familygonesailing. Worse as in Quality. Not that I am implying that the other posts here are of great quality, but this one is certainly bound to be of a relatively inferior quality than the others. And the reason is twofold: first, because there isn’t really much of a story in it. It could have been a simple Facebook post instead, probably. Second – and perhaps most importantly – because I failed to capture relevant images from the experience. And this was the absolute main aspect of the event.

Well, to be fair with myself, the lack of appropriate imagery is less of a matter of sheer incompetence, and more due to the fact that I was pretty busy at the time.

So, let me tell you what happened.

Yesterday was supposed to be just another “normal” day for us here on Pesto. The kids woke me up at 6:30am, the same way they have been doing regularly, just a tad before the sun comes up from behind the palm trees on the Atoll’s rim. I started preparing breakfast, almost automatically already, but the absolute calm outside caught my attention. Indeed, it had been the third day in a row of very calm weather, both in and out of Makemo’s atoll. There was almost no wind, the water was still and very transparent. We had been here for over a month now, and it was the first time the weather got so calm, and for so long.

The kids were munching their first meal while I downloaded the weather forecast, confirming that the calm conditions were supposed to last no longer than another 48 hours – if much. Looking purposefully at the tide table, I also found, to my excitement, that High Tide would happen at around mid-day.

I have accumulated enough white hair on my head already to know that when stars start to align this way, it generally means that a new train is stopping at the Opportunity station – and it is up to me to board it or not.

I often do.

And this was the opportunity: with the long, calm days, the sea water got at its clearest. Moreover, without a relevant swell outside, tidal flow in and out of the Atoll tends to be lower. These are ideal conditions to dive an Atoll’s pass – small ruptures on the Atoll’s rim which allow the outside water to flow in and out (these are also the entrances that boats like Pesto use to enter and leave the Atoll). The passes are supposed to stage wonderful diving, for they are the richest portion of the Atoll in terms of sea life, with all the nutrients flowing in an out all the time, to the rhythm of the tides. There is also a strong component of thrill to such a dive, for the passes end at the outer wall of the Atolls – and these walls plunge almost vertically thousands of feet down to the ocean’s floor.

We had heard from fellow cruisers that Makemo has one of the best pass dives in the Tuamotus. And, to crown the opportunity, the tide was scheduled to change direction at noon – that’s the best time to do the dive, when the tide switches direction.

The kids were confused when they saw me gathering my swim suit and lowering the dinghy, instead of laying their school books on the saloon’s table. I explained the opportunity to them and asked whether they were keen – the answer being a loud cheer. We zapped across our safe anchorage on our dinghy and went to Sangving to ask if our friends would like to join us on the adventure. We could tell they hadn’t come up from bed long ago, but they soon envisioned the opportunity as well, and half hour later Pesto’s anchor was up, and our friends were coming aboard.

Being 8 miles away, the pass might have been reached by dinghy, but this is not the place where help is vastly available should anything go wrong. So we felt Pesto offered far more degrees of safety. Not to mention the comfort.

Heading to the pass, with Pesto's and Sangvind's dinghies in tow
Heading to the pass, with Pesto’s and Sangvind’s dinghies in tow

We sailed across Makemo’s Northwestern tip, threading through the coral heads here and there, and reached the pass area at 11:30 – just half an hour before the tide switched direction. Finding a spot to anchor wasn’t trivial, for all around the pass there isn’t any large enough path of sandy bottom available. We ended up having to contend ourselves with laying our mighty anchor on top of a layer of dead, petrified coral, just 200 meters away from the pass. By then, it was already time to go.

Frans and Sylvia (sv Sangvind) at Pesto's bow, watching for coral heads
Frans and Sylvia (sv Sangvind) at Pesto’s bow, watching for coral heads

The area around a pass is a very dynamic one. The ocean is well alive outside – even on a cam day like that – and then there is the huge mass of water trying to squeeze through the pass, be it in, or out. Large tidal whirlpools formed all around us. But perhaps the most impressive was the amount of Coral. Fed by the constant pumping of “new” water, the coral in and around the pass flourished in grand quantity and is mostly alive. We could see all the colors from Pesto’s deck, and could just wonder how it would look like from under water.

This beautiful Amel 53 was leaving Makemo as we reached the pass
This beautiful Amel 53 was leaving Makemo as we reached the pass

A quick logistic meeting was put in place to discuss the strategy to dive the pass. We brought our two dinghies – Pesto’s and Sangvind’s – and the preliminary idea was that we would anchor one dinghy at the inner side of the pass, and the other dinghy at the outer side, and then we would dive from one to the other, drifting with the current. But Frans (Sangvind), being a long experienced sailor, wisely identified many weak points should this theory be put in practice. Alternatively, he suggested each family went with their own dinghy. We would let the dinghy float free and drift along the pass with the current, and we would dive around the dinghy. This option had the added benefit that we would always have the dinghy nearby should anything “uncomfortable” be seen or approach us during the dive (the fish outside of the atoll are supposed to be of the large kind).

So, off we went, the two dinghies quickly approaching the pass. Once there, we let the dinghies drift for a few minutes, understanding what the water was doing there. There was a lot of movement, definitely, and I was glad to have the dinghy nearby. Then, we positioned ourselves for the plunge. My heart was racing with adrenalin. What kind of animals would we see? Would the dinghy work well to bring us back into the Atoll (the current was pushing us outside, basically into raw Pacific Ocean). How would Paulo and Raquel react?

There was only one way to know all this, and I plunged. As soon as the air bubbles vanished to the surface, what I saw is impossible to describe. A vertical wall, covered with live coral, lined the margin of the pass. I didn’t have to swim at all, for the tide was carrying me – and everything else – at a fast clip outside the atoll. It was like sitting on a conveyor belt inside a huge aquarium. The water in the pass is even more clear than inside the atoll, disguising distances. It was only when I saw the Sangvind’s folks swimming against the backdrop of the wall, dwarfed by it, that I realized how big it was. And looking down, I could clearly see the bottom at over a 100ft down below. I gathered with Paulo and Raquel around our dinghy, one of our hands always maintaining contact with it, and despite the absolute exposure, we felt relatively safe. Our eyes were half gazing at the beauty of the scenario, and half scrutinizing the water for the presence of anything that could be beyond our degree of comfort – most notably large, deep water sharks. Luckily, we didn’t see anything.

Drifting with the dinghy inside the pass
Drifting with the dinghy inside the pass

After a few minutes, we found ourselves well outside the pass – and the atoll. We couldn’t see the bottom anymore through the water, and were already going up and down to the long, lingering swell of the ocean. It was eerie, and I let that moment run for a little longer just to enjoy that extra rush of adrenalin. Satisfied, we climbed up onboard, fired up the powerful outboard, and zapped into the atoll again, repositioning ourselves for a second dive.

Raquel and I in one of the few pictures we took in the water
Raquel and I in one of the few pictures we took in the water

This time we chose the other bank of the pass. We found a place, tucked very near the inner, NW end of the pass, where the water wasn’t rushing outside so quickly – forming a long, slow whirlpool instead. With that, we could dive much nearer the wall of coral, and that’s when all the rich details started to be revealed. Large schools of small fish could be seen near the surface – of infinite varieties of shapes and colors. And, as we looked further down the wall, larger fish were spotted. One in particular, seemed more interested on us than otherwise. I think it was a grouper, more or less the size of Raquel. It stood some 15 meters under us, constantly starring at us with its large eyes. And then came the first alarm, filled with excitement: “Shark !”.

We all knew and were expecting to see them here, and it was about time the first one be seen. It was a black-tip, reef sharks with which we ‘d grown familiar with. But looking with more attention, particularly downward, we noticed that black tip guy wasn’t alone. In fact, there seemed to be quite a few more specimens down there – some 30 meters under us. The kids count 5 or 7 at first. Then 10 or 12, then 20, and the headcount kept increasing ! Finally one of them came closer up to check us out. It was not a huge shark, as I was expecting (and fearing). But it was still decidedly larger that the back-fins we’d seen so far. Probably just under my size. And, it didn’t have a black mark on its tip. It was probably a lemon shark – one step up the aggressiveness level from their black-tipped counterparts. These sharks were much more dynamic than the ones we had seen up to then indeed, swimming nervously and quickly, instead of the gentle sway of the black-tips around the coral. Moreover, their large number more than compensated for their lack of individual “huge-ness”. It was rather uncomfortable.

We stayed for as long as we dared (the adults, for the kids were having a ball), and eventually rationalized it was time to go back to Pesto, so that we could reach back to the anchorage before sunset.

Sitting at the cockpit, driving Pesto between the coral heads, chatting with Frans and Sylvia, and watching the kids playing happily inside the saloon, I enjoyed an intense feeling of satisfaction. Satisfied for living so much closer to the elements, for being able to seize opportunities like that one, to be providing such experiences to Paulo and Raquel, and to be sharing them with dear friends. Satisfied with Pesto, who has been the single most important enabler of all this. And, most of all, happy to be here.

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