Joshua Shankle explores French Polynesia’s ‘dangerous archipelago’ above and below the surface as they discover the stunning marine life and go diving with sharks
We sailed to the atoll of Fakarava for one reason: diving! This distant enclave is a sleepy little island that has Polynesian traditions as deep as the sea. Whether you’re a novice to snorkelling or a waterlogged divemaster, Fakarava’s ancient volcano caldera offers some of the most amazing undersea experiences anywhere in the world. The vast biome and unique ecosystem here has earned this atoll recognition as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, hopefully protecting and preserving this reef for decades to come.
My wife, Rachel, and I sailed our 37-year-old Tayana 42 Agápe over 15,000 miles down central America, from southern California to Panama, across the Pacific Ocean to the Galapagos and Gambier, and finally out into the famed ‘dangerous archipelago’.
The Tuamotus were bestowed this name long ago by a heartier breed of explorers because of the low-lying islands, strong currents, and unpredictable passes. Navigating by sextant and dead reckoning alone, sailors would often decide to completely avoid these 78 atolls and their fringing reefs.
Only in recent decades, with modern charts and GPS, has it become safer to traverse this archipelago. The Tuamotus, once tall volcanic islands jutted from the endless pacific blue, are now just low-lying rings of coral, only a few metres above sea level. Their often jagged coral shorelines ensure any sandy beaches are highly prized.
After three months with no grocery stores, our meals on board were getting creative to say the least, and a quick 80-mile overnight sail to Fakarava was filled with dreams of fresh vegetables and a salad sized for a village.
We set a route that took us close to the leeward side of several neighbouring atolls. As palm trees are usually the highest points on the islands, this afforded us relatively unobstructed winds and calmer seas. Combined with a warm 22°C night-time low and a full moon it made for perfect sailing conditions.
First light found Agápe and her crew patiently waiting outside the pass. Entering the turquoise water of the lagoon means first navigating through a narrow pass, or break, in the protective barrier reef.
This can prove to be a harrowing experience as the tide, wind, and waves all push water into the lagoon, forcing it to exit a small channel. Three to four knots of current is common, and currents can reach eight knots or stronger in high wind and surf conditions, making it very difficult for a boat that only motors at 5 knots to enter the lagoon.
Once inside, the challenge of entering was quickly forgotten as we struggled to take in the sheer beauty of this low-lying island. The copra, or coconut farms, which take up most of the island ensure that the scene is one from a tropical postcard. Palm trees overhang the shallow water or reach to the sun, jockeying for position in the skyline.
Fakarava is the second-largest atoll in the Tuamotus and a popular stop for cruisers making their way westward to Tahiti. Of the 800 full-time residents, almost all live in the northern village of Rotoava but, for us, the allure lay 50km south, near the small motu of Tetamanu, where the island’s crown jewel lay hidden just below the surface.
Featured in Blue Planet, as well as many other nature documentaries, Fakarava’s South Pass is the main attraction. The South Pass is an amazing drift dive year-round, but once a year, usually during the first full moon of July, this already spectacular dive site becomes truly astounding.
Year after year, like clockwork, tens of thousands of marbled grouper migrate from all over the lagoon to the pass in order to spawn in the strong outgoing tide, hoping to spread their genes into the vast Pacific. With approximately 20,000 grouper congregating in the pass, all manner of predators are attracted to the scene, making for a heart-pounding experience and one of the best shark dives in the world.
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For two weeks, Agápe was converted from a cruising yacht into a floating dive shop. The deck was littered with masks and fins, and bathing suits hung off every rail. The whistle of the kettle in the morning was now rapidly accompanied by the sound of our dive compressor filling tanks.
Poseidon must have been on our side because we had perfect conditions during our time here. The water was as clear as the sky and there was only the slightest breeze rustling the palms.
Diving from a dinghy here could not have been any simpler, especially if you have two dinghies going out together. Dive moorings are located on the inside and outside of the pass for you to leave dinghies on while you ride the current of the flood tide from the outer drop off, through the pass, and into the shallows of the lagoon.
Diving with sharks and predators
Even if you don’t have your own gear on board, the dive shops here can pick you up directly from your boat. Tetamanu Dive Shop is the heart of the South Pass, and literally sits above the water. We could have spent hours here staring into the sea, watching the comings and goings of black-tip reef sharks, massive Napoleon wrasses, eagle rays, schools of snapper, and all manner of colourful reef fish. Just snorkelling from the dock made the venture here worth it.
We began our descent with the incoming tide at the edge of the barrier reef. As the tide carried us into the underwater canyon we sank down to the bottom, around 30 metres. There we entered what I can only describe as a cloud of groupers. A massive rose garden of coral teeming with life was only overshadowed by the school of grey reef sharks pacing back and forth just past the drop-off.
Every time, no matter how often that silhouette crosses my field of vision, my heart races. Diving to 30m means you have to be relaxed or you burn through air too quickly and I had to consciously slow my breathing and relax for the dive ahead.
As I scanned the bottom, it was hard to believe, let alone count, the thousands upon thousands of groupers that slowly swam among the coral. Never before had I seen something so incredible. It was akin to looking at a moving, living, carpet covering the seafloor.
We slowly drifted past dozens of different types of coral, eels, anemones and clownfish until we finally reached the greatest part of the dive, the ‘wall of sharks’. Here, along a vertical wall where the current runs the strongest, schooling sharks congregate. Hundreds of aggregating grey reef sharks spread out over three-walled sections of the pass.
All night, these evolutionary masterpieces feed on the overstock of fish in the pass and then use the strong current to rest and digest during the day. Since these sharks need water to flow over their gills to breathe, they lazily swim against the current, resting from their all-night buffet. Scientists estimate that over 700 sharks gather in this deep underwater gorge.
If tempting fate with the sharks is not your idea of fun, just a short sail to the south-east corner of the island is the largely protected anchorage of Harifa. This is one of the most popular anchorages in the Tuamotus, and at times you might share it with as many as 40 other cruising boats. The sand beach here is perfect for barbecues and beach games, sea shelling and hammock siestas. The Tuamotu Kite School, run by Aline and Adrian, also calls Harifa home, offering kiting lessons and equipment rentals, adding to the activity list.
Fakarava, because of its size and well-charted channels, also affords sailors a chance to enjoy flat water lagoon sailing. Moving from the activity-packed south of the island to the town in the north is often the epitome of champagne sailing.
Calm, clear waters, a palm-lined shoreline, and a warm breeze make a run for groceries something to look forward to. If you plan to sail outside the marked channels be sure to keep an eye out for uncharted bommies, and it’s advised to sail when the sun is high or at your back.
We found this atoll to have the perfect combination of adrenaline-filled, ocean-oriented activities and relaxing under palm trees watching the day and any stress drift away. In total, Agápe spent over two months sailing around the protected waters of Fakarava’s lagoon. Life here was slow and sweet, but as the weather began to change and maramu season approached, we sensed it was time to get moving.
That’s life for a cruising boat. You find paradise, get to know the area, the anchorages, and the people, then just as you start settling in… before you know it, the ocean beckons once again. So we stowed all our toys, transformed Agápe back into a cruising boat, hoisted the sails, and set a course over the horizon for the next paradise.
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