After spending more than four months in the high islands of the Marquesas on Imani
, our Roger Simpson-designed 33-foot catamaran, we are now nestled calmly in the lagoon of the Tuamotu atoll, Raroia. The Tuamotus are a group of flat, French Polynesian islands in the central south Pacific Ocean. The climate is tropical—warm and humid, with little fresh water. A warm rainy season lasts from November to April, and a relatively cool dry season runs from May to October. The archipelago comprises 75 atolls and innumerable coral reefs, roughly dispersed northwest-southeast as a double chain for over 900 miles.
Raroia is definitely off the beaten track, away from the heavily visited northern atolls such as Rangiroa and Takaroa. The fourth largest atoll in the Tuamotus, Raroia lies in the mid-eastern section of the archipelago. After its journey from Peru, the Thor Heyerdahl-led Kon Tiki expedition ran its balsa and bamboo raft aground on a reef on the east side of this atoll in 1947. Raroia has changed little since then—its one village contains 20 families and has no stores nor restaurants nor any other tourist-supported endeavors. Under a ceaselessly brilliant clear sky all one sees are the motus, the little islets along the outer reef of the atoll, and the beautiful azure and turquoise waters of the lagoon.
The sometimes-difficult part of visiting the Tuamotus is getting through 'the pass'—one of the openings that allows a boat to leave the rolling Pacific and enter the flat calm of the encircled lagoon. Raroia has just one pass on the west coast of the atoll. It is fairly wide and deep, averaging between 20 and 30 feet in depth, but it carries swift tidal currents. The morning that we approached the atoll, the "mascarêt"—the local name for the bubbling, boiling river of tide colliding with the ocean swell—was ebbing powerfully despite our computer program that indicated the tide should be slack. Seeing that the far-left side of the pass looked calmer, we attempted to enter there. Just as we poked Imani's bows into the pass, we felt the rushing and swirling water as the current swept us into the dangerous waters of the mascarêt. We quickly turned Imani away and retreated to what felt like the calm waters of the Pacific.
Outside the atoll, we reassessed, waited, and watched for the mascarêt to subside. After 45 minutes, we approached the pass again. And again we were turned back, for our auxiliary engine, the trusty four-stroke Yamaha 9.9 and its power-thrust prop, was not capable of pushing us through the still exiting tide. So, we waited some more. Watching with binoculars fixed on the white surf of the menacing mascarêt, we tried willing it to lie down, as a long hot day was becoming even more so. Finally, our requests were answered and our captain Marc declared that the mascarêt had receded. This time we put all our resources to work.
Launching the dinghy and its 7.5-hp engine into the water, we tied it to Imani's port side. Crew member Anne and I drove the dink, while Marc was at the helm of the catamaran. We hugged the north side of the pass and powered Imani with both engines, pushing her relentlessly through the pass with reef on both sides. With adrenaline still pumping, we all hugged and celebrated our success, realizing that we were finally inside the womb of this incredibly beautiful atoll. Here's what we learned from this first encounter with an atoll pass:
| ||Don't do what we did. Instead,wait until the mascarêt is non-existent. Slack tide or the beginning of the ebb tide is the best time to enter a pass.|
| ||Be aware that some atolls have few sheltering motus on the windward side. During and after very windy conditions, large ocean swells fill the lagoon and make for what seems like an endless outgoing tide. In such an event, one may need to bypass an atoll altogether.|
We anchored off the village in 37 feet of mostly sand and some coral. The waters were so clear that it was easy to scout out the best place for the anchor. Immediately after setting the hook, the pearl sellers arrived. Three beautiful young men of extraordinary ancestral mixture exhibiting green, Asiatic eyes, black, curly shining hair dread-locked with sun-bleached blonde highlights and skin the color of polished rosewood, came out to sit in Imani's cockpit. All the world's peoples were visible in their faces as two of them smiled and reached down to pull out their treasures. In small pocket-sized matchboxes, lying on beds of cotton were South Sea pearls they had harvested from their pearl farms. As we all 'oohed and ahhed' over our first view of these wonders, the third fellow began pulling pearls one by one out of his pocket. Some of them bounced across the cockpit floor, and for a moment it appeared as if a hole in the awning had appeared and pearls were raining down on Imani. Even the pearl sellers laughed at the absurdity of it all. Thus, we began the process of trading for pearls. The people of the Tuamotus love good fruit as much as we do and were ready to trade with us. We'd brought extra pamplemousse and limes for just such deals, since the Tuamotus only grow coconuts and the bountiful fruits of the Marquesas are not available here.
|"We observed nature's food chain, as large schools of small fish ran from large fish, followed by very hungry sharks."|
What the Tuamotos may lack on land in terms of produce, they more than make up for beneath the ocean's surface. We learned much about sharks or 'requins,' as they are called in French, which we encountered for the first time in our lives outside of the San Francisco Aquarium. Gérard Bede, a fascinating Frenchman who has lived on the motu north of the pass for the last three years, was our guide through the colorful underwater canyons of sand and bright coral. While we were snorkeling, wonderfully colorful parrot fish, moray eels, and fish whose names I don't even know swam by, as did hungry black tip reef sharks who checked me out. They were not aggressive but rather just glanced my way and then passed by as if I wasn't there. We observed nature's food chain, as large schools of small fish ran from large fish, followed by very hungry sharks. The sharks were too busy hunting their prey to pay much attention to swimmers. Anne described the experience as being "incredibly exhilarating," witnessing this dance of life and death." We learned never to trust a lemon shark, which do live in these waters. They are "totally unpredictable," Gérard informed us, and thus we always snorkeled with the dinghy close by for quick escapes, if necessary.
Initially, I was "scared stupid"as my 13-year-old daughter Maya described my reaction to my first shark sighting. Marc and Anne were particularly daring, swimming and flowing into the pass with the tide during the last three hours of sunlight with Gérard, who encouraged us all to explore the reefs and coral heads of Raroia with prudence.