27 May 2010 | Takaroa
We spotted Takaroa just after 9am on Sunday and as expected, it wasn’t much higher than the tallest palm trees on the flat beaches. Prior to GPS, these were extremely dangerous islands to navigate and we saw evidence in three shipwrecks on the way to the little village on the opposite end of the atoll. The village sits at the only pass into the lagoon and we arrived just before high tide. Every six hours the tide changes and entrances for sailboats must coincide with the slack tide (~45 minutes) that occurs between the switch from high to low tide or low to high tide. All the water that sits inside the lagoon which is surrounded by the ring of islets that makes up Takaroa, enters and exits the lagoon through this pass that is only a hundred feet wide or so. Even though the tide changes only a foot or two from low to high tide, there is still a lot of water coming in and out this little channel and it creates a few knot current like a river. After a pretty nifty 180 degree turn by Alex, we were able to get the boat tied up to the wharf and while it wasn’t the most graceful entrance, it got the job done and we didn’t capsize. The water clarity is absolutely amazing. It was 60 feet deep right off the wharf, and you could clearly see the bottom. After getting the boat secured, we jumped in the dinghy and did a quick drift dive along the pass. The atolls are known to have a lot of sharks and in the short drift that we did, we saw eight sharks. For the most part, the sharks that we spotted were cruising along the bottom of the channel (60 ft down) while we were up on the surface near the coral. At one point, I was drifting out in front of Alex and Diego and spotted a pretty big shark. It was far away, but as soon as it even turned in my general direction, my heart started racing and I started the defensive swim for shallow water above the coral. It didn’t really get any closer than it started and probably wanted nothing to do with me, but I wasn’t ready to wait around to check it out. After the snorkel, we got back to the boat and met a few of the folks that lived in the village. It turns out that the wharf is kind of the village hangout and we always had people around to talk to. We found out there were baguettes on the island, but we wouldn’t be able to get them until Tuesday because the next day was another French holiday. We were a bit disappointed, but then one of the woman who cooks coconut bread every Saturday for her friends said she’d cook some for us and teach us if we wanted so we got that setup for the morning. We met a whole bunch of people that lived in the village that night and one guy, Andy, invited us to a party at his bosses place the next day. He said it started at 6am and ended at noon, so it was the earliest party I’d ever been invited to. We said OK and that we’d be ready the next morning. That night, people were constantly coming and going. Guys would stroll up with their fishing rods and fish for a bit, fall asleep for awhile, and then wake up and take a cast and fall asleep five minutes later. Eventually, most of the guys got up and went home for the night, but a few people just slept on the dock and it’s really perfect weather for it, so why not. Like the marqueses, the island wakes up early. Around 5:30am, people were standing on the wharf and talking as boats pulled up to bring them to work. We found out from Andy that the party was delayed until the next day because his boss was out fishing. Alex was fighting off a little stomach bug, so decided to rest on the boat and Diego went for breakfast with some friends that he met the night before. I met up with Samuel to get the coconut bread started. Samuel, a big stocky Polynesian guy in his early 30s, first led me around to get the coconut milk that we need for the bread. We talked to a few people and got some coconuts from the trees in their yards. We then had a little husking race in which I stood absolutely no chance against a 300lb Polynesian guy who had clearly husked more than his fair share of coconuts. After husking, we grabbed a big bowl and whacked the coconut with the back of a machete which cracked the shell in two and then poured the coconut water into the bowl. He then flipped on the power and fired up a machine with a grinding ball on the end of it. We took half of the coconut shell and grinded the hard coconut meat from the shell. We then mixed the water with the coconut grindings at Dorianes place and strained it with a towel to make milk. After adding flour, sugar, and yeast, we had a whole bunch of loaves of coconut bread and Doriane made us rice with some meat and beans for lunch. She also insisted that we come back that night for dinner. After lunch, Alex and Diego went with Samuel to a little break where Diego caught a few waves in less than a few feet of water. Samuel also showed us pictures of when he was younger (and quite a bit smaller) catching huge waves on the island. I was supposed to meet a guy to do some tuna fishing, but got messed up on the times and missed it. Instead, I borrowed a bike from one of the guys and cruised the island taking pictures. That night we had a big dinner that Doriane cooked for us of tuna and chicken. There was another huge group of people on the dock that night that we hung out with, but we went to bed a bit early to get up for the 6am party. Tuesday morning, Andy was at our boat at 550am to pick us up for the party. Alex decided to stay back and watch the boat, so it was just Diego and I. We jumped in a boat and flew across the lagoon in the boat that took all the workers to the pearl farm on the opposite side of the lagoon. Andy introduced us to the boss at the pearl farm, Victor, and then went off to work. We had breakfast with Victor and his wife in their house which was on stilts overlooking the lagoon. Victor and his wife both spoke some English, so we were able to have a pretty good conversation. Victor is a big boxing fan (he saw the last Manny Pacquio fight live in Vegas) and raises cocks for cockfighting. After breakfast, he gave us a tour of his operation and explained how he buys pearls from Mississippi and gets women from China to put them in Mother of Pearl shells that he gets from the lagoon. It’s a super labor intensive process but very interesting. The entire facility is on stilts above the water and is open air. After the tour, we went out with Andy on a boat and helped him tie huge lines of shells that had pearls placed in them on lines. The shells will sit for 18 months and the white Mississippi pearl that was implanted will eventually come out with a black coating. His farm, which is the largest in Takaroa, outputs 350,000-450,000 per year. Andy wanted us to eat with him later that night, so we said we’d see him later and headed back into the village. Alex and I took the dinghy out to the end of the pass in the lagoon. The pass is around 100ft wide and has coral reef on both sides that drop from around 2ft deep to 60-100ft and the entire wall is covered with fish. Where the pass opens into the lagoon, the ancestors of the people on the island built huge fish traps which really just consists of rocks that channel the fish into shallow pools. There are constantly fish in the traps and at low tide you can easily walk along the coral to the traps. If anyone on the island is hungry, they can just walk out to the fish trap and easily scare a fish into a net…it might not be tuna, but you know there is always food available. We took the dinghy out just as the tide was rushing out which literally turns the pass into a river. We were able to snorkel up into the fish traps, but since the sun was setting and that’s when the sharks feed, we didn’t stay all that long. I nearly swam right into a giant moray eel that was sitting at the mouth of one of the pools in the traps feeding and thankfully just saw it while it was moving out towards me. Its head was probably as big around as my thigh and since they are territorial, it’s not a good idea to get close as they do bite. Alex spotted on shark just as he was swimming into the pool, but it took off immediately. That night, we had a big feast at Andy’s place and found out that he had been a pretty big boxer prior to working on the pearl farms traveling around Tonga and Tahiti boxing for money. He either boxed with Mike Tyson or met him, but there wasn’t a translator so we weren’t sure. He also met Kelly Slater (like the Michael Jordan of surfing) when Kelly Slater was filming a movie in the Austral Islands where he was from. After dinner, we gave him a tour of the boat and a tshirt as a gift for dinner. These people are extremely generous and really won’t let you turn down a gift. It’s kind of been tough for us because we don’t have much to give in return, but we give what we can. The next day, Andy stopped by to pick up some Wisconsin Swiss cheese that I promised to Victor for breakfast and the tour. One of Diego’s friends stopped by and dropped off a few lures and a big pig tusk necklace for Diego. Alex and I went on a short drift dive and then with the help of around 20 locals, we were able to throw the boat out into the current and get it out of the atoll in some really strong wind. The wind was blowing around 15 knots and the seas were pretty rough, so we had to abandon our plans for a short stop at another atoll and go straight for Fakarava. Fakarava is the second largest atoll in the Tuomotus and has a large lagoon for anchoring in. We arrived at the pass early and a few hours after high tide. We had to fight the wind and the current to get into the pass, but we were able to get through fine. Often times, at the mouth of the pass there are large standing waves (up to 15 footers) where the current meets the swell coming in. There were a few whirlpools as we went by and some weird slicks and then the water was really like a washing machine just churning up and down. We were going backwards for a minute or two, but really got in fine. Fakarava is a World Heritage Site known for its incredible diving, so hopefully we can get a few dives in. We were anchored by noon and had baguettes in hand 15 minutes later. Just after eating, we saw two 4ft sharks cruise by just off shore, so hopefully that’s a good sign for our snorkeling and seeing some marine life. We plan on spending a few days here then heading west to some other atolls.