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The Tuamotu Diaries: Chapter 12 - Shark Mania


diver with sharks
photo @moore_rachel

4/22/23

Yesterday afternoon was absolutely incredible.


The morning started off slow again like the day before. Josh went for a run again. I considered joining him but couldn’t find my running shoes. Josh did eventually find them but I was nowhere near ready and he was already itching to leave. I hate feeling rushed so I told him to just go without me.


The rest of us lounged around. I think Joshua was working on an article he is writing and maybe Rachel was making phone calls or emails. I’m not totally sure. I spent the morning watching more movies and reading.


Josh returned from his run and himself, Rachel, and I worked at attempts to enter a photo contest while we still had service. Having wifi here isn’t the same as saying you have wifi back in Hawaii. It’s extremely slow and you can’t accomplish much. We’ve could send texts to loved ones back at home and answer a few simple emails but that’s about it. Forget an attempt at sending any image. Not going to happen.


After wrestling with our computers for what seemed like hours we threw in the towel so we could start crossing the lagoon to a new anchorage.

Josh Munoz and Taylor cunningham

It was a short journey just a few miles down the coast. We were able to sail the entire hour or so which made Joshua very happy.


Sailing is definitely more pleasant than motoring. Mr. Perkins, the diesel engine powering Agape, is located just under the kitchen floor. When on, he constantly grumbles and steams. He makes the cabin dreadfully hot and creates a constant noise just loud enough to drown out the sounds of the ocean. Mr. Perkins works wonderfully, he is just annoying.


Sailing with the wind offers a much more peaceful and quiet experience.


We moved the boat for greater protection from the wind and to be closer to the largest of the two passes on this atoll. The plan is to dive this pass the next few days before sailing across the lagoon and diving the smaller pass on the opposite side.


The lagoon here is massive compared to the last atoll we visited. Sitting on one edge and looking towards the center there is no sign of the other side. It appears and feels like you are fully exposed to the open ocean. The previous atoll had about nine miles of fetch from one end to the other and took between two and three hours to cross. I’m told from where we are anchored currently to the opposite side is approximately thirty miles and will take us around eight to nine hours to cross later this week.


This is why it is especially important to pay attention to the wind forecast and plan your anchorage accordingly. Even though it’s not much, a solid row of palm trees on a narrow, rocky island can make a huge difference in the comfort and safety on the boat. Anchoring in the lee of a motu ensures the coco trees take the brunt of the force from any winds. With this lagoon being so large wind has a large amount of fetch to grow the seas below.


Joshua and Rachel told us a story of how they just barely made it through a huge storm on this atoll. All the boaters had checked the reports stating a weather system was fast approaching from the North. In preparation, they and every other sailboat moved to anchor behind the Northern most motu. Last minute the storm swung around and came barreling in from the South. The winds raged a steady forty knots through the night, on occasion reaching up to sixty. With thirty miles of fetch, the wind stirred the ocean causing meter and a half to two meter waves to slam into the side of the boat. At one point Rachel thought the anchor chain snapped and spent the next several hours getting pelted by rain and motoring full throttle into the wind. The storm ravaged the boats in the darkness of night. Many had chains break and two ended up on the bench.


Had the storm come from the North like predicted it would’ve been an uncomfortable and probably still restless night but the motu would’ve provided enough shelter to have managed the seas.


By the time, we anchored we were all itching to get in the water. A day and a half without diving left us all with dry gills. Immediately after checking the security of the anchor we gathered our things and headed out on the dingy to catch the last few hours of the flood tide.

dinghy on blue water

Diving the flood, on incoming tide, means the fresh and clear open ocean water is rushing into the pass. Visibility is the best during this six hour window which makes it the best time to dive.


Rachel and Joshua don’t anchor here often. It is a bit unusual for winds to come from its current direction this time of year. They’ve done a few scuba dives in the pass, guided by dive shops but this was their first time exploring by freediving and drifting.


We started just out past the wall where the pass begins to plunge towards the deep. Jumping in we see a few large unicorn fish barely standing out from the royal blue backdrop. Suddenly a school of rainbow runners (my favorite fish to eat) comes our way. The school is made up of various sized fish but there are two that dwarf the rest. They are the largest runners I’ve ever seen. You could distinctly make out the long blue stripe that divides their yellow sides into top and bottom. These two fish rivaled the sharks with their length.

shark and rainbow runner

Below the fish a green shadow moves more into focus. Then another appears in its trail. Two grey reef sharks are charging towards the surface. Once at eye level we can see they are close to adulthood and much larger than the ones that greeted us from the deep at the previous atoll. I follow them through the view of my camera before looking back behind me. Back and below my ankles nearly a hundred little grey shadows are rushing towards the surface and exponentially growing in size. Within seconds we are swarmed by what seemed like countless adult grey reef sharks.


We did later count and Rachel captured over eighty in a single frame.


The sharks circled and darted around us, pulling us into their tornado. Rachel had one come in for a quick look at her fins. I noticed a silvertip that had joined the group, trailing some fishing line from a hook on the right side of its’ mouth. Josh gave me his knife and I tried to remove some of the line but he darted off before I could get close.

photographer with sharks
photo @joshmunoz

There is a comfort and joy I feel surrounded by sharks in every direction that I find hard to put into words. There is a strange feeling of belonging even though I know I’ll never really be a part of their world. It is where I feel the most at peace. My heart just feels settled. I don’t know if it’s the extreme sense of being fully present but I simultaneously feel more in my body and like I’m having an out of body experience than in any other moment. Amidst the chaos of sharks racing around, spiraling around me, I feel bliss.

grey reef sharks

We jump back on the dingy amped by the insane reaction we just got. We make two more attempts to replicate the experience but the sharks have already found the hum of the dingy monotonous and uninteresting.


We decide to check out a small mooring just outside the edge of the pass. Josh hops in first and immediately yells, “TIGER!” I must’ve given him a look of disbelief because he followed with, “I promise! Get in!”


Joshua and Rachel have never seen a tiger in their four seasons of returning to the Tuomotu. It’s been a sort of unspoken goal for our time here with them to see one wild, without the need for chum.


I raced to throw my fins on and do my best to keep up with her. She is gracefully paddling side to side while my human body is inept at keeping up with the current leaving me huffing and puffing.


Joshua stays in the dingy and ends up picking up Rachel and Josh. They swing by to grab me but I tell them I’ll keep swimming and I'll direct them when to get in. I tell them to keep driving and get ahead of her hoping that they will get the chance to see her pass by.


I follow her at a distance trying to match her pace. I can just barely make out the dark shadow of her tail swishing back and forth. The dingy is in line with her. I tell everyone to hop in. Before they’ve hardly dipped their toes in the water she changes direction. I try to yell forward to everyone but they had already jumped in. They ended up barely seeing her in the distance.


Josh decides to stay in the water to keep her in sight and I hop on the dingy with Joshua and Rachel. He follows as we try to jet ahead. Passing dive boats start to make us nervous so we temporarily hang back with Josh. The boats are racing through the channel and the dingy is the only marker of Josh’s existence.


One boat races right by us. Josh directs us to drive ahead. Just after passing the boats wake he directs us to jump in. I slide in with a sort of awkward belly flop and look down towards the reef expecting to see a dark figure swimming below me.


Nothing.


I look behind us and through the bubbles emerges a huge, square face. As she moves closer she starts to stand out against the white cloud slowly dissipating in the background. I make a slight exhale to sink just below the surface. She keeps moving towards us. Rachel is to my side. I can see her just barely in my peripheral. Joshua is on the other side of me and behind.


The tiger swims towards us then make a turn away. I thought that would be the full encounter until she slowly cocked her head back in our direction. I start to move between her and Rachel as Rachel kicks behind me. The tiger is calm and relaxed. She seems chill but I don’t know her so I prepared for the possibility of the most extreme behavior.


She keeps swimming to me. My heart skips a beat with excitement. Once I feel she is within arm’s reach I gently place my hand on her head and guide her down and off to the side. She gently pushes back into me before I feel the pressure release and I remove my hand. I see her making eyes at Joshua who is behind me at the surface and I briefly think maybe she will come back again. Instead her eyes focus back forward and she swims off into the distance unbothered by the strange creatures along her path.


Time stands still when interacting with large sharks. Rewatching my footage in slow motion seems more like reality then in actual speed. I never expected to have to redirect a wild Tuomotu tiger. It’s a memory I will cherish and replay for a lifetime.


If it had been just me and Josh I probably would’ve been a little less cautious with our encounter. While Joshua and Rachel have been diving with sharks countless times, they don’t have any experience handling large sharks. Because I didn’t know this shark and because I didn’t want them to be in the position to handle her if they weren’t comfortable I made sure to safety for them. If it was just me I probably would’ve waited till the very last second to reach out my hand and my redirection wouldn’t have lingered. But I wanted to be sure to get her clear of Joshua and Rachel before backing off.


We all got back on the dingy frothing. None of us expected to see a tiger let alone have such an epic interaction. I thanked Josh and gave him a huge hug for helping get us in the right spot and essentially forfeiting his own interaction.


Back out at the little mooring we swam around scouting the area. A bunch of sharks joined the party, including the most precious baby silvertip. The boys considered trying to shoot a fish as Rachel and I urged them not to with all the sharks around.


We did a short drift inside the pass as the tide shifted. As the murky water moved in we spotted more grey reefs, some curious whitetip reef sharks, and a not so curious nurse shark.


I don’t think it mattered what else we saw. We were all on a tiger shark high.


After the excitement wore off we all realized we were very hungry. It was just past 4pm and none of us had eaten a real meal all day.


Back at the boat we quickly rushed to look at shark footage and transfer images. I watched my clip of the interaction on repeat, smiling from ear to ear while Rachel cooked dinner. We all devoured her orange chicken and continued our feast with Joshua’s snickerdoodle cookies. We rounded out the evening with a few rounds of hand and foot, said goodnight, and got to bed in preparation for today’s long day of diving.


4/23/23

Rachel prepared breakfast while the boys and I loaded up the dingy with all the gear for the day. Tiny tan balls of cheesy bread goodness called pao de queijos were topped with laughing cow cheese and guyave jelly. Fried eggs gave us a bit of protein and coconut bacon was the cherry on top.


We were feasting in preparation for a long flood tide. We planned to spend a full six hours in the dingy exploring the pass.


Eating till we couldn’t anymore, we scurried around the boat, rushing to get the last of our things ready for the day.


We’ve gotten quite good at maximizing the space in the dingy. Four pairs of freedive fins, two spearguns, three underwater housings, and a crate filled with gloves, weight belt, water bottles, flashers, masks, and other miscellaneous gear sit at our feet. The few times we’ve caught a fish things got even more crowded.


Everyone piles in and we set off for the pass. After a brief hello with some of Joshua and Rachel’s friends we are flying into the pass.


First stop is the drop off. With the wind and current wanting to pull us back home, Joshua drives us out into the blue. The extra distance from the reef wall will give us more time to put gear on before jumping in.


When I slip into the water I’m greeted by the blue. Crisp water fills through the fibers of my leggings and sun shirt. We can’t see the bottom but the rays of light diving to the deep make it feel like we can. The current isn’t too strong yet but it pushes against our backs like a guiding hand leading us into the pass.


We wait but nothing appears. Josh has rolled out the flashers in hopes we get the chance to attract some fish. Flashers are used frequently by spear fishermen and have been extremely useful in getting curious fish to come close. Josh uses a fancier version than Joshua. His are little sections of PVC wrapped in a shiny sticker. Joshua flipped some chip bags inside out and fashioned them into cylinders stuffed with other garbage and tied them together with fishing line. I guess it’s pretty ingenious considering the lack of resources in French Polynesia to make Josh’s version. Plus, the ones you can buy are the exact same thing and triple what it costs to make your own.


Out of the blue a huge school of rainbow runners moves our way. No one plans to shoot any in anticipation the sharks will show up soon. The only shooting will be with our cameras.


Josh dives down and is circled by the school. From the surface, it looks like he is sitting in the middle of rainbow runner donut. They wind around him and then proceed on their way.

school of sharks around diver
photo @joshmunoz

Then the sharks emerged from below. First it is only a few. Then there seems to be an endless stream of white noses racing towards the surface. A few find the flashers exciting. They would speed in, get nervous at the last second and dart off causing a cascade effect through the adjacent sharks. Like dominos tipping into each other the first would startle the next, who would startle the next, and so on.


It was nearly impossible to comprehend the sheer number of grey sharks swirling just beneath our toes. We thought the day prior was crazy but this was unfathomable. Everywhere you looked there was easily a hundred darting back and forth.

hundreds and sharks with diver

I later counted an image with a grand total of 141 in frame. That didn’t include the probably a hundred or more that were behind me when I took the photo.


We took turns diving down into the grey ball of chaos. The sharks moved like molecules stuck bouncing in a tight container. When they reached, what seemed to be an un-seeable boundary they would turn around and flash towards the other side.

diver surrounded by sharks
photo @moore_rachel

I took dives into the school, happily surrounded by sharks on every side. I think I can hold my breath longer when enveloped in sharks. There’s an additional level of calm I rarely feel anywhere else.


At one point, I dove deep below the shiver and turned to look back up at the sun. Dark, airplane like figures crossed over the light and moved back and forth overhead. I could just barely make out the silhouettes of the group drifting with the dingy at the surface.

shark shiloettes

As the reef came into detail below the sharks, they slowly began to dissipate. One after another they would peel off, vanishing into the distance or joining the grey spattering of reef below.


Getting back into the dingy we were like little kids stoked from a rollercoaster ride. We drove back out to the blue to get back in line and ride again.


This whole trip we’ve been comparing the Tuomotu to an adult Disneyland. It feels like than underwater playground for people who love diving.


Birds started to gather in the distance. The place they congregated made the horizon look like a fuzzy black caterpillar inching its way across the glare of the sun. Tiny black birds with grey foreheads fluttered around in tightly packed flocks. They would take turns dropping down a foot or two to dip their beaks in the water. Occasionally, one would manage to snag a baitfish. Boobie birds would drop from the sky like missiles penetrating the water and returning to the air with fish. Frigates soared high and came rushing in to torment the other birds in hopes of stealing their fish.


The top of the water boiled under the birds as bonito would pop like popcorn underwater. A birght yellow back would cut through the water chasing the bigger fish.


Everyone hopped in the water and I stayed in the dingy as surface support. If they managed to shoot a fish my job would be to quickly drive over and bring the gun into the dingy.


The boys said they spotted some shibi blasting past them but we couldn’t keep up with the birds long enough to get a decent shot.


Chasing bird piles can be really rewarding but it’s also a huge pain in the ass. Over and over again we would get close to the action and just as we arrived everything would dissipate. The boiling would stop and the birds would all spread out. Then everything would start up again in the distance and the process repeats. It’s a lot of jumping in and out of the dingy and driving in circles.


Eventually, Josh shoots a rainbow runner. I race over in the dingy and together we try to pull the fish up as quickly as possible. Rachel is screaming “go, go, go” through her snorkel. The sharks are coming in hot. We keep pulling until Josh looks at me and says, “it’s done.” Below the dingy hundreds of sharks ravage the fish. The sharks form a tight ball around the runner each wriggling to get its’ face closer, biting anything, including each other, in sight. Within seconds the fish is gone and all that is left is a cloud of blood and scales intermingled with sharks.


I wish I could say we were bummed about the fish but honestly, we were pretty amped on what we just witnessed. It was a true feeding frenzy and a testament to the predatory abilities of the sharks.


We continued to follow the bait ball in and out of the pass for the next few hours. While farther from the ledge Joshua shot a giant runner. This time I drove over full throttle determined to get this fish. As Joshua and I pulled from the boat, Josh put in a support shot to stop the fish from struggling and to hopefully make him less enticing to the sharks. We landed the fish!


It really seems like spearfishing in the Tuomotu must be a team effort. Other than the few jacks and smaller uku, any larger fish we’ve landed has required all hands-on deck.


Josh made one last attempt at another runner but lost his shaft and the fish. The fish seemed to dart off so we think a shark bit the shaft and tugged, ripping the dineema line where it was tied to the shaft.


We spent the last of our time on the water watching the bait ball from underwater. Skipjack and bonito tuna raced around with their mouths wide open hoping to engulf the almost invisible baitfish. The tuna looked like spastic bullets shooting through the water. With their mouths’ agape their faces looked a bit like the ones you would draw on a cartoon ghost at Halloween or Van Gogh’s painting The Scream.


All of us returned to the boat salty, cold, and exhausted from an eventful day on the ocean.


Everyone rinsed off while simultaneously shoving Joshua’s leftover snickerdoodle cookies in their mouth. It was leftovers for dinner kind of night. No one had the energy to cook. Plus, there was food in the fridge that needed to be eaten asap so it wouldn’t go bad and be thrown out as waste.


We were invited to the beach for a potluck bonfire with some of the other cruisers at the anchorage. I really debated not going. I wasn’t feeling very social. However, I wanted to explore the beach a bit so I decided to tag along.

moon over palm trees

When we first made it to shore everyone started on small talk. I made a point to slip away for a quick walk down the shoreline. It was a lavender dusk, a bit of pink at the horizon was just barely visible on the other side of the trees. The crescent moon hung low and shone brightly as it tried to compete with the last bit of remaining sunlight. The sand felt fantastic under my feet. Each step felt like walking on a memory foam mattress. The damp squish gently hugging the soles of my feet and between my toes before leaving a perfect imprint behind. It’s been a while since I’ve walked on proper sand, undisturbed by coral and rubble. Just down the beach a palm tree grows straight from the sand. It hangs out over the water, made periwinkle by the sky, and dangles its’ fronds above the surface. You can make out Agape anchored in the distance just to the side of the tree.


I take in the scenery but then rush back over to the group so I’m not too rude.


The fire is hot. For whatever reason its’ heat seems unescapable. Joshua and Rachel’s friends brought dough which we wrapped around sticks to bake over the fire.


As we wrapped up the gathering hermit crabs started to swarm our camp. They were trying to pick off whatever munchies had fallen into the sand around our little camp.


Everyone was exhausted so by the time we returned to the boat we all turned in the bed and called it a night.


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