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The Tuamotu Diaries: Chapter 15 - Breathing Underwater


scuba diver with shark

4/26/23

The boys left first thing in the morning yesterday to go spearfish. Once they got on a spearing kick, especially Joshua, it’s a constant desire to keep missioning. Maybe if I wasn’t sharing a gun I would feel that way too.


I think Joshua is happy to have a buddy to go fish with and hang out.


Rachel and I worked on some things on the boat and chatted. We told the boys to be back by 8:30. We had made plans with Joshua and Rachel’s friends, Mattias and Paulina, to go explore some of the motus on the opposite side of the pass. The boys actually surprised us by returning early! They reported there wasn’t much action on the ledge yesterday morning.


Shortly after they returned we met up with Mattias and Paulina and made our way towards the motus. Joshua weaved the dingy in and out of small coral baumys while our friends trailed closely behind. Sometimes the corals lie shallow just below the surface like hidden bombs ready to devastate a boat engine.


We approached a cluster of four or five small motus. Joshua slowed the dingy as we made our way over a shallow sandy bank leading up to the beach. The occasional blacktip, visible as a dark shadow in contrast to the white sand, would swim by. Josh hopped out and pulled the dingy up between the shade of two palm trees hanging out over the water.

man pulling dinghy

Paradise was momentarily interrupted by the buzzing of mosquitos in our ears. We swatted at them and quickly moved to the sun where they seemed less apparent.


With film camera in one hand and phone in the other I bounced around taking photos of anything and everything. This place seems like a Russian nesting doll, each location revealed more beautiful than the last.

paradise island

Looking out from the beach was a vast stretch of knee deep water. It extended out away from shore in a tan dome, the water so clear it was given no blue hue. At its’ edge a definitive line of tan met teal, before teal slowly graduated to a deeper blue as you moved offshore. Bright green palms lined a thin stretch of beach that extended to a pinkish sandbar at its’ end before coming back around the island. Coconut shells, palm fronds, and plastic had been blown ashore during the odd Northerly winds. Apparently, this stretch of beach is normally pristine.

We are planning to return for a quick beach cleanup one of these days.


We moved to an adjacent motu after our quick walk. Between each motu ran a mint green channel of shallow sea water. One end filled by waves coming in over the outer reef, the other by the lagoon. We parked our two dingys in the sand along the channel and found a shallow sandy bank to sit half shaded by the palms and talk story. Rachel and I planned to do some shooting and stretch our creative muscles but hardly got around to it between the good conversation. We chatted with Mattias and Paulina about their visit home to Germany. They asked about Joshua and Rachel’s visit home to see family in Hawaii and California.

woman on tropical island
photo @moore_rachel

It was a lovely morning at the motus. At one point I was triple fisting cameras trying to document the reef sharks meandering in the shallows. Although I could’ve stayed all day, we needed to get back to the boat to get ready to scuba.


A quick lunch of an apple and leftover mac n cheese was fuel enough for the dive. We loaded up the dingy with all the gear and picked up Mattias, who had kindly agreed to drop us off and leave the dingy at the finish line of our drift. With all five of us plus the gear we were probably pushing max capacity for the dingy. The motor sluggishly pushed us up current to the start of our dive.


The tide was still flooding but the current wasn’t too strong. We jumped in the water and dawned our BCD and regs before descending to the bottom of the pass. Rachel led the way having done this dive dozens of times before. Slowly kicking forward, we hovered above the reef just where it sloped into the gravel center of the pass. At first, we saw nothing but coral, blue, and some small fish. Then just ahead larger dark shadows began to appear.

scuba diver over sandy channel

Moving just slightly against the current was an army of grey reef sharks. The school formed a stream along the base of the pass as one after another slowly glided past my mask. One shark halts as two tiny blue wrasse weave in and out of its’ open mouth. The shark moves on and another takes its’ place, its’ body shifting almost vertical as it attempted to stall for the longest cleaning possible.


What I envisioned to be more of a highway was closer to a busy city street situated at twenty-five meters. Groups of sharks would move by, followed by moments of blank space, almost like red and green traffic lights were regulating their movement. At the third green light, we tucked into a cave to watch as the grey predators passed overhead.

photographer shooting sharks on scuba
photo @joshmunoz

We sat at the bottom for as long as our limits would allow before creeping our way back towards the surface as the current guided us along the reef wall.


By the time, we conducted our safety stop the current had started to pick up. We clung tight to a mooring just outside the dive shop and waited our three minutes while the Nitrogen dissipated within our bodies.


The dive finished with a quick drift over shallow reef to the beach where Mattias had left our dingy.


I don’t really prefer scuba diving but it was a lovely dive. Lots of sharks and a beautiful hour under the water.


Upon returning to the boat Joshua made fish tacos that we quickly devoured and then everyone laid down to relax for the afternoon. Some napped, Josh read, and I watched a movie.


Later in the evening I had a raging headache. The kind where I put on sunglasses at night because the anchor light was hurting my eyes. Not hungry for dinner and feeling quite shit I tucked in for bed around 6:30pm and fell asleep quickly. I’m not sure what else happened that evening.


4/27/23

Yesterday morning was an unbearably slow start. I’m not even sure what everyone was up to. We were all just laying around.


There was talks of plans for the day but no one was moving. I sat and watched movies until I couldn’t stand to be in the boat any longer.


Anxious just to get moving I told everyone I was going for a swim and they were welcome to join. Nobody got up.


I threw on my gear and hopped in the water just near the boat. Vis wasn’t spectacular and there wasn’t much to see but I was happy to be swimming. I made my way towards the beach some a hundred yards or so from our anchor point. As I got into the shallower water tall pillars of semi-healthy corals stood tall from the sand. I swam, weaving between and around the coral towers, until the sand turned to rubble and I was able to flop myself onto the beach.


I hadn’t thought through much of a plan. I just needed to get out and do something. I was growing restless inside the boat.


The spot I left my gear was on the edge of the motu. Just behind the beach ran a shallow channel bordered by dried and weathered sandstone and coral. A steady flow of water moved across the pebbles, fed by crashing ocean waves along the outer barrier reef. The rocks edging the water had a copper hue to them that transitioned to a dark grey on the more exposed sections.


I wandered across the ruins of old coral beds towards the deep blue ocean in the distance. Sharp points stuck up from the ground filed by the wind. Small sections of broken reef were flattened. I jumped from smooth spot to smooth spot as if I was playing a game of hopscotch to avoid the bed of needles surrounding me. I determined my goal would be to get as close as possible to the barrier reef in hopes that the waves had maybe tossed a shell or two into the shallows.


When I finally made it to the edge there were no shells. Nothing much to see actually. Even with how uneventful my expedition was, I was still happy to have gone on a little walk. I made it back to the beach, threw my gear back on, and started the short swim home. Along the way, I saw a big green crown of thorns and a friendly eagle ray that swam a circle below me.


Back on the boat Josh asked how my swim was. I told him it was uneventful and asked how his nap was. He said it was nice.


By the time I returned, it was time for lunch. Josh made fried rice and we quickly ate our fill before starting to get ready for an afternoon scuba dive.

scuba diver with sharks
photo @moore_rachel

Dive one was quiet. We hopped off the dingy and sunk down into the blue. Rachel, Josh, and I moved slowly above the bottom, waiting to see the sharks appear in the distance. Joshua met us about a quarter of the way through the dive after tying up the dingy. A shark was spotted here or there but we never stumbled upon the larger school. With no large wildlife to occupy my attention, I was able to take notice of the finer details of the reef. I started to notice the directions the corals flowed and the small fish creeping in the cracks and shadows. I spent a moment hovering next to a giant seafoam green Napoleon wrasse. His round eye bulged from his head and swirled freely in every direction as he assessed me and his surroundings. His eyes reminded me of that of chameleons. They appear to operate completely separate from their host. I did my best to pause and slow my movements and thoughts.

Napoleon wrasse

Rachel has a theory that your inner thoughts change your external body language. If you’re either hunting a fish for dinner or for a good photo they sense your predatory body language. I think she is right. After all, marine life relies heavily on visual language cues for communication. I think in the same way my mindset affects my body language when diving with sharks, all animals can sense our intentions.


As we slowly climbed up the coral wall an eagle ray passed by. Our safety stop was spent filming the school of yellow snapper hiding under the dive shop dock.

woman with yellow fish

When we exited the water, everyone seemed a bit bummed by the dive. They were sad from the lack of sharks and strong current which supposedly helps keep the sharks around. It kind of sucked to hear everyone be so negative about the experience. Yes, there wasn’t a ton of sharks but I still had a lot of fun.


I think Rachel and Joshua were feeling a lot of pressure to show us the best of the best. We’ve repeatedly assured them that we will be happy with anything.


We had organized a night dive with the shop. It was the only dive we wanted to do with a guide since no one had dove the pass at night before and we heard it can be a bit crazy. After the lack of sharks on the afternoon dive there was some talks of backing out from the night dive. The boat anchored next to us had done the dive the night prior so we motored over to ask how it was.


I wanted to do the dive. I had faith it would be cool no matter what. Once the other boat said how epic it was I think that helped to reassure everyone.


We grabbed our gear and headed to the shop. As we watched the sun set behind amber clouds we set up our gear and signed our lives away. There’s been a handful of shark bites on this dive so the shop made sure to get the waivers filled out.

sunset over the ocean

Our dive guide would be Fabrice. He was a short, plump French man with a balding head of tightly buzzed grey hair. He was serious, no funny business. He got ready silently while we were briefed for the dive.


I think his name was Fabien, but I can’t remember. He was a tall Frenchie, not thin but not fat. He wore tiny blue shorts with a bowtie draw string. They were the stereotypical swim shorts you see every European beachgoer wear in the movies. He told us the rules of our dive with a nonchalant casualness.


Rule 1: Stay with Fabrice.

Rule 2: Don’t shine your light in your fellow divers’ eyes.

Rule 3: Stay a meter and a half above the sharks. Keep your light pointed down so the sharks stay below you.

Rule 4: If the sharks are chasing a fish and you end up in the frenzy curl up in a tight ball, covering your appendages so the sharks only bump you not bite you.


I didn’t even notice but Fabien had a good number of stitches across the palm of his left hand. Everyone else quickly asked how he got his injury when he was done talking. Turns out it was a saw blade.


We hopped in off the dock to gather ourselves before our descent. Our torches glowed bright beams down to the depths below our toes.


Everyone deflated their BCD and descended into the darkness. The reef raced to our side as we quickly sunk down, only visible by the light from our flashes. Once we reached our target depth Fabrice picked up the pace. First Fabrice, then Josh, then me, with Joshua and Rachel closely behind.


Moving swiftly, backed by the outgoing current, we raced across the corals. Our torches shown below us as grey torpedoes crossed in and out of the light. The sharks followed in suit with the single file line we created. Flanked on either side I felt like we were part of a military march into the deep. With the speed, we were maintaining it felt like us and the shiver were on a mission together.

grey reef shark at night

Just to the front of Fabrice I see the sharks snag a fish that had swam up from the reef. Illuminated by Fabrice’s light, it didn’t stand a chance. I let out a squeal of excitement and proceeded to set a spot light on every fish I saw hoping they would take center stage in the action.


Our pace slowed as we approached the buoy where the boat would pick us up. There was an eddy in the current there that made it easier to explore.


A few more fish made the daring choice to leave the sanctuary of the corals. Most raced up the wall into the shallows once they were detected. Each one followed by a tidal wave of grey reef and whitetip reef sharks.

shark under dock at night

The sharks were on the move and on the hunt. It was exhilarating to feel like we were part of the chase. At one point I audibly chuckled into my regulator when a large whitetip stopped dead in his tracks for quick thirty second snooze along the bottom. Almost as if he just couldn’t keep up with the rate the other sharks were swimming at.


The highlight of the dive, and sort of the grand finale as it occurred near the end, was when a unicorn fish popped up from the reef. Under our inescapable laser beams the fish darted around us and underneath our feet followed closely by predators before jetting just out of sight. A shadow of dimly lit sharks, just out of reach of our lights, swirled in a tight ball. There was a faint crunch and the sharks dissipated to keep searching.

blacktip reef shark at night

During the safety stop I gave Fabrice a big thumbs up. He shook his hand and gestured the number two. We had two minutes left before surfacing. In all my adrenaline and happiness, I had dumbly shot up a thumbs up without even thinking that translates to surfacing while on scuba. I laughed to myself at my stupidity and then threw up two thumbs up! Pumping them up and down just so he would really get my point.


I was ecstatic when we reached the surface. The rest of the night I couldn’t stop going on and on about how much fun I had. I’m sure by the time carpaccio dinner ended everyone was tired of hearing me recount the experience they too shared.

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