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The Tuamotu Diaries: Chapter 17 - The Last Pass


shark at dusk

4/30/23

Every morning a large Polynesia man drives through the anchorage at full speed, causing all the boats to sway heavily from side to side. A little while later he returns going the opposite direction. He will drive by three to four times a day. Only once have I seen another person join him. Normally he is along with no visible cargo. I haven’t yet figured out where he goes off to or what he is doing.


Life here seems so simple. Of course, it would seem that way from the outside looking in. The people here don’t have much, just their family and maybe a few animals. They don’t hold possession of many material things. Probably partly because everything is expensive and nearly impossible to get here, but I like to think some of it is also by choice. The people seem happy. Truly happy. And from most of my experiences in French Polynesia the majority are friendly and kind. When I return home, I hope to take a little bit of that mindset with me.


We were determined to get in a good scuba dive before moving to a new part of the atoll. We set off in the morning yesterday after seeing a few of the dive boats pass by. When we reached the pass, we saw the waves moving with the strongest flood we’ve seen so far. Rachel and Joshua let us know that the current we were seeing wasn’t all that strong for this location but that it was good enough for today’s dive.

scuba diving buddies

The visibility was beautiful. We could easily make out the bottom from the surface. Immediately on descent sharks started to appear near the center of the channel. We hugged the coral and watched as we drifted past the first group of sharks.


During the day, the sharks seem like they are in some sort of hypnotic day dream. They slowly swim into the current, moving effortlessly. It’s a bit baffling how they manage to swim up current when they are hardly pumping their tail. A few stop temporarily for a dental checkup, hovering as little wrasse pick at parasites and leftovers stuck between their teeth. This was my favorite behavior to observe in the sharks.

scuba diver photographing sharks

We drifted along with the current until we reached the next wave of sharks. This time there were more and they swam closer to the reef. We wanted to stop and photograph them as they swam by but it would’ve been a waste of energy to attempt swimming against the current. Each of us found a suitable patch of dead coral or rubble and held tight to the lifeless rocks. One hand clung to the substrate while the other operated the camera.


I sat there admiring the slender grey bodies gliding past my mask. Cat-like eyes with slit pupils changed their gaze to meet mine as they passed by. A younger juvenile broke ranks and departed from the school to come take a closer look. Each one appeared like an airplane, soaring just above the reef. I find it hard to not appreciate the simplistic beauty of such perfect predators every time I see sharks. Only once did a tiny octopus steal my attention.

two sharks above reef

We sat in the depths as long as our dive computers would allow before moving to a shallower point along the pass’s edge. As we rose, more light shown on the corals revealing the colorful range of blues to oranges. The once monochromatic scene was transforming before our eyes. Colorful reef fish started to flutter to and from corals and rays of light danced along the bottom.

colorful fish on the reef

We stopped in a shallower section of reef and rubble before continuing our dive. A small aggregation of reef sharks was circling an open section of corals. Each of us wedged ourselves between dead coral heads and filmed sharks until our tanks demanded we finish the dive.


With the additional light, you could really make out the subtle details you would maybe miss at depth. A black and white remora wriggling under and over pectoral fins. A deep laceration at the base of a dorsal fin. A slightly more curious shark that is just a bit skinnier than the others. Each individual with subtle differences and uniqueness from the others.

scuba diving over shallow reef

Running low on air after over an hour underwater we were forced to leave our last group of sharks and head to the pickup zone. Rounding the last corner of the pass the reef significantly shallows. The water is compacted and the current rushes quickly. We rush just a foot below the surface over vibrant colored corals. There isn’t a gap between the healthy bushes or orange, green, purples, and yellows. The smooth surface above our heads reflects the reef below until it is disturbed by our scuba bubbles.


We rounded out the dive at around seventy minutes.


Shortly after getting back to Agape I questioned everyone to see if there was anyone interested in snorkeling the shallows so I could shoot the sharks while the vis was still good. I managed to get everyone on board and after a quick turnaround went right back out to the pass.

shark over shallow reef

We drifted along the shallow shelf quickly drops into the wall along the pass, watching for blacktips to pass by. Eventually we reach the dive shop and tucked into the knee-deep water behind the restaurant. A staff member of the rest was cutting up fish in preparation for lunch. He noticed my camera and was having fun tossing his scraps just in front of me, causing the sharks to break into frenzied chaos. I shot way too many photos and then retired the camera to search for fallen teeth.

blacktip reef shark in shallows

After an hour or so I came back to the dock with my findings. I really thought my hull was quite impressive until I saw Rachel had collected double the treasure in the same amount of time.


The boys were ready for lunch so they urged us to wrap up our search. Josh made breakfast burritos which we consumed probably too quickly. Since we dove through breakfast I don’t think we realized how hungry we were until we started eating.


After lunch, everyone napped and relaxed on the boat for a bit. The plan was to go back to the shop around sunset to try and catch the fish migration Josh and I saw on scuba the night before.


Right around sunset we headed back to the dive resort. We spent an hour or so watching and photographing the blacktips congregating around the restaurant. With the low tides the sharks’ dorsals were all out of the water cutting back and forth.

shark dorsal at sunset

We jumped into the water and watched as thousands of opelu rushed out of the lagoon towards the open ocean. I would’ve sworn they weren’t opelu the other night but I guess they were. We did our best to fight the current, doing our best to calm our breath before diving. It was challenging to dive with the torch and camera in the current.

shark in fish at night

When the fish subsided, we went home to cook Pad Thai, play some hand and foot, and go to bed.


5/1/23

Yesterday we woke up to an already outgoing tide. Overnight, a three-meter swell had filled in from the Southwest. As the waves pushed huge volumes of water over the barrier reefs the lagoon would begin to surge. With only two exits to choose from, the water was rushing out of the pass as fast as it could. The lagoon simply couldn’t handle the sheer volume of water being dumped into it.


The wind had been coming more from the East the last two days. At anchorage, our stern is facing directly towards the West side off the atoll. There are very few motu on the Western edge of the island. It is mostly just barrier reef. There is hardly any structure for sand and trees. For this reason, a Westerly swell pumps even more water into the lagoon than one coming from the other direction.


I sat in the cockpit early yesterday morning watching the West coast. Straight back from the boat is the only motu on that side for miles. From this distance, there appears to be one white, square structure and a handful of coconut trees. The sky was grey and the air was cool from a rainstorm that swept over us in the night. Along the horizon dark grey clouds would inchworm across the ocean. They would burst forth from the sea and grow higher than the few coco trees on the distant motu before disappearing again. As the sun peeked from the clouds the dark grey turned to a brilliant white. The waves crashing over the reef were sending up towers of whitewash. A huge explosion of white, illuminated by the sun, would appear and disappear on the horizon like clockwork.


I sat watching the waves, flabbergasted by the incredible power of the ocean. I was thrilled by the tumble of white water reaching above the trees on the biggest sets. Like a little kid trying to show their parents something only they find cool I called over Josh and Rachel to see. They both entertained me by affirming it was interesting but they didn’t seem nearly as impressed as I was. As I wrote yesterday’s passage I paused between sentences to gaze out at the swell, hypnotized by the ocean.


We went for a quick dingy ride to check the conditions in the pass. It was in fact, very strong outgoing. Driving into the current line felt a bit like hitting a super boost in Mario Kart. Our tentative plan for yesterday was to scuba in the morning and move the boat to a new spot in the afternoon. Neither ended up happening.


The waves looked fun. The bigger sets were just overhead and a cross breeze left the faces of the waves smooth. I was tempted to try to film in water but I ended up chickening out. I have some PTSD from an experience where I was way to overconfident on the North Shore. I ended up regretting not bringing my mask and fins when we went out later.


Rachel encouraged Joshua to surf so we made a quick pit stop back at the boat to grab boards and cameras and headed back out. Josh, Rachel, and I stayed in the dingy and acted as paparazzi. Each of us had a different way to capture the session.

surfer on a wave

Joshua was surfing with four other guys. A white dude who was working as crew on a mega yacht, a local guy, and two young gentlemen that were on boogie boards. They both worked at the dive shop. One of them was the boat captain for our first night dive and has been super friendly every time we’ve seen him since.


You could tell the local boys were stoked by the waves. They were yelling and cheering each other on the whole time they were out. Supposedly this spot only gets waves three to four times a year. It was pretty cool to be there to see the rare swell.


Joshua did good! He caught a handful of nice waves. I was tempted to ask if I could try but I’m not much of a short boarder. I tend to do more long boarding. Plus, I would feel pretty shit if I ended up breaking his board had something gone wrong.


As Joshua was surfing dark clouds started to form overhead. We watched from the dingy as a black sky topped by a grey cylindrical cloud came creeping closer to the lineup. Just as the rain hit Joshua finished up and we raced back to Agape.


Poor Josh had been flying the drone and was cut when he went to catch it. He only had one battery so he tried to keep the drone out as long as possible but it started to auto land when the battery got low. In a desperate attempt to catch it before it sunk itself he grabbed it while the blades were still spinning. They sliced his finger and across his chest. Luckily it wasn’t too deep but it still looked like it hurt.


The rain was an indicator of how the rest of the day would go. Once or twice an hour rain would wash over the boat. The hatches were opened and closed incessantly to try and manage the temperature of the cabin without getting soaked.


Everyone sort of snacked on leftovers for lunch and then retired to a comfy spot for a long nap.


I woke up groggy and confused. I had slept way longer than I initially intended. Josh stirred from his sleep right around the same time. I didn’t want to read or watch a movie so I pulled out a deck of cards. I played a few rounds of solitaire and then asked if Josh wanted to play something with me. He was sitting across the table reading a book. He wasn’t interested. He was too excited by his reading. I called out to see if Joshua or Rachel wanted to play cards. No response.


I played a few more rounds of solitaire before calling out again to see if anyone wanted to join me. All were uninterested. I resorted to organizing the jumbled six decks of cards we use for hand and foot into clean decks. I was bored and that seemed fun enough. Finally, as I finished my task everyone agreed to play. We shuffled all my hard work and played a few rounds before Joshua started on dinner.


He made fish cakes with some of the uku I caught back in the other atoll. We had been thawing it earlier since we kept it in the freezer. They were delicious, just like the first time.


After dinner, we played two more rounds of head and foot before calling it a night.


I don’t think any of us will feel all that rested this morning. A few crazy storms hit overnight. Luckily, they didn’t last long but they rocked the boat and the wind and rain howled outside. The tiny hatch into the coffin is normally protected from the rain. It opens into the cockpit and is shielded by the bench. It is horrible at providing airflow but good at avoiding rain. Even I was getting drizzled on at one point and had to close the hatch.


We will surely move the boat today but it might be a slower start with everyone tired from a restless night.

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