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The Tuamotu Diaries: Chapter 4 - Underwater Mountains

coral reef under the surface


Yesterday we set out on our adventures a little earlier in the morning. We jumped in the dingy and set off towards the middle of the lagoon.

I was told we were trying to travel light since surely, we would be battling the wind to get back home. I didn’t bring my camera. I regret it because the little spots we stopped at were quite beautiful.

Driving out into the deep blue lagoon we would search ahead for tiny pockets of teal and brown. The lagoon here is much different than in Moorea. Instead of the fringe reef bordering the island leaving a belt of gin colored water, here there is no center island to protect. The fringe reef instead has developed into a combination of corals and little motus. Each one varying in size and looking like the type of little island a shipwreck survivor might stumble upon and call home. What once was a landscape pf towering mountain peaks and green valleys has now sunk below the surface.

We spent the morning driving around what I imagine to be peaks of what once floated above the surface.

Each coral baumy we journeyed to was a bit different than the other. The first with some of the largest single coral heads I’ve seen. On one side, there was a whole wall of pastel blue. It reached down to the depths where it could slowly expand as time went on and up toward the surface where it was stopped short by a large blob of neon yellows.

It was incredible to see these pillars of life sitting in what appears to be a navy desert. Although I’ve been assured there are animals calling that area home as well.

The bible tells a story, I about Moses, where a man leads a group of people away from harm and into the desert. Now I don’t remember all the details and quite frankly I wouldn’t quote myself on any of this. But the group travels a really long time and then God leads them to a tiny area of palm trees for shade and I think maybe there was a stream for water and lots of food or something. Anyways, the coral baumys kind of make me think of that. Which is kind of odd given I rarely quote the bible.

As we drove from baumy to baumy I imagine the lagoon looks a little something like Swiss cheese. Each coral oasis randomly spread throughout and in all different sizes.

The baumys were such vibrant examples of healthy ecosystems. You see each fish doing its job in this microcosm of the larger ocean. Tiny baitfish, barely visible, on their own but as a school would form rivers of silver-blue sparkles. The river changing course and bursting in a different direction as a fish or human would swim through. Wrasse and butterfly fish were flouncing around picking at the upper parts of the reef as parrotfish and surgeonfish took over their job just below. Larger predatory fish like uku, jacks, and the occasional tuna patrolled the deepest edge of the column.

The boys were each able to land a fish. Josh shot an uku and Joshua shot a jack, slightly bigger than the day before. The jack became our dinner last night and we will likely eat the uku at some point today.

Rachel and I were nervous of the big uku Josh caught at the ledge. Sometimes certain species or bigger fish have ciguatera. At best, you shit yourself for a few days. At worst your nervous system shuts down and you die. So, we let the boys make tacos for dinner the other night and waited to see if they croaked. After they showed no signs of illness we all joined in to eat the uku as poisson cru for lunch.

But no worries eating the smaller sized ukus in the lagoon.

I had the best opportunity I’ve ever had to shoot an uku yesterday. Unfortunately, I shot about three inches too far to the left. It was depressing but hopefully there will be another chance today.

After the day on the water we came in for lunch followed by some time to nap and relax. Rachel and Josh went to our friends’ boat to pet their cats and send an email. Joshua double napped and I created a tent out of towels to hide from the sun and read my book on deck as I watched the blacktips swim by.

bonfire on island under the stars
photo @moore_rachel

We headed into the motu for a bonfire dinner. Josh made bread with garlic and sun-dried tomato. I ate entirely too much. Ollie and Naela made poisson cru and it might’ve been some of the best I’ve had. Joshua cooked up the jack from earlier.

We constructed ourselves a nice spot in paradise. A small glow of orange situated next to palms backlit by the full moon. As we ate dinner I watched red glow worms squiggle around in charred logs, their undersides developing ashy scale as a yellow flame tickled them. We sat on uncomfortable pieces of broken shells and corals but we didn’t really notice through distractions of good food, friends, and conversation.

As the stars shifted in position and the moon rose high above the hanging coconuts we made our way back for the night.


There’s a strong breeze this morning that carried through the night. I’m not entirely sure you could call it a breeze though. The way it’s disturbed the morning calm and created whistles in the boat would qualify it more as wind. Strong wind actually.

Although windy, it is a pleasant change from the last few mornings. It’s incredible how instant the heat grows the moment the sun appears. I don’t think I’ve sweat more in my life. Sitting and doing nothing leaves you sticky as if the sun is spraying you with some sort of goo from a billion miles away.

But the intense heat has been motivation to spend more time in the water…and to nap.

We had a great morning yesterday. Again we set out for the baumys. This time I was sure to bring the camera.

Our first step was large but not steep. There was space between the coral heads filled with sand and rubble of corals that didn’t survive a storm. The boys waited for larger fish to appear while Rachel and I pursued our number one mission. Sea shells.

woman searching reef for shells

As we dove down along the edges of the corals we looked for hidden treasures trapped by the currents against their walls. Like the best game of eye spy we would slowly drift above the rubble paying close attention to the pockets where special jewels could’ve rolled.

I’ve always loved the small details along the reef. The ones you only notice when you’re examining every centimeter. I like to find the creatures most wouldn’t notice. The reef is sort of like a collage painting. When you step away and look at the full picture there is a beautiful ecosystem full of life. However, when you look closer and really zoom in you begin to see that the bigger picture is made up of millions of little pictures, each unique and intricate in its’ own way.

yellow nudibranch

Rachel found some nudibranchs in her shell search and called me over to see them. They were three inches of adorable. Squishy yellow bodies with bluish, purple leopard spots around the edge. Two little bunny ear cilia and a fluff of tendrils on their rear.

There was also a cushion star with some shrimp on it and a sea cucumber playing host for a couple small crabs.

I ended up leaving this baumy with a few shells. My favorite being a bright orange spiral with pink and deep red striations spinning towards its center.

The boys even ended up joining in the fun. Probably because there weren’t any fish but I like to think it’s because they were jealous of what a good time we were having.

The next baumy was a small, steep tower. I was the first to enter the water and immediately saw a dogtooth. I alerted the boys but it swam away so fast I started to get nervous if I even saw it. Some time went by and it reappeared. Joshua dove down to try and get a shot. Josh threw a flasher which caught the fish’s attention and Joshua lined up to shoot him. It ran hard and I dove down to help Josh pull up the gun.

The fish had caught itself on some reef down at 25m. I did a dive and made it about twenty meters to try and untangle the line. I should’ve done a better breathe up so I had time at the bottom. I came back to the surface unsuccessful.

We sat at the surface doing our best to calm down. Our breathing was trying to fight with the adrenaline pumping through our blood. The excitement left us way to frantic to immediately dive. It felt like a race against a finned clock. If we didn’t retrieve the fish soon it would surely be lost to the greys.

Eventually, we caught our breathes and Josh and I dove down to get the fish. By some miracle no sharks had shown up yet. Josh put a second shot in and I worked to untangle the line and shaft.

man spears dogtooth tuna

We resurface fish in hand and Joshua worked to secure it. It was a group effort and we were victorious!

After all the excitement, the boys let me take the gun and I did a few drops for an uku that made himself scares the moment I was ready.

We moved on to one more baumy where I did a handful of drops as we circled its’ edge. On what I planned to be my last drop I kneeled somewhere between fifteen and twenty meters. I threw up a handful of sand and looked out into the blue waiting for something to show up. Nothing…I didn’t want to push my breath hold for no fish so I looked down to push off the sand. When I looked back up to start my kick to the surface, swimming right to me was a huge doggy. I was so shocked I didn’t even register what I was looking at for a second.

The fish turned broad side as I scrambled to get the gun from my side to out in front of me. I took the shot and hit him low on the belly. He ran with a fury, dragging me, Rachel, and Josh across the surface.

We fought him hard trying to pull against his strength. We probably fought to hard. I think we should’ve given him some more slack because in an instant all the tension released from the line. In that moment, my heart sank. I knew he was gone.

It’s likely the tension against my shot in his belly caused the slip tip line to rip through and set him free.

I’m proud I shot him and didn’t miss but I don’t like harming an animal I don’t eat. Fish are resilient and I don’t think this doggy will die but I feel bad for poking him. He will be my one that got away.

I was able to shoot an uku as a redemption. My first uku.

woman catches uku fish

Trying to nap later in the day I kept envisioning the moment I first saw the dogtooth. The scene in perfect detail taunting me as I tried to sleep.

fishermen clean their fishes

Ollie and Naela came by and Rachel and I worked to convince him to stay in French Polynesia and carry on with his plan to sail to Japan later.

We spent our evening with Joshua making pizza. Turned out to be more of a cracker with sauce and cheese but I thought it was good. We had drinks and played dice and card games. The fantastic moments on the water will be stored in my memory but I hold a special place for the smaller subtler moments. Playing games with friends on a tiny oat in the middle of the Pacific.

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