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The Tuamotu Diaries: Chapter 7 - My Happy Place

Taylor cunningham
photo @moore_rachel


We are back at our original anchorage where we started nearly ten days ago. I think nine to be exact.

The forecast promised hardly any wind for the next few days. Which was true until about 4pm yesterday.

We had gone outside the motu to try and spear and dive the ledge and pass. There are three passes on this side of the lagoon. Our first excursions were on the North, yesterday we explored the center. Large schools of black jack swam up from the depths to check Josh’s flashers hanging from the dingy. A new group running patrol every fifteen minutes or so.

Rachel had her camera and the boys each had their guns which left me on dingy duty. I clipped the line around my waist so I could still have the freedom to use my hands. The few times I dove down, halted by my harness, I felt like a human flasher, suspended mid water column in my bright white spring suit.

Because I was strapped to the dingy I made finding shootable fish my occupation. Spotting was slow at first, made challenging by a slight haze in the first meter of water. The murk made it a bit eerie and more difficult to see, but the falling sun cast tall beams into the particles making for gorgeous cathedral lighting.

The ocean has always been a bit like my church.

grey reef sharks

As I dragged the dingy along, a small hoard of grey reef sharks gathered just behind. Every once in a while, a new baby would race up from the depths toward our faces before joining the group in the back. I wonder if the shiver would challenge its new members to face opponents almost four times their size as some sort of hazing ritual before they can swim with the group. Our dive went on, unbothered by the sharks as some would leave and others replace them.

Josh made an attempt at shooting a doggy during a lull in the sharks. It was a deeper drop along the ledge so we couldn’t see what was happening from the surface, only hear the gun go off. He returned to the surface, line tangled in his bands. No fish.

mr joints speargun

Of course, the time you really want your gear to work is when something good is going down. I feel bad. His gun has shot perfectly at least a hundred times on this trip so far.

We continued our drift. Huge Napoleon wrasse slowly floated just before the drop off, a deep pink anemone housed some orange fish, and Joshua got a surprise visit from a bottlenose dolphin on one of his drops looking for fish. It quickly spooked off and we were only left with the vision of a large, fast shadow when we looked down from the surface.

Shark infested waters at the mouth of the pass prevented us from shooting the three dogtooth trying to blend into the pack. One of which could’ve easily been a small, personal submarine.

The constant presence of sharks is one of my favorite things about this place. Always one small grey tailing us while we dive, large silvertips joining the group at the surface when a gun goes off, and blacktips circling the boat at anchor.

I say good morning to them while sitting on deck and writing. Their little tan bodies, dip dyed in black paint on the edges catch your eye when they move through the aqua water.

Since we had been diving behind the motu we didn’t notice the wind filling in from the opposite direction. It was fueled by passing squalls that looked like massive grey pillars on the horizon.

It started off as a quite bumpy night. The wind generated decent sized chop across a large fetch of lagoon. The forecast didn’t estimate high enough. The bow lifted and fell throughout dinner and into the evening.

Everyone settled in to get rocked to sleep. In my mid-sleep delirium, I heard some bustling early in the night to close hatches and move cushions. Rain. Everything seemed calm from then till morning other than the steady rocking of the boat.


Today we woke up to a ripple less anchorage. Like looking through a window you can clearly make out every detail of the reef and watch as the fish glide effortlessly over the sand. I can see the craters dabbled across the grains caused by little worms buried beneath. The reef at this anchorage is more of a holding place for algae than for corals.

island anchorage

We’ve been floating our chain here. Joshua will attach a small buoy every few meters so it doesn’t catch any of the small piles of coral below. He explained to me that it doesn’t affect the strength of the holding and protects the life below. Another benefit being if a storm hit we could quickly move without worrying the chain is tangled at the bottom.

Rachel informs me that more experienced cruisers use this method but many don’t. For this reason, this anchorage has somewhat damaged reef. The anchorages by the pass are the most popular on this island.

Yesterday was a double pass day. We started off in the West and stopped to see if the baby greys were around. Pulling up in the dingy and hopping into the blue you start to see bright figures speeding up from the depths. For a few minutes a tornado of tiny sharks circles below your toes until eventually they lose interest.

woman with sharks
photo @moore_rachel

We made a second attempt to woo them but they were no longer excited by the strange noise at the surface.

Jetting along the barrier of the motu, we skip across clam, royal blue water. The slight breeze coming across the lagoon is disrupted by the tall coconut trees, leaving the outside edge of the motu flat.

diver on pristine coral reef

The dingy carries us towards the East. The pass is shallow and lets out into a deep ravine before plunging deeper. The current has slacked earlier than we anticipated so we easily sit motionless searching for fish at the edge of the drop off. Below us a massive school of black soldier fish merge and split as grey sharks swim through. The group of fish cast a blanket over the reef, almost blocking the view of the reef and sand just inches below them. As parts of the school move, fish angle themselves just perfectly to where their eyes catch the sun and glow a bright white visible from the surface twenty meters above.

Just above the soldiers a school of barracuda slink in unison. This species is a sleeker, slenderer one compared to those I commonly see in Hawaii.

school of barracuda

We wait patiently for the larger predatory fish to arrive. Joshua dives down and spots a dogtooth, signaling to Josh to take a drop. Both come back to the surface having seen the fish but not within shooting range. Josh handed me the gun for a chance at a shot. I dive as deep as I feel comfortable with the limited recovery time I had. I was doing some deeper drops previously to photograph the fish.

I get to the bottom and stare out into the blue. No dogtooth. I head back to the surface to report to the boys.

After waiting a moment Josh makes a drop to see if anything good is around. Barely able to make out his blue wetsuit against the blue hue everything becomes at depth I hear his shaft burst from the gun. A large dogtooth pauses, stunned by the blow through his gill plate. As Josh begins to make his way to the surface the once dormant bullet-shaped missile flashes off towards the deep. Struggling to bring in the line we all realize it must be caught along the bottom.

The fish is gone. Most likely it was sharked at some point as it tried to make an escape.

The tangled shaft was lodged in the reef deep at the bottom. I took a dive to attempt to assess the situation but was met by spunky sharks about half way down that were fired up from their easy meal. By the time I was done shaking them off my fin tips, I was out of air and returned to the surface.

Joshua also took a dive and confirmed the line was tangled but it was a long way down.

Josh prepared for his drop, breathing slowly at the surface. He worked to calm his heart rate after his short fight with the doggy. When he began his descent, I grabbed the line and held tension at the surface. With one end caught on the bottom and the other being held firm at the surface, Josh was able to start free emersion style towards the bottom. He managed to untangle everything and as he worked to pull himself back up I reeled in from the surface to close the gap between us quicker. The watch read 43m. The shaft was left at a right angle and flopper gone. Sharks one, Josh zero.

A quick stop at the middle pass before heading home brought the opportunity for me and Joshua to hit a fish. During my dive three doggies appeared. We both decided there were too many sharks to safely land one.

Honestly, I probably would’ve tried but the current made it nearly impossible to stay within shooting range.

Defeat and an outgoing tide called for rest. We headed back to Agape for a quick nap and lunch.

The flood tide started again and we headed out for round two at the passes.

We started at the point far to the East. A long drift along the ledge left us with very little to shoot at. Even the deep ravine once teaming with fish seemed to lose its’ action.

beautiful coral reef

Just as we thought to give up a submarine of a fish came into view. I stayed on the dingy watching the action through the calm surface. Joshua threw the flasher and the dogtooth came barreling in. He punctured the fish but somehow it managed to break free, speeding off before the sharks could lock in.

We’ve got a low batting average. Of the five dogtooth shot the record stands as follows: lost to reef, landed, got off the line, sharked, and got off. That’s only a 20% success rate. We’re hoping to make some improvements moving forward.

I went with Joshua and Rachel to the beach while Josh cooked dinner.

Sunset was beautiful. A fiery orange orb sunk quickly through the break between the clouds and the horizon. After its’ final edges sank into the sea, hues of yellow and pink intermixed with the white cotton balls extending into afar. The faint afterglow lasted a few minutes as I trekked around the tiny outgrowth of motu housing a few bushes and some rubble.

We indulged in Josh’s fried fish and French fries. After dinner we had long conversations about God, good and bad, free will, and how to listen for God in our life. The only thing keeping us all awake after such a long day was the engaging chit chat under the stars.

I feel like yesterday was the first day I really felt my exhaustion kicking in. Even after a good night’s sleep I woke up this morning easily able to get back in bed if the opportunity presented itself. It didn’t. Today was another early and long day on the water. Being out all day is partially because the ocean is so amazing here but also because if we stayed on the boat “we would burst into flames.” As Joshua would say.

A perfectly glassy ocean is paradise except for one key issue. No wind means it’s about to be scorching hot all day. So, we prepare for a long day fueled by a small smoothie for breakfast.

Peeling around the corner into the pass Josh spots a disturbance at the surface in the distance. A dark triangle breaks through the water before sinking again. The next time it cuts through the water, it’s accompanied by two wing tips poking up towards the sky. A train of surface feeding mantas is cruising through the pass.

reef manta flying

As the pelagic ocean waters rush through the small opening to the lagoon, strong currents carry plankton and other manta snacks in high concentration.

While we struggle to kick in one direction or another these winged giants swim effortlessly up current, mouth agape, before gliding back down current to do it all again.

The mantas here are shy. They are focused on their feeding and don’t care much for the human distracting them from their task. Just as you would begin to see the white of their belly moving towards you they would often notice the obstacle in their path, curl up their cephalic lobes, and dive deeper to the reef before returning to the surface just behind you.

We repositioned and drifted for hours, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, until the flood started to weaken.

man on dinghy

One quick drop at baby sharks before grabbing some cold leftovers at the boat and getting back in the dingy.

The afternoon mission was a journey towards the center of the lagoon to a small island housing hundreds of birds. What appears to be just a green fuzz on the horizon grew in detail as we made our way closer. Tiny black dots swirl in clockwise and counter-clockwise motions stacking high into the sky. Tall cocos stick up above shaggy bushes at the water’s edge and normal looking trees in the center. Moving closer the tiny black dots grow wings and tails split down the middle. Some sport bright white chests while others dangle rough, red flaps. Wings bent into a “w” give frigates (‘iwa in Hawaii) their distinct silhouette in the sky.

We pull the dingy up to the fringe reef and carefully tip toe through sandy patches up to shore. The air has faint stink of shit, probably more noticeable by the lack of breeze. Loud squawks and whistles cut through the silence between our comments on the birds’ appearances and sheer numbers. Baby blacktips steal out attention for moments. They race around, only a few inches long, searching the shallows for a bite.

frigate bird sitting on egg

Each low-lying bush or tree housed a handful of frigate nest. Some acting as a perch for white fluffs with bald heads. Others holding dark bodied adults looking back at us unsure if we cause harm or not. I try to speak kindly to the birds as if maybe they understand English and will know I don’t want to hurt them.

baby frigate bird

We embarked on a sweltering walk along the island. Our bodies began melting under our clothes as liquid dripped over brow ridges and down spines. The birds also felt the heat. Thin flaps of skin under their beak vibrated violently as they tried to pant the hot air off.

Searching for some relief from the sun we slipped into the water for snorkel around the island. I’m not sure if it is from the insanely warm surface layer or nutrient dense bird excrement entering the water, but the corals were amazing. Huge mounds in varying hues of yellow, green, and blue draped themselves along the walls. The branching corals looked like millions of pointed Christmas trees that formed a forest of reef inches below the surface before dropping off and making way for the deeper, larger, old growth corals. Tucked in the nooks and crannies vibrant clams boasted electric blues, neon greens, and deep purples. Each one completely unique to the next.

We snorkeled the backside of the motu before calling it a day and heading back to the boat for dinner.

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