On this, our fourth morning anchored just inside the south pass of Fakarava atoll in the Tuamotu “Dangerous” archipelago I wake up for the first time in my adult life, my whole life in fact, eager to don my swimming suit and jump in the ocean to swim with sharks.
Last Saturday after a quick and rowdy four-night passage from the Marquesas, we slipped into the calm lagoon through the pass in the coral reef at midday, serendipitously timing our entry with the start of the flood tide (there are no tide tables here, only vague calculations of slack waters being some time after the rising of the moon ). We wound our way through the well-marked channel, and hooked our Rocna on one of the countless coral heads that inhabit the anchorage here. As I was attaching the snubber onto our chain I watched 1.5 meter long sharks slither over to check out the new visitor to their reef – tame black tips but impressive nonetheless with their being, well, sharks. A school of huge bright blue fish swam over and decided to relocate under our keel, where they’ve been ever since, coming out to nibble on the food scraps the girls and I throw over.
Looking around the anchorage, it became clear that unlike anyplace we’ve ever sailed to, the action here wholly lies underneath us. The only land consists of relatively tiny piles of coral with a few scraggly palm trees and leafy shrubs struggling to take root in what is essentially gravel. The small islands – motus – that rise up from the submerged coral reef making up the atoll soar to the impressive height of about 10′ above the level of the sea, which, when you are standing on the cabin top of our boat, you can see straight across to the ocean waves pounding the other side. On the motu nearest to us, you can walk across to the ocean in about five minutes (or 30 with a 3-year-old in tow) after landing the dinghy.
But don’t misunderstand me: the view is stunning. The sparkling deep blue we are floating in runs into a delicious turquoise which melts into a brilliant aqua then the clear ice-blue washes onto the blindingly white sand. Then there’s the rich green strip of palms reaching for the sky that runs right back into the deep cerulean like we are anchored in. It’s kind of funny, but in the Marquesas, if we squinted a little and wiped the sweat beading up on our brows, the towering green mountains and stone peaks around us brought us right back to the towering green mountains of the Northwest. Here in Fakarava, however, we can positively only be in the South Pacific. Which is made only more clear when you dive below into that crystal blue water.
After breakfast this morning I start packing a lunch, and sunscreen and snorkels and fins and drinking water and towels and a beach blanket and cameras and swim noodles and hats, to bring with us to a snorkeling spot one of the local dive guides told us about. It’s right next to the village of Tetamanu (population: 10) which overlooks the pass into the lagoon. Between two small docks is a cut in the coral reef lining the pass; we steer the dinghy between the two tiny floats which mark the deeper spot and enter a calm clear aqua lagoon, the same color that they design swimming pools to be. We drag the dinghy a few feet up the cozy powered sugar beach, spread our blanket in the shade and don our snorkels. Even our 3-1/2 year old Holly, who just this last Sunday declared “I am going to snorkel today!” then proceeded to do just that.
Leah and Michael, the best swimmers in the family, glide off into the bathwater-warm lagoon to study the fish swimming around the colorful corals a bit farther out while Holly and I gingerly wade out in the white sand. I hold her hands as we make our way deeper into the water. Holly’s feet drift up behind her and we put both our masked faces into the sea. Not ten feet from the shore we are surrounded by fish more brilliant and colorful than any I’ve seen in a land-based aquarium: yellow and black, white with fluorescent pink stripes, green and blue and pink and yellow parrotfish, opalescent pipefish. We are surrounded by these gorgeous creatures and I grin not only at the beauty around me, but the oohs and ahhs that come exhaling out of Holly’s snorkel as she watches them swim within inches of her mask too.
Later, while the girls play in the shallows next to our little spot on the beach I swim out to explore deeper waters in our little lagoon on my own. The place is positively teeming with underwater life of all tropical colors, shapes and sizes and I try to just drift along through the rainbow corals and not startle anyone. I watch a fluorescent parrotfish munching on bits of coral and can hear his beak crunching underwater. The 4′ long napoleon fish that is king of the lagoon drifts past me again; he is positively the most enormous tropical fish I’ve seen anywhere – tank or wild – and here he is swimming right past me with his giant blue lips and intricately patterned sides of blue and yellow. The deepest water is only about 3 meters and the sun shines down on everything, making the entire reef shimmer and sparkle. It is absolutely unreal.
Then, out of the corner of my eye I see a dull gray form about 5′ long sashay over from a darker edge of the reef. It’s a black tip reef shark, not aggressive, I remind myself. Perfectly harmless. Still I kick my fins and boogey away from him as fast as I can and he seems to do the same, but does a much better job at acting casual about it. When he’s out of sight again my heart slows and I go back to flying over the most beautiful sea we’ve ever seen.