Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Tuamotu of French Polynesia

French Polynesia is divided into 5 archipelagos that cover a huge area of the South Pacific from roughly 8 degrees South to 128S and 133 degrees West to 155W .  The 5 archipelagos are:  MARQUESAS to the northeast, GAMBIER well to the southeast; TUAMOTU, the northernmost atolls are about 500 miles SW of Marquesas; SOCIETIES (now also called TAHITI NUI) in the west and northwest; and the AUSTRALS south and southwest of Tahiti.  Like most cruisers, we will not visit the Gambier Archipelago or the Australs.  There is not sufficient time to visit all of French Polynesia within the maximum 90 days that we as US citizens are allowed to remain in this territory, so we will visit those areas that make the most “weather sense” to follow traditional trade winds.  We visited only 3 islands in the Marquesas but that was enough for us.  (Forgot to mention earlier that the Marquesas were home to cannibals until 1930)   The most pleasant surprise to me was that we encountered not one single “no-no” (no-see-um) and I escaped the Marquesas without even one insect bite.  Most beautiful place was definitely The Bay of Virgins on island of Fatu Hiva.  We are now in the Tuamotu and this area is completely different.  The Marquesas are younger islands than the Tuamotu.  The Marquesas are high mountains and have no surrounding coral reef.  The Tuamotu are all atolls; meaning that the mountainous islands have long since sunk back into the ocean and left large lagoons encircled by coral reef and some tiny strips of islands have formed  in various places on the reef circles.

There are 78 islands in the Tuamotu, all but 2 of which are coral atolls.  The Tuamotu atolls extend almost 1,000 miles in NW-SE direction.  This area was called “the Low or Dangerous Archipelago” by the first European navigators because of the risks presented to ships during those days – and continue to challenge vessels today even with our GPS technology.  Due to their low-lying character, the atolls are only visible from a boat during daylight when the vessel is within 8 miles.   (Radar really helps at night!  We identified the atoll of Manihi from approximately 24 miles out during the dark wee morning hours and slowed down sufficiently to arrive during good daylight.)  The Tuamotu were discovered long before the Society islands or Tahiti.  The Tuamotu were discovered by Spanish navigator Quiros in 1605.  Tahiti was not discovered until 1767 by British navigator Wallis.  The Dangerous Archipelago was also visited by Dutch navigators Le Maire and Schouten in 1616 and another Dutch navigator Roggeveen in 1722.  The approximate position of the final 2 islands of the Tuamotu were not recorded until 1835.  It is generally assumed that whaling ships knew of this area during the 17th century but they were very secretive of their whaling grounds and no charting was noted during that time.  But it is arrogant for anyone to say that these islands were “discovered” during the years noted above.  Polynesians had inhabited what is now known as French Polynesia at least as far back as 1200 A.D., and some archeologists place inhabitation back as far as 300 B.C.   We know so little about the history of this area.

The French government used the eastern Tuamotu as a nuclear testing ground from 1963 to 1996.  The area south of 17 degrees 20 minutes S latitude and east of 145 degrees 25 minutes W longitude still remains off-limits to cruisers or visitors.  That area contains many monitoring sensors for seismic, radiation and environmental surveys, and vessels could disturb the area and cause false readings.  Also, there is concern regarding the slight possibility of a partial collapse of the reef as was experienced in Bikini following US nuclear tests.  The other easternmost atolls which are not off-limits now have limited resources.  The inhabitants have turned to the cultured black pearl as their primary source of economic development; second only to tourism.  We have been told that the money behind the black pearl farming comes from Chinese companies but we do not know that as fact.

Tourism is booming on the more northerly situated atolls.  Many of the tiny islands at the atolls now have a small airstrip and it is possible to fly from Papeete, Tahiti.  There are tiny resorts (some built out over the lagoon waters) and truly the place to go if you want to really get away from it all.  Our friends on the catamaran went more southerly to visit atolls that rarely receive visitors.  They are the only boat in one atoll and have been warmly received by the inhabitants.  They have been invited to local homes for meals and celebrations.  They traded rum and were given a tour of a pearl farm.  They also traded a stalk of bananas for a couple of black pearls.  This is really funny to us because they traded a single pencil for a stalk of bananas in the San Blas Islands.  All things being relative, that means that 2 black pearls are worth a pencil.  Like that logic? 

Our experiences in the 2 northern atolls that we have visited so far have been nothing like what our friends have experienced.  In fact, Bill and I are somewhat disappointed in the atolls.  It is not like we expected.  Since we are visiting the atolls most frequented by cruisers, the inhabitants are not as friendly.  They see too many boat visitors to be interested in us. 

From all the photos we had seen before arriving here, we expected crystal clear waters of turquoise and many shades of blue – dotted with patches of coral throughout the lagoons.  Instead, the lagoons are so deep that the water just looks gray with only a few tiny areas near the islets that are pretty.  To be fair, however, the sky has been gray since we left the Marquesas and that is causing everything to look gray.  It is yet again drizzling rain as I type this log.  We will stop at one more atoll and hopefully the sky will be sunny for a few days so we can appreciate the beauty that is supposed to be all around us.

Leaving Manihi was interesting.  When we tried to raise our anchor we found that the anchor chain was hopelessly wrapped around and in huge masses of coral.  We were anchored in depth of 55 feet so it was impossible to see the bottom.  We struggled with it for about an hour and retrieved 30 meters of chain before calling a new friend for assistance.  Darryl on S/V LIBERTY CALL is a single-hander out of San Francisco in a Morgan 32.  We had met Darryl a few days earlier and learned that he is a diver, and he had offered to help if we needed assistance getting the anchor free.  We put the dinghy back into the water and picked up Darryl from his boat.  Took almost an hour with Darryl in the water and Bill on our bow working with the anchor chain and windlass and me on the helm.  Finally we were free!  Do not know how we would have managed this with just Bill and me. 

Darryl planned to go to Ahe -- the same atoll that we were headed to.  Bill brought Darryl back to his boat and helped get that anchor up.  Good thing that Bill stayed to help because that boat came within 10 feet of being up on the reef as they maneuvered to raise the anchor.    The guide books say to anchor in this particular spot because it is a good anchoring area.  Other cruisers need to be aware that the entire anchoring area is full of coral and will foul their anchor rode.  Coral can cut through anchor chain like a hacksaw, so one needs to use extra caution when anchoring in these atolls which are so full of coral.

During the 27 mile sail from Manihi to Ahe we caught a couple of fish.  The first was a barracuda about a meter long.  We have never eaten a barracuda; we have always thrown them back.  But so many people have told us that barracuda is good to eat that we decided to save this one.  If we caught a better fish later in the trip then we would discard the barracuda; otherwise, it would be dinner.  We stunned the fish by squirting alcohol into his gills and open mouth.  Then Bill curled it up into a large plastic crate/box and covered it with a wetted old cloth.  He wanted to make darn certain that this thing was really dead before handling it.  Barracuda have razor sharp teeth and are strong fighters.  Bill filleted it and tossed the carcass into the sea.  As soon as we had cleaned everything up there was another bite on the line.  It was another barracuda, smaller this time.  We definitely did not want another one of these fish since we didn’t know if we would even like it.  Bill played around with it hanging up in the air by the rod and eventually it dislodged off our lure and swam away. Didn’t want the fish but did want to save our lure.

We arrived at Ahe at slack high tide and had an uneventful entrance through the pass.  BTW, the C-Map electronic charts are not accurate in the Tuamotu.  But we also have some electronic French raster charts and those have been dead-on accurate so far.  It takes about an hour to cross the lagoon from the entrance pass to the anchorage area in front of the village – that is how large these lagoons are.  The lagoon is long and it would take 3 hours to go from one end to the other.  We could tell from the noise when we dropped the anchor that this is another area full of coral.  Darryl anchored near us and then dove on both our anchors and those of the other 3 boats nearby.  Sure enough, this anchorage is exactly like the one at Manihi --  not one anchor was set into the ground; all of the anchors are just lying on top of coral.  Only the weight of our anchor chains is holding our boats in place.  None of us are anchored correctly. 

We invited Darryl for dinner of beer-batted fried barracuda.  It was the first time for all 3 of us to taste this type fish.  Surprisingly it was not bad.  I had always equated barracuda to be the same as gar (boney and bloody), but that is not true at all.  Barracuda is a very firm, meaty type fish; very much like swordfish.  The taste is mild.  It would probably be very good in cioppino.  I seasoned it well with Old Bay Seasoning and then fried it in beer batter and served with a chipolte sauce.  You are not supposed to eat larger barracuda because of the danger of ciguatera.  They feed on smaller fish that feed on reefs.  Anything larger than a meter should not be eaten, and you should not eat the meat that is located near the stomach.  This is not our favorite fish but we would eat it again.

The GPS problem:  it is now solved.  Turned out that the problem with our Furuno GPS was a malfunctioning antenna.  Darryl had a smaller version Furuno GPS for one of his spares and he did not need it.  The antenna on his spare unit works with our unit.  So we bought his spare Furuno GPS so that we can use that antenna with our existing unit.  We still hope to eventually purchase another antenna and that will give us 2 complete Furuno GPS units, as well as our hand-held Garmin and the USB cube.  BTW, Bill did later get the USB cube GPS to work.  We do not know why it would not power on when we needed it during the passage from Marquesas to Manihi.  We think the problem might be related to the SSB radio.  I think the SSB radio grabs the com port used by the USB cube GPS.  I think this prevented it from transmitting data and caused it to appear not to be powered on.  At any rate, we again have a plethora of functioning GPS redundancy.

Bill went ashore to the village twice yesterday; once to try to buy bread and once to bring in a bag of garbage.  The guide books say that you can buy baguettes here but this is not true.  The store does not sell bread. There is no electricity and every building or home has solar panels for power.  Yet every single house has Direct TV and telephone service.  Got their priorities straight, don’t they?  The island is only about 5 blocks wide and maybe a quarter mile long, and there are 2 cars on this island!  Whatever for?  There are obviously no roads and no bridges to the other islands so why in the world does anyone need a car?  There is also a small front-end loader at the concrete wharf.  That makes sense because it would be used to unload the small cargo boats that come from Tahiti.  I have stayed on the boat both in Manihi and in Ahe.  Nothing interested me enough to make me want to explore anywhere.  Planned to snorkel are few places but it has rained each time.  Need bright sun to enjoy snorkeling and see anything.

Late this afternoon (Tuesday, June 17) we will leave for the overnight passage to Rangiroa.  Plan is to go slow and arrive there during slack high tide tomorrow early afternoon.  Winds have been non-existent for the past few days so seas should be quite calm.  Prediction is for winds of less than 15 knots for today and tomorrow so this should be a calm passage.  The guide books say that Rangiroa is the second largest atoll in the world.  I hate it when they say things like that.  Makes me want to know just which atoll is the largest and were it is located.  Here’s hoping the anchor comes up without difficulty this afternoon.  We are again anchored in 50-feet depth and cannot see bottom.

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