Cruises for adventurers of the Southern Seas
Aquatiki takes its passengers to the discovery of the Fakarava, Kauehi and Toau Atolls, taking them to the heart of the Tuamotu biosphere reserve.
All aboard for an exceptional cruise in the steps of the legendary beachcombers, who were engaged in trafficking pearls and were deep sea captains in one of the most remote parts of the planet. Located between latitudes 14° and 20° south and longitudes 148° and 134° west, the Tuamotu islands are situated nearly in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with 78 of the world’s 425 atolls!
Making our way to Tetamanu, the southern pass of Fakarava
The first stopover is at the edge of the Tetamanu pass, with a scenery worth of the most beautiful paintings of Douanier Rousseau. The pure wildness of its landscapes is fascinating and the emerald shades of the Motu stand out against the opalescent waters of the lagoon, which is home to countless wonders. Despite its former glory – in the 1950s, the village of Tetamanu counted over 2,000 inhabitants – the former capital of the Tuamotu islands has lost none of its natural splendour. Nature has taken over again among the ruins of the jailhouse, the cemetery or the town hall. Only the Maria No te Hau church (Our Lady of Peace) has withstood the test of time. It was the first church built in the archipelago by Catholic missionaries in 1849 and is believed to be the first church in the Tuamotu islands to welcome Paumotu worshippers. Its colourful bell tower still culminates among coconut treetops. Taupiri Teanuanua, one of the few remaining inhabitants of the Motu, has been tasked to lead the restoration works and performed his task admirably.
The tale of Havaiki and of the Mokorea
Taupiri’s passion for the tales of Tetamanu is, however, stronger than his Catholic faith. He has carefully written down in a genealogy log the names of those ancestors who revealed to him the secrets of the tale of Havaiki, the mysterious underground city buried underneath the Fakarava reef.
Taupiri takes us to the coral reef flat close to the hole through which his ancestors were able to communicate with the ‘Mokorea’, the inhabitants of the city, who were lizard-headed creatures with long hair. Legend has it that a young woman called Marerehairiki lived in the city and made it back to dry land a few years later with two plant species in her hands: the ‘maire’ fern and the ‘tamanu’ tree, which spread through the Motu and from which the island takes its name.
Impregnated by the tales of Taupiri, we take a dive into the Tetamanu pass, eager to discover its hidden treasures. There will be no Mokorea to welcome us but all through the dive, we have a sensation of being ushered into a remarkable realm. All of us are amazed by the rich fauna and the luminous coral reefs.
The silhouettes of the Motu seem to float between land and sea as our boat softly glides away in the light breeze of the Maramu, the local southeastern wind, heading off to Kauehi.
Kauehi, an ideal mooring spot for predator watching
After five hours and 65 km of sailing, a string of islets are in sight, and soon the circular outline of Kauehi, one of the most remote atolls of the Tuamotu islands discovered by Captain Fitzroy in 1835, appears in front of our eyes. Situated in the north-east of the island, Teavaro is the only village on this atoll with a 24 km diameter. Its 700 inhabitants subsist mainly on copra and pearl culture. We anchor on the outside reef close to the only pass at Harikitamiro. The place is less protected than the mooring inside the lagoon, but it remains a strategic location to watch pelagic species.
Discovering the original vegetation of the Motu
Depending on the period, the crew of Aquatiki can regularly admire oceanic sharks, swordfish, dolphins and even whales and killer whales! We are the only ones in the middle of the big blue sea and of the no man’s land of fossil corals which are evidence of a former sea level that was higher than the present sea level. The only sign of life is the dense vegetation of the motus, whose thick branches overlap onto the reef. There is no coconut tree in sight here while there are abundant numbers of species such as the purau (wild hibiscus trees), the 6-metre tall ka’hia, the miki-miki trees whose red wood form an impenetrable bush, or the nonos whose foul-smelling fruits have miraculous properties. The long and lush stems of Pandanus palms stretch out of the bush, exposing their male flowers, the Hinano, which give out a most pleasant scent of ocean.
Kauehi, the scent of the royal flower
We get into the water from the drop-off to the left of the Harikitamiro pass, whose evocative name, ‘The scent of the royal flower’, is a promise of subtle encounters. Actually, a manta ray invites us to follow join in along the vertiginous fall where we come across numerous shoals of brassy trevally (Caranx papuensis), black jacks (Caranx Lugubris) and blue trevally (Carangoides ferdau). Some Indian threadfins (Alectis indica) rip past us with their silvery filaments while their gilded bronze skin shimmers in the blue waters. We swim above a magnificent anemone planted into the reef at some 16 m deep, then a colony of lionfish further down, at some 25 m deep. A number of parrot fish are grazing the coral whose original purity is akin to that of the Motu vegetation. A couple of spotted eagle rays (Aetobatus narinari) swiftly swim past us.
For the second dive, we let ourselves be carried away by the sea current, which swings above a lengthy canyon at the bottom of which tawny nurse sharks (Nebrius ferrugineus) are sleeping. The site provides quite entertaining sights to divers with multiple faults, overhanging and small caves, which a hiding place for bigeye fish, naso and groupers, amongst others.
Underwater arenas, ridges and canyons
We come across a shoal of barracudas and discover a magnificent empty arena at 23 m deep, where some 15 grey sharks wander around. Some of them are resting at the bottom, facing the current in order to take in the oxygen required by their metabolism. The enormous ridge is both a hunting ground and a resting area and is home to a group of grey sharks and is sometimes visited by hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna mokarran) and white-tip reef sharks or ‘tapete’.
After crossing the arena, the group stops at two small caves linked together by a narrow tunnel lined with porcelain and small shrimps, including the beautiful sea star shrimp (Periclimenes soror). These elegant crustaceans live in harmony with the sharks, ridding them of parasites against shelter and food. One can also admire the thorny oyster (Spondylus varius) and elegant sea slugs with their purplish jingle dress. The diving outing ends in the lagoon where some more white-tip reef sharks and blunt-head sharks (Triaenodon obesus) as well as the usual reef fish await us.
Toau, the realm of coconut trees and sharks
Like eternal sea wanderers, we leave one atoll for another. In front of us, the coconut treetops become more visible as the Maramu pushes us towards Toau, where we arrive 8 hours later with all sails set.
The atoll has remained as untamed and desert as when James Cook discovered it in 1773, but the coconut plantations have altered the landscape. Planted by European settlers towards the late 19th century, they now cover 80% of the surface area of the archipelago’s Motu and have caused the extinction of hundreds of indigenous species. Coconut monoculture and the sale of copra (dried coconut used to produce monoi) have marked the entry of the Paumotu in the cash economy. Some 10 men regularly travel from Fakarava to the atoll of Toau to produce the copra. We came across five of them, who live in small wooden huts during the harvest period. On the beach, rows of dried coconuts, packed in large blue tarps, are ready for shipment. The men, who have produced nearly 2.6 tonnes of copra in two weeks, are impatiently waiting for the Kobiah. This boat is the only means of transport to this small patch of land located a few miles away from Fakarava. The schooner serves the atoll once a week to collect the copra and resupply its few inhabitants. Besides a boarding house, some thirty Chinese people work in the only pearl farm of the atoll.
A visit of the spectacular Otugi pass
Following this brief encounter, we go for another dive in the passes located in the south-east of the atoll. The starting point is Otugi, the largest (300 m) and most spectacular pass. After diving along the outside reef at 25 m deep, we come across a shoal of grey sharks and white-tip reef sharks, amongst which there were a number of juvenile fish. The young predators are very curious and come closer to our group, accompanying us to a string of canyons. The drift into the pass, which is twice as long as the Kauehi pass and devoid of corals, starts there. The current takes us above canyons that cross the pass between 8 and 20 m deep.
Diving above sea canyons
During the dive, we remain as close as possible to the bottom in order not to miss the small faults, which are a hiding place for squirrelfish (Holocentrus spiniferus), and the large underwater basin at 16 m deep in the middle of the pass. Impressive shoals of bigeye fish and sea perches cover the bottom of the ridge and hide its numerous crevices. One, two, three… six white-tip reef sharks (also called ‘mamaru’) are hiding under the vault of the canyon. As we get closer, they tread in a single file through the ‘emergency exit’ at the opposite end. What follows is a game of hide-and-seek through the narrow and winding passages to try and take a photo of one of them. Without realising, I end up in the lagoon in the middle of a cloud of racoon butterflyfish (Chaetodon lunula) with a mask tattooed in black and white, vying with the reticulated butterflyfish (Chaetodon reticulates) whose lilac livery is finely edged with a black strip. A green turtle (Chelonia mydas) greedily eats a bunch of sponges around which a couple of emperor angelfish (Pomacanthus imperator) are swirling with their graceful and brightly coloured robes. A 3-metre long tawny nurse shark (Nebrius ferrugineus) escorted by 2 remoras come and take a peek at us at the landing. It reminds me that in Maori symbolism, the shark is associated with the benefactor guide of the lost seaman.
Exploration of the small Fakatauna pass
We explore the Fakatauna pass during the second dive and dip into the water on the ocean side as a driving rain sweeps on the sea surface. An incredible frenzy prevails under the water. Only a few metres below the surface, some doublespotted queenfish (Scomberoides lysan), smallspotted darts (Trachinotus bailloni) and rainbow fish (Melanotaenia boesemani) keep spinning around. Long and shiny white fish called milkfish (Chanos chanos) join in this improvised rain dance. A beautiful dogtooth tuna (Gymnosarda unicolor) shaped like an Olympic swimmer cuts across the shoal. The bluespotted cometfish (Fistularia commersonii) remain impassive and continue on their way while a multitude of surgeonfish (Acanthuridae) and pennant coralfish (Heniochus acuminatus) play with the bubbles. A dark cloud brightens up. The sun rays reflect on the silvery skin of a shoal of barracudas that swim below us; it has stopped raining.
Diving at night in the pass
As soon as night falls, we set out again for the Fakatauna pass, whose small size and accessibility make it the perfect setting for night diving. The beams of our lights successively show marauding white-tip reef sharks and blunt-head sharks and grey reef sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos). We come across a large tawny nurse shark sleeping at the bottom of the canyon. A world replete with nocturnal creatures unveils in front of our eyes in the multiple crevices of the reef.
Night time is the realm of exceptionally varied crustaceans and shells. Our dive instructor shows us here and there some crabs camouflaged with algae, slipper lobsters, seashells, porcelain, spiny sea urchins, octopuses and stonefish. The parrot fish are wrapped in the cocoons of mucus that they secrete to protect themselves from predators and sleep peacefully. We spend some time watching Harlequin shrimps (Hymenocera Picta) hung to the orange fins of an anemone. Attracted by the light, a white moray sticks its head out of its hiding place and finds itself face-to-face with the long spines of a crown-of-thorns (Acanthaster planci) feeding on fresh coral.
During the whole dive, we spotted some 10 of these starfish which are known for the carnage that they do to the reefs. We try in vain to find a giant triton (conch), the only predator for these invasive creatures. We get back to the surface in a constellation of phosphorescent lights. Hundreds of fry of all sorts light up at the slightest movement in the water, mingling with the shower of stars that await us above the surface of the water.
Back to Fakarava
Back to square one. We head off to Fakarava for a last dive in the N’Garuae pass (meaning ‘the large mouth’ in Polynesian language).
The 1,600-metre long northern pass of the atoll rightly deserves its name! Its wildlife concentration places it among the most beautiful diving spots in the Tuamotu Archipelago.
Our eyes filled with the amazing succession of aquatic encounters during this last dive, we swim back to the water surface, with the satisfaction of having fully enjoyed the Paumotu seabed during our cruise.
A shoal of spinner dolphins join in over the last few metres and accompany us to the mooring spot of Aquatiki. This is the ultimate gift of the Tuamotu islands, whose hypnotic blue shades will remain on our minds long after, thousands of kilometres away. We leave this string of islets after a wonderful adventure in the Southern Seas.