The Tuamotu archipelago is a masterclass in the colour blue – I never knew there were so many shades. There is little to no land so the sky, lagoons and vast stretch of sea completely dominate. This is the South Pacific dream – the 77 atolls (narrow coral rings encircling turquoise lagoons) that make up this stunning archipelago are flung over an immense stretch of indigo-blue ocean. When you’re anchored inside the atolls it can feel l like you’re anchored in the middle of the ocean – land is so scarce.
In the past, the Tuamotus were accurately described as the dangerous or disappointment isles because they really were somewhere to avoid. Each atoll is a ring of coral, topped with occasional motus (sandy islets) surrounding a lagoon. The majority of atolls are flat with only a few palm trees, very little else grows and there is very little fresh water. No charts of French Polynesia, including apparently up to date electronic charts, can be trusted completely and the maximum visible range in good visibility is 9 miles. Throw in some uncharted areas, difficult passes and lagoons full of unmarked coral heads (known as bommies) and the cruising in the Tuamotus can be a nerve-wracking experience. Along with countless others, Thor Heyerdahl wrecked his raft Kon-tiki on one of its atolls.
The only way in and out of the atolls is though an often fairly narrow gap in the coral known as a pass. First you have to find the pass and then you have to time your arrival or departure exactly right! The current runs strongly through the passes so getting your timings right is critical – the perfect time to enter or exit is at slack tide. Although numerous very helpful past cruisers have written copious notes and supplied guestimaters for tide times, we soon found that preparation, patience and a little bit of luck were our best tools.
Fortunately the amazing coral reefs, rich marine life, friendly locals and stunning scenery made it completely worth it. We only visited 4 of these amazing atolls but I feel we chose well and each one was slightly different and special in its own way. The friendly people of the Tuamotus, called Paumotu, are some of the hardiest people on earth: collecting rain water for drinking, farming sandy soil and mastering everything that has to do with coconuts. They also farm gorgeous black pearls, harvest copra, fish and somehow manage to thrive in this beautiful but harsh environment. The environmental and health repercussions of French nuclear testing in the Tuamotus are still hotly debated. Between 1966 and 1996 a confirmed 181 nuclear bombs, reaching up to 200 kilotons, were set off in the remote Tuamotus at the rate of six a year. No official studies of this impact have been carried out yet and no compensation has been paid. This is understandably a hot topic in the Tuamotus – we saw more than one display board filled with french newspaper articles debating the topic on Fakarava and everyone you talk to have an opinion.
We snorkelled incredible reefs, had fabulous beach BBQs and enjoyed numerous sundowners accompanied by beautiful sunsets. We had our first encounters with stunning eagle rays and many nerve-wracking but awe-inspiring dives with sharks – oh what a life we live!
Our first stop was the uninhabited island of Tahanea where we met up with our ‘old’ friends from the Atlantic, SY Bonaire. The lovely UK family onboard had spent the cyclone season in the Marquesas and we were eager and excited to meet up with them as we hadn’t seen them for a year. Fin was particularly excited as Bonaire has two of his best friend’s onboard – Sam and William. Our time in Tahanea was brief but the atoll was beautiful and the snorkelling stunning. It was also our first introduction to sharks – black tips, white tips and grey reef sharks. We snorkelled the vast coral gardens and did a drift snorkel – when you drift with the tide through the pass (basically the laziest snorkelling ever – you don’t even need to kick!) – with many sharks swimming down below us.
Our next stop was Kauehi – another complete gem. We explored the charmingly chilled main town, bought some provisions and enjoyed watching a local football tournament – large Polynesian men playing football in socks and jelly shoes is truly a wonderful sight! But the highlight was that the kids were invited to attend the tiny little primary school (20 kids) – it was the last day of term and they spent the morning cooking, building kites, singing songs and making coconut boats. They then spent the afternoon sailing their little boats across the road from the school. P got completely carried away with the theme and helped the kids make a catamaran in the pouring rain which they christened BonZulu – a huge hit with all involved! More great snorkelling, fire making lessons on the beach, windsurfing, cake parties and BBQs rounded up a rather perfect week in beautiful Kauehi.
So it was on to one of the better known islands, Fakarava. Bonaire zoomed off ahead of us proudly raising their spinnaker for the first time in a while. We had a ripped spinnaker and a poorly hand patched asymmetric but apparently two boats sailing in the same direction is always a race so we raised the ‘gorilla tape repaired’ asymmetric and off we went! Inevitably it ripped – well actually it totally shredded – so bye-bye lovely asymmetric! Interestingly we were about an hour behind Bonaire but the tide had turned and so our entrance through the North pass was slightly more challenging with at least 4 knots of tide against us!! We slowly inched our way through the pass at 2.5 knots with the engine in full throttle!
Safely through we anchored off one of the bigger towns in the Tuamotus and for the first time in a while had the luxury of a choice of shops and even a few restaurants. Fakarava is particularly famous for its south pass which is a very well-respected dive site and world renown with shark enthusiasts. So we slowly made our way south stopping at some very pretty little anchorages along the way.
The nutrient rich South Fakarava pass completely lived up to its reputation. We were very lucky as the weather was calm when we were anchored there and so we managed to drift snorkel the pass at least once a day – we loved the stunning coral garden, gorgeous fish life, majestic eagle rays and many many sharks!
After a brilliant three weeks buddy boating we reluctantly left Bonaire and sailed off to towards neighbouring Toau. We had another ‘interesting’ experience in the North Fakarava pass but this time the tide was with us spitting us out of the atoll at a rather exhilarating 9 knots! Toau is one of the few islands you can visit without running a pass – there is a false pass and little bay called Anse Amyot on the North coast where a friendly family has a few mooring balls. We spent a lovely relaxed week catching up on school, boat jobs, snorkelling and exploring the tiny little island. On one of our little walks, Stella found a hidden path and we inadvertently came across a rather interesting recreational herb plantation that we probably weren’t meant to find! A few interesting discussions arose from that walk and added yet another dimension to boat school! The island residents gave us some local parrot fish to eat – our first time eating reef fish – once we’d got our heads around eating the stunning fish we’d so often admired under the water – they were surprisingly delicious. We managed to pay for the parrot fish, some eggs and our time on the mooring for a bottle of Panama rum – luckily we’d stocked up and everyone was happy!
Then all to soon it was time to leave the fabulously scenic Tuamotus to head for ‘civilisation’ and the bright lights of Tahiti – a quick, uncomfortable, windy 30 hour sail later – we were in the ‘big’ smoke’.