Island on Manihi Atoll

Island on Manihi Atoll

So we’ve landed at the first of the Pacific atolls we’ll be visiting along the way. These are the low islands, dense with coconut palms, rooted in a spit of sand, settled on top of a rocky reef, surrounded by nothing but azure blue and turquoise seas as far as the eye can see. We’re on Manihi Atoll in the Tuamotus, formed by the gradual subsidence of a volcanic mountain, whose coastal reefs grew up and up, even after the mountain sunk down into the sea. What’s left is a ring shaped reef, surface-high and capable of supporting trees and homes. Too much more glacial melting and these places will be gone in a flash. It appears the highest elevation on Manihi is about 8 feet above sea level max. Cyclones drown the island when they hit, leaving behind slanted thatch dockhouses and homeowners huddling in their stilt houses. Nothing but fish, oysters and coconuts grow here, so most everything is shipped in. In short, these are the Pacific Isles you think of when you imagine the South Pacific.

Outrigger races Tahina in the pass

Outrigger races Tahina in the pass

Yesterday we joined another pair of cruisers from Australia on a trip to snorkel “the pass”—the only navigable point of entry into and out of the ring that forms the atoll. The tide rips into the atoll as the tide is coming up, and that current tearing into the lagoon makes for a great fish-sighting spot. We joined a local guide named Fernando on his pirogue, and we spirited out beyond the pass, where he dropped us in 30 feet of water so clear it felt as if we’d been dropped into a glass box. Atolls are essentially mounds of coral, and the sea floor was piles of small hard corals in layer upon layer, thronged with fish. As we made our way toward the pass and the current took hold, the remainder of our group was swept into the channel with such quickness that Jason and I, hanging behind and fighting the current to take in the sights, experienced repeated visits from Tavo, Fernando’s right-hand man, asking us to keep together so he didn’t have to stress out protecting us from boats in the pass.

So we gave in and leapt on the riptide, feeling like the characters on the ocean highway in Finding Nemo as we cruised along at about 8 knots. Fernando met us about 200m inland, and we jumped on for a look at the outer reefs. We ran out about 1/2 mile to the north and watched him spear a small snapper which he subsequently fed to 2 large green morays from his spear tip. Jason had a go at it, and the eel was so strong he finally had to abandon the spear and trace its line to the top so he could get another breath. He couldn’t make it let go.

We’ve had a couple of runs at kayaking and we’ve found some incredible clam banks, full of brightly colored clams of the “giant clam” variety, most between 3-10″ in breadth. They are beautifully marbled, in myriad colors and patterns, from purple to green to brown and gold, to bright neon blue with tan dapples in the middle. Jason and I went on a special clam photo expedition this morning, and we hope to upload some pics once we have a good enough connection. We’ve been pretty unlucky with upload speed in the Pacific so far…it seems they have pretty narrow pipes feeding in to the out-islands.

Clam

Clam

We arranged with Fernando in pidgin French/English to have a local dinner tonight at his house. Pidgin it was, because at 7 p.m. tonight, he showed up at Tahina, us all dressed fancy for our visit, with a boatload of food his wife had prepared at her house for us sailors to enjoy together…on our boat…sans locals. Oh well. These things do get lost in translation. Either way, the dinner was very good, and it had a decidedly Asian flare. Fish and shrimp dumplings, beef and pork with noodles, some kind of creamy potato side, and white rice, punctuated with a peach cake. Our Australian friends from Songline came over and joined us, and a good time was had by all.

As for the rest of today’s adventures…Karen put it best: “It was an adventure like in the army, where they say to the recruits, ‘It’s not a job. It’s an adventure!'” We’ll save the details for the next installment.

A tout a l’heure!

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