One of Manihi's 12 blue lagoons

Following a great day of snorkeling in the pass (the one navigable inlet to Manihi’s inshore lagoon) with a local guide, Fernando, we decided to head out on our own snorkeling adventure to the blue lagoons at the far end of the atoll Tuesday. Manihi is 15 miles long, so it would be a 30-mile round-trip journey in the 12′ dinghy, Coconut. With the relatively flat water inside the atoll, it seemed like a good idea. We would save the $25 per person on the guide and use that money for a night dive the next day. Well, that was the plan anyway.

We invited a couple from another boat to join us, and they agreed. Safety in numbers right? Mid-day Tuesday we loaded up our dinghies with snorkel gear, snacks and water for the trip up the atoll and headed out. The wind and waves had picked up overnight, and the lagoon was a bit rougher than when we cooked up this little adventure. Seeing the conditions in the morning, a couple of people in our band of adventurers suggested we call Fernando and see if he was available to take us in his larger, faster boat, but the rest of us weren’t having any of that. This was our adventure and we were taking it on our own.

Fernando, who also delivers fresh bread in the mornings, stopped by with our daily bread delivery and suggested that, with the stronger winds, we head across the lagoon so we would be traveling up the leeward side and presumably in calmer water. It sounded like a good idea, and local knowledge is always appreciated. It turned out as we moved up the lagoon, the wind shifted such that it wasn’t really the leeward side, so we just ended up adding several miles to our trip and still had a pretty bouncy ride.

Coconut led our two-dinghy trek up the atoll at a speed of about 13 knots, helping to break the chop for the smaller, slower dinghy from the other boat. We meandered our way up the main lagoon looking for the small blue lagoons at the far end of the atoll, which were rumored to promise sharks, loads of fish, & spectacular reefs. After about 30 minutes or so of bouncing through the lagoon heading for our destination, Frank pulled out the handheld GPS to check our ETA, and wouldn’t you know it? Dead batteries! Well, almost. He managed to turn it on and get our position and ETA before it shut off again. 45 more minutes to go! We had come this far, so there was no turning back. At this point, certain members of our group began wishing for Fernando’s larger, more comfortable boat.

As we approached the far end of the atoll, the wind had less distance to blow on the lagoon, so the chop laid down a bit and the dinghy ride smoothed out. Our destination, marked by “an orange buoy on a coconut tree” according to Fernando, finally came into view. We saw a few buoys in the water to tie up to and a picnic table the guides use for serving lunch to paying tourists. We skipped the buoys and beached the dinghies for a quick look around.

Just behind the beach, we saw a “lagoon” that looked more like a brown stagnant mosquito breeding pond than a secret blue lagoon. A little unsure if we had found the right spot, we contemplated leaving, but Lara and I spotted a couple of the promised sharks in shallow water. We saw another shark, then another, a large ray, remoras, and other fish. Then we realized there was fish meat on the bottom attracting the sharks and ray, presumably from a guided tour earlier in the day. The water was looking a bit stirred up and was seemingly full of sharks with not much in the way of coral around, so we decided to head to the next lagoon.

Ray eating leftover fish

Ray eating leftover fish

Just a bit further down we found the first of the lagoons, a small semicircular bay about 25 yards across with a few coral heads near the entrance. We decided to pass this one up in search of the next, hopefully “better,” lagoon. We hit the next one only a few hundred yards away and decided to stop and take a look. On the way in, we passed a few coral heads but nothing that looked too enticing for snorkeling, so we just walked around a bit and had a snack. Karen stepped out onto some rocks and spotted an octopus cruising through! It’s a rare sight indeed, so everyone rushed over to have a look. The octopus quickly scurried into a hole in the rock, changed color to blend in, and just like that, it was basically gone.

After our snack, we headed out yet again in search of the promised corals and another picturesque lagoon. Only moments later we spotted the next small lagoon and turned in. We dodged a few coral heads and decided it was no different than the last and continued on. Several more trips like this, hot and tired, we decided to stop and hop in the water to cool off and get to snorkeling around a bit. Faced with only mediocre snorkeling and a long dinghy ride back to their boat, the couple who came along let us know they were heading back to their boat. It was getting late, so after a short while longer, we did the same. That’s where the real fun began.

The afternoon wind having picked up a bit, the waves were bigger and the ride back was much rougher than the ride up. We figured it was downwind, so it should be manageable, right? Without the other slower dinghy to hold us up, Frank cranked up the speed, perhaps a bit too much, trying to make it back in time for the dinner Fernando’s wife was preparing. After a few miles of white-knuckled crashing at-speed into the backs of waves and surfing down the faces, the unthinkable happened. The girls were hunkered down on the bottom, but I was ejected from the dinghy! I was tumbling down the side of the dinghy like a rag doll as it rushed by. Everyone on board must have been just as surprised as me. I have to say this was a first for me——being thrown out of a moving boat. Kinda reminded me of my jet skiing days, only a bit more unexpected. I did however manage to hang onto my sunglasses! A quick check and I seemed to be ok, so I climbed back on board, and away we went. Soon after we were back to zipping down the waves and crashing into the backs of the larger chop.

My “seat” on the dinghy was the front starboard (right) pontoon. With the angle of the waves as we surfed down the faces, crashing into the backs of the taller chop, the dinghy tended to lurch to port (left) forcing me to constantly keep a tight grip on the bow line with my left hand and the pontoon handle with my right or risk being ejected again. With no reduction in speed, I was faced with overcoming forces a few miles later, and much to my surprise, I was ejected a second time! After this second episode, it was time to slow down to meet the conditions.

As if all of this wasn’t enough, a mile of so later, the outboard cut out! Things went from bad to worse. We were out of gas! This would have all seemed more or less funny to me if I wasn’t so unhappy about unceremoniously being ejected from the dinghy twice in 30 minutes. Seeing as we were in a completely enclosed lagoon, we weren’t in any “real” danger of being lost at sea. It was however, a bad time to need that portable VHF we realized we had failed to bring along on our little adventure… We did the only thing we could do––picked up the oars and started paddling.

Paddling Coconut

Paddling Coconut

A couple hundred yards away, there was a house on the shore, so we paddled there. After what seemed like a long time, but really wasn’t, we arrived near the shore, and worked Coconut through the small surf and coral to land on a coral beach. It was a bad time to realize no one brought shoes along either.

With no other options but to brave the sharp coral beach and limestone rocks, Frank and I gingerly stepped our way up the “beach” toward the house, hoping to find someone home. After a few minutes of struggling through the language barrier, the local man understood that our engine wasn’t broken. We were just out of fuel. I can only imagine what he must have thought of us lubbers, but in spite of that, he walked to his shed, grabbed a fuel container, and filled it up. Frank and I syphoned the fuel into Coconut, mixed in some oil, returned the container to the kind gentleman at the house, and continued on our way.

By then we were only a couple miles from Tahina, so we arrived in time to shower up and be ready for our (also unexpectedly altered) dinner appointment, mostly no worse for the wear. The day’s “adventures” behind us, I have this to say; shoes, VHF, & seatbelt are now required equipment on dinghy trips!