Passage Note #88 - The Tuamotus: Raroia and Kon-Tiki
We spotted our first destination in the Tuamotus, the atoll of Raroia, at early daybreak on May 25 just as the sun was trying to penetrate a cloud filled sky. Our four day sail from Tahuata in the Marquesas had been a mixed-bag of conditions. After some calm weather, boats ahead of us had warned us about approaching squalls when we were about halfway, nearing the Disappointment Isles. Toward the finish line we had to put “on the brakes” and slow Jacaranda down, sailing at 2 knots for several hours, so we could arrive at the Raroia’s Garue pass in the light rather than in the middle of the night. We moved in closer to eyeball the conditions at the pass and determined the timing was right - the outgoing current was close enough to slack water and was not forceful; we motored right through as a light rain began to fall and stole our visibility in the steely greyness of the day.
Now inside the lagoon, Linda stood at the bow for her first “bommie-spotting” navigation in the Tuamotus, nervous due to the light drizzle and less than optimal visual conditions. (A bommie is an indigenous Australian term meaning “an outcrop of coral reef, often resembling a column, that is higher than the surrounding platform of reef and which may be partially exposed at low tide”). Fortunately our friends Scott and Nikki on svBeachHouse had sailmailed us the waypoints they had used to navigate across the lagoon a week earlier. Keeping a sharp lookout, we followed the coordinates like they were breadcrumbs to the opposite side of the atoll. This most helpful assistance allayed Linda’s anxiety at the bow and made for a more confident traversal. We arrived on the opposite side of the lagoon 40 minutes later and dropped anchor between svBeachHouse and svMaluhia. A double rainbow appeared in a clearing sky.
Close by Jacaranda lay the small Tahuna Maru islet, famously known among cruisers as “Kon Tiki Motu.”
You see, Raroia has the dubious distinction of being the place where Thor Heyerdahl’s famous Kon-Tiki expedition shipwrecked on the reef on August 7, 1947, ending its 4,300-mile, 101 day eastward drift across the Pacific from Peru. It was an adventurous journey to make in a replica of an indigenous sailing raft, and although his theory of Polynesian settlement from South America has long since been debunked, that fact does not take away from this daring feat and milestone of exploration. We saw the actual 40-square-foot balsa wood raft when we visited the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo, Norway in 2012 and marveled at this explorer’s brilliant mind.
Heyerdahl’s documentary with original footage from the voyage won an Academy Award in 1951 and it was exciting for us to be able to recognize nearly the exact place where they ended up on the reef. Kon-Tiki Motu was a landmark destination for us, as it is for many cruisers. We walked around the heart of the little sand islet to pay our respects to the small historical marker commemorating the voyage’s 50th anniversary, placed there by his grandson after a re-enacted journey. Here too among the coconut trees (planted by the Kon-Tiki crew?) and native vegetation is a good spot for a pot-luck cruiser barbecue.
We were eager to explore the renowned Tuamotan underwater biodiversity and gain gradual ease with the omnipresent black-tipped reef sharks but we were hampered a bit by squally grey weather that plagued us nearly every day in the beginning of our arrival. The upside was the brilliant rainbows arching over the turquoise expanses of water when the sun appeared not long after the rainstorms ended. And electric sunsets.
Snorkeling the numerous bommies and hoas (water channels) yielded rich experiences and Linda began to catalogue the new fish species she spotted each evening in her bible: “Reef Fish Identification: Tropical Pacific” by Allen, Steene, Humann and DeLoach. Her “life list” of fish-watching in French Polynesia soon began to number over 230 varieties. With daily exposure, the natural reaction of tensing when a shark swims past at close range - even a docile one like the black-tip reef shark - gradually began to fade although having them make a beeline to the boat when we jumped in the water for an afternoon bath was still a little off-putting. Soon you begin to realize they are just a bit curious and are not a threat….and you begin to relax in their presence.
During the several weeks we stayed at Raroia, many friends came and went and the place was a hive of activity: snorkeling, reef-walking, windsurfing, kiteboarding, yoga on the beach, and barbeques. We were glad to continue our reunion with Scott on svBeachHouse who we had not seen in several years. In 2009 we had shared a pinnacle experience of riding the giant manta rays of the remote Revillagigedos Islands in Mexico and finally our paths crossed again, this time with his wonderful new partner Nikki. They were headed to Australia, Nikki’s home, so we made the most of the short time we had with both of them.
After two weeks, with a forecast of a strong wind shift, it was time to move to another location. We threaded our way to the northeast corner of the lagoon for some better protection - this time on a brilliantly sparkling sunny day with excellent bommie-spotting visibility. We enjoyed the anchorage at that end of the lagoon so much that we stayed for about two more weeks. Accompanied by Kim and David on svMaluhia, there was plenty of exploration on the reefs and underwater to keep us very happy. Several large bommies yielded great marine treasures to see and photograph.
Puamotan Village of Garumaoa
Eventually we decided it was time to leave to explore a new atoll and returned to the pass on the opposite side of the lagoon where we had entered almost five weeks earlier. We had intended to stay near the pass for one night for a quick exit but it was difficult to find a satisfactory anchoring spot. Instead we anchored in front of the atoll’s main settlement, the small village of Garumaoa (240 people). It was a typical Puamotan town where the Raroians live principally by fishing, copra cultivation, and pearl farming.
There was one main street of crushed coral bisecting the community which straddled the narrow strip of land between the lagoon and the sea. Small houses set in green gardens under tall palm trees had large banks of solar panels occupying their front yards, courtesy of the French government. Kids played soccer on an open field near the elementary school (their secondary school is on the larger atoll of Makemo; they go to Tahiti to attend university). The people of Garumaoa were warm and welcoming and a young man offered to transport our groceries (canned and frozen goods only, no fresh vegetables) the short distance from the little store to the wharf on his bicycle.
Decades ago, one of the Kon Tiki crew members, Bengt Danielsson, stayed and took up residence here, studying the atoll’s economy and society. In his 1952 book “Raroia: Happy Island of the South Seas”, he observed, "The Raroian peace stems from the fact that the people have no material anxieties and no other object in life than just to live”. That’s the way it still appears to be more or less. His description of this carefree attitude can arguably be generalized to all of the Tuamotus.
Tuamotu Pearl Farm
Tuamotu pearl farms are the provenance of the famous black Tahitian gems. Raroia was where we first visited one. It was fascinating for us to see how the process compared to that of our friend, Carlos Caceres' Perles del Cortez Farm in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. Linda had worked with Carlos organizing tours of his operation and had used his Mexican pearls to make a special collection of her jewelry. The two countries had the same species of oysters, Pinctada Margaritifera, but different varieties which yielded a noticeable difference in color.
The process (How Pearls are Made) was very similar except in two areas: (1) Carlos used an anesthetic bath to relax the oysters before the grafting took place, and (2) Carlos produces more mabe pearls (half pearls) than free pearls; Tahitians produce mabes only in the fourth and last time an oyster is used in production (after previously obtaining three free pearls). Mabe pearls involve a different process than producing free pearls.
Paumotan divers in small boats ferried cages of oysters culled from their underwater growing locations in the lagoon (marked by colorful plastic buoys) to the farm buildings: large over-the-water sheds near the shore surrounded by walkways and docks.
Inside, at this particular farm, there were stations of Chinese grafters (other farms we visited used local Polynesians) attended to by support personnel who cleaned, opened and tagged the oysters prior to the delicate implantation of a round piece of Mississippi shell coupled with a piece of oyster mantle into the gonad. This forms the irritant around which the animal makes the pearl. Each grafter’s oysters are color coded so that the success of their work can be evaluated; the lowest producing grafter is fired and replaced each year.
The implanted oysters are then strung, protected in wire cages, and lowered back into the lagoon again where they will produce their pearls. It takes four years to produce a Tahitian pearl requiring a lot of intensive labor and nurturing care. Nature has to also cooperate since bad storms can ruin a year’s harvest. Luckily for our budgets, this pearl farm sold no pearls to visitors - all were sent to their retail store in Papeete, Tahiti. Watch a video about the famous Tahitian Pearl.
On our date of departure, we said our goodbyes to svMaluhia who were going on to Kauehi atoll. We followed behind them to the pass, navigated the churning water, and turned southwest toward our next destination - the atoll of Tahanea.
MORE PHOTOS: In the "Photo Gallery" for Passage Note #88