June 18 - July 7, 2016. (20 days - almost 3 weeks)
Passage Note #89 - The Tuamotus: Tahanea
Tahanea is a uniquely pristine atoll. Uninhabited, undisturbed and a designated nature reserve, there is nothing there but untouched nature and minimal traces of human activity in the form of an abandoned village, very few coconut groves and some fisherman’s huts. It was rich in bird life (three endemic species found here: atoll fruit dove, Tuamotu sandpiper, Tuamotu warbler), live coral, shelling and a wide variety of fish. It became one of our favorite spots.
There are three passes quite near each other on the north side of the atoll, only two of which are navigable by cruising sailboats. In good conditions on the morning of June 18 (after an evening at sea from Raroia), we entered the largest of the two - the main or central pass called Teavatapu, hugging the calmer, deeper eastern side as we motored through the roiling water. We turned the corner to the west, and anchored in shallow bommie-filled turquoise water near the pass. We were alone except for a handsome cherry-red sailboat closer to the other navigable pass to the west, about a respectable half mile away.
These were the first passes we had the opportunity to drift snorkel - a hallmark experience in the Tuamotus - and we were excited!! Passes are the golden ticket of snorkeling because the currents of incoming water are rich in nutrients, attracting all sizes of fish up the food chain including large pelagics like mantas, dolphins and sharks. The corals in the passes are healthy and thick for the same reason. We took the dinghy outside of the Teavatapu Pass at slack tide, slid into the water, held on to the dinghy line, and let the current sweep us slowly back into the lagoon. You don’t want to do this on an outgoing tide - caught in a swift current emptying from one of the atoll's lagoon, a diver was lost to the sea last year. Unfortunately, Teavatapu was disappointingly scoured of coral in the middle of the pass and we saw no sharks or good marine life in the better coral along the edges.
There was however a large coral bommie within swimming distance from the boat that held a wealth of snorkeling wonders, including a large resident Napoleon wrasse - Linda’s favorite. Back on Jacaranda we were quickly adopted by our own private aquarium - a large school of unicorn fish, a few trigger fish, and a handful of black-tip reef sharks that would hang out and swarm around us during the day.
One morning we decided to try snorkeling the second pass to the west at Motu Puapua and on the way stopped to introduce ourselves to the red Schumacher 52 appropriately named Cinnabar. Tom and Sylvia, from the Bay Area, became immediate friends and we spent much time exploring together. They had already snorkeled the second pass and had seen manta rays. Here the lush healthy coral gardens were absolutely spectacular and we floated slowly overhead pushed gently along by the current as if riding on a magic carpet. Below us was a patchwork coral quilt of color and texture. It was outstanding!
In the far distance to the east on the outside of the atoll we spied a freighter stopped alongside one of the motus and wondered what they were up to. We later discovered that Paumotans from nearby atolls arrive during copra harvest season for a short while. The freighter was delivering people to the small seasonally inhabited village called d’Otao which was empty and uninhabited when we first arrived. Consisting of a few houses, a small chapel and graveyard, and two large water cisterns, it was located near the third pass, used only by small local boats. We didn’t stop there but during the course of our stay we saw small temporary camps utilizing lean-tos and shacks set up on various motus to harvest the coconuts, which were split open and left on the beach to dry in the sun rather than utilizing shed structures. The day we left Tahanea we anchored briefly near the d’Otao pass and attempted a drift snorkel but had to leave quickly to return to Jacaranda when a sudden wind shift put us on a lee shore.
On the motu in front of us was a small dilapidated fisherman’s hut next to a wonderfully sculptural dead tree with a curious sight - a shiny green bicycle - sheltered under the rusty tin roof. We never saw a person around and there is no place to ride the bike. No roads, paths or even trails. On closer examination the mystery was revealed - the bike bore the name of a cruising boat we knew. They obviously were intent on gifting it to someone…or rather intent on getting it off their boat and thought this was a good place to leave it.
We enjoyed long walks on the beautiful close-by outer reefs. One afternoon with Tom and Sylvia, we walked to the entrance of the Teavatapu Pass along the motu bordering its western edge. Here we found an old almost illegible sign fallen on the ground which proclaimed the atoll as a nature reserve; it read: “Avertissement Tahanea Atoll protege Reserve Naturelle 2001”.
To our delight the area was a sculpture garden decorated with a dozen artistic coral cairns artfully built by cruisers, some of which we recognized as the recent handiwork of our buddies. We stood on the edge and watched fearfully as friends on a catamaran attempted to enter the pass in less than optimal conditions through large standing waves, a ripping current against them and strong winds. From our vantage point, they appeared to be making no headway and we were afraid they would lose control of their steerage and endanger themselves. “Abort, abort” we all thought. We breathed a sigh of relief when they made it into the lagoon safely. Speaking with them later, it apparently looked worse to us on shore than the view from their cockpit because they were not alarmed at all.
We stayed in this spot waiting for our friends Ryan and Nicole on svNaoma to arrive from the larger atoll of Makemo. They had stopped on their way from Raroia to pick up some fresh vegetables and were bringing some of the precious cargo for us. Real tomatoes would be heaven! When svNaoma arrived we made introductions to Cinnabar - we knew they would hit it off since Tom and Ryan are both avid kitesurfers.
The Southeast Anchorage
A few days later we headed to the southeastern end of the atoll, a heavenly place with large golden beaches and good protection from the winds but not very good snorkeling. It was also relatively crowded with a dozen boats scattered about. This was a favorite secret hiding spot of the famous French cruiser and ex-pop music star named Antoine. We met him on his yellow catamaran, svBanana Split, anchored off a beautiful beach in 3 feet of water with a stern line tied to a coconut palm. He had merely to step off the stern and barely get his feet wet before standing on the dry sand beach. He looked quite at home and told us he had just sailed here from New Zealand and spends quite a bit of time in Tahanea.
The Seven Anchorage
We decided to explore an interesting spot further west that Chuck identified on Google earth as a potential anchorage - we called it the Seven anchorage because of the shape of the coral reef. It looked like good wind protection from a number of directions. It turned out to be almost totally submerged at high tide so it was not as good a spot as we had anticipated. Still, it was good to leave the group and go further afield. The snorkeling was not great here and we did not explore the nearby motus which we understood to be rich with nesting grounds of the endangered Tuamotu sandpiper.
Carefully sidestepping the prevalent bommie field, we traversed the lagoon to the other side and anchored once again near the Teavatapu Pass to stage our departure. We were greeted by our aquarium and Linda was pleased to have a few more encounters with the creatures at her favorite bommie. It was nearly three weeks since we had arrived. At the hour of a brilliant sunset, we exited Tahanea, passing by the coral cairns and sailing through a huge flock of fishing seabirds on a course to our next destination, the atoll of Fakarava.
Postscript: A sad future for Tahanea?
The sign used to proudly be displayed at the main pass: a nature reserve. But who put the sign there and who allowed it to disintegrate…. and why? Maybe the sign reflects the state of protection for this atoll because it seems that this designation is endangered and threatened. There is one special cruiser boat that is an ardent lover of this special atoll. Our friends report the pristine motus providing precious habitat for endemic birds is disappearing at an alarming rate every time they revisit. Natural vegetation is being removed for the planting of coconut palms in order to expand the copra harvesting for the locals from the nearby atoll of Faaite who own them. They have appealed to the mayor of Faaite to no avail; now they are trying the owners of the motus being affected and destroyed. It seems economic necessity will override the environmental protections and the special character of Tahanea will be changed forever.