July 8 - August 24, 2016
Passage Note #90 - The Tuamotus: Fakarava's South Pass - Shark City
Drift snorkeling Fakarava's South Pass is like a magic carpet ride: Slip easily from the dinghy into the enveloping water, lie transfixed on its warm surface as you keep one eye on the sandy bottom underneath you and the other on the vibrantly rich reef to your side; glide along like superman, letting the incoming current gently carry you over hundreds of sharks below, over a group of spotted eagle rays, maybe a manta ray or a huge Napoleon wrasse with thousands of rainbow fish schooling and darting through the colorful coral next to you…..spellbound by the wonder of all you soar past and over.
Mention “Fakarava” to cruisers who have been there and you will no doubt get a broad knowing smile followed by them telling you how many times they “did” the “South Pass”. No one leaves Fakarava without having drift snorkeled or dived the South Pass. Multiple times, because once is not enough. The South Pass is a legendary experience on an atoll that is one of the most favorite destinations in the Tuamotus.
Shark City and "The Frenzy"
The wall of sharks in Fakarava’s South Pass is famous, earning it a reputation as a world class diving destination. Hundreds of sharks!! While there are several kinds (the familiar black tipped and white tipped reef sharks, maybe a rare hammerhead), the majority are gray reef sharks.
But there is a special time to be at the South Pass - at the full moon in July of each year. This is when an incredible shark predator/grouper prey extravaganza plays out in the darkness of night. Dubbed “The Frenzy” in a May 2018 National Geographic article, it was captured on film during an extraordinary 24 hour dive by a French team in a 2015 documentary called “Le Mystére Mérou” (The Grouper Mystery). The divers estimated 18,000 camouflage groupers, normally solitary fish, had congregated in the South Pass to spawn the next generation where the tide would carry the fertilized eggs out to sea. The groupers, fat and about two feet long, are not alone: as many as 700 gray reef sharks assemble as well, to stalk them. The gray reef sharks hunt the assembled groupers at night as a pack. Finally, in one single night, the whole mass of fish spawn at once, releasing clouds of eggs and sperm into the water. It’s a treacherous place for the groupers during these several weeks and the nocturnal carnage and electric agitation in the water is recorded in the film.
After an overnight from Tahanea atoll, we arrived at the South Pass one calm sunny July morning on an incoming tide and breezed past the bustle of its relatively active surface world - wet-suited divers splashing in from canopied aluminum dive boats, gliding unmanned dinghies tethered to drift-snorkeling cruisers, people hanging out on the dock and waterside snack of Tetamanu Pension jutting out into the waterway, a few tourist bungalows lining the shore. We navigated around the large marked interior reef with its old fish pens and turned east to pick up a mooring ball in front of Pension Aito Paradise and the Top Dive office. This area north of the Pass is full of bommies so it was nice that the commune provides several moorings for free - both for us and for the preservation of the coral.**
**Update from 2018: The moorings we picked up to the north of the Pass have not been maintained and cruisers use them at their own risk. One cruiser friend, Roy on svMabruka, sustained major damage in 2018 when his mooring failed and his boat was swept on to the reefs.
We lost no time in dinghying over to Tetamanu Diving Center to contact Marc Reteneaur, an old dive instructor buddy of Scott Stolnitz from svBeach House, and schedule a scuba dive for the next day. Marc was expecting us and greeted us with his characteristic jesting.
The following day we arrived for the dive and suited up. Slack water occurred right after lunch so we boarded the dive boat and were driven outside the Pass at about 1 pm. We dropped into the water at a buoy on the outer reef and descended to about 50 feet to the scoured bottom of the Pass.
There were lots of sharks alright - more than 100 of them - gray reef sharks swimming lazily in place, almost stationary, facing into the incoming current. During the daylight hours the scene is placid and calm unlike the “frenzy” of the nocturnal realm. Lying close to the seabed were some “sleeping” white tipped reef sharks and of course the ubiquitous black tip reef sharks were always around. We had never seen such a concentration of sharks before and it was very exciting. We were shepherded by Marc, riding the gentle current back into the Pass, following the curve of the reef edge as we slowly ascended from the sharks’ depths, past the coral and the submerged dock piers, and at last swam through the narrow cut in the reef, ending the dive in the shallow sandy “swimming pool” right in front of the Tetamanu Diving shop. As we got shallower, the healthy coral gardens underneath us appeared more beautiful and colorful and the fish were diverse and plentiful in the gin clear water. Highlights included several large Napoleon Wrasses, an anemone with its resident Nemos (clownfish), a moray eel, Titan triggerfish, a band of eagle rays, and large schools of snappers and goatfish hanging out in the shade of the pension’s overhang.
There used to be two humongous mature and somewhat tame Napoleon Wrasses nicknamed “Jojo” and “Josette” that hung out in the Pass near the Pension’s dock until they were killed by thoughtless spearfishers. We watched in distress one afternoon as a cruiser, fishing from his boat, hooked a Napoleon Wrasse, brought it on board, and passed it around among the crew for photos before it was finally returned to the sea, needing resuscitation first.
During the subsequent week we took our dinghy out of the Pass and drift snorkeled back inside several times each day and were delighted by the richness of it over and over and over again. We entered the water using the same buoy we had used on our scuba dive, held on to the dinghy painter rope, and let the incoming current sweep us into the pass, often able to ride it all the way back to our boat on the mooring. We did feel like superman as we flew past and over pristine coral gardens and tons of fish, spying the sharks “parked” 50 feet below us. It was a highlight for us even though it was nothing like the excitement of “The Frenzy”.
Tumakohua is the formal name of the South Pass. At the end of the motu defining its eastern edge are the scant remains of what was once the main village of Tetamanu, capital of Fakarava until the atoll was destroyed in a devastating cyclone. About 40 people live there today. Besides the six bungalows, restaurant (snack) and dive shop of the Tetamanu Pension, owned by Annabelle and Sane, there are several homes and a pretty little church, its colorful interior filled with shell decorations. The remains of the original 1874 church (built in the traditional coral block and limestone mortar) and graveyard and some government buildings, including a school and jail, line the grassy path that once was the main road through the community.
Les Sables Roses
Along the motus south of the Pass is an area of spectacular beauty with pink sand beaches known as Les Sables Roses. “A double crescent of dreamy beaches, split by a narrow spit of white-and-pink coral sands, Les Sables Roses seems to come right out of central casting for tropical ideals” says Lonely Planet. It is utilized heavily by tourist excursion boats as a daytime destination for sunbathing, picnicking and barbeques for their clients. They seemed to resent the presence of cruisers as an intrusion on their privacy and we heard talk of restricting cruisers from anchoring here.** At the time of our visit, several yachts were asked to move from where they had anchored closer to the pass but there was an area further away from the pass where we were that seemed acceptable. One of the nearby motus served as headquarters for a local kiteboarding school. There was a hook or bight of shallow water next to the second range marker inside the pass (on the south side of the channel) where we found spectacular snorkeling. See the map at the beginning of this PN for the location.
**Update from 2018: Sadly, anchoring is now forbidden in the Les Sables Roses area. It is off limits for protection of the area due its inclusion in the Biosphere Reserve although we have heard that there was an underlying political reason to provide exclusivity for local boats with clients. Cruisers can still visit during the day by dinghy.
In the southeast corner of the atoll a short distance from the South Pass is an area of extensive white sand in front of the Motu Hirifa. What a beautiful anchorage (shallow with sand bottom) and very flat calm in the prevailing south winds during this time of year.
Liza’s - the restaurant and homestead of Liza and her husband John (Turea) - is a legendary place for a great dinner!