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  • Around The World With Steve
    Steve Alexander

    Huge lightning streaks illuminated the clouds with enough energy to blow our entire plastic capsule out of the water. Clinging to the steering pedestal, I watched 7.7 knots register on the GPS as we careened down the face of 12-foot wind waves. I questioned the sanity of this adventure, and of myself, and said a small, hypocritical prayer for the storm to end.

    An early mid-life crisis had been brought on by the fear of my life becoming a stationary dot on the surface of the globe. Three years later, my wife and I found ourselves 1,700 miles from land in the Pacific Ocean and beneath 60,000-foot thunderclouds. To sail the world’s oceans as an underwater photographer was a dream spawned from my childhood years diving the Devon and Cornwall coasts of England. Thirty-five years later I was convincing my wife to postpone 2.2 kids, a house on the hill and a Dodge Caravan. Instead, we would sell everything, move onto a 35-foot sailboat, labor for three years and sail off into the sunset. It was a tough argument, but the idea of living in a scuba paradise seemed to work, mainly because Jen loves to dive. Stories of Manta Rays in the South Pacific, Humpback Whales in Tonga and sunsets in remote atoll lagoons fueled the fire long enough for the great escape.

    The Sojouner at sunset.
    But with each explosion of lightning the stories seemed pathetic, a misrepresentation or cruel hoax, which had seen us at sea for 17 days, with another 13 remaining. Our sea berth was soaked with salt water, we hadn’t had the motivation to wash in days, and cooking was an abstract idea. Sojourner, our 35-foot Hallberg Rassy sloop, was rolling violently, and it took all our energy to stagger across the cabin. The next day the clouds were so vertically extensive and so black with water that daylight arrived three hours late, but at least the lightning disappeared. And then the rain stopped and the wind died almost as if by command. Motoring away from the wall of black clouds in huge seas, we were happy to still have a mast, a boat and our lives. But whether or not we had a marriage was still in question.

    After 291¼2 days at sea the island was just a gray mass on the horizon, cut off 200 feet above the water by gravid cumulus clouds. But we knew it was land, we smelled it was land, and the 12 satellites in the sky confirmed it was land—Hiva Oa in the Marquesas. We had made it, and we felt proud. (That is until someone told us that even a milk carton would eventually reach the Marquesas. It’s true, but not exactly what we wanted to hear.)

    When you sail to remote corners of the world, lagoons (here. at Toau Atoll) become your own swimming pools.

    We dived the island of Tahuata, in a spectacular bay called Hana Moe Noe. As we descended, a constant stream of diatoms bounced off our masks, and tiny medusae pulsed with the current. At 30 feet the visibility improved, and we were rewarded with a multitude of fish species. Blueback Jack Trevally checked us out, Black Spotted Puffers hovered around the bottom and Red Lionfish delicately hugged the jagged volcanic terrain. In the mini caverns, carved into the basalt by refracting swells, armies of Bigeye Squirrelfish hovered in formation, and sulky octopus flowed through the cracks. For us, the Marquesas were for recuperation, repairs to both boat and marriage, and re-provisioning. But when July finally rolled around it was time to move on to the Tuamotus. We set sail and rounded the surf-pounded headland of Hana Tefua Bay and a veritable marine fairytale land. This small rocky inlet was backed by 60-degree slopes clothed in coconut palms, so dense each one seemed to be stretching to catch some sunlight over the palm fronds in front. A huge pod of Spinner Dolphins cruised the bay en masse, launching into the air and spinning their bodies multiple times on the horizontal axis. We swam with them, their high-pitched squeals penetrating us from below and the white markings showing through the green water at the periphery of visibility.

    A School of bigeye Squirrelfish hide out in a small overhang.
    As the Marquesas shrank behind our stern, we relaxed in the cockpit with a perfect 15 knots on a beam reach. On the morning of day five, Kauehi was showing on the radar at nine miles. Once inside the pass, a huge blue lagoon opened up before us. Anchoring on the eastern side of the lagoon, the water shoaled and glowed with shades of azure blue. Coconut palms leaned over the dazzling white coral sand, and a spectacular red-roofed church marked a tiny village with less than 200 inhabitants. We were in true paradise.

    This was the Tuamotus, the largest group of coral atolls in the world, scattered over 470,000 square miles of the Pacific between the Marquesas and Tahiti, and inhabited by only 12,500 people. By far the most popular destination is Rangiroa, the largest atoll in the Tuamotus with the largest lagoon at 48 by 15 miles. Because the Pacific swells wash constantly over the reefs, the lagoon is continually flushed with crystal clear, 85°F water. The visibility is excellent. The best action is just inside the passes where the exchange of water draws life in staggering proportions. Hammerheads, mantas, Gray Sharks, Blacktips, Whitetips, barracudas—you name it, the big pelagics are there in profusion. Around the healthy coral heads monster Javanese Moray lurk, mega Napoleon Wrasses saunter in the hope of a hand out, and thousands of paddle-tail snappers cruise in response to the sound of divers.

    A pearl farmer harvests oysters from culture lines in the Tuamotus.

    We decided to explore some more remote atolls farther south. Kauehi, Fakarava and Toau were first on our list, and they were truly remote. On the small reefs rising from 60 or more feet to the surface within the lagoon, we explored tiny caves to see shoals of Bigeye Squirrelfish, Marbled Rock Cod and Black Grouper. Most of the fish were juveniles, no doubt due to the subsistence spearfishing of the nearby village. A Whitetip Reef Shark casually circled us, neither afraid nor excited. Its blunt snout gave it a friendlier appearance than the Blacktips, which also cruise these waters. But we only saw a few sharks in Kauehi, although I assume there must be more judging by the numbers of remoras hovering around us, sticking to our legs and to the keel of Sojourner.

    Scores of Tridacna clams were embedded in the coral. Their coloration was incredibly vivid, with intricate fractal patterns of iridescent blues, greens, browns and purples provided by the symbiotic algae living within their tissues. Occasionally we’d come across a huge flattened oyster, up to 10 inches across with a bluntly serrated, black margin to the shell. This was the famous Black Pearl Oyster (Pinctada marginifera), which has radically changed the economy in the Tuamotus since the 1970s. Today the free-living pearl oyster is rare, but many of the atolls are at full capacity with cultured oysters as the new black gold rush sweeps through the archipelago. We spent time diving with the pearl farmers on Kauehi to retrieve oysters from long, buoyed lines in the lagoon. We’d watch as they removed the huge pearls from an incision in the gonad and replaced them with a new nucleus around which the oyster would secrete layers of beautiful aragonite, or mother of pearl.

    Marquesas Islands & tuamotu archipelag GETTING THERE
     
    BEST TIME TO VISIT
    Marquesas: July and August are the coolest, driest months, providing better underwater visibility. Tuamotu: The best diving is from April to November. Slightly less rain from May to October.

    TOPSIDE CLIMATE
    There is minimal difference between seasons at both the Marquesas Islands and Tuamotu Archipelago. Marquesas: Temperatures average 86ÞF throughout the year and humidity averages 70%. Tuamotu: Temperatures are 80 to 95°F during the hot season and 70 to 85°F during the dry season.

    WATER TEMPERATURE
    Marquesas: 78ÞF in winter and 80ÞF in summer. Tuamotu: 79°F in winter and 84°F in summer. EXCHANGE RATE 1.00 (USD) = 138.318 (CFP)

    TIME DIFFERENCE
    EST – 5 hours

    CONTACTS
    TAHITI TOURISME NORTH AMERICA
    (310) 414-8484 ~ E-mail: tahitilax@earthlink.net

    TOUR OPERATORS:
    Tahiti Nui Travel ~ (689) 54-02-00
    www.tahiti-nui.com\islands\marquis\main.html
    E-mail: sales@tahitinuitravel.pf


    Primary Dive Operators and Resorts:
    Nuku Hiva Diving Club ~ Centre Plongee Marquises
    (689) 92-00-88

    RANGIROA
    Raie Manta Club ~ (689) 96-04-80/96-05-60
    Rangiroa Paradive ~ (689) 96-05-55

    MANIHI
    Manihi Blue Nui ~ (689) 96-42-17

    The diving in Fakarava, our next atoll, was superb, although at our anchorage in the northern end of the lagoon visibility was less than 70 feet. Most of the edible, or non-ciguatoxic fish, were absent, but there was tons of life. Emperor Angels, Regal Angels, Coachmen, Moorish Idols and Saddle Butterflies followed us around, along with huge parrotfish and plenty of trumpetfish. We also heard descriptions from the locals about the spectacular diving in the southern pass. Scores of Blacktip and Gray Reef Sharks patrol the pass, and Marbled Seabass, grouper, parrots, tangs, surgeons and angels cruise the coral slopes. It is truly remote, with just one family living on a magical palm-lined motu, tending their fish traps and collecting coconuts for copra.

    We sailed on to Toau, an atoll only 30 miles from Fakarava. The atoll proved to be the most beautiful island we could imagine. We anchored in the southeastern tip of the lagoon, close to perfect motus, each like a classic cartoon desert island. Boobies and noddie terns nested in the pandanus trees and white, fluffy booby chicks peered at us over the edge of their nests. Here the southeast swell surges over the reef between the motus, providing nutrients and a constant supply of unbelievably clear water. We dived at the sand drop-off and swam to the small coral heads rising from 50 feet to the surface. It was more like flying than diving, since the visibility must have been around 200 feet. Huge blue jacks patrolled the innerspace between the surface and the white coral sand. Conch littered the bottom, leaving trails across the sand that curved around huge cucumbers (Thelonata ananas) 18 inches long. Whitetips followed us at a distance, and four species of wrasse, including the dazzling Clown Wrasse with its fluorescent yellows, greens and blues, kept us company. Four weeks later, watching the anchor get plucked out of the coral sand, we were sad to leave. But it was dawning on us that we were at last free to choose a new backyard and dive site whenever we pleased. The feeling of pure unadulterated freedom was be-ginning to sink in. I thought of Tahiti, Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, the Great Barrier Reef, Humpback Whales, Manta Rays, Lemon Sharks and turtles. I shivered as goosebumps covered my body. It was no longer a dream, it was happening, we were wanderers following the wind with a boat, cameras and dive compressor. We had traveled more than 5,000 miles in Sojourner; our track was a line crossing the eastern Pacific, and it suddenly occurred to me that my worst fears had been abated; my life was no longer a dot.

    Sail Boat beach scene beach scene2 Catch of The Day Fish Crustachian Sharks My Lagoon Action Fish Taking a Swim