Chapter 61: Navigating treacherous rips, currents and raisor-sharp coral reefs, the 1947 Kon Tiki raft expedition remembered, and the impact of the French nuclear testing site remains.
May 2001: Polynesian Islands – Tuamotus, Kauehi
On the 8th May, first light revealed hundreds of dolphins skipping through the water towards us. They stayed to play for more than half an hour, giving us a delightful start to a new day and as a tremendous thrill. We’ve seen at least five different species in the pacific, and like the fish, Pacific dolphin identification is a whole new learning curve!
A Welcoming Committee of skipping Dolphns
A squally night during which we had winds from 0 – 30 knots brought us within sight of the end of this particular leg of our journey, but we had to kill 22 hours because we’d just missed slack tide at the cut in the reef at Kauehi. We had to wait until noon the next day, and hung off at a safe distance. The current runs very strongly through these cuts, reaching 6, 7 knots and more. You have to wait for slack tide, which occurs here about 1.5 hours after high or low water. There are nasty overfalls and rips which are scary looking, but once the water slackens the cuts are safely negotiable. You need good light to get through, and good light to eyeball your way to an anchorage as the lagoons are full of coral heads.
The Kauehi reef
The Tuamotus are a group of 78 islands, 76 of which are coral atolls. The Polynesian name of “Paumoto” (Dangerous Archipelago) isn’t very encouraging and great care has to be taken when sailing here. In 1947 the Kon Tiki raft landed on Raroia having drifted 4300 nautical miles in 3.5 months from Peru. The chain covers nearly 1000 nautical miles in a NW – SE direction and includes the infamous French Nuclear test site at Mururoa, which is still off limits although the testing was stopped in 1996.
French nuclear testing at Mururoa – very sad.
The economy is based on copra and pearls (mainly black pearls). Rain is the only source of fresh water and the total land area of all the islands is 343 sq.miles. During the 1800’s pearls and mother of pearl shells were the chief source of income, with divers going down 50 to 100 feet. Over harvesting, as usual, killed the goose that laid the golden egg, and black pearl cultivation has taken over. Commercial fishing for export, especially to Tahiti has also become a good money spinner, so over harvesting will take it’s toll again. Here, as in the other areas of French Poly. the reefs are stripped of beautiful (live) shells, which find a ready market in the Society Islands, a favourite cruise-ship and hotel tourist destination. Let me not get carried away now, as I get horribly upset by needless destruction of nature’s wonders and tend to rant on.
We visited a pearl farm set partly on a motu (small island within the lagoon) and partly on stilts over the sea. The manager showed us around and we watched technicians from China seeding the oysters. Round marbles, made from Mississippi clams are carefully inserted into 1.5 year old oysters, which are returned to the water attached to ropes and left for another 1.5 years. They are then collected, opened and the pearls harvested. If the oyster is healthy, another marble is inserted and they are returned to the water. If not, they are discarded. The most valuable pearls are the green ones, and colours range from white through pink, green and mainly black. They fetch anything from a few dollars to thousands of dollars on the overseas markets, and the best pearls are exported. The pearl industry seems to be dominated by the Chinese, with locals doing the dirty work like removing the oysters from the sea, cleaning them prior to harvesting and seeding, and replacing them in the water. The mother of pearl shells are exported for button making, furniture inlays, and are used by artists to carve into pendants, bracelets and all sorts of other jewelry. The markets in the Society islands are full of mother of pearl products which generate a tidy income.
Pearl farming is quite a skill!
We did some great snorkeling in Kauehi and enjoyed our time there. We’d planned on visiting Rangiroa and had our sail covers off, food prepared and the boat ready for going to sea the next morning, when the weather deteriorated. Being ever cautious, we tucked ourselves up behind a small headland where we’d have protection from the S.W. At this stage we and “Bow Bells” were joined by “Dirty Dottie”, an American boat. They have a
digital camera and managed to capture a magic moment for us when a rainbow appeared to be right next to “Silver Heels”. It’s an amazing photo.
One of those magic moments captured with Silver Heels on Left and Bow Bells on the right.
We all ended up on “Bow Bells” one night and were joined by a local Polynesian couple who spoke only French. It’s amazing how well you can communicate with hand signals, nods and smiles and mutilated French. We had a truly merry evening, with heavy consumption of beer and rum. John brought his guitar up for Andy to play, and the “Dotties” produced their harmonicas. We sang and played until very late. The two Polynesians thoroughly enjoyed the music and joined in here and there. These were very special moments that will never be forgotten. We were leaving for Papeete in Tahiti the next morning and said a sad farewell to Xavier and Joanna (anglicized names as the Polynesian versions are unpronounceable).