Takaroa and swimming with sharks

    We sailed from Nuku Hiva, in the Marquesas, to Takaroa, an atoll in the Tuamotus. We sailed for a bit less 2
    ½ days, which was much faster than we anticipated and arrived at night, which we did not want. Anchorage is
    a serious problem in these atolls so is the reef that makes them. As a testimony we saw a few ships that have
    wrecked here and the sailing books have plenty of stories about it. Russell knew that there was only one place
    to anchor outside the atoll and as we approached it there was a small fishing boat in the precise spot. We
    motored around and around, dropped anchor 3 times but it would not hold. It was late, dark, windy, we were
    tired and running out of ideas when the fishing boat left and we anchored. Russell set the anchor guard on, and
    we settled in to get some sleep. The rolling was too much and the gusty wind made this the worst anchorage
    we had.  I was afraid we would not hear the anchor alarm in case the anchor slipped and slept very little.  So
    did Russell and Jerry.

    We woke up anxious to see land. We had never been to an atoll before. The red roof church being the tallest
    and nicest building was the first thing we saw. The small village was already awake and a few small power
    boats were leaving the dock to take workers to work on the pearl farms in the other side of the lagoon. A few
    others were coming in to bring children to school. Pearl farming is the main activity here; a bit of copra
    production, subsistence fishing and a lot of sitting around and talk are the only things they do here. About
    2,000 people live in the small flat strip of land, surrounded by ocean in the outside and by a lagoon in the
    inside. There is one passage to go in the lagoon but navigation inside is dangerous due to the coral heads and
    all the pearl farming lines all over the lagoon.
    We were hungry when we got up. In the 2 ½ days at sea we didn’t eat very well. It was a bit rough and I
    didn’t get in the galley to cook as for sure I would get seasick. We had “the skipper’s special” for breakfast,
    that is, blueberries pancakes. Russell had 2 fried eggs on top of the stack of pancakes and he flooded the
    whole thing with maple syrup.
    We put the dingy in the water and went to see the village. The first impression was not that good, trash
    everywhere, unlike the Marquesas that were so clean. Dogs (scraggly looking ones) were everywhere also.
    Vegetation is mostly coconut trees, some plumerias, Tahitian gardenias, a few ulu (breadfruit). The lagoon
    was full of pearl farms, the famous black pearls. People were very friendly and in the small store the owner
    spoke English. She went to school in Orlando, Florida, what a surprise for us. Jerry was super happy because
    they had soy milk. No fresh fruit nor vegetables. The barge only comes with supplies from Tahiti 2
    times/month. There is no tourism here and the habitants are truly happy to see sailors when they stop by in
    their voyages. Other than the barge that comes 2 times a month, there is a small plane that comes in from
    Tahiti 2 times a week. No alcohol nor firearms are allowed there. Very nice.
    We snorkeled many times around the reef, covered with coral and teeming with schools of fish. The water is
    so clear, deep and dropped off to hundreds of feet right under the boat. Soon we saw a few white tip sharks,
    some black tip and a few grey sharks. They stayed away from us, and we spend hours enjoying the swim in
    the beautiful clear water. There was so much fish so I thought we should do some fishing to get a good dinner.

    A small fishing boat with 2 local girls and a guy anchored next to us to fish. Soon they were catching all kinds
    of fish and had the boat full. They put a lot of big red ones, looked like some kind of snapper, back in the
    water. We were curious so Jerry swam to them and one of the girls said to him in English “no good”. She also
    made a sign with her hand sliding across her neck (to me it meant “cut your head”) which meant you will die if
    you eat that fish. That changed my mind about catching fish for dinner. Ciguatera is a serious problem here.
    They came to our boat and gave us a good amount of fish, mostly grouper.  We gave the guy one hat (with
    Kailua Kona embroidered on it) and lipstick and nail polish to the girls.

    That night we had dinner in the little restaurant, the only one, in the village. The owner is part Chinese so is the
    food. We had an interesting version of egg foo yung, chow mein and beef with cabbage. Good. They also had
    ice cream, which is a real treat in these hot islands.
    We spent 2 days in Takaroa and decided to go to Takapoto, which is just about 14 miles away to check it
    out. There the anchorage was even worse and there was no way to go ashore in our dingy. There is a small
    dock by the village but there was big south swell and we couldn’t get near it. Russell decided that we should
    try to anchor 2 miles from the village where his chart book mentioned that we could get some sort of
    anchorage. It was another difficult anchorage, which is a problem in the Tuamotu due to the lack of sand and
    the depth of the water. After much deliberation, we set anchor and Jerry was sent to check it out. Of course I
    was bit concerned because we heard so much about sharks in these waters. But someone had to do it and I
    did not volunteer.

    We put the dingy in the water to see if we could go ashore. Russell decided to do a “reef landing” as there
    was no other way for us to go ashore. And we had to find a way to do it because Kaya, Russell’s mate was
    going to arrive in a few days in Takapoto. There is a small plane that flies from Tahit twice a week.I was a bit
    concerned for the dingy and after much “Russell, I don’t think we should do it, wait for this big wave to pass,
    are you sure we can do this?, I said “go for it” after he was already going. It was actually not bad, we got of
    the dingy as the wave pushed us, the reef was not too sharp, and waited for the small waves to float us in. We
    walked in the broken coral road for a few minutes and voila, a pickup truck stopped by and the 2 ladies
    asked if we wanted a ride to the village 3km away. Due to being late in the afternoon, and a bit concerned
    that if the tide changed we did not exactly know how safe it would be to go back, we decided not to go and I
    mentioned to them that maybe in the morning we would come ashore again and go the village. In the morning
    they were there at the beach. I think they came to give us a ride but we were lifting anchor to leave. The
    anchorage was unanimously elected the worse and we decided to go back to Takaroa.
    This time, we were lucky, the small dock in Takaroa had no boats and we safely anchored and tied to it.
    Soon the whole village was driving or walking by and they all waved and said bonjour. I guess we were the
    big news that day.

    We took a walk in the coral sand only road in the hot afternoon. Soon some people stopped by and offered
    us a ride which is a common practice in the Marquesas and in the Tuamotus. We gladly jumped in the back of
    their truck. We didn’t ask where they were going or taking us and they didn’t ask where we were going. It
    didn’t matter as the road only goes to one place, not much pass the small landing strip. As it turned out, they
    thought we were in a sailboat that was anchored inside the lagoon, near the landing strip. Soon they stopped
    the car and pointed to a few houses at the lagoon side. We walked in the driveway and met the 2 English
    gentlemen that were drinking with a local man, Gustav, sitting by a table under the palm trees. Adrienne, his
    wife came to greet us. In my broken French I asked permission to come in. Russell had met Gary, the English
    bloke, owner of the sailboat in the lagoon, someplace in Panama and soon we were seated and talking with
    them about their sailings.

    Gustav and Adrienne are pearl farmers and have 2 children, Terena and Chuck. Beautiful children. A mix of
    Tahitan, Marquesan and Tuamotuan. She soon had to leave to go to church, Mormon, (did I mention that
    90% of the population in Takaroa is Mormon?), and gave us a ride to the dock. She was wearing a beautiful
    necklace that she had made, out of shell and black pearls. I took a picture of her and soon we were talking
    about her family, the atoll, pearls and her children. I am so glad I could speak enough French to communicate
    with her, who spoke only a little bit of English.
    Dinner next night was in the little restaurant again. Adrienne came to have an ice cream with her children. I
    wanted to give Terena and Chuck a little gift. I asked her is she could go to the boat with us, were anchored
    at the dock. We all hoped in the back of the truck and went. We invited them in to see the boat and they
    stayed for a while. Jerry and Russell were very tired and excused themselves. After a while, I was getting tired
    too but I enjoyed talking to her and I think she treasured the opportunity to learn some English, and in that
    odd mix of languages we shared our stories. Adrienne asked me if I could wait half an hour before going to
    sleep. She left Terena (10 years old) with me and left with Chuck. Terena spoke no English and soon started
    to teach me French. And what a tough teacher she was. I had to pronounce every word perfectly. What a
    lesson, taught by a gorgeous child, in the most beautiful night, with a small moon in the star littered skies.
    Soon came back Adrienne, and she had 3 gifts for me (one from her, one from Chuck and the other from
    Terena). One was the necklace she had made, the other were a half dozen pearls so I could see the different
    colors they can have, and the last one was a sculpture made of a piece of driftwood covered with many
    different kind of shells from the Tuamotus, also made by her. I was so deeply touched by the gesture, I have
    witnessed Aloha many times but this time it had such a special feeling. Sweet memories I am going to have of
    this unforgettable night.
    Next day, Jerry, who had been bugging Russell and I to do a drift snorkeling by the pass, was insistent about
    going. We had been reading a lot about the schools of sharks in the passes in many of these atolls and we
    were just not too keen on doing it. Particularly, because we had not seen any local person doing it. Finally
    Russell agreed to go. The tide flows in the pass in a fast current, about 6 knots, so we motored down to the
    drop off and were dragged by the current into the pass. Jerry, brave and fearless, went ahead followed by a
    hesitant me and a more hesitant Russell stayed in the dingy, dragged by the current right behind us. Soon we
    hear Jerry yell “sharks” and there they were, grey reef sharks at the bottom, 5 to 7 feet, in a school of at least
    40, swimming totally ignoring us. Another school of probably 30 baby ones were swimming in the shallows.
    The water where the big school was had a depth of about 30 feet. Russell soon put his head in the water and
    before long he was in the water with us and the sharks. We were dragged by the current into the lagoon
    where the fish life was good but we were interested in the sharks. So we jumped in the dingy, motored up
    again, to do a second drift dive again. And a third one. It was fantastic and exciting. Maybe the word is
    thrilling. We also saw a beautiful spotted ray that smoothly glided by us. We liked it so much that in the
    afternoon we decided to do it again. This time the tide was going out and the water was not very clear. The
    sharks were not there but we had a great time swimming in the drop off. A huge spotted ray came by and
    graciously swam to the depths under us. It was eerie to look down and see the drop off (1000’s of feet).
    Depths that gave me the chills.

    Next morning we were all ready to go again. This time I had my underwater camera with me.  Soon in the
    dive we saw an even larger school of grey sharks, more than 60 for sure. We were all in the water floating
    away with the current and I was about to go down and take a picture when a group of sharks swam straight
    up right towards us. I heard brave and fearless Jerry yelling “Conceicao come back to the boat RIGHT
    NOW”. By that time Russell was already in the dingy and Jerry was hanging on waiting for me (I hope).
    Later, Jerry asked me what I was going to do when the sharks got closer.  My plan was to tuck my knees
    against my chest pointing my fins to them and hope that they would go for the rubber. We got a little excited
    with the encounter and decided to do it again but this time we would hang on to the dingy so we could come
    back right to it if the sharks came again too close. After all, we were in great disadvantage, in their
    environment, they outnumbered us and they have a bad reputation. Fortunately they left us alone the second
    time. They had had their fun scaring us.
    It was a very exciting dive, the perfect way to end a visit to this far away place, in the middle of the ocean,
    where gentle people greet you with a smile and are truly content to see you.
    Next stop will be Takapoto again. For a short visit.