The Tuamotu Archipelago

May - June 2009

Motus at Tahanea atoll

As the wind and waves wore away the islands of the Tuamotus (motu is Tahitian for "islet") over many thousands of years, coral continued to build their surrounding reefs even as the islands sank below the surface of the sea. Now the chain of atolls resembles a group of necklaces, each reef necklace strung with scattered beads of palm trees and sand. At the center of each atoll is a protected lagoon. Yachts can access some of the lagoons through passes in the encircling reef. Once inside, a vessel is protected from the wind, but not from the sharp coral heads rising abruptly from the depths, ready to pierce the hulls of the unwary. To avoid this fate, a lookout is posted at the bow to watch for coral heads while crossing the calm lagoon.

Strolling on deserted beaches . . .Many atolls are populated; Tahanea is a wildlife preserve and has no permanent population.

We walked across coral reefs that haven't been alive for thousands of years, since the sea surface was far above the aquamarine and vermillion flesh of the giant clams and the dens of the spotted moray eels. We waded up to our waists, tiptoeing between the sea slugs. Fins of small black-tipped reef sharks skim the surface of the shallow reefs, approaching our legs and suddenly shying away when they realize we're just too big for lunch.

The only free fruit here is up a tree, and you have to climb it yourself. The lazy way is to search the beach for coconuts and shake them to hear if they harbor sweet water. Then you sit on the sharp lava-rocked beach, hacking away at the tough fibrous hull with an axe to get at the sumptious white meat inside.

We felt like we found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, safely anchored in our protected lagoon, the surf crashing just outside the encircling reef.

Much of what we came to see is underwater. One careless stroke of a dive fin knocks over a fragile 8-inch piece of live coral that took hundreds of years to grow--an example of why humans and coral reefs do not mix well. Paul was disappointed to find the water clarity poorer and the concentration of underwater plastic trash much higher than when he first visited the Tuamotus fifteen years ago, but there were still plenty of fish.

Fish in coral

When a diver draws near, giant clams, dressed in iridescent blues, greens, and reds, snap back into the shell like a sunbathing girl quickly covering herself


At a coral head rising steeply from a depth of sixty feet to break the surface of the lagoon, we saw a tiny pipefish with a seahorse-like head and a 6' moray eel. This spotted moray is a puny 1-footer, but he was willing to pose for the camera.

Every coral head is a skyscraper of fish offices and apartments

White-barred triggerfish. Not retouched! Those colors are the real thing.

After the isolation of Tahanea, we were shocked to see guest houses and dive shops at Fakarava Atoll. Fakarava is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the third we have visited in as many years. It was a bit sad to see some of the results of it's popularity. We anchored near the above sand spit where a launch from a bungalow resort dropped off tourists every other day, so they could wander, swim, and take photos of each other in bikinis and large sun hats. We set coconut crab "traps" by tying coconut pieces to trees, but when we returned at night to collect our catch, it consisted of two large hermit crabs and a swarm of ants.
The southern pass through the reef at Fakarava is only a couple hundred feet wide and 20 feet deep. We entered with breakers all around, and tense nerves onboard.

We first saw these Bat Fish while walking on the beach. They were in just a few inches of water, and looked like a handful of leaves. The reflection from the surface makes them look like they are more exotic than they actually are.

Despite the poor visibility there were a wealth of species in the living coral.
The trash in the water was the hardest thing to see. It was a real shame to see living coral covered with plastic. This trash came from inside the reef, from those living and working here.
The trash outside the reef came from thousands of miles away. There were areas that had higher and lower densities, but there was nowhere with none in site. Plastic is forever . . .
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