French Polynesia - Tuamotu and Marqueses Islands

Fall 2014

Tahiti sent us on our way with a spectacular southern break on the reef. It’s hard to explain how it feels for big overhead curls to be breaking a stone’s throw from our little sailboat as we head out a pass. It’s scary, but then Romany Star just floats right over the top of the swell like it’s nothing. We figured she was trying to get us used to doing regular reef passes in the Tuamotu atolls. Though most reef passes were calm, the couple of really exciting moments kept our hands too full to document with a camera, so this must stand as representative. At south Fakarava we found ourselves being hurled out the pass with the outgoing current, so our GPS said we were going faster than the hull speed of our boat. Later that same day we battled an opposing current and a full quarter-mile of standing waves guarding the large pass at Tahanea. The most thrilling is always the moment when the depth meter jumps from bottomless ocean to suddenly 30 feet, and the water is so clear we feel like we’re right on top of the coral.

The Tuamotus

The Tuamotus are all about the world underwater. The palm-tree covered motus have bird colonies, huge land crabs, and lots of interesting shells on beautiful beaches. But they surround a protected lagoon that is just teeming with fascinating corals, colorful fish, and reef sharks that patrol like the neighborhood dogs (we nicknamed them “puppies”). We were in the water nearly everyday during our stay here.

Paul took advantage of the professional dive outfits at Fakarava to dive the famous fast-moving passes. We don’t usually use our hookah (which our friends call “the umbilical air cord machine”) in passes, since the current could wrap the hoses around a coral head. Paul loved being swept through gorgeous coral and schools of fish, though the 3-knot speed of the ride made it hard to take close-ups. Sharks school in the passes, holding position and letting the current carry oxygen into their gills and potential food into their mouths. Though these are mostly harmless reef sharks, their strength of numbers is impressive. The fish appearing to run to the divers for safety has not been pasted in – it’s colors have been enhanced against the backlight, but it really was swimming there.

Tahanea has a small pass that, combined with the crystal-clear water, meant we could drift through the pass with snorkels, hanging onto the dinghy. We drifted over that coral garden several times, seeing colorful parrot fish, wrasses, and plenty of sharks. The white-tip reef shark is one of the few sharks able to sit still on the bottom, but we weren’t taken in by its sleepy attitude. The last time we got in the water for this drift-snorkel there was a much larger (2+ meters) silver-grey shark that was swimming towards us interestedly. Bonnie screamed and jumped back in the dinghy, prompting everyone else to do the same. In retrospect we realized that it might have been very friendly, and we might have been very rude. Maybe.

The largest animals naturally occurring on the motus are birds and coconut crabs, named after their favorite food. Paul learned how to hunt the crabs during his last visit to Polynesia in 2009, and this time he passed on the knowledge to our friends on S/V Pitufa. We scouted a likely spot, and hung pieces of open coconut from a tree where the crabs could smell and eat, but not remove the pieces to their burrows (note the coconut half wedged into the crook of a branch; note also the coconut-cracking claws). Paul and Christian went back late at night to find several crabs interested in the bait, and one even waiting to greet them at the water’s edge! Though the largest and wiliest of the crabs climbed a tree and got away, the pictured crab joined two others in our cooking pot. We stayed up until after midnight picking crabmeat that turned into Thai-style spring rolls the next day. It was a lot of work, but the meat is rich with the coconut the crabs eat.

Though Paul appears to be washing his hair in the middle of the ocean, we’re actually in a lagoon. Many of the Tuamotus are large enough that the curve of the Earth hides the opposite reef, so it looks like endless flat water. Apparently the whales enjoy the calm water sometimes too. While we were here a humpback whale swam around the lagoon checking out the coral (he didn’t seem impressed with the poky stuff). We were ashore without a camera, and never saw him again – we assume he went out the pass he came in by.

Birgit and Christian (Los Pitufos) are SCUBA divers, so when they joined us in Tahanea we explored one of the big coral bommies that stick up from the middle of the lagoon. The top fifteen feet of the bommie was covered in gorgeous coral, edged with this impressive curtain-like formation. Bonnie’s chopsticks became an important part of her dive gear, allowing her to poke into crevices with impunity.

Gunter wanted to see the fish, but didn’t want to muss his hair, so we double-bagged him for a dry suit. He was impressed with the alien-looking oysters, and particularly excited when we found a couple of the Tahitian pearl oysters. Since they have clearly retired to this uninhabited atoll, we felt it would be rude to bother them for their booty (Gunter, who loves pearls, was disappointed).

We were in the Tuamotus for about five weeks, and it was much too short. Hanging out in these lagoons is like living in a huge private swimming pool with coral and fish. We could stay forever if it weren’t for those pesky hurricanes.

Back out on the big blue sea

We caught the tail of a southern storm to help push us against the trade winds from the Isles Tuamotus to the Isles Marquesas. This is the face Paul makes every time he has to go out in the rain to change sail or tack. Eventually the weather gave us a break, and we had a good fast passage even though it was a beat. Gentlemen never sail to weather, but if you have to then this was a model passage.


Ancient Polynesia

There be dragons in them thar cliffs! As we sighted the misty, craggy, lush mountains of the Marquesas we understood why they got a reputation for enchantment with early seafarers. They rise straight up from the deep with intimidating sea-sculpted cliffs and deep valleys where the jungle hides the unknown. As no barrier reef has been able to form in this cooler water, the waves crash right on the rocks where they inspire the big booming drums of the Marquesas. Where the sea has worn caves under the cliffs the swell creates these spouts and geysers that really do look like dragons in their caves.

The local name for these islands is Fenua Enata – the Land of Men.

Our first stop was Tahuata, a small island that is rich in cultural heritage. The artists here are famous for their carvings in bone (these days, cow, pig or goat) and their traditional tattoos. Marquesans have kept Polynesian tattoo alive, and Fati is one of the premier tattoo artists of the current generation. His designs are fairly traditional, but his tattoo guns are quite modern. Fati says he never wanted to use the traditional mallet-method because of it’s potential for spreading disease. Even so, the word tattoo comes from the Marquesan “patu tiki” which roughly translates as “hit the tiki”. The point of Marquesan tattoo is to imprint the mana (power) of tikis onto one’s skin. Find the tiki eyes in Paul and Bonnie’s tattoos on the Crew page.

We were honored to be invited to Fati’s house to have lunch with some of his family. Most of his kids are grown and off to school, but this daughter brought her new baby home to visit (you’ll have to trust us that the baby is really cute when he’s awake). They helped us learn to say Fati’s real name: Felix Teiki he'e poka ieto Fii. Apparently Fati was a teasing nick-name from his Dad that never wore off. Sitting on their hillside veranda, overlooking the beautiful Vaitahu valley and anchorage, we could see why an internationally-known artist prefers this small island.

We were lucky enough to visit Hapatoni, a short hop down Tahuata, on a festival weekend. Shortly after anchoring, this ceremonial barge came by carrying the Virgin Mary and an assortment of singers, drummers and horn-blowers. We joined them at the lovely stone chapel the next morning, where the service was held outside on the lawn to accommodate visitors from neighboring villages and islands (and a couple scummy cruisers).

The Marquesas islands exhibit some fascinating geology that can be frustratingly difficult to get close to. The phallic spires of Ua Pou peak in and out of the clouds they catch, but they don’t help with the rough north swell rolling into the anchorage. The cliffs of Nuku Hiva, just north, show off their layers of volcanic flow and protect large comfortable bays. This cliff just outside Taiohae shows off a dramatic dyke, where a crack in the crust allowed the volcano to shoot molten rock directly up through the previous layers.

We visited the famous Taipivi, the lush valley where Herman Melville lived for a couple months before writing Typee. We found the valley as lush and the people as friendly as Melville describes. This friendly family laughed through language difficulties while helping us find local carvers. The next day they caught a pirogue ride to our boat for a lunch party.

Paul made a whole lot of pizza, and Bonnie made chocolate chip cookies. The children loved everything (another cookie please!), though the teens and adults weren’t thrilled with the rocking boat motion.

Marquesans are famous for their carving work, displayed on bowls, weapons, stilts (tiki feet!), and most famously the intimidating tiki statues. This stunning bone tiki was carved by Bernard in Taipivi, who made the most beautifully detailed small carvings we saw in Nuku Hiva. Asking around Taiohae for larger woodwork, we ran into Damien, who teaches carving at the college. After showing us his private gallery of carving and sculpture, he showed us the many international books that have featured his work as exemplary of the Marquesan art. Damien's art is so high class that he doesn't offer it for sale anymore, but he allowed us to take a picture of this amazing sculpture of two Marquesan warriors in the heat of battle. I am particularly amazed by the detailed carving of the warriors' extensive tattoos.

We joined in a pizza-making lesson at Henri's warf-side snack shop in Taiohae. Marco, an Italian sailor, taught us to use beer-brewing yeast for a flavorful crust, though he was skeptical of our pesto-shrimp topping idea. It turned into a party when the ukelele teacher started jamming out front, and the pizzas started rolling out of the oven. Bonnie learned some ukelele chords while Paul soaked up real Italian pizza knowledge, and passers-by were drawn in to try the pizza and Henri's fruit smoothies.

We've enjoyed good friends, good food, stunning vistas and adventure in the Marquesas islands. The ancient traditions meld easily into modern life here where some fruit is always ripening on the tree, and horses graze in the park while their owners surf the internet at the cafe. The tikis seem to us a good representation of the friendly Marquesan people: a stern exterior with good intentions, just waiting to break into a smile.