After 4 days of living in a compartment pitching randomly in every direction, knowing what Jim meant by he had bruises on top of bruises, learning how to carefully think out ahead of time how to move 4 feet in the cabin without getting hurt. Now the sailboat rests in a tranquil paradise of this calm lagoon. Waves here are measure not in feet but inches.
The atoll is completely flat. No mountain or protected harbor to stop the trade winds. No waves but we have the same wind as we had out at sea.
We spent our first night next to a pier extending out from a small settlement of 200 people. Did not see any cars. Walking and large wheeled tricycles are the mode of transportation. Tony joked, if someone had a car you could tease the kids, “Ok kids, climb into the car. Time for a road trip!”.
We watch the local people going about their way. An old man in a bright fluorescent shirt sitting in a wheelchair on the pier looking at what the day’s wind blew in. Kids playing on the beach. Women peddling large tricycles with baskets of groceries. A man painting a boat hull.
Anchored a few hundred ft off the settlement’s pier we noticed at once that we were surrounded by considerable number of inquisitive blacktip reef sharks. We have seen these sharks in the Marquesas and know they are no threat. There is still that shark creep factor. We all jumped in with masks and fins and started exploring the surrounding water. The sharks skittered off to a safe distance. Jim swam over to a neighboring sailboat to ask about this new place.
Now that we are safely anchored in the Raroia lagoon there is a choice where to sleep. Inside where it’s hot, not much fresh air or sleep on the outside boat bow deck with plenty of cool fresh air but a constant 30 to 40 mph high wind.
Sleeping on the front of the boat bow deck is similar to what one would experience after finishing dinner, a game of cards, then tying down a bouncy air mattress to the roof of a car driven 30 to 40 mph on a gently winding road. At that speed, the distance of 8 hours nights rest would be like sleeping on top of a car from Tucson to Flagstaff.
Both car roof and boat deck are similar in not having a guard rail yet different into what happens when rolling off. These waters have a high population of sharks (that feed at night) and falling into the water could mean being disoriented trying to find the boat in the black of night. Regardless, after the rough 4 day passage I had a full 8 hours of sound sleep.
In the morning as the sun broke, we had a heavy rain. The cool rain, always welcome, was a real downpour. Washed all the seawater salt off my body, pajamas, sheet, pillow as I lay waking up, soaking wet, happy to discover that I’m not swimming. In this high wind everything is dry again in 30 minutes.
I imagined an atoll (a ring of reefs around a central lagoon) being smaller than this. Being able to easily see the palm trees on the other side of the lagoon. These atolls are many miles across. The lagoon itself looks like an endless sea where there is no visible trees on the opposite side of the lagoon.
We can see some of the other side islands but can’t make out what we are looking at. We motored to the other side of the lagoon. It took an hour. Laura’s google satellite photos really helped to identify bommies. Bommies are small coral towers that rise vertically from the lagoon floor. The top of the bommie averages about 1 foot below the water surface. Rarely a bommie extends above the water surface. The bommies towers are evenly spaced by hundreds of feet in no particular pattern. We cautiously go slow keeping an eye out for these hidden submerged bommies that could rip a hole in the boat hull.
Water is noticeably clear. Bommies are easy to see if sun is high and behind the direction we are going. In this lighting they appear as small submerged yellow patches. If the sun is in front of us or lower in the sky the bommies are hidden in the sky’s bright reflection. As we motor past the bommies I can’t help wonder what fish and strange tropical creatures inhabit their creviced walls that plunge steeply into the lagoons depths.
As we wound our way through the countless bommies and approached the east side of Rarioa atoll we noticed 2 sailboats anchored off one of the larger islands used probably as a nice windbreaker. One of them had a dingy ashore and strung a hammock between trees in the dense shade. We chose to anchor at our own island to the north.
We swam over to the little island and hiked through the dense foliage to discover an old monument plaque honoring the memory of the Kon-Tiki and its crew that wrecked on this particular atoll islet back in 1947. All survived. Our guidebook mentioned the Kon-Tiki wrecked on Raroia, but we did not plan to see the actual site. Interesting out of all these little islets we stumbled onto the Kon-Tiki.
The Kon-Tiki was the Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl effort to show that over a thousand years ago South American Incas populated the South Pacific. Back then and today science does not support that theory. Polynesians DNA originated in the southeast Asia area. His theory went as far to suggest Vikings gave Peruvian Incas long distance ocean sailing technology. Heyerdahl based this premise on Inca and Polynesian art and sculpture were similar. Spanish reports of Indian beliefs of a fair skinned bearded god that Heyerdahl thought could have been a Viking, a fellow Heyerdahl ancestor.
The early Spanish conquistadors in Mexico said they were confused for the Aztec white skinned bearded god Quetzalcoatl. The Caribbean Indians have legends of a bearded white man called Tamu or Zune who had come by boat from the east. When Pizarro first encountered the Incas in Peru they were greeted as gods, “Viracochas”, because their lighter skin resembled their god named Viracocha.
These reports spread to pseudo archaeological literature and fringe theorists, such as writers on ancient astronauts and Atlantis. Anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis criticized Heyerdahl’s theory in his 2009 book The Wayfinders, which explores the history of Polynesia. Davis says that Heyerdahl “ignored the overwhelming body of linguistic, ethnographic, and ethnobotanical evidence, augmented today by genetic and archaeological data, indicating that he was patently wrong.”
No argument it was a Norwegian, Amundsen who first voyaged the Northwest Passage and first human to trek to the frozen South Pole. There is reasonable evidence Vikings made it to New Foundland North America 500 years before Columbus sailed to the Caribbean. Vikings venturing further south to Peru and going beyond to the South Pacific would further the world view of Norwegians as premier bold explorers.
Heyerdahl crafted the Kon-Tiki raft from Spanish conquistador descriptions. The voyage was to show that a raft of this type with 5 men could make it across the great open ocean expanse to the Tuamotus. Once there its short island hopping across the rest of the South Pacific. It took the one sail raft 101 days to sail from Peru to where it wrecked on the Rarioa reef a stone’s throw from where this monument sits.
Now this plaque seems more of a monument to that curious human nature of getting absorbed in an idea, risking lives for an idea that doesn’t go anywhere except in lofty imagination. Over seventy years ago it was the most exciting trip of a lifetime, what dreams are made of.
This small islet 200 feet across is heavily forested with tall large leaved trees, bushes, coconut palms. The shaded floor covered with decaying wood, moist leaf litter. No evidence of an old wrecked raft.
The canopy above filled with white terns that do not fly off as we approach. The size of a sparrow hawk they hover flapping their long narrow wings like a hummingbird but much slower. Above the canopy they have a graceful flight. There are occasional large brown boobie birds resting on branches quite comfortable with our company. They are not as large as an albatross but have a similar soaring wing shape. We see these birds far out at sea.
Harassing these birds from above are the large frigates. These are the jet fighters of the sky that can steal a fish from other birds on the wing. Sometimes we see them swoop down and grab a fish swimming at the surface.
The east side of the islet is the open Pacific Ocean. The thundering surf dominates the sound of the birds. The hard brown coral in the surf grades to delicate loose sun bleached white coral and shells. At the tree edge is soft pink white sand littered with an occasional tiny hermit crab track.
We find all sorts of interesting seashells. Max warns us to watch out for a particular marine snail shell that can fatally stab you with a poisonous sharp barb that it can extend out from a corner of its shell.
We find a good number of giant clam shells. These are the ones that can get as big as wash basins. Fabled to strongly grab a foot and drown a diver.
Snorkeling through the coral we see the giant clams are the dominant large mollusk here. They are everywhere. Most of them have meat that is a bright fluorescent blue. Some green, purple, brown, black but mostly blue. They have eyes that see you approach. Get within a few feet they start to tightly close unlike others that must be touched first. The local people here eat the meat. Their empty shells are in piles on the settlement’s beach.
The coral comes in many shapes and colors. Branching trees, projecting tubes, monolith brains of various shapes and swirling textures, flat round shields, vertical castle turret like spikes or just a colorful carpet that covers whatever its on. I’m so grateful I purchased an eye prescription scuba mask before I left Tucson. The up close coral detail is amazing.
The coral is where all the small colorful aquarium fish swim. There are many small places they can hide. Every turn a new strange colorful fish going about their business. Some coral heads merge into others creating large underwater caves that we can swim through.
These caves have sunroofs. The bright tropical sun bathes the caves recesses with a soft blue light inviting us to explore without fear of being grabbed in the dark by a large octopus or some strange sea creature we haven’t been introduced to yet.
Where there is no current I tend to just float in one place and take an up close view of the new bazaar shaped and colored marine creatures. The water is warm. If I cover my skin to prevent sunburn I can snorkel for hours at a time.
Staying motionless in one place too long can be risky. The numerous circling black tip sharks become brave when I become inactive. Any quick direct motion or splashing gets them interested as well. One or two sharks 20 feet away is my comfort distance. When we clean a fish throw the head and guts overboard the sharks swarm, go nuts, and start biting each other. Having too many sharks inside a 10 ft radius I can’t help seeing that shark chaotic feeding frenzy, so I leave that area.
Our guidebook tells of 15 ft tiger sharks that live here. They are the local maneaters. Most feared is the aggressive bull shark that swims up from the darkness and bites you. The French here call them bulldog sharks.
Fishing from the boat is tricky with so many hungry sharks. The water is so clear we know when to pull the lineup and wait for the shark to leave. We lose a lure if we catch a large shark. We don’t want a large shark in the boat. No one has volunteered to get the hook out of its mouth. We can’t fish over the edge of the boat at night when we can’t see.
Fresh food is scarce here but not the fish. We tried a new fishing method. Large edible fish hang around the shallow coral, yet they don’t respond to a fishing lure. Using a baited lure will bring in the sharks. What we did was use a Hawaiian sling spear pole. This is a 5 ft long fiberglass spear that has a thick rubber band fastened to the spear end opposite the end with the sharp barb. The rubber band is stretched the length of the pole then released when pointed at a fish 4 ft away.
Jim and Max floated in the dingy directly over the coral containing the large fish. Both kept an eye on the shark locations and held an oar to strike an oncoming shark. I found the fish I wanted hiding in the coral, stretch the rubber band, position myself to spear it, pop my head above the water to get the shark distance from Jim and Max that are watching. I then spear the fish. The surrounding sharks instantly sense the struggling fish and heads for me. I immediately throw the fish and spear into the dingy. After the kill too many sharks appear so we leave to a new location with less sharks.
We got 3 fish this way before it got too scary jumping into the dingy at the last minute with all the sharks swimming near my legs. At one point Max counted 12 sharks near me. I also decided to forgo any more spearing when I discovered Jim had replaced the oar with a camera to capture a photo of me being bitten by a shark.
Jim and Max rowed over to a bommie in 100 ft of water to explore the drop off. They came face to face with an exceptionally large aggressive grouper that had a mouth full of long teeth. This grouper did not retreat but darted to Max. Max and Jim quickly leave.
Back on the boat the excited report was 400 lb. grouper (which exist). Absolutely amazed of hearing of a giant next to our boat, some questions later the grouper weight was reduced by a factor of 10. Even at that reduced size a person’s head would fit in its cavernous mouth.
When we reached the westside of the lagoon we decided to explore the small settlement and see if they have any fresh food supplies for sell. Max can converse in French with a boy to find a market. The boy leads us down a narrow path between 2 houses. We wonder if Max translated correctly because this path looks like it’s taking us to a back private house.
Beyond the trees we see a private house that has one room exposed to the foot path that has shelves with various dry goods and a few freezers. The place looks closed. We look into the window and a pleasant woman with long brown hair appears speaks in good yet heavily accented English, “Yes I’m open, was resting in the back”. She smiles and lets us in.
Our guidebook said this atoll doesn’t have supplies or water, but we are pleased to see we can buy cold beer, eggs, meat. The woman let’s all of us walk behind her sales counter to rummage through her shelves.
Labels are in French. It’s not clear what is in jars, cans and packaging unless there is a picture. We ask but remain confused from her descriptions. “Banana peanut butter but no peanuts”. “Pepper spice to put on coconut. Not hot, extremely sweet”. “Coconut dough, just add coconut”.
Some of the items on the shelves have been opened and half eaten. The store is also used for her own kitchen pantry, possibly a community pantry nestled in these surrounding homes. While we were there, her house is a popular local hangout of all ages.
We buy beer, eggs and crackers that were on her shelves. The woman says, “No! You don’t want these crackers. I’ll get you the good crackers.” She disappears behind a curtain and returns with a different type of cracker at the same price. Later we discover these crackers are amazing. Who would guess something as simple as a cracker could be so incredibly good. It was if we discovered that old barrels of Chinese Navy industrial fire retardant that doubles as emergency bean curd food ration actually is the best food ever! We joke that this new cracker has now made a profound change in how we count time. Our years were counted from the birth of Christ. Now B.C. stands for Before Cracker, A.D. now is Ambrosia Dawn, the beginning of the food of gods. Our Akela meals are now designed around a stupid delicious cracker.
Max shows me an old miniature drill press under the store counter. I recognize it as a way to drill holes in pearls and ask the woman if she could point us to someone who works with the pearl farming on this atoll. I’d like to know how they grow them.
Her eyes light up. “You want pearls? I have some here I’ll give you”. She opens her coin purse and takes out some oddly shaped small pearls. “These are from my daughter in law who owns a pearl farm. These are natural. No nucleus. Don’t tell anyone I gave these to you. Don’t lose them”.
I’m astonished, a bit confused. They are beautiful. I offer to pay her. She refuses. She then tells me in to go to the house next to the mayor’s house down the street to meet a woman named Amandine. She writes Amandine’s name on a piece of paper and puts it in my hand. “Tell Amandine that Ellis sent you. She knows pearl farming. She will answer your pearl farming questions”.
The next morning we returned to the settlement to look around. The streets are weathered 1 lane poured concrete shaded by tall trees and palms. We eagerly look for citrus trees or any of the abundant fruit trees we saw in the Marquesas islands. We don’t see any. We saw 1 small breadfruit tree with no fruit. In people’s yards are piles of aging brown coconuts husks next to sharp post that they use to pry off the thick green coconut husk.
All the houses have corrugated sheet metal roofs, are one story, around 400 to 900 square feet, collect roof rainwater and store in plastic 500 to 1000 gallon water tanks. Some of the houses have garden hoses supplying water to vegetable gardens and luxurious dense vegetation that hide their house. Others without garden hoses are more open have mature colorful hibiscus, fragrant gardenia, lawns that seem happy with just the natural rain fall. Most every house has solar panels and a bank of batteries.
There isn’t many bugs or flies, so windows and doors are open and screenless to let the cool breeze through. Curtains slow the breeze. Staying cool has priority over privacy. As we walk past an open window, we look away from the inhabitants sitting in their underwear inside. Windows have boards that close when the wind is too high.
The little settlement hugs the lagoon side of the island. Jim is curious what the outside ocean is up to. As we make our way west to the beach we come to a curious pile of weathered coral and notice that it’s an unusual outdoor church. Its decorated with many flat dinner plate shaped shells. This is strange because we found so many other types of shells that are more colorful and attractive.
There are benches facing an altar with candles that is set back in a low alcove. A bell hangs from a post to call the people. There is a narrow flight of steps next to the altar that goes up to a statue of the Virgin Mary tucked into a shaded recess at the top of coral pile. Bleached branching coral crown the structure.
We continue to the beach on the ocean side of the island. Max wades out and climbs onto a tall rock in the surf to better see a pod of 6 pigmy killer whales hunting for something below in the water. Jim, Tony and I watch them from the beach. About the size of a dolphin with a spherical round head. Jet black with a gray white belly. They have white lips, pleasant eyes, long white teeth. We watch as they playfully swim in the clear water.
I am overheating in the treeless beach. Jim, Max and Tony explore the south part of the settlement while I go back to thank Ellis for the pearls and buy a bottle of cold water. When I catch up to them, I see that they have discovered another small store operated by a man named Regis.
His store has various ornamental shells hanging from his awning. Jim asks for vegetables or leafy greens. Regis says he only has radishes and adds that their top greens are edible. We look among ourselves, anything not from a can is good and nod ok. Regis then steps outside to his garden and points to the ground and asks how many you want. Jim says 6. He pulls 6 out of the ground and his girlfriend rinses them off. I asked him about pearl farming. He said his girlfriend would show us shells they have in the back of their house.
We followed her to the rear of the house that opens to the lagoon beach. Her English is limited. Shyly showed us various seashells. Regis appears and explains which of the various mollusks are edible. We immediately recognize the farmed pearl oyster is the same flat dinner plate shape shell we saw adorned all over the outdoor church and saw growing wild in the coral. We had snorkeled pass these oysters not paying much attention to their unremarkable outside appearance compared to others more colorful neighbors. Yet once the oyster shell is opened the inside has the bright iridescent glow. Like our California abalone shells.
Regis then goes into the details of pearl farming. Shows us the rope they use to hang the pearl clam shell in the lagoon. Explain the various stages of pearl clam growth. How they drill a little hole by the hinge side of the clam to fasten to the buoy rope. I take a photo of Regis holding the pearl clam rope. His girlfriend runs inside the house and returns with a flower garland crown on her head. Hugs Regis and smiles for the camera.
Jim and I buy some large pearl shells. Regis says we should talk to Amandine if we want to buy pearls. Tells his girlfriend to take us to Amandine’s house. As we leave to go to Amandine house, I ask Regis what the orange flags are flying from many of the houses. He explains that the pearl farm big boss is flying into their settlement today. The orange flag is the boss’s flag. The wealthy boss recently got married to a Chinese woman and ferried the settlements population to a neighboring island for their wedding party. Regis said that was a big deal for the Raroians.
Most pearls now come from China which are fresh water cultured white pearls. This has caused a collapse in the local pearl market price. The salt water cultured pearls grown here have unique colors that China can’t produce. The pearls from here can be grown significantly larger than Chinese pearls. Even though the pearl farms here have a niche that allows them to stay in business the mass produced Chinese white pearl has substantially reduced the local pearl market price.
Regis girlfriend motions us to follow her to Amandine’s house. We finally exchange names. After many tries, she gives up trying to get me to pronounce her strange name correctly. She asks me how many babies I have while gesturing cradling a baby to her breast. I tell her I have one big baby boy taller than me attending college. She says she has one baby 4 and another 10. She makes a point that she is not married to Regis and confides she is not happy with him. She wants to know more about my marital status and so forth.
Not sure where our conversation can go from here, I’m enjoying her pleasant open flirting. I had just shaved off my beard, mustache to prevent seawater getting up my nose from a poorly fitting scuba mask. I was reading one of Jim’s books on the sailboat about Captain Cook’s 1700s exploration of the Pacific. It said Polynesian women prefer men with shaved faces and that preference has generally carried on to this day. I’m the only clean shaved guy on Akela. The woman at the other store gave me pearls.
Our Nuka Hiva guide said marriage in Polynesia is not common. Property ownership, finances are kept separate. Women keep their names. If a partner wanders, then that usually ends the relationship. Children then choose who to live with. If young they usually go with the mother, rarely with court involvement. The following morning Max shaved off his beard and mustache. Now I have serious competition on this small island.
We found Amandine outside cooking chicken on a 55-gallon oil drum. She had broad pleasant smile. Her son went to neighboring houses to gather chairs so we could all sit around a table under a tree next to her house. She spread a towel on the table poured colorful pearls on the cloth and let us sort through them as she grilled the chicken. The pearl’s look great. Farmed in this lagoon not far from where we sit. So many assorted colors, (blues, greens, yellow, black, white). Price reasonable too.
Max shows us his pearl bouncing method to determine nucleus size. He rubs the pearls on his teeth. Amandine’s son had skillfully carved Polynesian patterns into the pearls and made jewelry. Amandine successfully parts us from our Polynesian Francs. We look forward to returning home wooing our wives at a fine restaurant with these south sea treasures.
Back at the boat we prepare to dive the atolls passage. Larger fish possibly giant tuna maybe found there. We planned to anchor there for the night but are unable to get safe anchorage. We return to the settlement pier. Plan to head out to the next atoll Makemo in the morning. Wind is now calm. May not have enough wind to sail.
(Matt Rademacher works at University of Arizona and has signed on for a 1 month deployment aboard Akela)