(Posted by Matt)
The sun is setting, and we haven’t caught dinner. Tony’s the days cook wants a consensus on a dinner plan. We are just off Katiu atoll on our way to Fakarava atoll. Katiu is where to big boss had his wedding party Regis told us about. Earlier as we sailed close by the atoll, we were close enough to the shore we could hear the surf. We are in prime fishing territory.
Max scans the water confidently squinting like Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti western. He says, “Give me 10 more minutes.” Tony says, “Screw that. We need a backup plan. How about something with noodles?” Jim chimes in that we have dried mushrooms. We look at each other. Let’s wait.
Just moments later the fishing reel loudly cries out. We got a fish! Max grabs the reel. Jim smiles, powers the boat motor down, stopping the boat, turning the boat towards the fighting fish but careful not to let the fish get under the boat.
The fighting fish rises in the clear water. We cheer it’s a dorado. Max pulls the fish to the side of the boat. The dorado is a bright lime green. We see other dorado fish swimming next to the boat. The gaff hook to retrieve the fish accidentally falls into water. Tony quickly pulls the fighting dorado into the boat with his bare hands. Max leaps into water to retrieve the floating wooden gaff hook.
Jim is unable to turn quickly around to get Max. Max is now floating all by himself out in the open ocean. His head protruding just above water lit orange from the setting sun. He is not sure if he will get rammed by the fast swimming dorados darting around him. Jim is able to maneuver to boat to an acceptable position, stop the boat propeller and drift into Max clutching the gaff. Max climbs into the boat, proudly holds the dorado up for a picture. It weighs 11 pounds. There is enough meat for the 4 of us for the next 2 days.
In the morning we arrived at Fakarava atoll just in time for the null in current. The navigation chart showed the channel crossed a reef area that is 12 feet deep. The satellite photos showed scattered bommies. This is the scariest lagoon passage so far. A sailboat that we were in radio contact had just motored through without any issues. That sailboat was a catamaran with considerably less hull depth than our monohulled sailboat.
Luckily, the lack of current allowed us to slowly go over the shallow reef as we carefully watched our sonar depth. Max watched for coral on the bow sprite. Jim steers the boat while keeping a keen eye on Max’s hand signals. I keep my eyes on the electronic tablet GPS navigation chart and call out to Jim which way to turn to keep us centered in the twisting narrow channel. Coral heads are visible all around us. Doesn’t seem much of a channel yet all other routes across the reef are not as deep.
Fakarava is the second biggest atoll in the Tuamotus archipelago and one of the largest in the world. The sand has a whiter appearance than the other atolls we visited. The white sand makes a photogenic turquoise blue lagoon.
The Pomare Empire began right here at this coral atoll. In the 1700’s, the Fakarava people traded pearls for firearms and succeeded in expanding their kingdom throughout the Tuamotus. From there they gained a foothold on Tahiti that was going through social disruption caused by large population losses from spreading western diseases.
The Tahitian Methodist missionaries converted the new Pomare King to Christianity and agreed to recognize him as Tahitian king of any new Polynesian Christian converts, similar to the Spanish royalty spreading Christianity in the Americas to increase their Spanish empire. The Methodist missionaries converted native Tahitians into missionaries loyal to the Pomare king to spread Christianity throughout the Society Islands, Austral Islands and the rest of the Tuamotus Archipelago. The Pomare royal family through religious conversions eventually controlled trade and taxed an ocean area almost the size of continental Europe.
France (Catholic) sees how much pearl, sandalwood, and whaling trade the British/Americans (Protestants) are making and sends French Catholic priest missionaries to stir unrest and expose the Protestant despotic Pomare royal family. In an interesting twist, the French succeed converting ‘corrupt Protestant’ natives to ‘morally good Catholic’ natives that are oppressed by the Pomare regime. In the1880’s France forcefully annexed French Polynesia putting an end to Pomare Dynasty.
Safely through the passage we found an unoccupied mooring ball that made anchoring easy. Mooring balls protect the coral from anchor damage. Large coral eating parrot fish school under our boat, an occasional large black tip shark slowly swims among them. We row the dingy to shore to look around.
There was a town here at the Fakarava South Pass in the 1880’s. Back then it was the capital of the Tuamotus. Pearl diving was done here then. A typhoon wiped out the town. The storm greatly reduced the island size. Today it’s a ghost town of hollowed out buildings without roofs. There are no cars. The straight streets are carpeted with grass only identified by coral stones that line the street edge like curbs. There is an old church with a graveyard. Large elaborate coral gravestones so old and weathered they are hard to read.
We soon find out that Fakarava South Pass is all about the Wall of Hundreds of Sharks. People fly in from all over the world to scuba dive with these this large gathering of sharks.
We meet David Szpetkowski who is here with his woman companion. They are taking underwater photos for National Geographic. They are not here for the sharks but for the coral. David says this is one of the best places in the world to see coral, “The coral is very healthy here.”
Extending out into the passage is a pier that has restaurant that sells cold beer. Dozens of sharks loiter the piers waiting for restaurants plate scraps. At the end of a neighboring pier is a scuba dive shop that tells us we can dive without dive certification cards. They provide all the scuba gear, one tank of air, guided tour for $75 US.
We set up a dive for the next morning. We are able to arrange for a boat to pick us up at our sailboat.
Next morning our boat taxi shows up, takes us to our dive equipment laid out on the dive shop pier. Mark, the dive shop owner will dive with us to show us the sharks. He instructs us not to touch live coral. Shows us some yellow fire coral growing at the end of the dock that burns the skin on contact. Explains that there is a strong current that will pull us through the pass. The best way to see the sharks is to hold onto one little knuckle of dead coral and look over your shoulder at the sharks. This keeps us low and not moving.
He says we will see mostly large Gray Reef sharks. This Fakarava pass is unique in the world by having up to 700 sharks all thickly grouped together in one place. Gray Reef sharks are social, not territorial, yet they will defend a volume of personal space. Mark goes on to disclose the Gray Reef shark will attack if provoked, threatened, or if you get into their personal space. You will know you are in the shark’s personal space if the shark displays a hunch threat posture where they lift their snout, hold their pectoral fins down and arch their backs and make exaggerated tail movements.
We must also avoid being in a large group of Gray Reef sharks when they are actively feeding on fish. This location has so many large sharks in one place that they will accidentally start biting each other. Any bleeding shark will be devoured when in this feeding frenzy.
He then warns us that we must all leave the water if a large Tiger shark shows up. “Don’t worry you will know. All of the Gray Reef sharks will suddenly scatter.” He said to stay close and follow him out of the water.
Mark then tries to make effort to put us at ease. He doesn’t want us too excited where we breathe up all our compressed air too quickly. He wants us to have enough air to see all of his entire underwater tour.
We could have picked any island to visit. We didn’t know beforehand about ‘The Wall of Hundreds of Sharks’. We are discovering as we go. Free to change the sailboats course on a whim. How did we end up here with these sharks?
I’m reviewing the decision sequence that brought us here. Never had much interest in sharks. Why would anyone pay to swim with sharks? Get bit, bleed out before anyone can save you. I’m feeling like I really haven’t thought this one out. Like when I thought it would be fun to go sky diving right up to the point where I stand at open airplane door look down at the ground thousands of feet below.
A year or so ago I watched the movie ‘Jaws’ and was stunned how rubbery and fake the shark looked compared to today’s computer-generated special effects. Even so, long ago when I was a kid seeing the Jaws movie for the first time, the movie succeeded in planting a fear of sharks that stayed with me my whole life.
I’m uneasy when I am in the water with a shark, not in my natural element but in the shark’s element. Slowly swimming in a 3-dimensional world where I can only see a narrow field of view in front of me but not behind, and not all the other directions. The fear of the unknown, the shark sees me, but I can’t see it. Shark’s fast, I’m slow. Just one bite, then I must resist going into that tonic immobility state. Like the terrified antelope goes into the tonic immobility state, relaxes, goes limp in the firm grip of a lion’s jaw while fully conscious, acknowledging death is imminent.
Who is this guy Mark? What do we really know about him. He seems so blissfully happy all the time. Is he wacked out on drugs? We are making a lot of assumptions about the condition of the scuba equipment we are using. How could he charge only $75 for the tour and scuba gear rental. Gear appears new but looks can be deceiving. The only thing that makes sense is we are using cheaply maintained scuba equipment that suddenly stops supplying air while we are deep underwater.
Just like I took that skydive leap from an airplane I sink down 65 ft into the pass. The water is amazingly clear and fully illuminated by the bright sun. Visibility is 150 ft. At this depth everything takes on a soft blue color. We are on the edge of a steep coral canyon. The canyon floor is dimly lit below us. The other side of the canyon is visible as well.
The current is frighteningly strong. We are pulled at amazing speed from the open ocean into the atoll pass. If this Fakarava south pass dive shop has battery powered underwater sea scooters it would be like flying underwater. The flying speed greatly increased by this fast current. I see how large powerful swimming shark could use this fast current to its advantage by instantly appearing from the dark ocean depths to snatch unsuspecting prey.
I imagine a large shark swimming off into the darkness with a scuba diver in its mouth, Mark in his calm peaceful way says, “Well, we do lose a few. We all knew the risk. It’s the Wall of Hundreds of Sharks.”
Then I imagine my flight back to Tucson unable to fasten my plane seatbelt because one of my arms is missing. I ask the man sitting next to me for help and explain I swam the Wall of Hundreds of Sharks. The puzzled man looks at my bandaged arm stub and says an insincere “Sounds fun”, then quietly mumbles to himself, “How did that work out for you?” as he buckles my airplane seatbelt.
I realize that I’m actually ok. Scuba equipment works as it should. My heart racing, I try to slow down my steam locomotive breathing. There is an embarrassing wide continuous dense stream of bubbles rising from my regulator easily confused with a massive air tank leak. Mark is swimming with no bubbles. Only an occasional small line of tiny discreet bubbles rising behind him as he gracefully swims forward.
Greeting us predominantly in front of us are 3 devil rays swimming in a perfect triangle formation. They are jet black, silhouetted in the shimmering moving blue light beams coming from above. Look much like a manta ray. The same way an airplane wing foil can lift and pull the plane forward these rays use the current to float motionless holding their position above the canyon without having to flap their wings to fight against the current. As the other surrounding fish swim actively these rays hold perfectly still as if we are looking at a large 2-dimensional billboard photograph of 3 large black rays with long thin tails pulled straight out behind them. As we continue to dive down and approach underneath, our bubbles rise into them causing them to gently break formation.
We see about a dozen sharks lazily floating in lower canyon. Mark waves to us to follow him along the coral wall. He motions that we should stay low and close to the coral.
In the canyon ahead we see the wall of hundreds of sharks. From the shark tour name, I thought we would see a formation of sharks somehow in a vertical plane, ‘wall of sharks’. What we saw was hundreds of sharks all pointed into the current, yet they are all randomly scattered all over the canyon. They are in front of us, above and below, lazily swimming about. The tour name means ‘a canyon coral wall that has hundreds of sharks’.
Up ahead is thick mass of large Gray Reef sharks all facing us. The strong current is pulling us right into them. My instincts tell me this is not good. I forgot to ask the size of the shark’s personal space. It better be a few inches. With this current speed it will be just a few moments before I am inside this thick mass of sharks. I try to swim away but the current is too strong. Mark sees what I’m doing and quickly flails his arms to motion me to stay with him near the coral wall. Mark then grabs a knob of dead coral to stop him being pulled into the mass of sharks. We all swim to the wall and do the same.
Our heads are facing the mass of sharks but as soon as we grab a coral knob the strong current quickly whips our legs towards the sharks. We now must crane our necks over our shoulder to see the mass of sharks now about 8 yards beyond our feet.
Mark is the closest to the shark mass and he briefly let’s go of the coral knob the grabs another down current to control his approach to the sharks. The rest of us stay where we are quite happy with this viewing distance. I’m still planning my escape by fighting against the current and climb the canyon wall knob by knob when Mark motions for us to follow him into the mass of sharks. As Jim and Max follow a hole in the shark mass opens for us to go into. The sharks didn’t move away with just Mark approaching yet with 3 humans approaching the sharks back off. If I lag too far behind the hole could close around Mark, Jim and Max and I’m stuck by myself learning the hard way the size of the shark’s personal space. I quickly follow them into the shark mass hole looking for any sign of a hunched shark threat display.
We are now surrounded by sharks. We loiter taking it all in, observing natures spectacle. Now that I’m holding still, inactive, I’ve managed to somehow calm down in this place where all of us and everything is in slow motion. Time seems to slow as well. I have noticed that my breathing is considerably slower.
There is a Zen feeling of the place. The sharks and rays have found a place to relax and float almost motionless. Elsewhere they must exert energy to swim. Here they can just be and let the current and time flow by. I think relaxing is why so many sharks are here. They must be here to hangout and relax in this special place that has just the right constant laminar current to use their hydrodynamic shaped bodies to pull them forward effortlessly into the current while oxygenating their gills. This area also has plenty of fish for them to eat.
Jim boldly swims away from the wall into the sharks. A gray reef shark much longer than Jim’s body almost brushed against his legs paying no attention to him. The sharks obviously can see us but it like their expressionless eyes look right through us as if we are invisible
The water here is exceptionally clear. I know where the sharks are. One is not hidden behind me coming to bit me because I am up against a coral wall. These sharks don’t appear interested in us at all. Scuba diving next to our relaxed tour guide who swims with these sharks’ multiple times per day year after year, I’m now experiencing a different shark perspective.
Before the dive Mark showed us hand signals to communicate how much air we have left in our tanks. Jim and Max dive more often than me. Watching their hand signals, I was glad to see that I was using my air almost at the same rate and should be able to complete the underwater tour.
Mark takes us to a dark underwater cave to investigate. Is this where the 15ft. sharks hang out? He then instructs us to start moving up the wall to shallower water. There is more light and color nearer surface. We see now in a thick colorful coral forest dense with schooling fish. Our air is almost out. Mark signals us to rise to the surface.
On our way up we meet David the National Geographic writer photographing coral with a fancy underwater camera. We see that we are now just below the dive shop pier. Mark shows us a special ladder that allows us to climb out with our flippers still on.
We climb out of the water. Remove the heavy scuba gear. Help each other pull off our tight-fitting dive suits. We just stand there with smiling faces reviewing in our minds what we just saw. I’m momentarily dumbfounded, trying to gather myself, return to the world of air. I can’t believe what we just did.
My mind is in a haze, making dream like connections. I look at the weathered old empty ghost town buildings where hundreds of people lived long ago. Those sharks could be the lost souls of the town people swept out to sea from the typhoon, just endlessly floating down there unable to leave. Maybe this dream state means I’m experiencing nitrogen narcosis from the deep dive, similar to inhaling the dentist laughing gas. Perhaps this is why I was so calm with the sharks. I’ll just walk it off and be back to my normal self.
There are others snorkeling along the surface looking down at coral along the water’s edge. Jim asks Mark if we can snorkel around the dive dock area. The forest of coral is thick here. Lots of fish swimming around.
Mark points to a beach we can easily enter the water. He says the current will pull us past the restaurant, his dive pier and then to another small bay that has a sandy beach that is easy to walk out of the water. He warns us to not get too far from shore, “The shore current is reversed from the main channel current. The shore current will take you bye bye.” Mark points to the open ocean.
There is a path that takes us to the beach. We walk past a low enclosure that’s right on the water’s edge. It’s full of hogs happily eating coconuts. I wonder if the large shark population is based on a hog meat diet. Greater sharks’ numbers mean better competition against the other dive tour sites. Plenty of coconuts palms here to supplying free hog food.
A boxer dog follows us to the beach. This is the first dog we saw that has normal proportions. On these small islands there few variations in the genetic dog pool. We see some strange looking dogs here. This boxer dog has a cute face with 1 lower canine tooth protruding up over his upper lip.
We enter the water with our snorkel gear and notice there is a strong current. There is 4 of us but only 3 sets of fins. I volunteer to be the one who goes finless. This puts me in tricky situation if I get into too much current. I try to stay close to the coral, yet the coral is so healthy that I can’t find any dead coral to hold onto. There are a series of mollusk encrusted posts hammered into the coral that parallel the shore. The post was probably used to string gill nets before this area was made into nature reserve. The post makes a good handhold to slow my speed drifting in the fast current.
Occasionally I lift my head to see where Tony is so I can stay with him. He is staying near the shore where the poles are. While I’m looking out of the water, I notice a small bird following me, perching on top of the post as just as I reach out to hold on to it. The bird follows me pole to pole. One pole extends only 2 feet above the water yet the bird, fearless of my approach, lands on top of the post. I stop and study the bird. It has a large kingfisher feathered crest and head, forward focusing eyes that seem to look right through my scuba mask and lock to my eyes, occasionally peering into the water near me then locking back onto my eyes. I rise my head up higher out of the water to see if the bird will fly away. It stays on the post. I slowly lift my free hand up towards the bird and it flies into the air, then returns to the post when I put my hand back into the water.
Maybe this bird has learned that snorkelers bring small fish out into the open near the surface. Larger fish distance themselves from snorkelers allowing small fish to venture out of hiding and feed in the open water near the safety of the snorkeler. If the bird stays close to me it has a better chance to catch a small fish.
I run out of poles to hold onto then float quickly through schools of fish and find a good hold under the restaurant pier. There are a lot of sharks here. I hope nobody throws their plate of food scraps into the water while I’m here. Max and Tony come by. Jim is further out in the passage making amazing deep dives to the crowd of sharks below.
We continue drifting on over to exit at the sandy bay. As we approach the sandy beach an enormous Napoleon Wrasse swims directly to us, shadowing us, close enough to reach out and touch. It looks out of place, too large for this shallow water. Its dorsal fin breaks the surface of the water and at times its fat belly touches the sandy bottom. Even though its mouth is toothless, its jaw looks strong enough to bite through rocks. I am not sticking my hand out. Later we were told that people kick up mollusks buried in the sand. When the wrasse sees people approaching it knows it is time to eat.
The snorkeling was so great that we decide to do the route again. Waiting for us in the shallow water is the boxer dog looking happy to see us.
There are half dozen 4 ft long black tip sharks lazily swimming the shallow beach. The dog wants to play with the sharks and waits for one to swim close. When one does, he runs for it scaring the shark away. We can’t help but laugh as the dog determined to get a shark starts dog paddling after the sharks. The sharks clearly have the advantage if there is a fight. This is a clear example how skittish these small black tip sharks are.
Max names the dog Fire Coral. The dog responds to that name. Max plays fetch with an old coconut husk. Fire Coral has a new best friend. Fire Coral happily follows us back to our snorkeling entrance beach.
(Matt Rademacher works at University of Arizona and has signed on for a 1 month deployment aboard Akela)