The Wall of Sharks and Coconut Crabs in Tuamotus

Maya scuba diving with sharks

Maya scuba diving with sharks

We exit the Makemo atoll through the north pass at slack tide and sail to Tahanea overnight together with our friends S/V Mercredi Soir and S/V Invictus.

Tahanea and Fakarava atolls

Tahanea and Fakarava atolls

Arriving in the dark, we heave-to for a few hours in front of the pass waiting for daylight and for slack tide- the only safe time to enter any atoll. The biggest problem is finding out when exactly is slack tide, as the information we have from different sources doesn’t match.

Arriving at dawn

Arriving at dawn

We enter Tahanea successfully in the early morning with just one knot of current against us. It’s very stressful every time.

Rainbow over Tahanea

Rainbow over Tahanea

Once inside the atoll, the lagoon is calm and beautiful. The small uninhabited islands near the southeast corner are waiting for us.

Invictus, Mercredi Soir and Fata Morgana at anchor in Tahanea

Invictus, Mercredi Soir and Fata Morgana at anchor in Tahanea

Another boat family aboard catamaran Moby is here to join our group and now we are four families with eight kids in total, ages from four to fourteen, speaking English, French and German.

On the beach in Tahanea

On the beach in Tahanea

The men decide to provide the food for tonight- they are off spearfishing in the lagoon, while the women are preparing salads and side dishes. We are planning a big bonfire on the beach.

Sunset in Tahanea

Sunset in Tahanea

Bonfire on the beach

Bonfire on the beach

Besides the pile of tasty groupers Ivo, Tobi and Gilles speared in the lagoon, the guys also promised coconut crabs for dinner. They say that you can find coconut crabs- the world’s finest delicacy- at night in the bush on the small motus.

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Sunset, the fire going, we split in two hunting parties armed with flashlights and a machete. Off we go searching for coconut crabs. Operation “Ambush in The Bush”.

The Coconut Crab

No luck. Coconut crabs might be the largest of all land crabs in the world reaching giant proportions, growing up to one meter and weighing up to 4 kilograms, yet, they proved to be rather hard to locate and capture. After a few minutes of searching, our group with Ivo in the lead raises false alarm. Tobi starts:

“Wow, it’s huge, Ivo don’t kill it!” (But there is no coconut crab.)

The rest of our group quickly joins in:

“Wow, it’s big! We got a coconut crab and it’s massive!”- everyone is screaming, wonderstruck by the humongous (imaginary) creature.

The second group, with Gilles in the lead, are somewhere on the other side of the motu but can hear our excitement. Anxious to see our “catch” they rush towards us, running through the forest of coconut palms and jumping over the low bushes in the dark. By the time they arrive, we are all laughing.

“Were is the crab?”- Tom is asking.

“There is no crab”- I am laughing.

“But where is the crab?”- it takes a while for Team Two to realize- they have been pranked.

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At this moment, Ivo spots a strange creature skillfully crawling up a rotting tree. It looks like an armored extraterrestrial the size of a small dog- blue, with long antennae, massive claws with human-like teeth on the edges, three pair of legs divided in sections and another pair of legs with smaller tweezers-like claws- the mighty coconut crab!

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This time no one believes that Ivo actually found a real coconut crab, and even after we saw it with our own eyes, the reaction is much milder than the previous one.

Coconut crabs have the most powerful claws capable of cutting not only through the hard shells of coconuts, but also through wooden crates, buckets and metal enclosures of all kinds. Easily, he could cut through flesh and bones too. So picking up and transporting a coconut crab is a dangerous task.

Luckily, the crab grabs onto Ivo’s machete and won’t let go, holding fast, letting us bring him to the fire.

Maya holding the coconut crab

Maya holding the coconut crab

It’s Red Carpet time and everyone is taking pictures of the celebrity.

“How are we going to kill him and how are we going to cook him?”

After a short debate, we release the captive back in his forest, where “his family and babies are waiting for him”.

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We let him go free for three main reasons:

  1. We grew fond of the crab and no one wanted to kill him. We named him George.
  2. We thought he might be the last one of his species on Earth and we didn’t want to be responsible of his extinction.
  3. But mostly, we didn’t have a big enough pot to boil him in, and even if we did, one crab, no matter how huge, wouldn’t feed 16 people…
The kids and the coconut crab

The kids and the coconut crab

Read more about coconut crabs 10 Ginormous Facts About Coconut Crabs

Fakarava

Next stop- Fakarava- the second biggest atoll in French Polynesia, located some 245 NM northeast of Tahiti, 60km long, 21km wide, with 16km² of emerged land and a 1121km² lagoon.

We sail carefully through the narrow south pass and drop anchor in one of Tuamotus’ most popular atolls.

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Here, another French catamaran S/V QuatrA joins us and we are now 5 families with 10 kids playing on the beach, organizing dinners and epic parties.

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But we are here for one main reason- sharks.

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The Wall of Sharks

We have been seeing more and more sharks since we are sailing in the atolls of Tuamotu, but in Fakarava they are famous. Here is one of the best places on the planet to see and swim with sharks.

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The Tamotus are atolls. An atoll is a string of low-lying coral islands and reefs in the shape of a necklace, enclosing a shallow blue lagoon, with water between the islands called passes- some navigable, some not. Here, because of the strong tidal currents bringing nutrients inside the lagoon from the ocean, the amount of fish is incredible. The passes are as colorful, decorated by corals, and as populated by marine life as a shopping mall at Christmas time, making for the most spectacular drift-diving ever.

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Thanks to our friends in Colombia- Cata and Sebastian @DeepCoral, Ivo and Maya got their PADI diving certificate and diving equipment, ready to dive the famous Wall of Sharks in Fakarava’s south pass.

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Every summer a spectacular event takes place here – thousands of groupers gather to spawn attracting hundreds of sharks: grey reef sharks, black tips, white tips, lemon sharks and many other species of sharks gather to feed in the nutrient rich current of the pass.

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Thanks to this abundance of underwater life, Fakarava has been classified as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

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There is a dive shop near the pass, for organized guided dives, but if you have your equipment you can go diving anytime, unaccompanied, as many time as you want, for free, without a guide. Which is exactly what Ivo, Maya and our friends form Invictus and Mercredi Soir decide to do- freelance drift-diving with hundreds of hungry sharks!

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Sharks are known as the sea’s ultimate predators and bloodthirsty killing machines. So finding yourself surrounded by all kinds of sharks in overwhelming numbers is a scary surreal experience, impossible to imagine, impossible to believe.

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Maya with sharks

But the sharks’ reputation of killing and eating people at first sight is greatly overrated. They prefer fish. You don’t believe me? Here is what Ocean Service NOAA has to say on the subject:

“Only about a dozen of the more than 300 species of sharks have been involved in attacks on humans. Sharks evolved millions of years before humans existed and therefore humans are not part of their normal diets. Sharks are opportunistic feeders, but most sharks primarily feed on smaller fish and invertebrates. Some of the larger shark species prey on seals, sea lions, and other marine mammals.

Sharks have been known to attack humans when they are confused or curious. If a shark sees a human splashing in the water, it may try to investigate, leading to an accidental attack. Still, sharks have more to fear from humans than we do of them. Humans hunt sharks for their meat, internal organs, and skin in order to make products such as shark fin soup, lubricants, and leather.

Sharks are a valuable part of marine ecosystems, but overfishing threatens some shark populations. NOAA Fisheries conducts research on shark habitats, migratory patterns, and population change in order to understand how to best protect and maintain a stable shark population.”  (Read @ Do sharks eat people?)

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The sharks in Fakarava, once hunted for shark fin, have always been friendly and are today protected. There haven’t been accidents, except during the night dives- when the sharks feed and are much more excited.

So our group of divers sticks to day-diving. They return to the pass every day for almost a week. Here diving with sharks can become addictive!

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Maya with sharks

“Drift-diving, propelled by the strong current of the pass with hundreds of sharks all around me, getting closer and closer, has become the most thrilling experience of my life!”- said 12-years-old Maya.

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Diving in Colombia

Водолази

Scuba divers

Underwater the world is different. Dark, cold, dense, slow and mysteriously silent. You hear only your own breathing. You hear your thoughts. You hear muffled sounds sometimes- faraway thunders and gentle bells- but it is hard to determine where they come from. Yet, most of the time the underwater world is mute and silence is undisturbed even in the busy coral cities during the peak hour of the traffics of hundreds and thousands of darting fishes. It is strange.

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The first time with goggles and a snorkel underwater is unforgettable. Often, those who enter the sea for a first time return panting to shore- wet and cold and completely enchanted. And cannot stop dreaming of the deep, of being weightless again- like flying- inside this alien world of strange colors and shapes.

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It happened to Maya. She came back enchanted one day two years ago when she peeked under the water surface in the shallows of a small uninhabited island in Key West, Florida. There, at two meters depth, lied the skeleton of an old ship, its dark rusty bones overgrown with corals and barnacles, inhabited by small fishes, shrimps and crabs. Since then, Maya became a water creature and would snorkel and free-dive all the time, every time going deeper, holding her breath longer.

Мая

Underwater Maya

But her dream to breathe underwater – where the lobsters, the stingrays, the eels hide- without having to come out for air, only came true recently, after we met Cata Aponte Bohoquez and Sebastian Hernandez Gaviria. A cruiser we met in October 2013 in Rio Dulce, Guatemala- Dale McDaniel- told us his brother-in-law live in Santa Marta, Colombia with his girlfriend. “If you pass through there call them, they are great people and could show you around.”, Dale said and he was right.

Cata and Sebastian, a young couple who just got married a week before we met them, welcomed us in Santa Marta, drove us around town to all the travel agencies and the airport and helped us find and buy cheap airplane ticket to Bogota, took us to their favorite restaurants in town and to the place where they work.

It turned out they are both professional scuba-divers and scuba dive instructors, the owners of a scuba dive shop Deep Coral near the aquarium in Rodadero- one of a few dive shops in Santa Marta area. With 15 years of diving experience all around the world: Indonesia, South Africa, Europe, The Bahamas, many of the Caribbean islands and USA, and with an ever-growing passion for the underwater world, Cata, along with her partner Sebastian, is the best scuba diving instructor on the entire Caribbean cost of Colombia.

It also turned out that both Cata and Sebastian love the idea of sailing and dream of someday cruising and living aboard a sailboat. And just a few hours after we met, the idea that was brewing inside our heads after realizing that we would love to scuba-dive and they would love to sail, became a plan.

After returning from the three-day visit to Bogota and three-day camping trip to Tayrona, we organized our next Colombian adventure: an epic sailing-diving-beer-drinking trip with our new Colombian friends Cata and Sebastian.

Ката и Себастиян на борда на Фата Моргана

Cata and Sebastian aboard Fata Morgana

We went shopping, loaded the scuba-diving equipment, 15 scuba bottles, many bags of food and countless cases of Colombian cerveza Agila aboard Fata Morgana, and set sail for a lonely little bay on the southwest shores of Tayrona, only 4 nautical miles north of Santa Marta.

Гости и провизии

Guests and provisions ready to go

15 бутилки с въздух в камбуза....

15 air bottles in the galley

We dropped anchor not far from the rocky shores where the last hills of Sierra Nevada plunge in the Caribbean Sea.

Фата Моргана на котва в Тайрона

Fata Morgana at anchor in Tayrona

The land here is wrinkled with soft hills, thirsty and desolate, covered with yellow grass, withered cacti, and scorched spiky trees, lifeless, sun-eaten victims of the constant hot dry winds. The hills wake up from their coma only once every 1-2 years, Cata told us, when from the east the rain approaches. Then the grass gets drunk on green juices, the cacti are full like balloons and covered in flowers, and the branches of the dark dead trees become alive adorned with tiny green leaves. It is really beautiful, a brief spectacle, Sebastian said, the land celebrates and nature triumphs. And then everything dies again after the rains…

Брулени хълмове

Burnt hills

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A few days of dreams-come-true followed. Our friends learned some basic things about sailing and navigating and experienced life aboard a boat, and we learned to scuba dive, to breathe underwater.

Мая и Ката

Maya and Cata

Мира

Mira

Иво

Ivo

Иво и Мая водолази

Ivo and Maya

Ivo and Maya together with Cata and Sebasian did 2-3 dives per day, every time learning some new skills: to breathe without holding their breath, to equalize regularly, to regulate their buoyancy, to remove and put back on their equipment underwater, to simulate emergencies and share air underwater, orientation with a compass, helping the other diver, communicating underwater etc. Back on the boat, they had to read and study for hours the theory for their PADI Open Water Diver exam. It turned out scuba diving is not so simple and can be dangerous if you don’t follow the rules.

Мая и Ката правят подводни упражнения

Maya and Cata practicing new underwater skills

Мая

Maya

Мая

Maya

I did less dives and didn’t go as deep, nor learned all the skills besides the essential safety ones, as unlike Ivo and Maya, I did not have the ambition to obtain the Open Water Diver certificate at the end of this crash course, but only wanted to do a few fun dives.

Мира

Mira

Мая

Maya

Иво

Ivo

When we were not diving, we were preparing food, eating it and drinking lots of beer.

Ката и Себас правят гуакамоли

Cata and Sbastian: The Making of The Guacamole

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Иво , Себас и Ката

Cheers!

The last day we decided to sail to the next little bay where a small fishermen’s village popular with tourists and backpackers has a strange reputation. Taganga.

Рибарска лодка в Таганга

Fishing boat in Taganaga

Индианци от племето Коги на плажа в Таганга

Kogi indigenous people in Taganaga

At the foot of the burnt hills, on the edge of a shallow sandy bay we were greeted by a row of a few houses, shops and restaurants, two or three hostels facing the sea, lined up along the main street. The street runs parallel to a long beach populated by colorful fishing boats. Tourists and sun-stricken dogs roam the town in the heat of the day.

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Таганга

Street in Taganaga

In the late afternoon, the fishermen emerge from the sea and like fathers extremely proud with their kids (unless they are disappointed with them for some unrealized expectation) they arrange and exhibit their catch for all to see. Small noisy groups of men holding beers form under the palm trees, discussing the sea, the fish, the football and all other existential universal cosmic problems of the world.

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Рибари и риба

Fish and fishermen

It was burning hot in Taganga. All the thick good shades under trees and roofs were occupied by sleeping heavy-breathing dogs and sleeping heavy-breathing homeless people. Our only chance for survival was near the ventilator of a cozy little restaurant serving ice-cold beer and sea-food delicacies. Food in Colombia is notoriously good, yes it is. We still keep the memory of the stuffed avocado and roaster royal shrimp…

Авокадо пълнено с морски дарове

Avocado stuffed with sea-fruits

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Себастиян

Sebastian

Ката, Себастиян и Иво с бири в Таганга

Cheers from Taganga!

At night Taganga transforms. We were warned not to roam the streets after sunset if we were to avoid trouble. The small quaint fishermen village where time almost stops in the heat of the day, becomes the playground of drug addicts, gamblers, and prostitutes, we were told. All sorts of criminal activities were taking place in Taganaga each night. (The only uncertain proof of that fact we could find during the noon hours was an enslaved paranoid rooster on the beach waiting for his next fight.) As we were drifting to sleep in our beds that night we listened tensely for any distant symptoms of criminality.

За бой с петли (нелегално)

Rooster ready for the next illegal cock fight victory

Around three o’clock I awoke with a start. I heard voices. Intruders had boarded the boat! Maya saw dark feet passing outside her window. Ivo darted out to investigate and defend. Three drunk English-speaking tourists, a woman and two men, had decided to swim from the beach to the only anchored yacht in the bay (Fata Morgana), because they could see the lights of the boat (like moths attracted by the lamp?), explained the girl shortly after Ivo popped up to check what’s going on. This was of course a very bizarre explanation and an unacceptable reason to board someone’s boat at night, unless you are properly drunk and/or high. Angry Ivo sent them back swimming to the beach. Freaks.

Таганага след залез слънце

Taganga after sunset

These three days full of so many shared emotions and new experiences were the best most fun days of our visit to Colombia. For Cata and Sebas the time spent aboard Fata Morgana was an inspiration and a dream-come-true. For us learning to scuba dive was also a dream-come-true as well as a unique opportunity for Ivo and Maya to take the course, pass the exams and obtain an international scuba diving certificate (which normally costs hundreds of dollars). This will assure not only many more underwater adventures to come but also gives Ivo and especially Maya another valuable skill for the future which they can develop to a professional level. For this we are forever grateful to Cata and Sebastian.

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ll of us

 

*If you ever visit Santa Marta be sure to call Cata and Sebastian at Deep Coral and organize a fun dive in Tayrona or get PADI certified with the best diving instructors in the area. Add another unforgettable experience to your Colombian adventures with Deep Coral!

 

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