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.
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.
We enter Tahanea successfully in the early morning with just one knot of current against us. It’s very stressful every time.
Once inside the atoll, the lagoon is calm and beautiful. The small uninhabited islands near the southeast corner are waiting for us.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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”.
We let him go free for three main reasons:
- We grew fond of the crab and no one wanted to kill him. We named him George.
- We thought he might be the last one of his species on Earth and we didn’t want to be responsible of his extinction.
- 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…
Read more about coconut crabs 10 Ginormous Facts About Coconut Crabs
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.
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.
But we are here for one main reason- sharks.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thanks to this abundance of underwater life, Fakarava has been classified as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
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!
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.
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?)
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!
“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.