Heiva in Tahiti

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We leave our last atoll in the Tuamotus around 18h00, exiting Fakarava’s north pass at slack tide. The wind is light from behind at 10-15 kts, almost 180 degrees, and we fly the spinnaker the entire time, day and night, for two nights and two days.

We approach Tahiti on the third evening – a massive mountain rising from the ocean surrounded by a reef. We drop anchor in the first possible bay just behind the eastern corner- Tautira Bay or Cook’s Anchorage, renamed after Captain Cook, who landed here during his voyage. One other yacht arrives in the dark after us. There are no other boats. We spend the night here, in the calm of the bay, after two nights of sailing. Early the next morning we continue all the way to the west side of the island and at noon we arrive in Papeete – the largest port and heavily populated capital of French Polynesia.

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Tahiti is the biggest of the Society Islands archipelago with land area over 1000 square kilometers, where more than half of all French Polynesians live. The island was part of the independent Kingdom of Tahiti until its annexation by France in 1880, when it was proclaimed a colony of France, and the inhabitants became French citizens. French is the only official language although the Tahitian language (Reo Tahiti) is widely spoken, as in all other islands of French Polynesia.

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It’s full with sailing yachts- some huge super mega yachts- and we have two options- either go to the downtown Marina Papeete, where most of our friends are- right at the heart of the big capital city with all the shops and restaurants and the beautiful seaside park, or drop anchor for free further- much further- near Marina Taina- one of two anchorages near Papeete. We choose the free option, even though we have to hitchhike every time we go to Papeete. At least hitchhiking is great on the island, as everywhere in French Polynesia, and we never have to wait for more than 5-10 minutes for some super friendly local to pick us up. Also, the biggest and cheapest Carrefour shopping mall is within walking distance from our anchorage and cruisers are welcome to push their shopping carts all the way to the dinghy docks- an employee picks up the empty shopping carts stacked at the docks every day.

It’s great being on land again. After the low-lying coral atolls where the highest natural landmark is a coconut palm it’s nice to find mountains, forests, and rivers again. We put on our hiking boots and together with our friends from catamaran Runaway – Reinhart, Claudia and Launce start for the Fautaua valley and falls. First we hitchhike- six people separated in two groups. Reinhart is a blond German guy- very blond- and cars stop for him even before he sticks his thumb up, I don’t know why. So their group gets picked up first and 2 and half minutes later- our group gets picked up too, even though none of us is blond…

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Thank you for giving us a lift!

We get to a place in the city, where we pay for a permit to enter the trail for the waterfalls, and from there we hitchhike again to the actual trailhead, where no one wants to see our tickets…

We walk for a couple of hours through the lush jungle along the river, on a path covered with large red flowers, surrounded by massive trees. Tahiti is not just the largest, but also the highest French Polynesian island born as a volcano. Its highest peak is Mont Orohena at 2,241 m (7,352 ft).

We reach a river-crossing and then another one with a small pond at which point the group splits in two and some of us (the girls) return to wait for the others (the guys) near the gate, thinking that we have reached the falls. Turns out the falls are much further and the guys who continued actually saw them. Thanks to Launce, Ivo has some really nice pictures at the falls, and we have some nice photos from the hike too, where the entire family is present for a change. Thanks Launce!

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We spend a few weeks in Tahiti, shopping and stocking much needed products (good old forgotten Shopping, we missed you!), we visit the Museum of Pearls, the big market, and many of the sporting events taking place during the month-long Heiva festival each July.

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More than just a festival, Heiva has become the symbol of Polynesian culture and ancestral tradition. An iconic event for a people proud of their heritage and a showcase for traditional music, dance, sports and games.

The traditional sporting events are based on ancient athletic activities and include:

A stone lifting competition, during which very big Polynesian men lift heavy boulders up to 175kg. They have to be able to lift the rocks on their shoulders and hold them for a few seconds. The one who can lift the boulder for the fastest time wins.

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A fruit carrying competition- groups of women and men compete running for two kilometers carrying on their shoulders up to 50 kg of fruits attached at the end of a long wooden stick. The fastest runner wins.

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A javelin- throwing event- teams throw long arrows at a coconut on a long pole and try to hit it. Each arrow has color ribbons indicating its owner. At the end, the arrows are being counted and the team with most arrows stuck in the coconut wins.

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A copra competition- the tradition of breaking coconuts and making copra has been turned into a great competition during Heiva. Each team or individual has to break exactly 50 coconuts, to take out the meat from the shell and put it in bags. The fastest one wins.

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Climbing the coconut palm competition- this one is obvious- the fastest one up the coconut palm wins! This years’ record- 3 seconds!

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But the most important and magnificent part of the Heiva festival are the dancing shows featuring a war dance reminiscent of the Maori haka, and a way to revive the past and forgotten traditions.

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Music, choreography, and costumes are based on historical or legendary themes and are uniquely created for each Heiva, prepared for months in advance by the dancers. Each dance tells a story with many parts, in which the rhythm and costumes change a few times. The stories are legends about gods and volcanoes, ocean storms and sharks; or historical events like clashes and wars, or the arrival of the Europeans, and their influence on the islanders- the things they brought with them, the new fabrics used for sails, the new religion- all this can be featured in the story of each dance.

Heiva brings together thousands of Polynesians from all the islands of all five archipelagos, here to compete in the sporting events, dancing and beauty pageants.

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The main event is the dancing shows at Toata Square in Papeete- every night for many days dancing groups from the islands perform and compete for the first prize. Tourists from all over the world arrive to watch the most beautiful and sexy of dances performed by hundreds of dancers and musicians. Photographing and filming is not permitted; eating or drinking during the show is also forbidden and the rules are strictly enforced by the organizers of the event.

We buy tickets for the last night- to watch the winners and best groups perform- together with our friends from catamarans Invictus and Mercredi Soir.

The show is truly impressive. Groups of close to one hundred exotic dancers – beautiful young women with long dark curly hairs dressed in grass skirts and flowers in their hairs, and young energetic guys in colorful miniskirts perform in perfect harmony to the sound of powerful drums and wild rhythms. Ivo, Tobi and Gilles, as well as 14-year-old Tom, are very pleased to see the beautiful semi-naked Polynesian girls shake their hips with impressive grace and skill, like palm trees during a storm. In fact, the Polynesian dances are so sexy, they were once outlawed.

The pre-European Polynesian culture was an oral culture where stories, legends and knowledge were transmitted from one generation to the next by the ‘orero- storytellers, singers and dancers of great artistic talent and impeccable memory. The traditional rites and exotic dances reflected an isolated “sexually liberated” culture where the social constructs of the “civilized world” didn’t apply.

In the beginning of the 19th century, the first British puritan missionaries arrived and were shocked. They declared the dances, music and costumes “morally questionable pagan activities”, even “vulgar” and inducing “debauchery”. When the local king Pomare II converted to Christianity, he forbade dancing. For many years it became a marginalized and clandestine activity but the Polynesian people never stopped doing it “illegally” and kept the tradition though the ages, even though they did suffer a great loss of culture. Not until 1956 Polynesian dancing and music, costumes and traditions were once again legally celebrated. Today, Heiva is a way to revive the past and forgotten traditions.

Other than the restricted and expensive dancing performances at Toata Square in Papeete (but worth it), of which we have no photos or videos, there is the free-admission two-day event at the Museum of Tahiti, which happened to be much closer to our anchorage than to downtown Papeete. The museum’s backyard bordered by the sea covers large grounds with beautiful gardens, many big ancient tiki statues made of stone and wood, as well as a few vast lawns, perfect for dancing and sport competitions. The public consists mainly of locals and not so many tourists, sitting on the lawn. The atmosphere is chill and authentic. There are food stands selling local delicacies, ice cream and souvenirs. The weather is perfect, sunny and warm, no wind on the lee side of the island. The whole event resembles a massive pick nick or a fair. Here, we are welcome to film and photograph all the activities in day light. Spectacular, powerful, unforgettable.

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heiva

Watch our 20-minute video Heiva- Celebrating Polynesian Culture featuring the world’s sexiest dance, once outlawed by the European missionaries for being too erotic!

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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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Kids and Coconuts in Makemo

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The Tuamotus are wonderful.

Spectacular remote lagoons and tiny coconut motus (islets), warm clear waters, healthy corals and tropical fish, relaxing atmosphere and friendly locals. Sailing from lagoon to lagoon, from island to island, snorkeling and scuba-diving, making huge bonfires on the beach in the company of dear friends became our most favorite times in French Polynesia.

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After Raroia- our love-of-first-sight atoll, we sail to Makemo- the fourth biggest yet rarely visited by sailors or tourists atoll in the Tuamotus. Makemo Atoll measures 69 km in length and 16.5 km in width, with a land area of 56 km² and a lagoon of 603 km² in area with two navigable passes and an airport.

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It is the best place to spend a few days with very strong winds announced- up to 35-40 knots, because the main inhabited island of the atoll has a neat little village Pouheva with very welcoming people (population of about 600), good internet access, a bakery selling fresh hot 60-cent French baguettes, a decent pizza place, and a free public dock big enough for three catamarans, where S/V Invictus, S/V Mercredi Soir and S/V Fata Morgana are welcome to stay as long as they like.

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Pizza with friends

Pizza with friends

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Besides the small one-story houses with lush flowering gardens and clean streets, in Pouheva there is a church, a lighthouse, a boarding school where kids from neighboring atolls come to study, and a big football/basketball court, covered with a high tin roof, protecting the court from the tropical sun and rain. Here the locals gather every day to practice for the Heiva Music and Dance Festival in the beginning of July.

Lighthouse in Makemo

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Maya and Sam watching the kids practicing for Heiva in Makemo

 

The entire island population is busy preparing for the festival, making decorations and costumes. Tiny seashells collected on the shores, palm leaves and flowers are the main materials used to make the dancers’ costumes. These guys also collected the empty flour bags from the bakery and are using them to make the skirts.

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I spend hours helping with the costumes together with a few women, a man and one shy rae-rae (a transvestite- very common throughout French Polynesia, and respected “third gender” believed to combine the best male and female qualities), in a tiny shed where the floor is covered with crushed corrals. My job is to prepare the flour bags for the skirts by removing the horizontal threads one by one.

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(read more about the RaeRae and Mahu: third Polynesian Gender.  Similar to Fa’afafine of Samoa )

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We are welcome to watch the music and dance repetitions. The music and dancing are so wild and contagious, it’s hard to resist. Soon Ivo, who is really good at dancing, joins one of the groups, impressing the locals with his grace, beauty and beard.

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He also impressed the many local kids who hang around the public wharf and the boats all the time with another skill- kiteboarding. 30-40 kts winds are ideal to practice some jumps while the boat is safely attached to the pier.

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The barefoot kids in Makemo are curious cheeky little fellows, always ready to help. After school, running or riding their bicycles, they come to check what we are doing. Jumping from the pier and swimming between the boats, admiring Ivo’s kiteboarding performances, but mostly- spearfishing in the shallow reefs, are their favorite activities.

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“Aren’t you scared of sharks?” I ask Kura, a 12-yers-old boy and two of his friends who are constantly in the water chasing fish.

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“No. But my dad was eaten by sharks,” says one of the boys laughing, so I don’t know if he is joking or telling the truth.

“But sharks are not dangerous. They usually don’t bother you. What happened with my dad was an accident, because he was drunk. He went to one of the motus and didn’t attach his boat, so the boat started drifting. He was very drunk, but he jumped in the water swimming after the boat, trying to get it back. He drowned, because he was really wasted. They found his body in the lagoon a couple of days later. The sharks had eaten his arms and legs and his head was missing. We couldn’t bury him like this. He was half-eaten. So we ate him…”

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My jaw drops. Did I hear correctly? The other two boys are smiling. One is interrupting the story, telling to the orphaned kid not to say this. “We don’t say this!”

I scream covering my mouth with both hands “WHAT???”, but the kids are running away laughing.

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In a place surrounded by miles of ocean, where the tiny pockets of sand only yields coconuts and the sea- fish; where food, fresh fruits and vegetables, meat and any other products are difficult and expensive to get, especially for people with limited means, protein is the islanders’ main daily concern. Fish makes up for 90% of the locals’ diet. Here (it is not a secret), ever since before the arrival of the first Europeans in the 18th century, dogs have been on the menu and are still part of the Polynesian peoples’ protein source (we’ve been told repeatedly by the locals themselves), along with local chickens, pigs and sea birds. Why not human meat, if it’s already half eaten by sharks?

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I don’t know if this story is true or the kids are just trying to joke with us, the foreign visitors: “Watch out, we are cannibals.”

One thing is for sure- they respect the sharks profoundly- rulers of the sea- and would never kill or eat a shark.

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One morning, during my 20 minutes jogging routine, I met Teva Tuku and Taai Tuua. Teva and Taai are in their sixties. Their many children are all grown up and have families and kids of their own, and have left Makemo to live and work in Tahiti and France. Teva and Taai live alone now in their small yellow house and produce copra. They invite me to talk about the Islands, the Ocean and Nature and the dangers they face today with over-fishing, illegal whale trade and climate change. But mostly, they explain to me all about the process of copra production and coconuts in general, while Taai is making a palm-leaf bag for me.

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Copra is dried coconut used to extract coconut oil by collecting fallen coconuts, breaking them, removing the shell, and sun drying the kernel. Every family harvests coconuts from a certain amount of coconut palms on the main island or the motus from the atoll. First, the coconut is split in two and left in the sun for two days. After two days the meat can be removed from the shell with ease, and the drying process is complete after three to five more days (up to seven in total). Copra is then exported to “Huilerie de Tahiti” –the copra processing plant built in 1968 in Tahiti where the coconut oil is extracted. The copra industry is the main agricultural resource of the islands of Tuamotu and for many of the other islands of French Polynesia, and contributes to a large part of the local economy. In these isolated islands, copra remains the only source of income besides pearl farming and fishing.

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(Read more about The Coprah industry in Polynesia. )

I go back to the boat loaded with presents: coconuts for drinking and coconuts for eating, a palm-leaf bag and a palm-leaf trey. But the biggest gift I got from these smiling, generous, beautiful islanders is their story full of wisdom, goodness and knowledge.

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Sailing to Raroia- The Kon-Tiki Atoll

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French Polynesia is an overseas collectivity (or territory) of France, composed of 118 islands and atolls in the South Pacific Ocean, of which 67 are inhabited. These islands and atolls are divided into five island groups: the Marquesas Islands, the Tuamotu Archipelago, the Society Islands archipelago, the Gambier Islands, and the Austral Islands.

The distances between the islands within one group are small- usually a few hours or a day sail. But the passages from one island group to the next are hundreds of miles and can take many days.

 

Marquesas-Tuamotus Passage

tuamotu-marquesas

We stage our passage southwest from the Marquesas Islands to the Tuamotu Archipelago from Ua Pou together with S/V Invictus and S/V Mercredi Soir. It is a 450NM passage which will take a few days. Fata Morgana is the smallest and slowest of the three catamarans, so after the first day of sailing our friends are already way ahead of us and we have no radio contact. Last time we heard from Invictus, they had some problem with the steering and the head sail, and Nicole got really badly rope-burned on the right hand.

We have checked the weather forecast. A convergence zone with strong winds and squalls is passing south. According to the GRIB files, the bad weather will remain 200NM south of the Tuamotus, so we should be fine with 15kt winds predicted for our area.

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On the third night of the passage a storm hits us with 40 kts winds from east. It’s 8 p.m., pitch black, clouds, rain, the waves building up- the horror. We drop the mainsail leaving only a bit of the jib sticking out as a storm sail. We hope this is a squall and will pass in a few minutes.

The sea’s fury is awesome. The thunder of the waves and the howling of the wind sound evil, like death approaching. And it’s not about to end. Not in a few minutes, not in a few hours. The night becomes a nightmare.

Ivo is dealing with  situation, hand steering. Maya is surprisingly calm and unafraid. She is trying to reassure me too. I, on the other hand, am losing it.

“If I survive this, if I ever get to dry land, I will walk away and never set foot on a boat again!”

I am sending messages on the IridiumGo satellite to Mel and Krisha with our position, preparing a water-tight survival bag with hand-held VHF radio, crackers, bottle of water, knife, submergible lights in case the mast snaps, the boat flips and breaks to pieces and sinks, and we are left floating in the dark ocean raging around us, full with sharks. What chance do we have?

The boat is now surfing down the waves, hard to keep her stable; we are getting pushed off course to the west. We have to slow down. From the stern Ivo deploys our improvised drogues- the Galapagos beer crates, this time prepared and ready to use. They are so good- work miracles!

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Still getting pushed west though. We decide to try something we have never done before. We heave-to. The boom is open all the way to starboard, mainsail down, the jib is sticking just a bit, maybe a square meter surface, parallel to the boom, the wheel is turned all the way to port and locked, the wind and waves are hitting us from port at about 45 degrees. The boat is trying to turn port because of the wheel, like when you are tacking, but cannot, because of the boom and jib. So- miracle! She is stuck. Cannot turn port, cannot tack, cannot turn starboard, cannot jibe. She stops smoothly the waves lifting her up and posing her down slowly at a very comfortable angle.

It’s 1:00 a.m., storm raging, but it feels fine, even smooth. We are still getting pushed west a bit, but only about 1 kt an hour. And guess what we did for the rest of the nightmare? Exhausted, we slept! Not like babies, but we slept, and if someone has told me that I will sleep during a storm, I would’ve never believed it. But I did.

6:00 a.m. the sun is pushing the night away and with it- the storm is dying out as well. We survived it.

Yet, more scary times awaited us.

Arriving in Raroia

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The Tuamotu Archipelago is also known as the Dangerous Archipelago. These low lying atolls have claimed many boats wrecked on their reefs, which you cannot see at night. Even entering through the turbulent waters of the narrow passes can be disastrous. Navigating in and out of the atolls has to be done with lots of care, at slack tide, when the current in the cut is not too strong.

Raroia is our first atoll ever, so naturally we are anxious and worried about entering through the narrow cut. We arrive in the evening and heave-to again not far from the atoll entrance. This time we do it not because of bad weather but because we have to wait out the night and only enter in daylight and at the precise moment when the tides change direction, the currents reverse and the water in the pass is at its calmest state.

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In the morning, we still have a bit of a current in the pass flowing against us, creating turbulent waters with sort fast river-like waves and whirlpools, but with full sails and both engines we enter in the lagoon successfully.

To find ourselves in Paradise, after surviving the horrors of Hell.

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Not a single hotel, not a single tourist. A lagoon just for us with calm turquoise waters surrounded by a string of little uninhabited islands with coconut palm trees and pink beaches. Like in the postcards, but real!

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An atoll is a coral reef enclosing a pool of water called a lagoon. Atolls form from a volcanic island circled by a coral reef.  First, a volcano pops up from the sea. Then corals start to form around the edges of the crater. With time the volcano starts to sink back down into the sea and eventually- disappears. But the ring of corals formed around it remains and even keeps growing, because the corals keep accumulating. Small flat coral and sand islands appear here and there on the edge of the lagoon protected by a reef. An oasis in the vast blue ocean desert.

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With about 80 islands and atolls, the Tuamotus (meaning the “Distant Islands”) form the largest chain of atolls in the world.

The oval-shaped Raroia is one of the westernmost smaller Tuamotu atolls, measuring 43 km by 14 km, with a land area of 41 km² and a navigable central lagoon with an area of 359 km². We sail across the lagoon and drop anchor in front of one of the small uninhabited motus (islets), where our friends are already waiting for us.

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We celebrate our arrival with a huge bonfire on the beach, food and drinks, music and stories.

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Kon-Tiki Island

Not far from here, just a 10-minute kayak paddle away, is  the Kon-Tiki Island. Here Thor Heyerdahl and his crew arrived after sailing across the Pacific Ocean from Peru on a replica of an ancient raft. This is one of the most epic sailing adventures ever. It is a humbling awe-inspiring experience standing on the spot where Thor Heyerdahl once stood after surviving 100 days of storms, sharks and uncertainty. Imagine the joy he and his men felt landing on this very beach!

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The passes or cuts between the islands in the atolls with their strong currents can be dangerous for navigation but they can also be lots of fun for the kids.

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The smaller cuts between the motus are like warm shallow rivers, changing direction,  flowing in and out with the tides- a roller-coaster for the kids carpeted with corals like blooming flowers. The Coral River.

The bigger deeper passes are even more stunning with underwater coral canyons. Here the currents are massive, bringing nutrients from the ocean inside the lagoon and this is why these passes are packed with fish- some of the best diving spots in the world. But also dangerous, mainly because of the currents, but also- because of the sharks.

 Diving Raroia

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On the other side of the lagoon, near the only village with about 200 inhabitants and near the main big pass (he lagoon’s entrance), we meet Jessica and Chris-a young couple from the USA  cruising around with their super old but still very adorable dog named Martini. They are professional divers and underwater photographers who offer to take us to an awesome diving spot.

Ivo and Maya learned to dive and got their PADI certificates not too long ago- back in Colombia thanks to Cata and Sebastian from DeepCoral. They got diving gear and bottles, but we have no compressor on board to fill the bottles with air, so since Colombia, they never had the chance to dive. Until now. Invictus has a compressor on board and Tobi is happy to fill Ivo and Maya’s bottles.

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Diving is permitted everywhere in French Polynesia, and you don’t have to go on a tour or have some instructor or guide with you if you don’t want to (unlike Galapagos). Plus, there are only a couple of dive shops in Tuamotu, none in Raroia. If you have diving gear- you can dive as much as you want anywhere you like. And thanks to Tobi and his compressor and dinghy, Ivo and Maya had the chance to dive all over French Polynesia, starting in Raroia. And thanks to Chris and Jessica S/V Silent Sun, we learned where the best diving spots are in Tuamotus. In exchange for one pamplemousse and one papaya they guided the first awesome dive in Raroia’s main pass.

The Pearl Farm

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Also here, there is a real pearl farm, where real black pearls are produced and harvested in the lagoon.

After the dive, we go ashore to meet the young owner of the pearl farm. He is third generation pearl farmer, after his grandfather started the business with oysters and his father developed the black pearl industry.

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“I am the Last Pearl Farmer. The climate has changed, Global Warming has had devastating effects on the pearl industry and soon, there will not be many pearl farms left in Tuamotu.”

He explains about the process of pearl-farming and how the pearls are produced. We are allowed to walk around and watch the works but we are not permitted to film or take pictures. After all, this is a million-dollar industry and the professional secrets must be guarded, as every pearl farmer has his own particular methods. But the main process of pearl production is the same everywhere: a piece of a “donor” oyster is implanted into its “recipients”. A small artificial ball with special chemical composition is carefully introduced inside the oyster by a specialist. This is the most sensitive part of the process and if not placed correctly, the pearl will not form.  After this the oysters return in the water, floating attached on small fishing buoys which are also attached to the bottom and can be easily destroyed by storms. With time a pearl forms inside the oyster around the small ball. Within 6 to 12 months the culturing process is complete, and the pearls are ready for extraction. But not all oysters survive, and not all pearls turn out good. Only those that meet specific standards are sold.

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In the evening, the pearl farmer invites us and our friends for diner at his house. We all bring a dish and a bottle to share. My fresh fruit salad is greatly appreciated. There are not many fruits and vegetables on the island where everything is hard to get and has to be ordered and delivered from Tahiti, except fish, coconuts, and black pearls.

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We fell in love with this place and we didn’t want to leave it ever. Remember how I wanted to walk away from the boat because of the storm? What storm? I forgot all about it after a couple of days in Raroia, plus there is nowhere to go really, except a small village with 200 people or a few uninhabited islands with coconut palms.

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Back on the boat and let’s sail to the next atoll!

*Watch our 14-minute YouTube video The Kon Tiki Island Raroia– hooking a marlin, surviving a storm, arriving in our first atoll. Having fun, meeting the last pearl farmer, and visiting the place Thor Heyerdahl crash landed with his raft.

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