We dove in the water and began swimming as fast as we could toward where the whale had last surfaced. This isn’t as easy as it might sound. The view from a boat versus eye level with the waves is a stark contrast. Add to that that whales can swim much faster than us humans. One pump of their powerful tails and they will quickly recede into the distance. It was with hope and trepidation that we continued to swim… and then, something in the distance. A dark shadow. Was it the whale? Or simply a cloud passing overhead? As we cautiously closed the gap the shape became more familiar and MUCH larger – it was definitely our whale. Our hearts were pounding from the furious swim and the vulnerability of being near an animal as large as a train car. Amazingly, the whale remained relatively still and didn’t charge toward or away from us. As we approached we saw why. Floating happily on the other side of what we now knew to be a female humpback whale was a very young calf. Momma didn’t seem to be bothered by us and allowed us to get quite close, within arm’s reach, even, although we didn’t try to touch her, of course. She was stunning – at least 40 feet long with barnacles on her nose and flippers, and a sweet look in her eye that watched us but also appeared to doze off from time to time. Her calf was beautiful. His (for some reason it seemed like a boy) pale skin had yet to darken and looked soft and loose on his body. He fidgeted almost constantly next to mom and she would frequently balance him on her nose as if to give him a break from the constant swimming. Ever the toddler unable to remain still, he would stay there for a little while then roll off to the side and swim alongside and nuzzle her. We watched this amazing scene and the whales did not seem to mind. Under the mother’s chin were numerous remora fish that had attached themselves by way of suction cups built into their heads. I imagine we were far less annoying than them.
After ten or fifteen minutes it was time to go, so we bid farewell and swam back to the boat. We were all giddy with excitement recounting the interaction as we returned to the harbor. It was a powerful experience and a life highlight for sure. And it endeared us to the Kingdom of Tonga.
Tonga is comprised of four main island groups each about a 1-2 day sail from the other and quite different geologically. We spent most of our time in the Vava’u islands where we first arrived in Tonga. It is very different from the sunken atolls and reef-fringed volcanoes that we had visited most of the season. At first glance the topography is reminiscent of our San Juan Islands back home. There are steep tree-covered hills that go all the way down to the water’s edge and many islands of all shapes and sizes with plenty of coves to escape the wind no matter which direction it blows. Any resemblance, however, stops at the water’s surface. The water is warm, blue and super clear with many great diving and snorkeling spots. It is also where Southern Hemisphere humpback whales come to mate and give birth. The area is called the Port of Refuge for good reason – the sheltered harbor near the main town of Neiafu is typically as calm as a swimming pool, a welcome respite after the miles traveled to get there.
Tonga is a monarchy with very devout Christian beliefs. Dress and behavior are quite conservative and most business and activities, even swimming, is disallowed on Sundays with few exceptions. The people are quite friendly, albeit a bit shy at first. It is a poor country, though, and as avid dog lovers it was tough to see the state that the strays and loose animals are in. Pigs run loose everywhere. And while Tongans do eat pork for some of their meals the pig populace far outpaces any amount of consumption. Many of the dogs are malnourished, afraid of humans, and walk with limps from being hit by cars. One bright spot is the work being done by Host A Vet-Vava’u, Tonga in partnership with South Pacific Animal Welfare to conduct week-long veterinary clinics which provide spay/neuter operations and other services.
The town of Neiafu is a bit rough around the edges with a blend of local Tongans, Chinese immigrants, and a number of expats from around the globe. The economy is heavily reliant on tourism so there is a decent number of restaurants, a few of them quite good, and we were quick to find our favorites.
For cruisers, Greg at Café Tropicana is a fabulous resource for everything from rental cars to movie downloads. Provisioning is a bit challenging but between the fresh market and trips to five or six different stores we were able to find what we needed.
We did some hiking and exploring, too, and even witnessed a visit from the King of Tonga.
Away from the main harbor, there are countless islands and anchorages to visit. Some are completely isolated, others have a small village, each with a slightly different vibe.
One of our days in Neiafu we rented a car to run some errands (propane refill, gas for the dinghy, etc.) and decided to check out what we had heard is a beautiful botanical garden. Unfortunately, we discovered at the entrance gate that it is open only by appointment. We continued to the end of the road and found a restaurant, which also appeared closed. Not to be deterred we parked anyway and walked inside where we met the owner, Haniteli Fa’anunu. Since he obviously was not officially open for business at this time of day, we decided to simply buy a bottle of water and leave. As fate would have it, though, we had only a big bill and he didn’t have enough change so we flexed our plans, ordered a couple of beers, and joined him on the shaded deck. Overlooking a beautiful reef-protected bay we spent much of the afternoon talking story about Haniteli’s time at the University of Hawaii in 1968 and later as Tonga’s Director of Agriculture, Forestry and Food. On his property, he created the botanical gardens, which he continues to develop and maintain, and offers visitors a unique opportunity to learn about the biodiversity of Tonga. It was a fun afternoon and we thoroughly enjoyed our one-on-one time with this interesting man.
A few days later we departed the Vava’u group and sailed south to the Ha’apai islands. We had only a few days to explore these reef-fringed islands and atolls but what we saw was beautiful. On an historical note, our final night in the Ha’apai group was spent in the Nomuka Iki anchorage, which was the HMS Bounty’s last anchorage before the infamous mutiny occurred.
From Ha’apai it was a long day sail to Nuku’alofa on the island of Tongatapu. This is the capital of Tonga and is more of a “city,” complete with a little more traffic and a little more grittiness. The main anchorage for yachties is off a small island a mile and a half from the main port, in front of Big Mama’s Yacht Club, run by Big Mama and her husband, Earl. They are some of the most welcoming people you’ll ever meet and can arrange anything from diesel delivery to laundry service to airport transfer for crew (which we used for our buddy, Tom, who met us there to crew on Gadabout). It was a wonderful place to meet other cruisers, swap stories, and compare plans while awaiting a good weather window for the passage to New Zealand.
All in all, we spent about a month and a half in Tonga. That was far too short to see everything but in this part of the world, the cyclone season dictates timing so we had to say farewell.
Leaving Palmerston Island in our wake we pointed Gadabout west towards an island that couldn’t be more different. A windless three-day, 400-mile motor sail landed us at the island nation of Niue. For the last three months the islands that we had visited were all low atolls or volcanic islands with fringing reefs. Niue, on the other hand, is a steep island with a small, shallow reef that drops off to deep water quickly. Coming into the sheltered area on the west side of the island, we were quite close to the island’s sheer cliff walls when we picked up our mooring. The local Niue Yacht Club, which happens to have not even one yacht to its name, maintains a mooring field of 20 buoys for use by cruisers for a very reasonable price. We motored toward the island and Wags prepared to grab the mooring ball. Seeing the bottom quite clearly, he asked cautiously, “What’s the depth?” After a quick glance at the depth finder I looked over the side as I replied, “Sixty-five feet.” Wow, was this water clear!
Settled on our mooring ball we radioed the Niue officials to schedule our check-in then focused our attention on prepping the dinghy to go ashore and reviewing our plan for securing it once there. Normally this wouldn’t be something we would have to think about but the dinghy parking on Niue is like nowhere else. There is no dinghy dock nor beaches to safely land a dinghy on Niue. Instead, dinghy parking is on the high wharf. Not tied up to the wharf, actually ON the wharf. To go ashore, we pulled the dinghy astride the wharf where a large hook hangs from a gantry crane about six feet above the water. I climbed out of the dinghy, scrambled up the slippery steps onto the wharf and took my place as crane operator while Wags attached the hook to a makeshift harness he had fashioned for the dinghy.
When all was set, I took up the slack as Wags stepped onto the stairs, then hit the “UP” button and raised the dinghy above the level of the wharf. Once high enough we pulled on a large rope to swing the crane in and bring the dinghy over the pavement, at which point we lowered it onto a low metal cart that we used to reposition it to one of the open parking spaces.
Luckily the swell was small when we were working the kinks out of this procedure. In a large swell it would be treacherous at best and impossible at worst to come ashore.
With the dinghy parked we met the Customs and Immigration officials for check-in, a friendly and smooth process that took a mere ten minutes. Legal stuff complete, we walked up a short hill to see what Niue had to offer. With less than 1500 residents, Niue is a self-governing nation in free association with New Zealand. English is widely spoken, which gave us a nice change from our constant struggle to communicate in French. What we found at the top of the hill was the charming little town of Alofi with its friendly residents and even friendlier dogs.
After checking out the town square and grabbing lunch at our first Indian restaurant in months, we headed down the street to the Niue Yacht Club, the “Biggest Little Yacht Club in the World.”
Brian, the NYC manager, helped us secure a rental car for the next day then we headed back to Gadabout to catch up on our sleep.
The following morning, with no paperwork required, we picked up our rental car, a red, white and blue beauty that looked like it might have been the sum of three different cars with a few quirks and lots of interesting noises. We hit the road and quickly discovered where not to park – people bury their dead everywhere, even the side of the road!
Over the next several days we explored a myriad of sea tracks, which are hiking trails leading from the road to the sea and ending in everything from a palm-filled oasis…
…to swimming holes and rock formations…
…to amazing labyrinths of limestone caves.
Every day brought something new in Niue – fun hikes, interesting discoveries, good eats.
Had the weather and timeline permitted we would have stayed on this island for months. As it was, though, there was a weather system moving our way that forced us to cut our stay short and pack as much as possible into our mere five days.
We had to leave a few things on the table, unfortunately, including the snorkeling and diving that we wanted to do. But Niue isn’t going anywhere and we have a feeling we’ll return someday.
Palmerston Island is part of the southern Cook Islands group. It is a small island that is part of a fringing atoll. It is also the most remote place we have ever sailed. Not from a geographic standpoint, mind you – the Galapagos Islands are much farther from their closest neighbors – but from an accessibility standpoint. The supply ship arrives from Rarotonga, the capital of the Cook Islands a 2-day sail to the southwest, about once every 3 months, although sometimes it’s much longer between visits. Aside from delivering supplies and picking up frozen parrotfish, the island’s only export, the ship serves as transportation to and from Rarotonga. The only other way to access the island is by private yacht or the very occasional small cruise ship.
Situated halfway between French Polynesia and Tonga, we figured Palmerston would make a convenient stop for catching up on some sleep and putting some sand between our toes for a few days. Our 5-day passage from Bora Bora taxed us physically and mentally as we encountered stronger winds and bigger seas than expected and dealt with an autopilot failure that had us constantly on alert and hand-steering on and off for the last day and night of the trip. We arrived to Palmerston exhausted and picked up a mooring ball in 25 knots of wind. Anywhere else this would be no big deal but the mooring balls in Palmerston are just outside the reef… and by “just,” we mean 100-150 feet from the potentially hull-crushing reef. In a west wind any mooring ball failure could put a boat on the reef within seconds, as evidenced by the remains of S/V Ri Ri ashore. The wind was blowing a safe direction, from the southeast, though, which meant that if ours didn’t hold we would simply drift out to sea. Simply. Right.
Our original plan had been to spend about three days on this lovely little atoll swimming, snorkeling and enjoying the company of the islanders. In cruising, however, plans are only intentions. Before we even arrived, the weather forecast changed drastically and a big high pressure system started moving our direction bringing 30-40 knot sustained winds projected to last at least a week. The only hope we had to move on before this wind event reached us was dashed by the need to fix our autopilot (hand-steering our entire next passage in heavy weather was only a last resort), so we settled in alongside our friends on S/V Curiosity who arrived a couple days after us and prepared to wait out the blow. And wait we did, for 10 days. After the fourth day, the wind was holding steady in the 30s and gusting into the 40s (the highest we saw was 49.5 kts). We didn’t leave the boat for 5 days straight. Finally, by Saturday morning the winds had backed enough for us to feel comfortable leaving the boat to go ashore. So, we hailed Bob.
Palmerston has a very unique history. It was discovered by Captain Cook in 1771. There are only 30 or so residents and they are all direct descendants of one man, William Marsters. In 1863 Marsters, a British ship’s carpenter and barrel maker, arrived on the island with two Polynesian wives (later supplemented with a third) and decided to settle there. He sired some 23 children whose descendants now inhabit the island.
Three branches of the Marsters family remain on Palmerston, each branch being descended from one of William’s three wives; marriage within a family group is prohibited. Although the population once peaked at nearly 300, it is now hovering around 30 inhabitants, eleven of whom are children. Palmerston is administered by the Cook Islands government in association with New Zealand through an Island Council consisting of six members: the head of each of the three families and three other members appointed by each family.
Upon arrival in Palmerston yachts are “claimed” and greeted by a host, either Bob or Edward, who shows them to a mooring and takes care of them throughout their stay, including transportation to the island in a metal skiff. While it’s possible to dinghy ashore with local knowledge of the reef pass, visitors’ whereabouts and movements are fairly controlled, we suspect for both safety and privacy reasons. This is, after all, a family-owned and governed island. Our hosts during our stay were Bob and his wife, Tupo, and their children, Andrew, Mae, Madeenia and Henry. The day we arrived Bob brought Customs & Immigration, Health, and Biosecurity officials to Gadabout to check us in. For the duration of our stay, Bob made himself available to pick us up and ferry us ashore when we wanted a break from the boat and even provided rain slickers to keep us dry on the ride.
Our trips ashore were typically timed for midday and each time we were treated to lunch with the family. Afterward we were free to relax or walk around the island, usually with Madeenia (8) and Henry (6) as our guides. We’re not sure everything they told us on these tours was accurate but we did learn some interesting tidbits.
We visited the school and spent some time chatting with Sherrin, an Aussie who is in her second year of a teaching assignment on Palmerston. She and the nurse, Melvie, who is from Papua New Guinea, are the only non-locals living on the island.
There’s a cellular station, a solar farm, a small medical clinic (any emergencies, however, have to wait for the ship to take them to Rarotonga), an administrative building, and a cyclone shelter. And not much else. But the scenery is beautiful and there are plenty of places to relax and take it in.
On Sunday morning we went to church with the family. The ladies all wear hats to church so our hosts provided loaners for Paula and our friend Nikki. In church, the men sit on the left side and the women on the right. We weren’t able to contribute much in the way of singing as the hymns were mostly in Maori but it didn’t matter. The locals’ voices were loud enough to be heard in Rarotonga. Never have we heard so much volume from so few people in any church.
From home cooked meals to lessons on coconut husking and hat weaving, the way Bob and his family brought us into their daily lives was an experience we’re not likely to get in many places.
Even when we were stuck on the boat in the blow he called us on the radio every day to check in and make sure we were safe. Other folks we met asked us to make sure our anchor light was on (it always is) so they would be able to see us when they looked out each night. You can’t buy that kind of hospitality. We’re so glad we made Palmerston a stop on this journey.
We spent a total of six weeks cruising through the Society Islands of French Polynesia. Many cruisers take much longer if their visas allow it. For us, we found that this was about the perfect amount of time there. The islands are all beautiful, most with fringing reefs protecting blue lagoons and mountainous terrain, their hillsides lush and green. Alongside this beauty, however, is a lot more tourism and a lot more people than we’ve encountered since leaving Panama City over two years ago.
We arrived in the Society Islands after a 2-night sail from the Tuamotus. As for so many sailors before us, Tahiti’s verdant green landscape was a welcome sight. While technically one island, Tahiti is divided into two main land masses, the northern Tahiti Nui and the southern Tahiti Iti. We spent five days in an anchorage on the northwest side of Tahiti Nui, near Papeete, the capital city and entry port for hundreds of boats and thousands of tourists, working on boat projects and exploring a bit of the island by car.
Papeete itself, a city of approx. 200K residents, has some decent shopping and eateries but it is busy with a somewhat rough, transient feel and wasn’t really our scene.
The local Carrefour supermarket was a great place to provision for forward travel, though. We were also able to catch up with friends we hadn’t seen since last year, as well as new ones from this season. If we had time we would’ve visited the more relaxed local scene in Tahiti Iti but with only six weeks left on our visas we decided to move on. There will always be more places than time.
The island of Mo’orea is a short daysail from Tahiti or a very short ferry ride for non-yachties, providing easy access for all. Yet even with so many people visiting, it doesn’t feel crowded. Lonely Planet’s description captures the allure of the island perfectly, “…Mo’orea absorbs its many visitors so gracefully that it feels surprisingly nontouristy.” We found Mo’orea to be incredibly striking and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there. We picked the rainiest day to rent a car and explore the island. The viewpoint was a bust, but still we were able to find some beautiful scenery and enjoy an excellent lunch in an outdoor setting.
We topped it off with a visit to the Sofitel resort where Wags stayed on a family trip in 1988.
The lagoon provided an opportunity to swim with stingrays and sharks (see previous post) while the schooners in Cook Bay gave a feeling of traveling back in time, making it easy to imagine how little the landscape has changed since Captain Cook’s first visit.
Anchored deep in Oponohu Bay, we totally relaxed as the earthy smell of vanilla filled the air and every evening hibiscus blossoms turned red and dropped with the sun, filling the bay and floating gracefully past.
An overnight sail took us to the leeward group of the Societies and the island of Huahine. This is the epitome of a laid-back Polynesian island. We anchored near the main village of Fare, where the pace is glacial and the local yacht club has a dinghy dock and nightly happy hour, both of which are always full.
Island exploration was done by bikes one day and scooters the next. We visited the Fare Potee, a replica of a traditional house situated at the edge of a fresh water lake and surrounded by 10 or more marae (open-air places of worship and ceremony). It is also home to an excellent, albeit small, museum that, in the past, has partnered with the outstanding Bishop Museum in Honolulu on projects related to Huahine’s role in Polynesian history and culture. The exhibits were quite interesting and it was a wonderful way to learn about the history of the island. As an added bonus, part of the space was dedicated as a gallery of local artists’ work.
Driving along the lakeshore we saw several centuries old V-shaped fish traps made of rocks. Some are still in use, designed to trap fish with the ebb and flow of the tide. We stopped at the gallery of Melanie Dupre, a well-respected artist of Polynesian paintings. Melanie is American so it was fun to hang out for a bit. Talking with her, it was easy to see why one would want to live an artist’s life in Huahine. A bit farther and we were flagged down by a local man at the side of the road. Turns out he was working on a community improvement project to provide a place for people to sit and watch the huge freshwater eels in the stream. It was pretty cool to see the eels and we complimented him on the work.
Time for lunch, we stopped at a small restaurant in a sleepy village. It looked closed but as we were turning to leave, Lolita, the owner, came out and assured us she was open, with one thing on the menu, grilled fish and rice. Happy with that, we settled in for a leisurely meal before finishing our scooter tour.
The next day we moved to an anchorage called Avea Bay at the south end of the island. It was a lovely anchorage and we spent the next several days there snorkeling in the turquoise waters, relaxing and hanging out with our friends on S/V Imagine and S/V Red Pearl. We were so relaxed, in fact, we didn’t take a single photo.
From Huahine it was a short daysail to Raiatea. This turned out to be one of our favorite islands in French Polynesia. Inside the reef, which can be entered through several passes, Raiatea shares a very large lagoon with the neighboring island of Taha’a. There are many small islands, or motus, some VERY small, all of which are apparently suitable for building.
Our first several days in Raiatea were packed with activity. We enjoyed a night out with our Swedish and Swiss friends on S/V Ruth, whom we last saw several months ago in the Marquesas.
We made the 3-mile dinghy trip to Uturoa and enjoyed the hustle bustle of this town we found gritty but charming. We especially loved the street art. Town also offered a chance to stretch our legs on a hike to a vantage point overlooking the lagoon and Taha’a.
And we watched gorgeous sunsets (with Bora Bora in the background).
We then sailed to Taha’a for a few days, taking in quiet bays, visiting a pearl farm, touring a rum distillery (that also makes coconut oil and has a cat named Bourbon), and enjoying free wifi from a resort near one anchorage (yes, that’s a highlight for cruisers!). Although there are several charter operations on Raiatea, most of the charter boats seem to vacate the area and head to Huahine or Bora Bora so there were few boats with which to compete for anchorages.
Due to a necessary sail repair we had to return to Raiatea and stay a few days longer than planned but it turned out to be a wonderful time. We rented a car, which gave us a chance to see more of the island and visit the Marae Tapuatapuatea, a large archeological site known to be the early epicenter of spirituality in all of Polynesia.
Our sail repair complete, we pointed west.
Bora Bora. The pictures in travel brochures are true to form – a multi-hued blue lagoon with a stunning volcanic remnant as the backdrop, a postcard at every turn.
Over-water bungalows, many high end with price tags in the $500-$700/nt range, dot the landscape of almost every motu (small islands on the fringes of the lagoon) and charter boats dominate most of the anchorages. There are good restaurants and plenty of activities. There is easy access to snorkeling, diving and crystal clear water and, although much of the coral is dead, there are opportunities to dive with manta rays and snorkel with stingrays. As a week-long vacation spot, it would be hard to beat (aside from the dead coral). A side effect of cruising, however, is that we tend to look for more than the vacation experience. With so many tourists on the island the local vibe in Bora Bora felt a bit indifferent, more like Tahiti or Moorea than some of the more remote islands we’ve visited where we were able to interact on a personal level with residents who seemed genuinely happy to have us on their island. We didn’t let that get in the way of having a fun time, of course… exploring the island by car, navigating the shallow waters of the lagoon to find the best anchorage, patronizing the “world famous” Bloody Mary’s bar/restaurant (where all the stars go when they’re on island), and hanging out at the village wharf.
All in all, Bora Bora was a wonderful place to say farewell to French Polynesia.
We could see them circling around even before we had the dinghy anchored. They were everywhere, and they were hungry….
Our day began with an intent to snorkel with stingrays and sharks. We’ve seen a lot of rays and sharks (mostly black tips, which are indifferent towards humans) on our dives, but the word we had received said that there was a place on the island of Moorea in French Polynesia where you could swim up close and personal with stingrays and they had no fear or aggression towards humans. We were in!
Before we go any further, let’s dispel some myths about stingrays. They look like evil fighter ships cruising along the sea floor with menacing arched eyebrows and slowly flapping “wings” that give them a fluid, flying-like motion. They are actually benign bottom feeders who have received a bad rap because their one defense mechanism is a surgically sharp barb on the tail which they will wield with impunity if stepped on or generally harassed. Yes, a stingray killed Steve Irwin (“The Crocodile Hunter”) but this was a rarity and mainly due to the fact that he surprised it from behind. The stingray lashed out in self-defense in the only manner it knew—wildly stabbing its barbed tail. The power and sharpness of that tail severed Mr. Irwin’s sternum and sliced his heart. Gruesome, I know. But this is an extremely uncommon example (although I do NOT recommend Googling “stingray injuries” unless you have a strong stomach). Stingrays will not come after a diver and are not known to be in the least bit overtly aggressive. “Live and let live” seems to be their motto.
But there is this place… Upon further investigation, it turned out that this is a location where local tour guides have been feeding the rays for years, much to tourists’ amusement. The rays are so accustomed to human interaction (and being fed) that they will swim all around you and have no need to use their defense mechanism. It sounded fun but we couldn’t help feeling a nagging doubt deep inside, not regarding our safety, we were all in on that front, but regarding what effect it has on the animals. A bit of online research found that the practice of feeding animals such as this can have long-term negative consequences as it alters their natural behaviors, potentially affecting their ability to forage as they normally would. It turns out that stingray feeding occurs in many resort areas from the Caribbean to French Polynesia, however most fish and wildlife departments are beginning to crack down on the practice for this very reason. So, it was with this knowledge in mind that we decided to still do the snorkel trip but not with a tour operator. We would do the trip on our own, absolutely not bring any food and endeavor to let them get as close as they wanted on their own terms.
Our trip to the location was a straightforward two-mile dinghy ride weaving among the coral heads inside Moorea’s fringing reef. About a quarter of the way there, however, we found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of boats, some filled with teams in jerseys and most with spectators. It turned out that this was the beginning of an around the island outrigger canoe race. We arrived just about the time the starting horn blew and found ourselves in the middle of a raucous, colorful boat parade as the mass moved in the same direction as us toward the racers’ first checkpoint. It was quite fun and festive as we motored along, at times with outrigger paddlers surfing the wake behind Engelbert (our dinghy).
As we neared our snorkeling destination, we veered off the parade route and set the anchor in five feet of turquoise water over a sandy bottom. Before we were even able to put on our gear we could see the large dark shadows approaching from all directions. Apparently, their Pavlovian response is quite strong and the sound of an idling outboard motor is akin to ringing a bell for one of Pavlov’s dogs. I slipped into the water and was immediately attacked… er, more like hugged. A large stingray swam right up my chest looking for num-nums and, finding none, continued quickly on his way. Numerous others swam close by but none were as bold as that first guy. We settled into a rhythm of swimming along, tapping each other on the side and pointing excitedly each time another ray snuck up on us. We were closer than we have ever been to stingrays, often being brushed by their smooth wings as they flapped past. It was quite exhilarating.
They would swim past, hoping for a handout, and when none was scented, continue along. They did seem to have short memories though and it dawned on us that we were frequently seeing a few repeat visitors. In the background numerous blacktip sharks swam at a respectful distance hoping for scraps that never came, although it was a bit disconcerting to have up to six at a time circling us in hopes of a tasty lunch.
It was a one-of-a-kind experience, tailor made for Instagram but we definitely left conflicted. On one hand, it expanded our understanding of these creatures and their docile nature, but on the other hand, at what cost? At the end of the day we did what we always do. We tried to experience nature without unduly influencing it, taking only pictures and leaving only footprints finprints.
We awake within seconds of one another, suddenly aware of the rain pouring in the hatch above our heads. Time for the rain dance! I jump up to close our cabin hatch then make my way to the salon to secure the windows there as Wags runs to shut the forward hatches. All in all, it takes less than a minute but that’s plenty of time to soak a few parts of the interior. Two minutes later we’re settled back in bed as the rain stops.
This has been our routine for the past several nights as we wait out a frontal system moving through the Tuamotus, an archipelago in French Polynesia made up of 76 atolls. We are holed up in a beautiful SE anchorage, called Hirifa, inside the lagoon of the atoll of Fakarava, partly sheltered from the 25-30 kt winds and nicely protected from the 15-foot swell in the open ocean outside the atoll.
There are 20 boats here, all doing the same thing. It’s a festive atmosphere with dinghies buzzing around the anchorage, kite boarders enjoying the strong winds, and snorkelers exploring the abundant marine life on the small clumps of reef, known as “bombies,” scattered throughout the clear water of the anchorage.
Cruisers gather in the evenings on each other’s boats for potluck dinners, drinks and conversation, swapping stories and plans. We failed to take a single picture of the anchorage itself but we did snap one of these cute piglets we encountered on a walk through the coconut grove.
Fakarava is the third atoll we’ve visited. Each atoll has a fringing reef surrounding a lagoon. Most have a single pass through which to enter, although some have more than one and some have no way of entering the lagoon. Entering the passes can be a smooth process if you time your entry for slack tide or a hair-raising experience if you try entering with strong wind or current against you. We’ve been lucky. With the exception of a slightly sporty exit from one atoll our timing has been sufficient to keep our adrenaline levels in check.
Each atoll also has a different vibe. Our first was Raroia, where we arrived after a pleasant (for once) 3-day passage from the Marquesas Islands with a feathered visitor along for the last part of the ride. We anchored in calm, clear waters in front of the village.
Raroia is less popular than some of the atolls, mainly because of its more remote eastern location in the archipelago. There were a few other boats there when we arrived but by our last night we were the only boat in the anchorage. We spent our time exploring the village and snorkeling. There are just 200 people on the atoll so it doesn’t take long to explore but the village has a wonderful laid-back feel, the residents are very friendly and the main mode of transportation is bicycle. The sunsets aren’t bad, either.
There is a beautiful blue lagoon a short stroll from the village. The lack of shade makes cooling off in the clear water a treat.
One day we took the dinghy to the pass and drift snorkeled on the incoming tide. For this we drove the dinghy to the outside edge of the pass, tied ourselves to it with long ropes and jumped in. As the current carried us back inside the pass the sensation was like flying as we effortlessly glided over the coral, fish and sharks below. It was so cool we did it four times.
Our next stop was the atoll of Kauehi. The pass is at the south end of the island and is an easy entry, especially when timed at slack tide. There’s a small village at the north end of the island but we chose instead to spend our time in an anchorage in the SE corner of the atoll. We had read that this anchorage is the epitome of visions of the South Pacific so our expectations were high. We were not disappointed. We anchored in 25 feet, watching our anchor the entire way to the sea floor. There were three other boats in the anchorage, two of which were friends. That evening we all met up on the beach and cooked dinner over a fire of coconut husks. The next day, everyone went their separate ways and we were left as the sole inhabitant of this gorgeous corner of the world.
We spent the day exploring ashore and snorkeling the crystal clear water of the reef, watching black-tip reef sharks and dozens of species of colorful reef fish go about their daily lives.
We could’ve stayed longer but the aforementioned blow was approaching so we left the next day for Fakarava.
On Fakarava, aside from our time in Hirifa, we spent several days anchored off the village of Rotoava in the NE corner of the atoll. We loved our time there. The village, while small, is a hub of activity with several restaurants, markets and dive shops. It didn’t take us long to find our favorite establishments. Fakarava Yacht Services, run by Aldric and Stephanie, is a godsend to cruisers needing internet, sail repairs or laundry service. It’s a great place to meet fellow cruisers and you can find half the anchorage there on any given afternoon. There’s also bike rental available, which we took advantage of for a little out of town exploration.
The rest of our favorites were, of course, focused on food. The local boulangerie (bakery) kept us stocked up on fresh baguettes and pain de chocolate (yum!), which we were always sure to order a day in advance and pick up first thing the next morning. We loved the paninis and off-the-hook ice cream sundaes at La Paillote, plus the owners’ dogs, who provided much entertainment. And we couldn’t get enough of the delicious poisson cru du coco (raw fish in coconut milk) at Rotoava Grill, where we ate enough times for the waiter to recognize us.
As much as we loved the food, however, we had to move on.
Saturday morning we caught the slack tide and cruised through the pass under sail, headed for our next atoll, Toau, 37 miles away. While there is a pass with anchorage areas inside the atoll, the more popular option is to visit Anse Amyot on the NW side of the atoll. The short pass here is a “false” pass in that it provides access through an outer reef to a small anchorage area but not inside the atoll lagoon, which is blocked by a larger reef. Gaston and Valentine, a local couple, are the sole inhabitants of this location and they maintain eight mooring balls for cruisers to use. The sea floor is littered with coral here so using the moorings not only saves one from getting an anchor chain wrapped around a bombie but it also prevents damage to the coral. We picked up a mooring ball and settled in, quickly jumping over the side to have a look at the nearby reef, an easy swim from the boat. If there was one place we wish we could’ve stayed longer in the Tuamotus, this quickly became it.
Toau is part of the Fakarava UNESCO Biosphere Reserve (as is Kauehi and Fakarava), and we had heard that the snorkeling and diving here was excellent. After our first snorkel, we were convinced. After our second and third, it took the prize for top snorkeling destination we’ve ever visited – the healthy coral, abundance and variety of reef fish, sharks, monster moray eels, and tiny seahorses were extraordinary. Getting to snorkel through a huge ball of bait fish right in the anchorage was the cherry on top!
Gaston and Valentine also run Pension Matariva, owned by Valentine’s sister, who lives on Fakarava, so if you want to check out this slice of paradise, just hop a flight to Tahiti, then a puddle jumper to Fakarava and a speedboat to Toau. You won’t be sorry!
Our time in the Tuamotus was much too short, but with only a 90-day visa for French Polynesia we have to keep moving. Next stop, Tahiti and the Society Islands.
After six months at home, where we consumed more than our fill of salmon, Dungeness crab and good beer (as our waistlines now attest), and enjoyed quality time with family and friends, we returned to Hiva Oa, Marquesas in late March, a journey lasting 31 hours, on several airplanes, the last of which was a twin-engine Otter that provided a sporty final approach and landing in strong trade winds.
A few days later Gadabout was back in the water and we were regaining our sea legs. We were slightly delayed leaving Hiva Oa while we waited for a FedEx package of boat parts (which we now refer to as the Golden Package, but that’s a story for another time). That turned out to be serendipitous, however, as we got to catch up with our friends on S/V Linda Marie when they arrived fresh off their journey across the Pacific from Mexico. Soon it was time to depart and get this cruising season underway. We made a short stop in our favorite anchorage on Tahuata then headed to the island of Ua Pou, our first visit there.
Ua Pou is a beautiful island with striking basalt pillars that appear like skyscrapers through the mist on a cloudy day and are absolutely stunning if you’re lucky enough to experience a clear day.
From Ua Pou we sailed the short 25 miles to Nuku Hiva and the town of Taiohae where we spent the next several days provisioning and preparing for our next hop. Now, it’s on to the Tuamotus Archipelago, where crystal clear water and white sand are the norm and nothing is taller than a palm tree. We can’t wait to share this season with everyone. Please be patient, though… internet is sparse in the Tuamotus so we’ll have to wait for a few weeks for our arrival in Tahiti to catch you up on the latest Gadabout Life!
From my seat in the cockpit, I glanced up frequently to admire the towering, verdant green hills ringing the bay in which Gadabout was anchored. Coconut palms near the water’s edge were replaced by hardwoods upslope and rolling blankets of grass in the highlands where goats and cows roamed freely. The hilltops were shrouded in clouds delivering their daily dose of moisture. We were still dry on the boat but would likely get a fresh water rinse soon. We had been in the Marquesas Islands for three weeks; it seemed like more. We were in Baie du Controleur on the island of Nuku Hiva where we’d spent the last four nights waiting out a strong easterly before we could continue to the north side of the island. We tried to leave the previous day. The seas were big and angry, however, so we retreated back into the protection of the bay. There were certainly worse places to wait. Though the water in the bay was very murky and not at all appealing for a dip, the surrounding area was beautiful. At the head of the bay lay a lush valley made famous by Herman Melville in his book, Typee. On one side of the bay there was a river, accessible at high tide through a narrow cut between the rocky shore and a sandy peninsula. One day we took the dinghy through to explore. Spotted rays darted about in the shallow water of the lagoon inside. A half mile up the river we tied the dinghy to a concrete quay at the edge of the village of Taipivai.
Walking along the riverfront we found a charming scene: tidy houses with neatly trimmed lawns and abundant fruit trees, clean streets, horses happily munching grass on the town soccer field, and a huge outdoor event area with tikis lining the grounds.
The only downside was the biting no-nos that feasted on us at every turn. We happened upon a craft market in a small building at the edge of town, which we assume was set up for a visiting tour group, although we saw no evidence of its impending arrival. After purchasing a pair of earrings and a wooden carving of a manta ray we headed back to grab a few provisions at the local store we had poked in earlier. As we reached the main road, a woman waved to us and asked if we would like some fruit. “Oui, merci!” we quickly replied. She and her husband proceeded to load us up with so much fruit from their trees – pamplemousse, star fruit, mangos, limes, passion fruit – we were good for weeks. When we asked what we could give them in return, they smiled and, pointing at the trees, said, “Nothing. We have plenty!” We chatted with them in broken French and English for a few minutes (we found out they love Las Vegas and have a friend there who is a French professor), thanked them again for their generosity and went on our way, 10 lbs. heavier.
Of the places we’ve visited in the Marquesas, this was one of our favorites, not because of the fruit (although, it was good!) but rather because it gave us a taste of what we call Aloha, Marquesan style.
Gadabout is put to bed in Hiva Oa, Marquesas, where she’ll spend the cyclone season. We’ll return to her next spring and continue our travels through French Polynesia and the South Pacific. For now, we’re back in the US, in our home port of Anacortes, WA enjoying the last few weeks of a beautiful Pacific Northwest autumn and getting ready for the slightly less appealing winter season (but hey, that’s how it goes when you swap hemispheres). We had a wonderful couple of months exploring the Marquesas islands. Now it’s time to catch up on our blog posts and share what we saw and did after crossing the Pacific Ocean. We have several favorite experiences and stories so rather than try to cram it all into one long post we plan to split it up over the course of the next few weeks/months. Thanks for following along. We hope you’ve enjoyed the ride as much as we have so far.
The Galapagos Islands are an amazing anachronism of nature. Visiting these Islands is like going back in time. We will spare you the history lesson, suffice it to say that since the islands’ discovery by the Spanish in the 1500s, subsequent occupation by pirates and privateers, and ultimately Charles Darwin’s visit, which led to ground breaking theories on the evolution of species, all who have visited have known them to be extraordinarily unique. Home to countless endemic species, many of which have endured near extinction at the hands of man, the flora and fauna remain largely unchanged from the initial discoveries and amazingly, almost all wildlife shows little interest in or fear of man.
– Getting there
As we previously reported, getting here is no small feat. It requires either a demanding boat journey or an expensive air ticket, which has probably been one factor in helping keep the islands pristine. Another is the government of Ecuador. They realized early on how important and unique this ecosystem is, and as tourism and interest in the islands have grown, the government instituted measures to ensure the survival of these delicate lands. These measures come in the form of high entry costs and limited access (unless with a park guide). This chuffs many cruisers as they are used to being able to toss out the anchor at any secluded cove (usually for free) and being able to take it all in on their own. In the Galapagos cruisers are restricted to just one anchorage on each of three islands: Isla San Cristobal, Isla Santa Cruz and Isla Isabela. While we would loved to have anchored in secluded coves ourselves, we understand the restrictions and found that locating our boat in a primary harbor on each island afforded us a nice home base from which to explore.
Costs are another factor for cruisers. “How much?” you ask. For Gadabout, with three crew aboard, it cost us about $2000 USD. Those costs included: mandatory park fees ($100 pp), customs/immigration, fumigation, port fees, and agent costs. We have often heard the refrain that it would be cheaper to fly to the Galapagos and go on a tour, but when you put pencil to paper that doesn’t work out. Airfare from Quito, Ecuador alone is around $700 pp and most cruise tours run somewhere between $500-$1000 per day. Although many of those cruises do get to visit locations inaccessible to sailboats, it seems they view the same wildlife that we were able to see mostly for free (excluding previous costs, of course). We watched many of the cruise passengers come ashore and it was a little more of the organized tour group scene than we prefer. We enjoy seeing, visiting and discovering at our own pace. However, if you are an avid scuba diver then one of the cruises makes perfect sense as they visit tons of inaccessible and unique dive sites.
It is true that to visit many areas you must have a guide, and those guides are a part of any organized tour that you book, but we also found that every island has plenty of opportunities to explore and interact with the wildlife on our own—it is everywhere! Furthermore, each island has its own personality and varieties of wildlife.
– The Islands
Isla San Cristobal
The first island we visited, where we made landfall and checked in, was Isla San Cristobal (Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, AKA Wreck Bay). Tom’s wife, Ginny, joined us here, as well.
The word in the guidebooks was that the sea lions run the town and the humans are the visitors. This is pretty much true! Contrary to places like the west coast of the US, the relationship here between sea lions and people is quite amicable. The sea lions aren’t quite as large and definitely not as territorial. It is not unusual at all to have to step over them on a path or have them come up to you while swimming to see what’s up.
The town had a great eclectic vibe with plenty of restaurants and a good balance of locals and tourists.
Here we met our primary agent (Bolivar Pesantes) who was a wonderful man. We spent an entire day on an island tour with him and after it was all through he gifted us with fresh Galapagos coffee, eight lobsters, and a HUGE stalk of bananas. We tipped generously.
It was on this tour we visited a high volcano caldera lake where frigate birds visit to rinse the salt off their wings, a family coffee plantation and our first tortoise sanctuary (there would be many more).
Isla Santa Cruz
A blustery 50-mile day sail brought us to Isla Santa Cruz. This island is the main hub for the Galapagos, where all the tourists fly in and meet their cruise vessels, and the feel was much different. The town was nice enough with a lot of (tourist priced) restaurants and decent provisioning for us but the locals were more cursory and less open, no doubt a function of the endless stream of nameless, faceless tourists who spend a few hours wandering through town before being whisked away by their tour guides.
While the town was nice…the anchorage was HORRIBLE. The harbor is open to the sea and the predominant swell. All boats (even the catamarans) rocked violently at anchor and it was all you could do to get a decent night’s rest. We spent three days here and visited the Darwin Research Station, a wonderful free-range tortoise area in the rainy volcano highlands, and an interesting beach/lagoon where we swam with white tipped reef sharks and began to see many of the dark marine iguanas.
We spent two weeks at Isla Isabela, the least populated/visited of the three main islands, and really enjoyed the opportunity to slow down, decompress and get into the rhythm of the Galapagos. The town is simple and quaint with dirt streets and many restaurants serving local cuisine.
The island itself is best known for its Galapagos Penguins (the only Penguin species that lives near the equator), many marine iguanas, giant land tortoises (of course), and pink flamingos!
There was a beautiful walking path just outside of town that meandered through an estuary and we took any chance we could to visit and ogle at the beautiful pink flamingos residing there. Seeing them in flight was amazing! They aren’t the most graceful during takeoff or landing, but when their wings are spread they are huge with a distinctive black stripe contrasting the vibrant pink on the backs of their wings.
We also took a snorkel tour where we swam with giant sea turtles, small sharks, sea snakes, rays, and even sea horses. The tour also visited an amazing area called “Los Tuneles” where old lava tunnels were filled with seawater and you could snorkel through them and between an amazing maze of volcanic spires and arches. An added bonus was the exhilarating boat ride through large breaking waves to get to the area. Fortunately, our boat captain, Leonardo (AKA “Galapagos John Travolta” because of his resemblance to the actor), was an extremely skilled and knowledgeable pilot.
We bid adieu to Tom and Ginny and spent the rest of our time on the island exploring, relaxing and doing boat projects in preparation for our passage to the Marquesas. One day we rented bikes and took a ride up some punchy hills to visit the remains of an old prison camp that operated from 1946-1959, where prisoners were forced to stack rocks into a giant wall in the middle of nowhere (“The Wall of Tears”) for no other reason than punishment. On the way we passed a tortoise the size of a boulder leisurely crossing the road…no big deal.
Each day when we would dinghy ashore we would motor past the penguin colony and slow to watch their hilarious waddle/walk/hop way of getting around. At the dock cheeky young sea lions were everywhere. They interacted with each other like dogs, playing keep away with a stick, or just wrestling in the water. At night when we returned to the boat the sea lions would jump just ahead of us, chasing our spot light and the needlefish it stirred up. Some nights we would drop the underwater light over the side and watch as small sharks and sea lions circled around the beam feasting on small fish. From the day of our arrival to our last day in the Galapagos we never ceased to be amazed and entertained by the abundant wildlife around us, unconcerned with our presence. We are so glad we took the time and effort to sail to these unique islands, and Isla Isabela was a perfect last stop to recharge before we made the giant leap across the Pacific.