Sailing Off The Grid In The South Pacific (Part One)
We’ve been lucky enough to visit many deserted islands on our travels, but have never really been that far from civilisation or communications. So how would we cope for almost a fortnight on an uninhabited atoll in the heart of French Polynesia, with no phone or internet coverage, let alone shops or bars? Here’s our story as Two Drifters sails off the grid, in search of a genuine desert island experience…
The sun was just rising when we left the South Pass of Fakarava. With calm seas and sailing at 6kts on a NNE wind, it was a perfect day to be at sea.
Our destination, 50-miles away, was Tahanea in the Tuamotus archipelago. An atoll with a large fringing reef that’s 30 miles long and just over nine-miles wide, encompassing many little motus (islands), which encircle a coral-strewn lagoon.
We put the fishing rods out and kept our fingers crossed for a bite. And it wasn’t long before we were rewarded; striking gold with an extremely large Mahi Mahi – one of our favourite fish. It would feed us for weeks. Happy days!
Skipper catches a Mahi-Mahi
As we neared Tahanea, we spotted a killer whale jump numerous times out of the water. It was a spectacular sight.
Tahanea has three passes close together on the north side, two of which are easily navigable for yachts. We entered via Teavatapu, the central pass, and anchored near-by in gin-clear water. The anchorage was peppered with ‘bommies’ (coral heads), so floating the chain by attaching fenders to it was an absolute necessity to maintain good holding and to avoid the chain getting tangled up.
A designated nature reserve, Tahanea once had a village, but it’s now uninhabited. All that remains are a few abandoned fishermen’s huts and a small church. Seasonally, copra farmers from neighbouring islands will visit to harvest the coconuts. But it’s mainly frequented by cruising boats, like us, many staying for weeks on end, enjoying the peace and quiet, rare bird life, beaches, pristine diving and snorkelling.
Floating the chain
The abandoned village
With the anchor set, and a school of black-tip sharks nosily swimming around the boat, it was time to relax on the back deck with a sundowner. As we sipped our G&T’s, we surveyed our surroundings; tall, lush coconut palms swayed in the breeze and the crystal-clear aquamarine water glistened in the shallows. With no land noise, the tranquility was simply spellbinding.
A blacktip reef shark swims around Two Drifters
Spectacular Drift Snorkelling I’ve recently discovered the wonders of drift snorkelling in the atoll passes. This turbo-charged underwater voyeurism is a highlight when visiting the Tuamotus. It involves taking the dinghy out to the pass entrance at slack tide, getting in to the water and drifting effortlessly back in with the current, while towing the dinghy behind. It can be quite fast-paced and, for me, totally trumps normal snorkelling.
We heard the drift snorkelling at Tahanea was amazing and so the next morning we headed out early to catch the first incoming tide. This was to be the first of many trips as we drift snorkelled again, again and again.
A steephead parrot fish
The incoming currents are rich in nutrients, which is rather appetising for the marine world, who are out in force to feed. Against a backdrop of beautifully textured healthy coral, it was captivating to see so much colour underwater. There were fish of all sizes in hues of pink, blue, green and purple, flirting and playing with their counterparts in vibrant shades of orange, green and yellow. Some were camouflaged, others had stripes, squares or dots; all wearing their insignia with pride.
Titan trigger fish
The fish weren’t remotely bothered by us. Even the large, normally timid, Napoleon wrasses – who were very camera-shy in Fakarava – tolerated our presence. But, it was the peacock grouper that stole the show, who appeared to be decorated with diamante studs that glinted in the sunlight.
As the fish scurried around the coral, rocks and sea bed, it felt oddly rude to be so intrusive, staring down on them as they fed and interacted. With the current moving us swiftly on – as if on a magic carpet – sadly there was no chance to linger and watch the play.
Our insight into their life was fleeting. Blink and you could miss a moray eel sticking his head out of his hidey hole; a grey shark slinking along in the shadows; an eagle ray darting across the sea bed, or a colourful parrot fish sashaying from side to side, like a wannabe model on a catwalk.
Humpnose Bigeye Bream
Giant Green Moray Eel
We explored two of the passes but particularly enjoyed the one at Motu Puapua, which was bursting with healthy coral, an abundance of fish and more than a few black-tip and grey sharks. It’s now up there with Aratika’s East Pass as one of our favourite places to drift snorkel.
But no matter how many times we snorkelled the far side of the pass – often doing three trips in an hour – the current carried us on a slightly different path, so it was almost impossible to see the same thing twice. It was, quite simply, out of this world!
Coming in Part Two…Thunderstorms, desert island delights and coconut crabbing.
One of the many deserted motus
© Two Drifters Travel