Tuamotu, life in an atoll
The Tuamotu archipelago is formed of 78 atolls, ring shaped islands with an inner lagoon surrounded by a reef. Some of these atolls have a pass to enter, where strong currents generate when the tide goes up and down, as great amount of water goes in or out of the lagoon.
The landscape here is completely flat, it couldn’t be more different to the mountainous Marquesas, and as we approached the atoll of Kauehi we saw what looked like a long line of palm trees of coming out of the sea.
We had tried to time the four day passage from Ua Pou to enter the atoll at low tide, when the current in the pass is almost nonexistent, so the last day of sailing we slowed down. But the wind dropped as we got closer and we ended up going through the pass a little late, the tide had started to come in and we accelerated through the turbulence in the pass. Apart from being a bit shaky, everything went okay. We hoisted the genoa back up and we followed the channel 7 miles to the village, Tearavero.The colour of the water inside the lagoon is crazily beautiful. I didn’t know that there could be so many different types of blue. As soon as we dropped the anchor we had many curious unicorn fish coming to check out Cirrus’ bottom. Trying to spearfish them from the boat, we attracted some black tip sharks. We will have to get used to swimming with those, as they are everywhere in the Tuamotu.
200 people live in Kauehi, although many of the young ones spend most of the year working or studying in Tahiti. Fishing, copra and pearl farming are the main income of the islanders. Their houses are open and they all have tanks to collect rain water.
The provisioning ship Maeva Nui arrives in the atoll roughly every 3 weeks. There is no exact set date for its arrival, but the info spreads quickly when they call in to say they are coming one day of the following week. Then everybody in the village speeds up to prepare as many copra bags as possible to send to Tahiti, and the day the ship comes they all reunite by the quay to do some shopping. A few vendors travel on the ship, and they set their little tents on shore with their products: from mobile phones, parfums, fishing gear, underwear to all sorts of biscuits and sweets.
The Maeva Nui also brings fruit and vegetables to the atolls, otherwise almost nonexistent or very hard to find in the local little shops. The amount of fresh food that they bring depends on how many atolls they have visited before.
A guy from the ship set himself at a little table in the quay and started taking in the orders. We were unluckily the last of the atolls being visited by the ship, so the only fruit they had left was apples. I placed my order and the man called the ship by radio and asked me to wait. When the apple boxes arrived he called us one by one to come and pick ours up.
After a week in the village, we moved to an uninhabited anchorage at the south of the atoll, where we met our boat friends Debonair and Suzon. We spent the days fishing, picking up coconuts and shells and even sailing a bit on Debonairs‘ sailing dinghy.
As far as fishing is concerned, some fish in the Tuamotus have got ciguatera and so they can’t be eaten. The type of fish you can eat varies from one atoll to another (and sometimes even in different places within the same atoll). After asking the locals in Kauehi, we ate marbled grouper, parrot fish and unicorn fish without any problem.Our next stop in the Tuamotus was the more known and much bigger atoll of Fakarava, which has a 35 miles long lagoon. We spent a couple of days in the village of Rotoava in the north of the atoll, where we did some provisioning before heading to Hirifa, an uninhabited anchorage in the south.
In Hirifa we met back with old boat friends and met new ones. The south of Fakarava is a water sports paradise, and we spent the days at the beach sharing everyone’s “water toys”. Gaspar took out the kite surfing equipment and I tried some windsurfing.
We also went snorkeling in the South pass, letting the incoming current drag us as we checked out the beautiful coral surrounded by a million colourful fishes and plenty of sharks.
Finally, although not based in the Tuamotus, but in Kiribati, here is a book that describes life in an atoll in a quite funny way – we obviously got caught by the title: The sex lives of cannibals, adrift in the Equatorial Pacific, by J. Maarten Troost. Enjoy!