Charles Darwin is not only known for his work in the Galapagos and evolution, but also for being the first to classify tropical reefs into three distinct types: fringing reefs, barriers reefs and atolls. A fringing reef, like the reefs in the Marquesas where we just came from, contains a coral reef connected to the shore. Eventually the reef breaks free and turns into a barrier reef that surrounds the land, the most famous being the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Then when the land erodes completely and disappears, leaving only the coral reef surrounding a blue lagoon, you get an atoll. The Tuomoto Archipelago contains 76 atolls and we've been exploring a few of them during the month of June.
A first glance at life at an atoll makes one wonder how people can survive amongst the coral and the coconut trees, especially compared to the lush Marquesas where fruit ferments on the fertile ground, but a glimpse of Gaston and Valentine’s life here in Anse Amyot, in the northwest corner of Toau, shows that they have plenty to eat.
Gaston and Valentine’s family installed 13 moorings outside their home for boats that enter their false pass, false since the area is a cul-de-sac where one cannot sail all the way into the lagoon because there’s a coral barrier blocking further entrance. Yet just inside the cove, the water is flat and protected from the rolling rough seas of the Pacific.
We arrived at Anse Amyot on winter solstice, June 21, the shortest day of the year. Our entry was more dramatic than I like as it took us longer to sail 40 miles here from the neighboring atoll, Fakarava, which meant that we were arriving at sunset (5:26 pm), a time when it’s difficult to spot coral heads plus to further complicate matters, a rainy squall struck us us at the entrance, hindering our visibility. So we relied on the range beacons placed at most of the passes of the atolls, our Raymarine charts and the GPS coordinates for anchoring (all the moorings were taken) given to us by Soggy Paws, a boat that called Toau home for the month. Though a dramatic entry, we were happy to be here and excited to see a less inhabited atoll.
The strong Maramu (that’s the Tahitian term for southern tradewinds) winds continued the following day with gusts up to 46 knots. In the late evening, one of the boats, Pursuit, snapped her mooring line and ended up on the reef in just 30 seconds. Fortunately, they were rescued quickly and suffered only minor damage, a broken blade on their propeller. Tim helped them out, lending them our spare propeller.
Since then, the winds have calmed down and we’ve enjoyed the crystal clear water where we’ve seen the gorgeous but dangerous lionfish hiding in the coral caves and watched octopus swim and change colors. Maya and Kai have been enamored with the five puppies on the island who they named and thoroughly socialized. We’ve also been privy to Gaston and Valentine’s hospitality as they’ve been welcoming yachts for more than 30 years. They live here with Valentine’s sister, step-father and a few other people. They built a small church and every Sunday, Valentine serves as the minister. I experienced a memorable service filled with her contagious laughter as she literally interpreted Moses’ journey out of Egypt.
Sailors who stop here have the option to either pay 500 francs a night for the mooring or dine at the family restaurant. Of course, we took the second option: dinner. Last Saturday, Tim and Jamie from the boat Bamboozle, went fishing with Gaston at 5 am and brought home 42 lobsters and one large tuna. Gaston was the most skilled and caught 98 percent of the lobster. Tim said Gaston’s hunting technique reminded him of Golum in the The Lord of the Rings as he possesses a 6th sense for the lobster. He'd glance at a section of reef and announce, "beaucoup langouste." Then he'd get on his hands and knees, reach in all the way past his elbows, and pull out lobsters with both hands. Sometimes a lobster would try to escape the hole and head out to sea, but Gaston would leap after it, before it got very far.
"Don't stick your hands in unless you're sure there's lobster or an eel may bite you", Gaston warned novice Tim and Jamie. Tim said he had a hard time trying to see the lobsters without being knocked down by the waves and then he feared sacrificing his hands to an eel. Tim and Jaime returned with huge smiles, happy that Gaston led the way as they knew their families would starve if they were counting on just the two of them to bring home dinner. Both did manage to catch a few lobsters and Gaston told them that with practice, they would improve.
Gaston has another way to gather fish: via the fish traps inside the atoll. They’re large metal cages that use the outgoing current to funnel fish indiscriminately into the traps. Every day, I snorkelled over to the traps and look at the various captured sea creatures, including huge Napoleon Wrasses, moray eels, parrot fish, groupers. Even some of the trumpet fish and sting rays managed to get caught. It was satisfying to watch Tova, an Anse Amyot inhabitant, grab the trumpet fish by the nose with his bare hands and throw them outside the cage. He also tossed the sting ray out with his hands. He played tug-of-war with the octopus but it won. I think he was hoping to have that one for dinner.
Fortunately, none of the fish here are contaminated with ciguatera, a toxin generated from microscopic algae that has deemed many fish in most of the other atolls off limits for eating. As soon as one eats a fish poisoned with ciguatera, one’s lips, nose, even hands and feet can turn numb. Symptoms may intensify depending on the amount of ingested poison, but one usually recovers.
To supplement our Saturday night dinner, Gaston visits his fish trap. I watch him work his harpoon and stab a parrot fish in the head. No blood but a frenzy in the cage. The fish know to stay clear of the spear, but the odds are in Gaston's favor. I watch with fascination, impressed at his skill but also a bit horrified at the kill. I remind myself as I do constantly when we capture a fish, This is food no longer an exquisite creature.
Dinner is a fantastic feast. The tuna became poisson cru, a Tahitian specialty of raw fish soaked in lime and coconut milk; the parrot fish’s white meat breaded and fried into tiny morsels; lobsters halved and cooked on the BBQ and an entirely new taste for me: coconut crab, boiled perfectly in half salt water and half fresh water. Surprisingly, the crab meat is sweet and tender and I find it even tastier than the rich, delicious lobster.
At dinner, I sit near Valentine’s step-father, Phillippe, who speaks only French so I must think hard during our conversations. He described the fierce hurricane in 1983 as if it just happened. During that El Nino year, the family hid for two weeks near the bunker a few buildings behind our dining room. Many of the buildings were completely destroyed. They haven’t had a hurricane since then, yet the winds can be strong as we had experienced the other night.
Phillipe also tells us about his time working at the French nuclear test site in Moruroa, an atoll in the southwestern Tuomotos. From 1966 until 1996, the French government sadly decided to use the area for nuclear tests. Phillipe said he needed the money, but he did wear a protective suit at work. I hope that was sufficient to shield him from any fallout of the nuclear tests. I wonder what damage the tests had on this area – it must have destroyed and contaminated so much.
We set sail for a 225 mile passage to Tahiti tomorrow morning as the winds have subsided slightly. The glimpse of Valentine, Gaston and Phillippe’s lives on this scenic atoll will stick with me and remind me of the simpler yet fantastic life, filled with great food.