Thursday, June 2, 2011

Minerva Reef...cont.

Approaching South Minerva Reef is a bit daunting. You know it's there because it's on the charts, but 10 miles away there is no visible sign of it. Five miles away ... still no sign. Two miles ... are the charts wrong? Finally when we're almost on top of it, we see and hear surf crashing on the reef.

I can understand why there used to be so many shipwrecks in reefs like this, pre GPS. The atoll has almost no land above sea level. It's shaped like a figure 8, with a ring of reef only a few inches below sea level at low tide and a few feet above at high tide. Inside the rings are deep water...up to 100 feet deep, with lots of coral heads, but also plenty of sandy patches for anchoring. The northern lobe of the 8 has a deep water pass allowing sailboats inside to anchor. It's about one mile in diameter and you sit there surrounded by water, waves break on the near side, but the seas are flat inside, except for a bit of rolling at high tide, when some of the swell finds it's way over the reef. It's an eerie feeling being surrounded by ocean, but sitting still, as if you're in a lake. Obviously it's uninhabited, since there's no dry land to build on. Even North Minerva, 20 miles away, is uninhabited. It's an atoll as well, but it does have some land and beach. An American company tried to build a hotel there, but it was never completed. All that's left, ironically, is the remnants of a swimming pool.

Some go stir crazy in a place like this, you can't really get off the boat or walk ashore, since there is no shore. Every activity off the boat is water oriented. Kiteboarding, kayaking, snorkeling.

Here Kai is kayaking bringing Evi to our boat for an afternoon of bridge.

I went for several walks on the reef, after kayaking there, but it was always in ankle deep water or deeper. I even went once at night. Cyril (a French crew off our friend Evi's boat, Wonderland) and I went lobster hunting. We'd been hearing about the lobsters at Minerva from other boats, but we weren't sure of the best methods. When snorkeling in the daytime I looked under all the little caves and holes I could find, but never saw any sign of a lobster. Some advise searching for lobsters at night and walking the shallow reefs and lagoons; others say you can only find lobsters when there's a full moon, a small swell.

Well on this night, we had no moon and a large swell, we didn't even chant any voodoo spells, but we did get out and have a look. We went near low tide, and the waves were crashing on the reef and sweeping across the shallows with such strong current that it seemed unlikely that a lobster could cling to the reef. We walked anyway for about 20 minutes. I started thinking about a paddle over to the leeward side of the reef. Cyril seems to be agreeable with anything I want to try. "Should we paddle out the pass and risk getting dumped by an unseen wave or lost in the dark?", I ask him.

"Ok", he says, and off we go. Paddling along we shine our underwater flashlights at the coral. We hear thumps on the bottom of our kayaks. Little blue needle fish attract to light and swim straight at it full speed, till they bump into it. Several hit me in the hand and arm, but it doesn't hurt much, though I had heard about one that punctured a dinghy.

"Are we at the pass yet?", Cyril asks.

"I think so", I say, though I really have no idea where we are in this moonless night. We're still drifting on the current of the incoming swells, but now we get another swell coming the other way, so we must be near the pass. Unfortunately, some of this new incoming swell gets big enough that it might break on us, so I say, "Maybe we should head back to the boat."

"Ok", Cyril agrees and back we go. One week in Minerva and I didn't even see a single lobster...oh well. At least spear fishing was more successful.

As Ruth described in the previous posting, Bronte from Cooee, is quite a fisherman. He and his wife "H" plan to spend a month in remote Minerva mainly to fish. It's far enough from populated islands (the nearest one is about Tonga about 250 miles away), that it rarely gets any commercial fishermen. After he brought us the big Wahoo he caught spearfishing I was eager to go with him, at least to watch him in action, if not spear something myself.

Well the first thing to do is have the right gear. My little reef fish spear is wholly inadequate for catching big pelagic fish. Fortunately, Evi has a nice speargun I can borrow, but it will need some modifications. There are several options. Some people attach a reel to the gun with plenty of line. Others attach some type of float to the spear or gun. The idea is once you spear a big fish, you don't want to be underwater holding your breath while attached to him with the short tether normally used on spear guns. Bronte uses something that looks like a big boogie board with 30 meters of bungee on his spear. So I just borrow one of the kids boogie boards and rig something similar. Well it's not quite perfect, but I figure I won't try to spear anything too big.

We go over some procedures. Bronte warns me not to get tangled up in the line after shooting a fish. "These fish will kill you like that. No mercy.", he warns. "I hold onto the bungee with one hand and the gun with the other, but just in case, I have my knife.", he adds.

I'm wishing I brought some kind of mental picture of the size fish I'm going to spear drops by another notch. "You take this side of the dinghy, I'll take the other. We take turns going down to swim around near the lure. Don't dive down until the other guy is up, so you can see he didn't get shallow water blackout." Sounds reasonable. "If one of us spears a fish the other guy gets in the dinghy and pulls up the lure so it doesn't get tangled. Then help get the fish in, quick before the sharks come." Sounds very reasonable.

We motor out the pass in Bronte's 40hp dinghy equipped with a fishfinder. We watch the bottom change from 80 feet to about 250 feet. "This is the spot", he says. "The sharks like to stay on the shallower shelf and the pelagic fish cruise by these deeper waters." He drops in the parachute anchor and lure and we get in. A big tiger shark cruises by right away and lingers off in the distance. What was he saying about no sharks? I am amazed that the bottom is visible 250 feet down.

After a few minutes we return to the dinghy. "We can't spear anything with that guy around, he'll just zoom in and steal it," Bronte says. I'm not complaining. Off we go to another spot. This time it's 800 feet and we can't see the bottom. A Manta Ray swims around us for about 10 minutes. That's probably a good sign, since some sharks like to eat rays. Then a school of little bait fish show up, and finally a lone Wahoo. It's on Bronte's side of the dinghy. He takes a shot and gets him right in the middle. For a moment, I just watch, before I remember my duties. I jump into action. I get in the dinghy, pull the lure up and the sea anchor and try to start the engine. It won't start...oh oh. And the wind is blowing me towards the reef and away from Bronte. I throw the parachute back in, and try again to start it. This time it goes. I pick up the anchor, zoom to Bronte, where he tosses in a four-foot long tasty Wahoo.

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