Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Swimming with Sharks

"Shark" Kai yells through his snorkel.

You would think that at this point we're supposed to scramble out of the water and into our dinghy -- quickly. After all, there's not one, but ten sharks in the vicinity at the South Pass here in Fakarava. Instead, Maya, Tim and I swim over to Kai and watch the black tipped reef shark swim towards us, waving its tail rhythmically, like a dog at a beach. We watch it come towards us, close enough so we can count its seven gills. My heart pounds, worried that maybe our children would become tasty snack food for the sharks, but then I take a deep breath. It's just a reef shark and they're more scared of us than we should be of them.

I guard as it moves towards us. I watched the movie "Jaws" a long time ago and that embedded my fear of sharks, but I remind myself that "Jaws" was a great white shark, not one of these picturesque black tips where it seems as if Picasso took a thick black brush and painted the creature's fins and tails. This one coming towards us looks like a lurker, as its cartilaginous body zigzags towards us. I wouldn't want to meet him in an alley in the middle of the night.

Instead of a swim bladder which most fish have for buoyancy, oil in the liver helps keep the sharks afloat, yet they're still negatively buoyant and must keep swimming otherwise they sink. The sharks in and around the South Pass are curious, but shy. They like to congregate by the hundreds at about 80 feet deep in the sandy canal at the mouth of the pass.

We're doing a drift snorkel where we begin at the outside of the Pass to the atoll and the inflowing current takes us inside. The water is so clear that I can see all the way down to the bottom. This time it was my turn to gather the crew of snorkelers. "Barracuda," I mumble through my snorkel. Kai, Maya and Evi from the boat "Wonderland" swim over to me and I point down at the school of barracuda swimming underneath us. We watch their long silver bodies shimmer with the reflected sun. Tim can hold his breath for a long time and is swimming deep with the barracuda.

The current takes us into shallow water with carpets of coral and colorful fish. It feels like we're in a Jacques Cousteau movie. Maya, our budding scientist, is teaching Evi all the names of the fish. I love watching the Chinese trumpet fish nibble on the coral and the funny looking unicorn fish dance circles around each other. Perhaps the most intriguing one and indeed the largest is the four feet long, 300 pound Napoleon wrasse. When Christine, the mother on the catamaran "Stray Kitty" first saw the gigantic fish, she grabbed her children and jumped back into the dinghy, only to laugh about it much later.

"I'm having trouble with my snorkel because I keep smiling so much looking at all the colors and shapes of the fish," says Evi as we gather back into the dinghy.

After ten snorkels through the pass, I realize the sharks are more scared of me than I am of them and I don't hesitate to get close to them. Mike, a marine biologist and captain of the boat "IO" told me that I should be more afraid of the erratic behavior of the moray eels than of the sharks. That is, unless there is blood, which is what happened one afternoon when Jim, on the catamaran "Sea Level" was surfing the wave just outside the pass and on his first ride, his surfboard rammed into his nose. We were just getting into the water and saw him screaming, "Get the dinghy!" Apparently, there was so much blood that he feared the sharks would come over, inspect and perhaps chomp on his bloddy broken nose. He fortunately got out of the water before the sharks smelled blood.

And...we continued our snorkel, admiring the fish and watching the sharks along the way.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


Kamaya sailed quickly along at six knots. We were heading to one of the anchorages at the north end of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas. Suddenly I heard the familiar yell,

I jumped out to the cockpit to take a look. Sure enough, dolphin size fins were coming up, and slicing through the water. A few minutes later, the wind dropped suddenly to .5 knots. Normally, dolphins leave when you move too slowly. But this time, they stuck around.

“Why don’t we jump in with them?” my Dad suggested.

I’ve always been waiting for the chance to swim with dolphins. We put on our snorkels and fins and jumped into the water. I felt the chilly water all the way to my neck, but that didn’t stop me from looking around. I looked, and saw six dolphins swimming rapidly along the depths. All of them were straight in a row, like they were getting ready to start a race.

Four more dolphins took a close pass so I could study them for a few seconds. They had pointed noses, and streamlined, silky skin with a white band across their bellies, and up towards their backs.

They circled us, and swam under our flippers. I turned around, slowly, and saw two more dolphins swimming up from deep down. The pair sped up, and broke the surface the same time I pulled my head out. They made a magnificent leap. At the exact same time, they dove back in. it was the most beautiful thing in the world, and I was the only one to see it.

Goodbye dolphins, and then shucks …. I got stung on my arm by a little jelly.


Pomplemouse! Some of you may be unfamiliar with this French named fruit. So I will tell you. It is a grapefruit, but not the regular kind that you may have tried, that sour little fruit that you buy weeks after it was picked in a grocery store. It’s so sour that sometimes your Mom serves it with a little brown sugar on top. Well, that is not a Marquesian pomplemouse, that is something completely different. I don’t even know why it shares the same English name.

After eating pomplemouse, I don’t think I can ever go back.

So what is a pomplemouse? Let’s start from the beginning. It is grown from a little seed, in someone’s backyard in the Marquesas where the volcanic soil is rich in nutrients. When the seed becomes a tree, it will give off more seeds through a fruit. Picture it! A giant fruit that is as big as a basketball, round and green in its full majestic strength.

When you cut it open, you’ll find a springy, pungent inner skin which puffs overpowering citrus spray into the air. Once you pull all that out, you’ll find the treasure. Put the uncovered slice in your mouth, and taste the sweet pulp. It’s sweet, but not too sweet and each bite squirts juice into your mouth.

My favorite fruit used to be pineapples and apples, but now the incredibly delicious pomplemouse wins hands down! I think everyone needs to travel all the way to the Marquesas just for pomplemouse.

Speaking of traveling, our magnificent pomplemouse was probably brought here by some old boat around the time of Captain Cook. Presumably, the regular grapefruit came over and evolved into the bigger, better, fruit.

Pomplemouse! I wish I could eat one every day, but now we’re in the Tuomotos, 500 miles away from the pomplemouse.

The end.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Birthday Kai

Kai celebrated his 9th birthday on Tuesday last week and we were fortunate to be with five other kid boats – 12 kids total – anchored next to an idyllic pink sand beach at the Southeast end of Fakarava. There were a few abandoned homes and four wild pigs roaming beneath the coconut palms.

At two o’clock, after boat school we gathered on the beach for the party. The first chore was transporting the cake and the party favors to shore without getting them wet. The strong north wind made the task a little more challenging.

As we approached shallow water, ten year old Andrea from the catamaran, Stray Kitty, hopped out of the dinghy and I handed her the chocolate cake. “Make sure to keep it upright,” I said.

She waded through the water and placed the cake on a flat sandy section. In the meantime, we unloaded our dinghy and within minutes a big black pig meandered quietly over towards the cake. We noticed him just as it started nudging the cake top with its snout. Tim fended him off in the nick of time.

“That was close! I didn’t think we had to worry about pigs!” he said.

We walked towards the sand spit at the end of the beach where birthday Kai and some of the guests were already there playing in the coral colored sand and the pig followed us, still keen on getting a piece of cake.

“He’s not invited to the party,” Maya said.

“It’s not just one of them, but three more pigs who want to come,” Andrea said pointing at the three black pigs and one brown one.

“Let’s eat the cake first and then we can play games,” I suggested.

We gathered in a wind protected area and sang Happy Birthday to Kai. As he blew out his candles, we fended off the hungry pigs with our kayak paddle. Each child gave Kai hand-made cards, most with pictures of the sea creatures surrounding us. Ryan had made a bow and arrow out of pieces of wood and strings that he found on his boat. “It’s really amazing how creative boat kids can be,” Behan from the boat Totem, exclaimed.

Next came the games: pin the tail on the shark, throw the coconut into the atoll, tug-of-war and a sand castle contest. Kai loved the sand castle contest the best. He and Simi from Tyee teamed together and took some sea cucumbers from the sea to guard their palace. Austin from Capaz built a castle where hermit crabs could venture into one hole and out another. Austin’s brother, Bryce worked with Niall from Totem and built Isengard, from the Lord of the Rings. They used sticks to reinforce the castle so it wouldn’t tumble down and on the top, they staged a battle between two hermit crabs, the white one was Gandalf and the darker one was Saruman.
Maya and Andrea had made individual prizes, like personal bookmarks, knitted clothes for stuffed animals, a Harry Potter wand, and an artistic crown for birthday Kai. Each participant received a prize.

At sunset, we had a bonfire and roasted marshmallows.

Kai said when we got back to the boat, that this was one of his best birthdays.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Fish Attack

Passage from the Marquesas to the Tuomotos

Fish on! Pzzzzzzzzzz goes the line and the crew of Kamaya jump into instant action. Books are tossed aside, sleepers are awakened and everyone heads for the cockpit. We all know our job: Tim grabs the rod, tightens the drag and gives a few tugs while Maya and Kai strap on his fighting belt and Ruth slows the boat down. Normally we need to furl the jib, but today, we happen to be motoring as there’s no wind. Ruth eases up on the throttle and I start reeling in easily but slowly.

“Can you see it yet?” I ask Maya who’s perched in her usual fish spotting seat on top of the radar arch.

“I think it’s another sailfish,” she says confidently. We had caught two of these gigantic fishes in the beginning of our big passage from the Galapagos to the Marquesas, but we threw them back in the sea, thinking that they’re more meat than we can eat, plus the books advise releasing billfish to support the sportfishing economy. But then we regretted releasing them because we did not catch a single fish nor even a single bite for the rest of the passage.
“Should we keep it or release it?” I ask, wondering if we’d really eat all the fish, especially since we have a fridge and don’t use our freezer. This one looks to be at least 6 feet long and weighs more than the kids.

“I’ve heard they’re good eating,” adds Ruth

“Let’s release it,” urges Kai.

With no clear consensus I suggest we slack off the line and see if the fish spits out the hook, if not, we keep him. Everyone agrees. I slack the line, we watch the fish, but it’s hooked pretty well and stays on.

“Get out the gaff!” I call.

Ruth holds the pole forward while I attempt to gaff him. I gaff him and start pulling him up but it whacks its body too and fro and falls off the gaff and starts swimming under the boat towards the prop.

“Put it in neutral, quick,” I shout.

Kai, who is now at the helm, puts the boat in neutral, but we fear it’s too late. A tug on the line doesn’t give at all.

“ Oh oh, it must be wrapped around the prop. There’s no wind, I’ll just dive in and free it up. It’s either that or lose this nice lure.” I say.

“What about sharks, there’s some blood in the water,” worries Ruth.

“I’ll have to be quick”, I say hiding my fear.

Luckily the water is very clear. I jump in looking around nervously and then dive under the boat. The first pass, I untangle the line from the prop. I start to pull in only to find that the fish wasn’t just tangled on the prop, it somehow swam through the front part of the shaft in front of the strut.

“How did it do that?” I wonder. Well, I’ll just tie him on and then unhook him. I have Ruth pass me a line and dive under to try my first hair-brained scheme. Well this doesn’t work since the fish is still struggling and I’m trying to hold my breath. I let go of the line and watch it drop down slowly. Whoa, I dive for it wondering why Ruth wasn’t still holding onto her end. She apparently didn’t know that she was supposed to secure it to the boat.

Now comes hair-brained scheme #2: I’ll disconnect the lure, untangle it from the shaft and then pull up the fish. Oh, but once it’s untangled how will I keep the fish from swimming off with the lure? Well, I’ll just tie a line on the end of the lure before unwrapping it completely.

This turns out to be a bit more hairbrained as the extra line just makes it that much harder to untangle. At one point I’m pulling fast on what I think is the free end of the line. I look around for sharks and see the big sailfish with its sharp point coming straight at my face because I’m pulling the wrong way. It finally comes free and I pass the end of the line up to Ruth saying “pull in the fish!”

Well, we finally get the fish aboard and cleaned. It made us many fine meals from sushi, to blackened, to breaded, to ceviche.

And we still have the lure.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

So Long Marquesas

Thursday May 27, the south ocean swell in Taichae Bay, the main anchorage of Nuka Hiva, rose so high that one of the dinghies tied up at shore launched into the air and up onto the dock. Another dinghy was swamped by a crashing wave. For the locals, this was a time to jump on their surf boards and ride the eight foot waves.

We had a few last errands: get bread and sweet chocolate eclairs from Joseph the baker, buy meat and eggs at the main store and pick up our propane tank that was being filled with butane from Tahiti Yacht Services. Even though we had joined the tennis club (yes!) tennis in the Marquesas) for a week, I took the swell as a sign that it was time for us to leave the island where author and sailor Herman Melville once lived with cannibals. I asked a Nuka Hivan woman if the water activity was normal and she shook her head, waved her arms and advised us to "get out of the anchorage."

Seconds after her warning, I looked up and saw a boat anchored too close to shore rise four or five feet and then slap down on the waves. It looked for a moment that it hit bottom. I told the kids, "Let's forget the museum and get out of here."

At 1:00 pm, we pulled up our ahcnor and sailed out the harbor, relieved to be away from the gigantic waves. Apparently, the huge swell was not that unusual and there was no need to panic, but it was time for us to head out and sail 500 miles southwest to the Tuomotos. As we hoisted the mailsail, Maya looked at us and exclaimed, "We're not ready to leave the Marquesas."

"Yeah, we dont have enough pomplemouses," chimed Kai. Pomplemouse is the French word for the football sized grapefruits that we've enjoyed every morning since we arrived earlier in the month. The fruit captures the essence of the Marquesas: its thick skin symbolizes the arduous journey to these remote islands. but once you arrive and peel the skin, the sweet delicious fruit makes it unforgettable.

"Well we could veer to starboard for five miles and spend the night at Daniel's Bay," Tim suggested, knowing that altering plans are one of the benefits of cruising, that for the most part we are free to come and go as we please, and if an anchorage isn't suitable, we can easily move.

"Yeah!" the kids shouted happily. So, it was decided, we weren't going to leave yet. Just as we let out our sails and headed towards Daniel's Bay, a pod of pilot whales surfed our bow. Perhaps they were also telling us not to leave. Within an hour we reached the entrance of the Bay with its dramatic steep cliffs towering over both sides. The channel forks into two stubby bays. We turned to the more protected eastern bay, Daniel's Bay which is named after the Marquesan who used to welcome sailors. Though Daniel is no longer alive, we called his Bay home for the night.

With a few hours of daylight left, we drove our dinghy to the small village of Hakaui where about 50 people live, including our new friend Ma'a and his wife Maria, who, when we visited last week, had graciously shown us hot to navigate their pass into the river. Kay and Maya took one final swing on the coconut tree rigged with a rope. They had spent many hours there last Sunday afternoon figuring out how to climb the coconut tree, grab the rope swing, wrap their legs over the know and fly over the water. That afternoon, with the kids swinging on the coconut tree, horses grazing in the background and a Marquesan family picnicking on roast pig seemed to me to capture the Marquesas.

This Thursday afternoon we walked the dirt path looking for pomplemouses and I thought about our stay in the Marquesas. From our first landfall at Hata Hiva where we rested after 17 nights at sea, stretched our legs with numerous hikes, ate poisson cru and goat smothered in cocoanut sauce, to swimming with manta rays in Tahuata, to swimming in Anaho Bay to the archeological site in Haitahu Bay and finally my favorate hike to Hakaui and Vapai Waterfall, the third largest waterfall in the world. That hike ranks among one of the beautiful hikes of my life - filled with lush flowers, dramatic woods, tikis and a bright green path leading us to a cool water pool.

"I'm going to miss the Marquesas" I said, as I placed a tiara flower behind my right ear.

Looking Back

It took me more than seven years to turn our blog into a hard covered bound book. At first, I was leery of wrapping up our adventure because...