Monday, June 27, 2011

Give me a Stick!

Namena Island, home to nesting Red-footed Boobies

I handed a male red-footed booby perched on the tree, a small stick. You would have thought he won the lottery. He grabbed the stick with his beak.

"Look at me, look at me," he squawked proudly. It was as if he were flexing his muscles like men do at the gym, hoping to attract someone with his bulging biceps.

Instead of flexing his muscles, the booby did a lap around the bay parading the stick.

He then returned to his perch. His female friend seemed pleased. He continued courting and started his sky-pointing dance -- not as elaborate as his larger cousin, the blue footed booby who we saw nesting on the ground in Mexico and Ecuador -- but he fluffed his wings and pointed his tail into the air.

The female accepted the stick and together they placed it under her body. So far, she had only two sticks, not nearly enough for a nest, but a start.

Here, in the small island of Namena, about 20 miles south of SavuSavu, red-footed boobies congregate and nest in the trees. They are the only booby birds that nest in trees. Their special claws on their webbed feet allow them to grasp the branches without toppling over.

We saw some fluffy white chicks sitting alone in the nests, waiting for their parents to bring them breakfast. It took them 45 days to hatch and then they hang out in the tree for another 130 days.

Meanwhile both their parents are very busy, flying around, looking for fish. It's an arduous task, not because they have difficulty spotting fish with their bulging eyes, but it's hard for them to catch the fish and bring it back to the nest without getting bullied by a lurking frigate bird. The frigates can't swim so they rely on other birds to catch fish and then they steal the food. We saw this happen a number of times.

Also in Namena, we went for a night snorkel with Oso Blanco. Bear spotted a sleeping green turtle who we woke up with our underwater lights and followed him as he sleepily moved around the reef and surfaced for a breath of air. I grabbed my buddy, Jo's hand, when I looked up and saw a white-tipped shark patrolling the area. I know they're not interested in us, but still they do look fierce in the dark of the night. The reef fish on the other hand looked like deer stunned by headlights as they floated above the coral.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Fijian Feast

When we were in Viani Bay we not only celebrated Kai's 10th birthday, but also were invited ashore to experience a traditional Fijian feast called a "lovo," where food is cooked in a hand-made underground earth oven.

Together with his sous-chefs, a well seasoned man named Harry dug a hole in the ground not too deep, but big enough for a fire.

The kitchen crew (his brother's, neighbors and cousins) lit the fire and then built a platform on top of it using bamboo sticks and leaves. From here they piled the food - first the starch, entire kasavas and breadfruit, then the vegetable, my favorite, rourou, which is green taro leaves mixed with onions and fresh coconut milk and wrapped in aluminum foil.

The freshly caught chicken was adorned in banana leaves that the women had braided as if it were a table decoration.

And they also wrapped fish in aluminum foil and placed that on the pile. They covered all the food with banana leaves, sticks and dirt, more dirt, and finally a tarp to trap the heat.

From afar it looked like a mound of smoking dirt. Harry handed me a huge coconut with a straw made from the stem of a tropical plant. Who needs a plastic straw if you can use a plant ... and Who needs a Wolf oven, when you can cook from the earth? I thought to myself. Harry seemed to read my mind and commented, "Everything is from this island," he told me. "You'll see, all the flavors stay with the food when its cooked in the earth."

"I used to eat this way every night," said Jack, our dive/snorkel guide who had been with us all week showing us the secret places on Rainbow Reef, so called for the magnificent colors of the coral.

Three hours later, Harry and crew uncovered the food with their bare hands, careful not to burn their fingers, and our feast began.

Well not yet, first the women adorned us "yachties" with leis made from leaves and flowers. The dinner was a fundraiser for their school. We each paid about $20 Fijian per family, but many of us were more generous, knowing that the school could use the help. They ultimately raised about 500 Fiji Dollars ($300 US) which can go a long way here.

The women created platters by braiding palm fronds. My mouth watered as they carefully placed various food on each of the platters. In addition to everything that was cooked in the lovo, they added freshwater prawns, and a fruit salad of locally grown papaya, bananas and pinneaple. Every family or boat had a platter to share.

At first Kai was reluctant and nudged me, "let's go back and have Cluster Crisp Sanitarium (his favorite cereal) for dinner." But then he and Maya sampled the food.

"This is delicious," said Maya who wanted more of the tasty moist chicken and rourou.

"Is it better than Cluster Crisp?" I asked Kai.

"Well, not better, but I'll have more chicken too," he grinned.

After dinner, the men and a few women gathered on the hand-woven pandanus mats to drink their kava, a mud-like lip numbing drink made from the crushed root of a pepper plant. I watched Eric, Captain of the 64-foot Nordhaven Oso Blanco, gulp a bowl down and clap traditionally three times when finished.

Eric has saddled up to the kava bar a number of times and can decipher good kava from bad kava. When asked about the quality of this kava, he told me it had a lot of protein. "Protein, how do you know it has a lot of protein?" I asked, confused.

"You know bugs," he told me. hmmmm...

Sunday, June 19, 2011

I'm learning to dive!

When we got to Fiji, I borrowed Bear's (on Oso Blanco) gear and tried scuba diving. My first dive was really cool because I could get really close to the fish and not have to zoom back to the surface and get a breath of air.

Then, three days ago as Kai said, I won the lottery because Frank and Karen on a really cool catamaran named Tahina, gave me my own BCD (or just BC for short). The letters 'BCD' stand for Buoyancy Compensator Device, a vest that you can add or remove air within it to make you float or sink.

I released air in my BC, which let me descend. I love looking up at the surface, it's awesome to be so far down in a foreign world. The colours are fantastic, especially that of the soft coral.

But even more amazing are the fish, some bright yellow, others orange, and sometimes brilliant blue. I enjoy watching the small blue fish move about in schools, or drift together over the reef. I like their turquoise colour and the way they move together as one larger fish.

The anemone is poisonous to all fish except the clown fish, which many of you know as Nemo. This striped fish is protected by the anemone and can lay its eggs in the anemone without having to worry about bigger fish eating the eggs.

And then, there's the Christmas Tree worms. Their colours range from purple to yellow, and sometimes they have a mix of harmonious colours. If you wiggle your finger at them, they suck in.

Diving has been a fun and fantastic adventure for me and I can't wait to do it again.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Happy Birthday Kai!

Kai celebrated his double digit birthday here in Viani Bay, where we need to watch out for falling coconuts.

Viani is in Vanua Levu, Northern Fiji just inside of the famous Rainbow Reef. You can see from the exquisite colors how the reef got its name.

Six boat kids, three of the Stray Kitties and Bear, yes that's his name plus his boat is called Oso Blanco, came over to eat cake and play in the bay.

For games, Tim and I had to get creative since we are in a tiny island without a lot of the usual party things that you happen to have on land. For one game, the kids divided into two teams - boys against girls, perfect since there were three girls and three boys. The task: to paddle or kayak over to the other boats in the anchorage, gather a story, joke or poem, remember it and share it with the other kids.

Another water task: two in the team had to balance on a surf board while the other team mate paddled the board around Kamaya.

The evening ended with two perfect surprises. The first, from Oso Blanco - ice cream to go with the homemade chocolate and carrot cake. We're not running our freezer and Kai, lover of ice cream, chocolate and most sweets, was ecstatic to have ice cream. And the second surprise, from Stray Kitty, multiple episodes of Gilligan's Island, also Kai's favorite. So for the evening, after eating cake and ice cream, Kai and his friends gathered in our cabin and watched Gilligan's Island. Sounds like a perfect day!

Parting shot: Now that Kai is ten, he has developed a tough spicy palate and the little chilis growing in the wild aren't too spicy for him. Even Wayne, a Fijian boy we met in Fawn Harbor, seemed impressed.

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.

Welcome to Minerva!

Yesterday morning, May 22nd, we pulled into South Minerva Reef and took a breather from our 1220 mile passage to Fiji. We are anchored in the middle of the ocean. Minerva Reef has the shape of a figure eight and when you look at the horizon you see lots of blue water and waves breaking. There's no land in sight except at low tide when a few coral bombers peep out from the sea. We are anchored in the eastern lobe of the figure eight. The seas and wind are calmer than the rough waters we've experienced the past few days on our journey making for a fantastic full night sleep without the task of waking up every three hours to take watch.

We're not alone in the middle of nowhere. There are four boats total: Wonderland, Tyee, Coee and us. Evi our sailing grandmother on Wonderland is here on her way to Tonga. She has a full boat with five on board, a few who got seasick along the way.

Tyee is a Canadian catamaran with two boys that we met in Panama. Tim hopes to kiteboard with them today. And there's a new friend, Coee, captained by Bronte, a South African, and his German wife who plan to call this isolated reef home for an entire month. Bronte with his grey beard and stalky frame looks like he emerged from a Hemingway novel. He's here for the fishing and takes his dinghy outside the protected reef to spearfish. "There's a lot of nothing out there in the deep," he told Tim yesterday as he described his technique of attaching the spear of his gun with a long line to a boogie board so that when he shoots a fish he can retrieve it easier. He continues, "...but then suddenly you're surrounded by six or seven billfish and that's when it gets exciting."

Bronte ventured out yesterday afternoon and returned with a five foot long Wahoo that he had speared in the head. He gave us the entire fish as a welcoming gift. We've had sushi last night and will be eating fish all week. What a treat!

Rumor has it there's oodles of lobster here as well but we're trying to figure out the technique for finding them. South Minerva and North Minerva, which is about 20 miles away where we had stopped six months ago on our way south to New Zealand, are owned by The Kingdom of Tonga, but Fiji claims it's theirs. Fortunately, none of the patrol boats are here to chase us away like they have with other sailors passing by.

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...