Swimming with The Gentle Giants of Tonga

Our 170 mile sail south from Niuatoputapu to the Vava’u group of islands in the Kingdom of Tonga was a wet and bumpy one but we are, afterall, pretty much used to those conditions in the South Pacific.

The Vava’u group is an extraordinary labyrinth of around 60 tropical islands surrounded by beautiful beaches and coral reefs, each year its warm and protected waters attract humpback whales from their summer feeding grounds in the cold waters of the Southern Ocean.  The humpbacks come here to give birth to their calves after 11 months gestation and also to breed for the following year.

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Tonga is therefore not only a great place to whale-watch but also to get in the water and snorkel with these gentle giants, although it has to be on a guided tour as it is illegal to get in the water with them without a registered guide. We didn’t waste much time in booking ourselves on a trip and were lucky to join another British yachtie couple, Bill and Moira, on the same tour.

The ‘whale’ day came, I have to say I didn’t sleep much the night before due to excitement, and we roared out of the harbour on a twin-hulled aluminium motor boat with our skipper and guide. Despite a forecast of sunshine and low swell we had thick cloud cover and as the morning search progressed the sea worsened and we slammed into waves, certainly not good photographic conditions!   A pair of whales were spotted within the first couple of hours, but after a few breaches and tail slaps they disappeared into the deep blue. The search continued.IMG_8632B-squashed

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This one had the hump..

Skipper decided it was too rough anyway to be getting in the water here, so we headed back into the protection of the southern islands with our fingers crossed for more sightings. Lady luck shone down on us after another hour or so, with a call from another tour boat with the location of two whales, a male and female in courtship, allowing swimmers to share their space. When we arrived close by another boat had people in the water, we hung back and geared up quickly. As the other swimmers got out of the water the whales surfaced and came straight towards our boat. The shout went up from our guide, ‘now, now, get in’, and we all launched ourselves into the unknown.  My heart was pounding, as the soup of bubbles dispersed  there she was, swimming right past my eyes. I shed a little tear in my goggles. I cannot describe the intense feeling of excitement and magic as this agile 30 ton beauty glided right past me followed by her suitor.   The females are larger than the male, so it was easy to immediately distinguish between the two and they had very different markings. The female led the show and he willingly followed her lead.

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Eye contact, a surreal moment.

They took a breath and dived together, we hovered in the water just over them observing them far down in the clear deep blue ocean.  They rested together beneath us for some while, side by side, I could see gentle fins touching one another, we were perhaps witnessing some whale affection.  Then as the view of them beneath us became clearer and clearer, I realised that they were actually surfacing in the same position. After a quick breath the female headed straight towards me, my heart pounded even more.  I wondered if her 195 kg heart was pounding as much as mine, but it was clear as she came closer that she was really quite comfortable with us in the water with her. The guide helped pull me back out of her way, it was difficult kicking backwards to get away while still trying to keep eyes on the whale. It was a shock, I just wasn’t expecting them to be as interested in us as we were in them. They had surfaced pretty much smack bang in the middle of the group, separating us so that we almost surrounded her as the male followed suit.

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Coming in for a closer look!

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Then a shorter dive followed before they surfaced again with slightly more distance from myself thankfully, performing tail slaps and then some graceful water aerobics with each other.  After only ever seeing humpback tail slaps from the surface, it amazed me how effortlessly they achieve this underwater with their body completely vertical.

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Mr Whale is always close behind Mrs Whale

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After all that showing off, Mr Whale releases his breath as they descend together

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Bottoms up!

Getting back on board the boat, our group were obviously ecstatic at this encounter.  Half way through eating lunch our guide suddenly shouted again, gear up and get in!  We had another opportunity with the same pair,  as they surfaced close to the boat everyone slipped in for yet another up-close and personal encounter.  As the female glided towards Jez he too swam backwards to get out of her way, still trying to film and keep eye contact, each time he moved away she came in closer gently waving a fin, until she made the lightest of touches, seemingly satisfied she moved on.

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Our group get ready as she comes to the surface

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She was determined to make gentle contact with that fin!

We actually managed three swims with these beautiful creatures, I sure hope we didn’t invade their space during their courtship. I have certainly never thanked God for my life so many times in a single day, and we’re especially thankful to my Mum whose early birthday present to me helped pay for this memorable whale encounter!

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Our baleen Beauty!

 

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A Warm Welcome in Niuatoputapu, Tonga

Our weather window proved to be an absolute cracker, sailing from American Samoa to the northern-most group of Tongan islands was 42 hours of shear bliss. Sailing in a calm sea with very little swell and light winds, but just enough to keep the sails full. We wouldn’t have won any prizes for speed but enjoyed every minute of it.  The sky at night was so clear with millions of stars visible and an excellent view of the Southern Cross which we haven’t seen for months.

Conditions were perfect for fishing, and in no time we had a large mahi mahi fighting on the end of the line.  After a joint effort of reeling we successfully got our 4ft plus beauty on board, how wonderful to have fresh mahi mahi for supper.

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As the early morning light spread out across the blue Pacific ocean on day two the volcanic island of Tafahi, just 5 miles north of the larger but lower island of Niuatoputapu, came into view.

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The volcanic island of Tafahi, with a population of just 30, appears on the horizon

Birds swooped around Joy, a noisy jumble of boobies, noddies and terns, participating in a feeding frenzy triggered by what I thought may be tuna.  Then I saw a long brown fish close to the surface swimming alongside Joy darting back and forth, I had no idea what kind of fish it might be.  As we slipped towards a bubbling mass of fish and birds Jez threw out the fishing line, and as we sailed right through the frenzy the reel whizzed and the fight was on once more.  This time we had a wonderful chunky tuna, but something had taken a bite out of our catch as we reeled it in.  We instantly realised that the long brown creature I had seen by the boat must have been  a Cookie Cutter Shark, we have read about them but never before seen them.  They feed on whales, dolphins and other fish by taking a cookie-sized bite out of their fleshy victims!

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A fresh bite from the Cookie Cutter monster!

As we approached the reef surrounding Niuatoputapu the feeding frenzy continued, we thought that it would be nice to share some fish with the locals  (as well as the Cookie Cutter Sharks) so put the line back out and instantly caught another.  The main anchorage is in a large lagoon behind the reef extending from the north east shore, the entrance had two markers on the beach which, when lined up with each other, showed the safest route in through the breaking swell.  We felt that we had truly arrived in paradise.

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Approaching Niuatoputapu

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Entering the pass

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There were six other boats in the anchorage and the officials were already on board another yacht clearing them in, so within a few minutes of anchoring we had Immigration, Health and the Agricultural officers on board to complete the paperwork.  The Agricultural officer, Etuate, was quite a character. After offering them a whole tuna to share between them we were quickly invited to a pig roast picnic at the weekend on a small island in the lagoon and we were to invite the other boats to join us.   In exchange for a bottle of wine he also offered to take us on a tour of the island the following day and supply us with some produce from his plantations. What a wonderful welcome!

True to his word, Etuate appeared on the concrete dock the following morning in his truck, and the crew of another yacht joined us on the short tour of this delightful rural island. Niuatoputapu apparently means ‘Sacred Island’ and has a population of about 1000 in three small villages, with the main source of income producing woven handicrafts.

They grow and harvest Pandanus leaves and then the labour intensive process of preparing the leaves for weaving begins.  First they boil the leaves in a large pot over a fire, this removes the outer layer and allows them to split the leaves. Next they are taken at low tide down onto the beach, and laid out in the water and secured down by rocks. The rising tide covers them and they soak in the sea water which bleaches them and makes them softer to weave. Finally, they are rinsed and hung to dry, or laid out in the sun.  The leaves are then woven into mats and handicrafts and exported to New Zealand, Australia and the States.

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Splitting the Pandanus leaves after boiling

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Learning the ropes – a happy little helper

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The final two stages – Pandanus leaves are laid out on the reef at low tide to be soaked in salt water and in the background you can see some hanging out to dry.

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School children practice their traditional dance, the boys wear woven ta’ovala mats around their waists

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The cop shop!

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Etuate’s tractor sits under a bountiful bread fruit tree

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The islands freshwater spring

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I love the rural feel about this remote island, its residents share the land with their livestock, numerous pigs roam freely and are often seen on the beaches at low tide in search of food. Horses and foals graze at the waters edge, chickens scratch around in the undergrowth.   Etuate explained to us that this island was hit by the same tsunami that affected Samoa in 2009, here it killed 9 people and wiped out 100 houses in two of the three villages and destroyed the small health centre.  Nearly three months later the World Bank approved a grant to build basic wooden houses for the people made homeless but it wasn’t until 2016 that the EU provided funding to construct a new hospital with staff accommodation on higher ground.

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Coconuts, bananas and taro

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Both the leaves and roots of the taro are used in cooking

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These children helped load the coconuts into the truck after de-husking.

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Etuate opens a green coconut for us to drink

After visiting Etuate’s garden and a couple of plantations we returned to the dinghy laden with produce. He had picked for us three varieties of  banana, coconuts, green peppers, papaya, bread fruit and cassava (tapioca) root. We felt like ‘boat boys’ as we visited the other yachts in the anchorage offering a share of our generous exchange.

We awoke on Saturday to some pretty miserable weather, strong winds of 25-30 knots rattled across the lagoon and the rain lashed down, not a good start for the pig roast picnic preparations. Despite the weather Etuate, along with his helper, was keen that the show must go on so Jez ferried the two chefs across the lagoon to the desert island to build the fire pit and start cooking the pig. A little later another trip with three ladies and the little girl we had seen preparing Pandanus leaves, along with some pre-prepared local dishes.

Conditions were awkward, trying to anchor the dinghies in the choppy reef strewn waters off the island and get their occupants ashore without getting too wet was a challenge.

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The dinghy park

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Our desert island

With fourteen yachties and six islanders to feed, I did wonder how far the little piggy on the spit roast would stretch.  But we all managed to try some and two local fisherman who had arrived to set their nets also joined in. The women had prepared a traditional dish of Palusami, parcels of corn beef wrapped in taro leaves and cooked in coconut milk, as well as baked bread fruit and cassava, and each yacht had brought a dish and some drinks to add to the mix.

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Jez is quite at home turning the spit roast

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I gave the little girl a colouring book and crayons which kept her occupied for ages!

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Climbing a coconut tree to cut down some leaves to make a serving table

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A smile to melt the heart

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‘Carving’ the pig on the freshly laid table

We were really lucky that the rain held off for the picnic but the afternoon wasn’t so promising and so we said goodbye to our desert island and retreated back to our boats. Thankfully the weather improved after a couple of days and we managed a days hiking around the island before preparing for our short passage south to the Vava’u group of islands.

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The fuel station

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The missionaries landed here in the mid 19th century, introducing Christianity to Tonga.

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An ‘umbrella’ tree

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Pandanus leaves laid out to dry in the sun

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The leading markers on the beach to guide mariners through the pass safely

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Looking out over the coral barrier protecting the eastern shore

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A shipwrecked coconut sprouts into life on the windswept beach

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A plantation of Pandanus

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Niuatoputapu has been such a wonderful introduction to life in The Kingdom of Tonga and we will certainly treasure our memories of this remote island and its friendly people.

 

 

 

 

 

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Pitstop in Pago Pago, American Samoa

The people of American Samoa are so very friendly, checking in was a delightful experience with all the officials.  The Port Authority staff were also very welcoming and we instantly knew we would enjoy our time here.  It was an interesting change in culture with both sexes wearing the traditional skirt, a wrap-around a bit like a sarong, called a ‘lava lava’.  After clearing in we moved off the dock and into the anchorage, its bad reputation for poor holding foremost in our minds.  This island had been hit by a tsunami in September 2009 following a nearby earthquake, and the harbour seabed is reported to be littered with household items such as mattresses, sheets and childrens toys as well as old moorings, ropes and machinery.  We had heard reports of people requiring divers to free their anchors, and certainly while we were there three boats behind us spent several hours freeing their chain and one had to have a diver.

Pago Pago is a large well-protected harbour with an interesting history. The US became involved with the islands as far back as 1872 when Commander Meade negotiated facilities for a coaling station for the Navy from the Samoan High Chief. A small American naval base was stationed here from 1899 and then expanded in 1940 following the outbreak of WWII.  In 1942 the base came under attack from a Japanese submarine that surfaced off the coast firing 15 shells from its deck gun. Most of the shells landed in the bay but two people were injured, ironically the only building that was damaged was a store owned by a Japanese expat!

When the naval base closed in 1951 the port returned to commercial use and control of these islands was transferred to the US Department of the Interior. The harbour is now a very busy base for tuna fishing boats, all delivering to the tuna canning factory on the north shore of the bay.  The downside to anchoring in this beautiful natural harbour is the very noisy diesel fired power station and the tuna factory which emits a particularly intense smell every evening. I don’t think I could ever eat canned tuna again!

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A raft of fishing boats tied up outside ‘Starkist’ tuna factory as a helicopter comes in to land on one. These boats use helicopters onboard to spot the fish!

We were amazed to find that the parts we had ordered shortly before leaving Bora Bora had arrived the same day we had.  The gas strut however was an en-route breakage and took a few days to get on order. Our main issue was getting the boom kicker apart, it took over a week of dismantling, drilling and then brute force to get the thing apart. Once apart we could see the problem, the sudden downward force that blew the gas strut had also obliterated the plastic bracket holding it in place, jamming everything inside.  Our 3 day ‘express’ delivery then ended up taking 10 days when it was finally discovered awaiting ground shipment in Honolulu!

During our wait we did a few boat jobs and a little much needed maintenance, fitting in a little exploration using their excellent US$1 a ride bus system and a wonderful hike across the hills on the southern side of the bay to see the remains of the WWII gunnery.

On the hike we also discovered the remains of the tramway and cable car system which operated across the harbour to the mountain the otherside from 1965 to 1980. It was originally built to take engineers to service the telecommunication towers at the peak but then became a tourist attraction in the 1970’s.  Here we also learned of another tragedy that these islanders have endured. On 17th April 1980, a US Navy P-3 Orion aircraft was taking part in Samoa’s flag day  celebrations. After dropping skydivers it turned to do a second flyover across the harbour, but this time went too low and its wing clipped the tramway line causing it to crash into buildings. Tragically all 6 crew members were killed along with 2 onlookers.

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The old tramway Pavilion

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Rusty remains of the tramway system

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Fruit bats fly overhead even during the day

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A view across the harbour and the anchorage

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The entrance to the bay

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The colourful trail took us through some beautiful forests, several areas of the climb are very steep and ropes have been provided to help.

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Looking south, the reef protects much of the shoreline

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A cane toad rustles through the leaves

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A flooded WWII gun position

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Toady making the most of his warm bath

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Cane toads were introduced to this island in 1954 to control mosquitoes and also some insects that attack taro, a popular root vegetable grown here.

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A colourful church in the small town of Fagatogo, downtown Pago Pago

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The bus rides include loud music and an uncomfortable wooden bench seat, but they are cheap and plentiful!

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The very grand Court House

When the gas strut finally arrived we wasted no time in fitting it and putting things back together. We returned to the officials to check out and obtain our  clearance for the next port, the friendly male immigration officer wore a smart shirt, decorated with a necklace of very large bright coloured beads, a lava lava skirt with socks and shoes. Much more colourful and relaxed than the usual immigration uniforms.

It was a relief to pull up the anchor and only find a few bits of old rope and fishing line wrapped around the chain, we hadn’t snagged anything serious.  And we had a perfect weather window to reach the northern-most Tongan island of Niuatoputapu just 200 miles away.

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Saying Farewell to French Polynesia from Bora Bora

We had a great break in the weather for our sail from Taha’a to Bora Bora, just half a days hop away.  That annoying southerly swell continued to roll us around on the downwind passage but at least the sun was shining so it was enjoyable.

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Approaching the beautiful island of Bora Bora

Just after entering the lagoon we followed a marked channel to starboard and tucked ourselves in on the leeward side of the private motu ‘Toopua’ and anchored in a large patch of sand right behind an even larger superyacht catamaran called Hemisphere.   The government has tightened anchoring regulations in recent months, and many moorings have been placed in the ‘anchoring zones’ which makes life a little difficult for any yacht who would rather trust their own ground tackle over a possibly under rated mooring.  We checked out the anchoring zone just the other side of the channel behind Toopua and found numerous coral heads scattered about which made it impossible for us to find a big enough patch of sand to anchor in without damaging the coral or getting too close to a mooring.  So we settled for our large patch of sand behind the superyacht.  The mooring operator came by and paid us a visit, he was sure our 37 ton would be fine on his moorings (for a fee of US$100 a week) even with a forecast of 30 knots of wind for the next few days, but we firmly declined and insisted we stay put in our sand.  He very generously said ok we could stay one night, we ignored him and stayed here for our 5 day visit to the island and neither he or anyone else bothered us again.

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The view towards the reef and the ‘anchoring zone’ from our secure patch of sand

During our first evening in the anchorage we noticed a motor boat ferrying people to the superyacht in front, we were intrigued as to what was going on as a dozen or so locals were loaded on to ‘Hemisphere’.  When the sound of  drums began to flow out from the back deck and chanting began we took our places, peering over the sprayhood, for a traditional performance.  The human delivery had been local dancers and musicians performing an exclusive show for the lucky (and very rich) guests of the superyacht.  Well, not that exclusive as us two curtain-twitchers looked on through binoculars in awe of the men and women dancing and singing, including several costume changes in between. The icing on the cake was the finale involving the guests getting individual dance lessons taking ‘dad-dancing’ to another level.  Priceless.  What an evening of entertainment…through the looking glass. Good job it gets dark early here.

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Our Entertainment Yacht “Hemisphere’ leaving Bora Bora with a crew member in the main boom. She is the worlds largest luxury charter catamaran at 145 feet long and costs up to US$280,000 per week to charter!

Although our anchorage was lovely and protected, the dinghy ride across the lagoon to the main island of Bora Bora was a real bone shaker, punching against 25-30 knots of wind and associated waves was a wet and bumpy affair. My coccyx may well be a couple of mm shorter than before.  We were lucky enough to be joined in the anchorage by ‘Bruno’s Girl’, a British boat we had met in the Tuamotus, so despite the strong winds and heavy downpours we managed some fun evenings together and a hike across the northern part of the island.

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What a view – from Bora Bora to Motu Toopua

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Daredevil Claudia enjoying the view

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Beautiful decorations outside a local wedding celebration

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Following the trail across the mountain, just before the rain set in for the afternoon

It is certainly a very pretty island and has numerous tourist resorts in the lagoon area so the main town was bustling, it was just a great shame our visit had 90% bad weather as this really limited what we could do.  Just a few days after arriving, a weather window appeared for us to sail to our next destination, American Samoa, about 1100 miles to the west. Here we will collect a replacement gearbox oil cooler that sprung a leak in the Marquesas. Parts can be delivered here cheaply from the States using the US postal system without any tax added, our oil cooler worked out less than a third of the cost  of having it delivered to Tahiti.   Clearing out of French Polynesia was a rather long and slow process compared with checking in. After completing 6 forms repeating the same information at the police station, and 2 more wet rides across the lagoon as they still hadn’t received our clearance papers from Tahiti, our departure was delayed by half a day.   So from Bora Bora we said our final goodbye to the wonderful French Polynesian Islands and we head off out into the swell once more.

Our 1100 mile passage to the main port of Pago Pago (pronounced Pango Pango), on the southern shore of Tutuila Island in the American Samoa group, started in squally weather which kept us on our toes.  Early on day two we had a sudden 36 knot squall which the autopilot couldn’t cope with in the swell, so I took over quickly as Joy attempted to round up into the wind.  Another reef in the mizzen certainly helped the helm.  We poled out the jib sail to stop it collapsing when the boat rolled in the swell, and from day 3 the squalls subsided and slightly better conditions set in. Three other boats that had left the same time as us peeled off to Suwarrow Reef for a stopover but as the forecast was so good we decided to take advantage and carry on to collect our parts.  Two days out from our destination we added to our small list of parts required.  The gas strut inside the main boom kicker, which supports the boom and allows us to raise and lower the boom from the cockpit, suddenly blew which meant we had to use the topping lift (fancy name for a rope that runs from the top of the mast down to the end of the boom) to support the boom.  When it blew, the boom smashed the electrical box on the hardtop serving the solar panels.

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Catch of the day – a tasty Wahoo, a similar sized barracuda was also added to the freezer

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Downwind sailing – Poled-out Jib sail to starboard and staysail to port

After a 9 day sail we arrived very early morning off the coast of Tutuila, hoving-to for a couple of hours so that we could delay our arrival and enter in daylight.  It was really nice to see our friends on ‘Larus’ in the anchorage and just before we dropped anchor they whizzed over and told us that Customs here require clearance on the dock. Luckily there was a Joy-sized space on the concrete dock squeezed in between a large fishing boat and another yacht and Nancy and Tim from ‘Larus’ very kindly took our lines.  We had arrived!

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A view of the channel in to Pago Pago, American Samoa

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Saying Tata to Taha’a

Next on our Society Island itinerary is the beautiful island of Taha’a, it actually lies within the same protective coral reef as its larger sister island Raiatea and they may even have been a single island many moons ago.

We had a wonderful sail from Huahine in glorious sunshine and a settled sea, entering the reef pass on the eastern side in good light mid-afternoon, then we sailed around the southern shore of Taha’a in between the two islands.  Raiatea looked busy, so many yacht masts in one place!  As our Pacific crossing clock is ticking we decided to stop at just one of these islands, and Taha’a being smaller and quieter we opted for the slower pace of life as always.

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A sea plane preparing to take off close to a hotel complex inside the outer reef

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Lots of green pastures with cattle grazing

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A well kept banana and coconut plantation

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The neatest and best-kept copra (coconut) drying shed we have seen in the whole of French Poly

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One late afternoon stroll along the shoreline of Apu Bay (where we were the only boat anchored in the whole of the huge bay, maybe because it was 20-30 metres deep) Jez spotted an octopus in the shallow water. We watched for a few minutes as he scouted around the rocks perhaps looking for his dinner, then he suddenly propelled himself away into the deep. What a wonderful sighting!

 

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The remnants of sugar cane gets piled outside the small local rum distillery after crushing

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One reason for coming to Taha’a was to snorkel the ‘Coral Gardens’ a shallow area in between two motus where the currents can be quite strong, but it’s full of coral and friendly fish.   We had a few gloomy rainy days while we were on the island, so late one afternoon when the sun finally showed itself as it dropped beneath the clouds, we grabbed the opportunity and whizzed over in the dinghy.  It was busy with snorkelers when we arrived as there is a popular hotel complex on one of the motus, and after walking a short trail on the smaller uninhabited motu we entered the water on the seaward side and got carried back by the current into the lagoon.  It was a little like being on a fast conveyor belt whizzing over some very shallow corals and lots of pretty tropical fish. It was amusing negotiating the maze created by the coral under full speed. We managed to find a couple of spots with less current tucked up behind some larger coral where we could hang around and enjoy being in a tropical fishtank.  The fish were so friendly I even had my ankles nibbled at!

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The sunsets here were beautiful with the majestic outline of Bora Bora visible in the distance, this will be our next stop and our last in French Polynesia.

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Heavenly Huahine

After a very lively overnight sail from Moorea we entered the easy Avapehi pass in through Huahine’s protective reef and headed to Avea Bay on the south western tip of the island. There are a lot of charter boats in this area, mainly catamarans, and the anchorage off the small town of Fare at the north end looked pretty busy so we chose to spend most of our time in the quieter southern part of the island.

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Avea Bay – A beautiful anchorage fully protected from the sea by a wide expanse of reef and shallow water

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Quite possibly the coolest house boat ever

There was a small hotel ashore with a dock and they very kindly allow cruisers shore access, so we left our dinghy on the dock several days in a row and went hiking.  Huahine is very different from its south-eastern neighbour Moorea, with less dramatic terrain and fewer agricultural plantations, but it has a beautiful coastline and such lovely friendly people too.

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Archaeological ruins along the coast, all made of coral rock

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Lunch with a view, we regularly have to pinch ourselves!

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At the top of the hill over looking the small village of Parea we found a very well manicured look-out with some imaginative planting and a spectacular view of the reef

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One of the many meandering rivers flowing through the village of Parea

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Baby coconuts

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More attractive look-out points on the road heading north

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Another day in Paradise

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On our hike north along the quiet main road we came across a vanilla plantation, and after a chat with the owner and a purchase of some vanilla beans we were given a free tour of his organic plantation, originally started by his grandfather.

 

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The vanilla plant is related to the orchid and originally came from Mexico. The plantations are usually under cover to give them protection from the elements, in particular rain as this damages the flowers. Coconut shells are used as a mulch providing nutrients for the roots.

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A labour of love – A Vanilla plant can take three years before it flowers, it is then ‘hand pollinated’  using a fish bone as a tool. The flower cannot self-pollinate due to plant tissue covering the stem, and the pollen is quite inaccessible to most natural pollinators such as bees and butterflies. So the tool is used to transfer the pollen from the anther to the stigma.

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New flowers forming

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The pods can take 6 weeks to grow to 6-10 inches, then go through a further 6 month drying or ‘sweating’ ritual. A healthy vine can produce up to 100 pods in a year.

We can now certainly appreciate why vanilla is so expensive to buy, the farmer has spent several years nurturing a plant and it’s harvested pods before he has a product to sell.

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Some amusing local art decorating a car port!

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Among the overgrown banana and papaya trees along the roadside we found some wild chillies!

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A new experience – the Star Apple fruit.  We came across a lady along the road selling fruit from her garden, so we bought a huge bag of Star Apples and some coconuts.  The Star Apples are strange, as they are cut they pour with a milky latex sap, the flesh scooped out from the skin has a creme caramel texture and mild flavour but with a beautiful purple twist.

Huahine was a wonderful island to explore and we had excellent weather, I think this is my favourite Society Island so far. As always it is difficult to tear ourselves away from such a paradise, our next destination is in sight and just a days sail away.

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Raiatea and Taha’a are just 20 miles away and visible from Huahine.

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The Society Islands – French Polynesia

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Wanting more of Moorea

Another night arrival in the Society Islands, but this time the channel through the reef had its leading lights in full working order.  After a pleasant sail from the southern end of Tahiti we made a midnight entrance into Moorea, passing twenty or so yachts crammed into a small anchorage behind the reef we proceeded into the almost empty large deep bay of Opunohu, anchoring behind a large superyacht.   It’s always nice to wake up in a new place and see your surroundings for the first time, Opunohu Bay is quite possibly the most scenic anchorage we have had in the South Pacific so far.  It is surrounded by lush green mountains and rolling hills with a mixture of livestock and crop plantations.

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Opunohu Bay

After an excellent hike up the valley to visit some archaeological sites and a viewpoint called Belvedere, with views north across both Opunohu and Cooks Bay, we discovered a network of hiking and cycling trails across the northern part of the island.

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The trail across the mountain disappearing into the clouds

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This ancient site is believed to have been part of an archery competition arena

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Looking north from the rainy viewpoint, Opunohu Bay on the left and Cooks Bay on the right

We spent a week on this beautiful island, hiking every day through pineapple, banana, and citrus  plantations and pine forests, with the occasional beef herd in between.

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These banana trees had to be propped up to support the weight of their fruit

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The Common Myna are pretty birds with an impressive array of vocal sounds, but they are a pest. Introduced to the Islands in the 1800’s to control insects, they are now prolific and have reduced the numbers of native birds by stealing nests and destroying eggs and also cause damage to fruit crops.

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The Soursop tree

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Pineapple fields

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A flowering pineapple plant

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Beautiful rich looking soil

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A papaya tree heavy with fruit

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Wet feet again, the trails cross the river several times

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Leaving Moorea

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A full moon for the overnight passage to our next island, Huahine

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Total Protection – Tahitian Style

Our passage from the atoll of Fakarava to Tahiti was bouncy and wet with a very confused sea caused by the meeting of two swells. A long south-west swell of 2.5 metres crossing with a short south-easterly caused by the prevailing wind, not an ideal combination.  We knew it would be uncomfortable but that never really makes it any easier. We were heading for the protection of Tahiti’s western reef before the conditions were forecast to worsen, and thankfully the sea eased as we rounded the southern end of Tahiti in the darkness of late evening on day two.  Sailing a little more comfortably towards the main channel in through the reef we looked longingly for the leading lights shown on our charts.  The southern side of the channel had a lit beacon marking the reef, but as we approached in the pitch black there were no leading lights to be seen.  The pass is wide and deep and reported to be safe in all conditions so we decided to cautiously approach, as the chart and visual bearing on the lit beacon all agreed we made the entrance whilst keeping a close eye on our forward looking depth sounder.  The sound of the sea crashing on the reef either side of us in the dark was a little eery, but we sailed through without any problems and headed south to a small anchorage just off the channel.

Our intended destination on Tahiti was Port Phaeton, a large bay that lies on the west side of the isthmus that connects ‘big’ Tahiti Nui with ‘little’ Tahiti Iti. So after a great nights sleep we negotiated the network of channels around the inner reefs and shoals, and we were rather glad we hadn’t attempted this in the dark as there were many fishing buoys dotted about just waiting for an unsuspecting propeller.  Port Phaeton is a very pretty bay surrounded by lush green countryside, but only a five minute walk to the small but busy town of Taravao on the isthmus. The protection in this bay was complete, as we watched the sea build outside to an impressive 5 metre swell and crash onto the reef, Joy sat peacefully suspended in a mill pond.  As the wind reportedly blew 30-40 knots gusting nearly 50 outside, we had barely a puff of wind cross the boat and our wind turbines sat idle.  It seemed to rain for days and days, with low grey clouds looming over us I had almost forgotten what that bright shiny thing in the sky looked like. Jeans, fleeces and the winter duvet even came out of storage. With no wind or sun to generate our power, we had to run the generator to charge the batteries for the first time in ages. But, we were safe and snug in quite possibly the best protected bay in the whole of French Polynesia. It deserves its reputation as a hurricane-hole.

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Blue sky appears after days of rain in protected Port Phaeton

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Barely a ripple in the anchorage and wonderful views of Tahiti Iti

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Youngsters get regular sailing lessons in the bay whatever the weather

The town of Taravao kept us occupied on the gloomy days, the roads have several stands selling fresh fruit and veggies of an excellent standard and that made a nice change from having to hunt and forage for produce. But with so many shops including a large Carrefour with lots of tempting tasty French goodies, it also relieved us of some cash.  One day, crossing a road in town by the Church I noticed the pavement was white. Looking up at the pine-like tree overhanging the pavement I was amazed to see it full of nesting Black Noddys!  Further along the road in the middle of a busy junction, with traffic passing on all sides, we came across another tree also full of nesting Noddys.

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The Black Noddy chick is fed by both parents and gains weight rapidly, by the age of 3 weeks it can weigh as much as the parents!

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Black Noddy

There are two schools of thought on the name “Noddy”. The first is because it nods and bows during courtship, the second is that sailors once called them ‘noddies’ meaning ‘simpletons’ as these birds are so tame that they can easily be taken from the nest (to eat)! I didn’t test this theory as we had already decided to try some local beef for supper!

We rented a small car from the local garage so that we could explore the island and also visit Papeete, the main city at the north end. Tahiti Nui has one main road that runs around the flat perimeter of the island, a busy road constantly streaming with fast traffic, well it seems fast after being used to an average of 6 knots.  On the inside of the main road lies some beautiful dramatic countryside, mountains covered with a variety of trees of all shapes, sizes and shades of green. The mountain peaks disappear into the thick veil of cloud hanging over the island, and the valleys have numerous waterfalls flowing, especially with all the rain.

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The east coast of Tahiti Nui after the weather had improved

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Once on the road, it was difficult to stop or get off as the traffic just kept pushing us on.  Jez remarked that Big Tahiti is basically like a race track with an inaccessible park in the middle – this really summed it up for us. Papeete is a busy city, jam packed with traffic and people, we found a lot of road works and building renovations underway, the place certainly needs it.

Tahiti-Iti is thankfully very different,  the hills lie much lower than the northern half and with fewer people and more open countryside the road is less busy.   We managed to find a small winding lane that took us inland through rolling fields dotted with cattle munching on the lush green grass.  We felt much more at home here. At the top of the hill we could look out across the isthmus and Port Phaeton towards Tahiti Nui with an excellent view of the reef responsible for our protection from the swell.

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Moovelous, local beef!

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Tahiti Nui visible under the clouds, Port Phaeton lies to the west of the low isthmus

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The western reef protecting Port Phaeton

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Tahiti Iti eastern coast

As soon as the weather improved it was time to move on, our next stop in the Society Islands group is Moorea just a few miles off the northern coast of Tahiti Nui.

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Leaving Tahiti

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More clouds developing

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The rain clouds just seem to follow us

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Fatu Hiva (Marquesas) Revisited

Arriving in busy Tahiti brought two benefits, absolutely wonderful protection from strong winds and impressively big swells, and an Apple repair centre.  So I have finally got my computer fixed and retrieved my photos.    Fatu Hiva, the southern most in the Marquesan chain, was a memorable stop for us so I can at last share with you the beauty of the island that we left behind in May.

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The Bay of Virgins, Fatu Hiva. An impressive anchorage. 

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                                                                    Hanavave Village street.                                                                           Every garden is bursting with fruit trees including pamplemousse, bananas, mangoes and oranges.

 

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Our goal – The crucifix at the top of the hill 

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Copra is still produced on the island, this drying shed has a sliding tin roof to allow the coconuts to dry in the sun

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The waterfall was just a trickle

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Such a beautiful bird with a beautiful name –  A Fairy White Tern

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Looking down at the village of Hanavave nestled in the valley

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Over the hill – a view of the west coast of Fatu Hiva

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Volley ball seems to be the Villagers’ game of choice

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Evening sun lights up the popular Bay of Virgins

 

 

 

 

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Two weeks in Paradise – The Tuamotus

Leaving Nuku Hiva with a brisk 20 knot south easterly we decided to have one last night in the Marquesas at Ua Pou on the west coast before heading for the atoll of Kauehi. With an impressive swell  beam on, the passage was a wet and salty one, especially when one wave broke on the side of Joy and managed to force a gallon of two of salty brine in to the cockpit.  After a quiet night anchored on the west coast, we set off the following morning for Kauehi.

We had a great sail, with 20-30 knots of wind we covered the 496 miles in less than 70 hours, an average speed of just over 7 knots.   As the eastern side of the low-lying coral atoll came into view in the early morning light we kept up our  speed hoping to make the narrow pass through the coral into the lagoon on the south west ‘coast’ not too long after slack water.  Arriving at the pass, the incoming tide had started to run at a couple of knots with a few standing waves on the inside of the pass caused by wind against tide, but we sailed through the pass with the motor running just in case without any problems. The wind was still blowing strongly from the south east so we made our way across the lagoon to the southern side, there was one other boat anchored there and they looked to be pretty comfortable.  As we got into the lee of the southern fringe of coral the wind chop subsided and with the sun now shining the turquoise water revealed a nice sandy patch with only a few low lying coral heads scattered about for us to anchor in.

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Anchored inside the lagoon of Kauehi

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Looking across the coral reef to the ocean swell outside. The dark patches in the water close to the shore are strange shaped volcanic rocks covered in coral, known as ‘bombies’.

Is was nice to get to know the other boat anchored here too, another British ketch-rigged boat, and we spent a couple of fun evenings with them and went for a snorkel.  The few corals along the shoreline were covered with beautiful clams with vibrant purple, blue and green colours.  A black-tipped shark came to check us out a few times before disappearing uninterested.  I was surprised at how calm I was watching him, watching me. He didn’t display any kind of threatening behaviour and it was obvious he was just being inquisitive (and he was only a small one!).

With the wind getting stronger and a stormy forecast, we decided to move to more protection on the south east coast as some considerable wind chop had developed in this exposed southern anchorage, so we waited for the sun to show itself in between showers and then made our way carefully across a non-charted area of the lagoon.  I kept watch on the bow looking for reef and bombies and Jez watched the forward looking echo sounder, what a great piece of kit this is proving to be. The eastern side of the atoll has more of a wider motu, an island of reef with vegetation, and the coconut trees and vegetation give excellent protection from the wind.  We found a nice sandy patch with hardly a ripple on the water and after a quick survey of the area to check out the bombies we dropped anchor just as the sky darkened and the rain started again.

We spent a few days here, walking the motu and exploring the ruins in the undergrowth and snorkeling when the sun occasionally revealed itself.

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As 25 knots blows overhead we are completely protected by the coconut trees on the motu

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Is this what they call Coconut Crabs?

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Stormy Kauehi

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Snorkeling in the beautifully clear but cold lagoon

It was difficult to tear ourselves away from the tranquility and seclusion of Kauehi, but with a brief break in the weather as the wind turned to the north east we took the opportunity to get out of the lagoon and sail to the atoll of Fakarava just over 30 miles away.  With slack water occurring at 6am we had an early start and this time used just the forward looking echo sounder to check our course across the lagoon in the dark. Perfectly timed and with barely a ripple on the water we slipped through the calm pass shortly after another boat had entered.  We noticed the newcomer heading off under sail across an uncharted area of the lagoon in the early morning light and weren’t entirely surprised when we overheard his VHF call later to another yacht telling him he had just narrowly missed hitting an uncharted reef! If you don’t have a forward looking sonar in these parts you definitely need eyeballs and sun overhead to navigate safely.

Our sail to Fakarava was enjoyable and fast, we continually reefed to slow Joy down as we wanted to arrive at the Garuae pass on the north side at midday slack water.  Another pass perfectly timed, entering the lagoon under sail in flat calm water avoiding the dive boats bobbing in the main channel.  Fakarava has the second largest lagoon in the Tuamotu group, being 30 miles wide and 10 miles long. It has around 800 inhabitants mostly employed in the pearl, tourist and copra industries. The main village of Rotoava is situated on the northern part of the longest continuous motu in French Polynesia which lies along the eastern side of the lagoon. It is a very popular stop over for cruising boats due to the provisions available in the village, a few small restaurant/snack bars, good snorkeling and great protection from wind with an easterly component.  We counted over 30 boats anchored off the village, positively crowded in comparison to Kauehi.

Our salad search proved fruitless in the three supermarkets in the village, despite only being the day after the supply ship had visited most of the fresh produce had already been snapped up. The wind was now light from the north and the forecast rain had set in, this was the lull before the next blow from the south east, so we raised the anchor saladless and sailed very slowly south along the inner east coast of the motu. After a comfortable overnight stop half way down tucked up behind a protruding reef, the skies had cleared and we continued sailing to the anchorage in the south east corner of the lagoon but this time in sunshine rather than showers. There was quite a crowd of boats already gathering in the anchorage and many more followed later in the day seeking protection.

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Channel markers show most of the reefs but not all

 

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Sailing in flat calm water watching out for reefs

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As the wind turned around overnight to the south east the fun began.  Many boats woke to find their anchor chains wrapped around coral heads, we watched as our neighbours dived on their anchors and chains and drove their boats forward trying to free themselves as the wind increased.  Entertainment over, we thought we ought to do the same and Jez jumped in with his snorkel gear to check. Sure enough we were caught up too,  but managed to easily untangle things by retrieving some chain and waiting for the boat to swing free then paying it back out.  It was good timing, as the strong south easterly set in soon after.

Having been in the protection of the south east corner for a couple of days the wind once again dropped and turned more easterly releasing us from our paradise prison.  We sailed along the south coast to the south west pass, a much narrower pass than the northern one and trickier to negotiate with strong currents and opposing seas.  As one boat just a few days earlier had sadly discovered.  We hadn’t come here to transit the pass, but to snorkel it.

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The pass into the lagoon runs to the right of the photo beyond the coral reef, the stricken yacht sits out at the entrance

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Jez inspects the damage as our adopted furry friend waits for me to catch up

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Such a sad sight – Three local guys strip anything they can out of the boat and load up their wheelbarrow

Word on the street is that the boat tried to exit the pass at 5 am a few days ago with full sail up but ran into difficulty when a rope caught in their propeller and they ended up on the reef losing their keel.  When we were here there were big rollers crashing in on both sides of the entrance to the pass, and a day later very shortly before the morning slack water we watched a charter catamaran enter the pass, only to turn back half way. We could then see why, there were large rollers breaking right across the pass, a truly disastrous situation for any boat attempting to exit, and in the dark this situation would probably not have been obvious.

The small motu of Tetamanu on the eastern side of the pass is home to a few residents who obviously enjoy remote living and a small hotel (known as a Pension) with a dive shop.  It was nice to wander around and stretch our legs and after being barked at by a local pooch she then decided to join us on our walk around the motu.

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The Catholic Church at Tetamanu, dating back to the 1870’s and made entirely from coral rock!

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Ruins in the village, this was once apparently the village prison cell.  Signs that Tetamanu used to be the main village of Fakarava many years ago.

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A diet high in fibre..glass?

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Chasing lizards!

Snorkeling the pass was quite an experience, waiting for slack water at 3.30pm we took the dinghy into the pass and checked things out. There didn’t appear to be any current running so we started at the outer entrance and jumped in, towing the dinghy along with us. Not such a good place to start as it was deep and visibility poor so we moved over to the edge just before the breakers and got a much better view.  The hard corals look healthy and there were plenty of fish around them, it was nice to see different varieties of tropical fish compared with the Caribbean.  And of course a few black-tipped reef sharks came along to check us out, the biggest chunkiest of which had a remora attached to its belly and he patrolled the shallower reef passing us several times.  As Jez chased the sharks around with the Go Pro I pulled along the dinghy occasionally using it as a barrier when Mr Chunky came a little too close for comfort.

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Mr Chunky

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We took a long time drifting along the coral wall on the edge of the pass, an hour and half to be exact, so by the time we had reached the end we were being carried along on an incoming tide of a couple of knots and with our heads now above water we realised it was starting to get dark! Time to hop back in the dinghy before we reached the building waves at the inner entrance, that wind against tide thing again.  It was a great experience.

Our time in the Tuamotus has been ruled essentially by the weather, we have had a lot of dark cloudy days with plenty of rain and wind so it has rather restricted our activities.  So after another wonderful lagoon sail back up to Rotoava, we got ourselves ready for the passage to Tahiti 420 miles away.  With yet another strong south easterly wind on the horizon and a building south-west swell, we are making a dash for Tahiti before the northern end of Fakarava becomes too uncomfortable.  With one last visit to the village on supply ship day we secured ourselves some lettuce and extortionately priced tomatoes, and after a cold beer watching out across the anchorage as the sun got lower in the sky we hopped in the dinghy and headed back to Joy. As we left the dock Jez noticed something flapping in the water and we thought it was a couple of manta rays as we could see the tips of their wings breaking the surface.  Killing the engine we floated and watched for a few minutes, blinded by the sun going down.  Just as we were about to give up watching one turned towards us, as it got closer we could see that those wing tips belonged to a huge manta ray, by far the biggest we have seen here. It glided right up to us with its mouth wide open brushing the dinghy with its wing before diving and disappearing.  What an awesome sighting, and one I will certainly not forget in a hurry.  So its farewell Tuamotus, Tahiti here we come!

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