Friday, May 25, 2012

Entering the atolls of Tuamotu

We made it. The anchor is set inside the lagoon of Raroia. Entering the atolls is a challenging, and frankly frightening, experience. First a little about the Tuamotu Archipelago. It is one of the island groups of the French Polynesian Islands and is very different than the Marquesan group we just left. The Tuamotus are coral atolls – one is a raised atoll, others are "true" atolls with unbroken circular coral reefs, and and several small "motus" or islets that make up the circular edge that surrounds a lagoon. Some are very large, others are small. Rain is the only source of fresh water on the seventy-six islands or atolls that comprise the archipelago. Thirty of the atolls are permanently uninhabited and the rest have small populations. Pearl farming is now the big job here and you can see the oysters hanging from lines suspended in the water of the lagoons with floats. On the bad news side – the Tuamotus was where the French conducted 175 nuclear tests both atmospheric and underground starting in 1963. Luckily that is all over now.

Our first stop is Raroia and Sandra C. wins the prize for correctly identifying this place as the location where the raft, "Kon Tiki" captained by Thor Heyerdahl landed in 1947 after his 4,300 mile three and a half month epic journey from Peru. We will visit the actual sight later.

We completed our "epic" four and a half day journey around 1400 today (Thursday). Entering an atoll's pass takes planning, witchcraft, prayers, and a lot of luck. These atolls are all sharp coral reefs and there is sometimes one or perhaps two entrances into the central lagoon. The lagoons are quite large masses of water and so tides really flow in and out of the narrow passages. Add to the tides rushing in and out, wind, current, the location of the cut (windward or leeward side), the width and depth of it and clarity of water to see the fringing coral. Yikes! There are all these various ways to figure it all out – with published tide tables, using mooonrise and moonset calculations, and tons of local information gathered over the years by other boaters. The tide tables are quite general, and never for your exact location. And the moon calculations are pretty general, accurate within a couple hours. The local information is good, but you are never exactly sure of the source or accuracy. Put it all together and get a time window you hope is close. The best of course, is on site-eyeball navigation. Then you take your best shot. We arrived at daybreak and had to wait until the tides was right – we guestimated sometime around noon to 2 pm. We wanted to go in on an outgoing or slack tide. This entrance is actually pretty well marked. We circled watching the water crash over the reefs and waited – and finally after several circles we entered the pass at just after 1 pm. There was still a good current running out – but Astarte and Michael handled it well. Barbara was on the bow watching the water for shallows and coral heads. She also got an incredible dolphin show by five very large dolphins – leading the boat through the pass, leaping out of the water, tail splashing her and swimming acrobatically beneath the boat. Plus, every time they spouted, because of the sun, little rainbows would form. It was very Fellinish or Disneyish depending on your lack of sleep. But dolphins always know when to show up and relax the tense moments.

Once through the cut we were in this giant lagoon that was well marked towards the "village." There are a lot of areas in the lagoon designated for pearl farming – so you have to avoid those – they are quite obvious with hundreds of floats. We anchored and got nice welcoming calls from the other boats here at anchor. Folks who were helpful as we made our way in.

We'll stay put here for a few days at least – or perhaps head to the Kon Tiki sight on the other side of the lagoon. Michael checked the anchor and noted several sharks on the short swim. Hmmm.

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