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Swimming with Sharks – Fakarava

We left the atoll of Raroia in beautiful conditions, flat seas and 10 knots of breeze meaning gentle sailing and an easy life on board. The time of slack tide for our entry through the pass at Makemo, our next destination, meant we had 25 hours to make 90 miles and so were in no rush.

Having sailed slowly through the night, we only had a short wait before the morning slack tide in the north pass at Makemo. There was still a lot of current running out but with a Florence’s reliable and powerful engine we went ahead. At times we were only making 2 knots over the ground at full throttle, but that was ok as by motoring into the current you have more control than going with it. Once through the pass Amy adopted her position part way up the mast to spot the coral bommies and we picked our way around to the anchorage west of the pass. Although the anchorage was very picturesque and remote (this part of Makemo is deserted), the ground where it was shallow enough to anchor had a current ripping through it and was absolutely covered in coral heads. This meant that there was a real risk of our anchor chain getting tangled around them when the tide changed, potentially causing danger to Florence and damage to the reef. We made a quick decision to exit the pass whilst the tide was still relatively slack and were spat back out into the ocean to continue our journey to Fakarava, the next atoll on our list.

Again there was no rush and we had another tranquil overnight sail, arriving at the South Pass of Fakarava at dawn, just before the slack tide. After a clear moonlit night, sods law brought raining squalls as we approached; not what you want for transiting a reef pass. Normally you need good light for visibility to spot the uncharted bits of reef waiting to catch you out. We hove to wait for a gap between the squalls. Another yacht approached and was waiting with us. Our chat on the radio, was overheard by a yacht who was anchored in the atoll and he chipped in his experience of the pass. According to him the Navionics charts that we use were spot on for the pass and it was more straight forward than the other passes we have experienced. Armed with this confidence booster we headed in during a small break in the squalls. Once through some VERY large waves at the entrance which threw Florence around, the seas flattened out and we appeared to have timed the tide well.

The main reason for us coming to Fakarava was to snorkel this south pass as it is famous for the number of sharks living there. We had hoped to take one of the free moorings or anchor just inside the pass but all the moorings were taken and the free space to anchor was again full of bommies. Thoroughly disappointed, we continued a further 7 miles into the lagoon and away from the pass in order to find a safe place to anchor. With the low early morning light and a 20knot headwind, the conditions were not ideal for spotting the reefs. Using our Google earth images of the atoll, overlaid on the chart to help give us an idea of the number and location of the larger coral heads, we kept a good look out on the bow as we crept towards the anchorage. In the East of the atoll we found a much better anchorage, sheltered from the wind and only a few coral heads dotted around. We spent a couple of days there exploring the anchorage on foot and sailing the dinghy.

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With Bastille Day approaching we wanted to get to Tahiti in time to see the festivities so we were keen to start making tracks. We made the decision to head for the South pass at the correct time to exit at slack current. Should a mooring/good spot to anchor be available we would stay 24 hours and snorkel the pass.

We approached the pass reluctant to leave just yet, and with the good overhead light we were able to find a spot that would be OK to anchor. There were a couple of coral heads close to the boat but if we floated the chain using fenders as floats, a new technique to us, we would be okay. It was also shallow enough that we could swim down and sort out any tangles should it go wrong.

Fakarava is known for the number of black tip, white tip and grey sharks that hang out in the pass. Although this was a scary prospect for us, it was the reason we came and so we were keen to find out more. As it turned out, a crew of 29 divers and scientists had been based at the pass for the last 2 months, producing a documentary on the sharks for National Geographic. Photos of huge groups of hungry looking sharks covered the walls of the small building they were using as a base. Hundreds of cameras were lined up charging as the dive teams worked shifts in order to catch to moment the grouper spawn on camera. A shark expert and photographer was creating an animation of the current in the pass using a scale model and chatted to us about the project. With a model shark looming over him from the rafters above, he assured us that the sharks were disinterested in humans. We were yet to be convinced.

That evening we sat on the dock, reflecting on our conversation as the sun went down, we got chatting with a cool Australian couple in Fakarava on a dive holiday. Circling below us as we chatted were groups of small black tip sharks. They were clearly more used to people here and not curious like the ones we encountered in Raroia. Feeling much braver, Amy got in the knee deep water with them and was very happy to find they were more scared of her than she was them.

The following morning we set out to snorkel the pass at the first slack tide, towing Florence’s tender ‘The Machine’, as our get away vehicle. Drifting though the entrance, we spotted several large sharks in the deep, just laying on the bottom, completely un-bothered by us. We could not get deep enough to see where hundreds of them are supposed to hang out together so rode the now incoming tide through the pass and into the lagoon. With the current, we glided though tons of beautiful reef fish, huge wrasse and plenty of smaller sharks in shallow water. Any other species of shark would still have us making a quick exit from the water but we found ourselves getting quite fond of the black tips.

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Delighted to have achieved what we came to Fakarava for, we upped anchor that afternoon at the second slack water and set off on the 250nm sail to Tahiti. With a new found appreciation for all life on the reef we hoped that one day we would be able to come back to Fakarava and the Tuamotus.

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