Our time with the people of Moala (see previous written blog) was one of the highlights of our trip so far, but we left the island feeling pretty low. An un-forecasted gale had come through the night before we left, bringing winds of over 40 knots (74 km/h). Unrelenting gusts blasted through the pitch black skies, sending Florence swinging wildly around her anchor. Surrounded by reef, but relatively protected by the island from the swell and most of the wind, the safest option was to take turns on anchor watch through the night. It’s impossible to sleep with the wind howling in the rigging, so we may as well be on deck, watching our position on the chart plotter, checking our transit against the few lights ashore and marveling at how the anchor is managing to hold.
With big wind showing on the forecast for the following day but from the opposite direction (meaning we would be on a dangerous lee shore) we left Moala, with the view that we would be better of facing the weather at sea. Reluctant to leave the friendly village, we battened down the hatches, hanked on the storm jib and headed out. To top things off we both had a stomach bug and were feeling pretty rough.
As is usually the case when we have it prepared, the storm jib was not needed, the forecast wind did not materialise and we were thankful for a pretty uneventful overnight sail to the Islands within Astrolabe reef lagoon. The lack of sleep and stomach bug had already taken it’s toll, but to make matters worse, when we arrived at sunrise the wind was blowing from the north (rather than the forecast south east). This meant that all of the recommended anchorages in the area were un-safe, uncomfortable, lee shores. So we spent all day sailing around between islands in the lagoon looking for a sheltered, safe anchorage. Areas that looked good for anchoring on the chart would turn out to be too deep, or have too much coral when we arrived to look. Eventually in the afternoon the wind dropped off and we ended up sailing back to where we had entered the lagoon to the beautiful Namara Island. Had we known that this would happen we could have enjoyed the day sailing around in the beautiful lagoon, but without knowing that we would be able to anchor safely, there was always the specter of having to head back out to sea for the night hanging over us.
We ended up by a beautiful uninhabited island near the entrance where the wind shut off completely and we were able to get some blissful rest. Life on board is not so bad after all!
Although uninhabited, the island belonged to Dravuni, a village a couple of miles to the East so we set of in search of the Chief to present our Sevusevu and gain permission to anchor in the area.
Dravuni has no more than 150 people living in one village and we were quickly directed to the chief. As well as welcoming us into the area, the chief informed us that a cruise ship bringing 3000 people would be arriving the next day! It was hard to imagine the quiet village bustling with so many people. We took the opportunity to enjoy the peace of the island by allowing one of the village dogs take us for a walk up to the peak.
Back in the village, there was a hive of activity as they prepared for the cruise ship’s arrival. Each family had their own stall set up offering, massages, hair braiding, food, t-shirts or boat trips around the island. One guy we met was lining a pit he had dug in the sand. Noting our curiosity, he explained that he would catch a turtle which he would keep in the pit and charge tourists to have their photo taken holding it. “How do you catch the turtle?” we asked “Easy, I know where they sleep!” he replied. We felt for the poor turtle but as he was worth more to the islanders alive than dead (turtle’s were once a delicacy in Fiji) we figured it was probably the best he was going to get for now.
Having seen the negative impact cruise ships appeared to have on many parts of the Caribbean, we were surprised by how positively the villages spoke of the upcoming visit. “What else would we do for money here?” The ship only visited a couple of times each month, giving the villagers a great work life balance. A couple of days work a month provided them with an income that they all seemed genuinely happy with. Everyone we met seemed grateful to be able to live well, surrounded by family on their beautiful island.
After a quick look at all the activity ashore, we sailed Florence back to the peace of Namara Island for some snorkeling and kayaking.
After a couple of days relaxing on Namara, rumours of manta rays hanging around an island further south had us seeking out another chief on Buliya Island.
This village cannot be seen from the anchorage but another cruiser had kindly given us directions: “the path starts between the two coconut trees that grow together, you can’t miss it”. As the whole island is covered in coconut trees we didn’t believe him until we saw them.
There was no cruise ship visiting this island, but they had another source of income. The French ‘Survivor’ TV series had just been filmed here. There are a line up of other countries following them and a huge resort for the contestants and film team is currently being built. This will be a big step up from the air conditioned tents currently placed on the surrounding islands. Some clever camera angles will be needed to block out the occasional cruise/supply ship in the distance and the nearby resort. We don’t know much about the TV show but the setting suggested that survival skills were not essential.
The wind shifted while we were ashore, making the anchorage very uncomfortable so with permission from the chief, following the most informal Sevusevu ceremony yet, we moved to the island south of the village and home to the giant Manta Rays.
The Mantas move between the two islands and the villagers told us we would be most likely to find them at high tide when they visit the ‘cleaning stations’ offered by the reef fish on the coral heads north of the anchorage. The high levels of plankton in the water limited the visability. Even through we were hoping to find them, we both got a big shock when we first spotted something bigger than us gliding towards us in the gloom. We spotted 6 in total (the markings on their belly allow you to tell them apart) and we estimated the largest to be at least 3m across. The older (largest) ones didn’t seem to be at all bothered by us as they circled the reef and allowed cleaner fish to pick the parasites from their skin.
They were so beautiful and graceful we returned a couple of days running to watch them. Unfortunately the Manta’s were the only real attraction in the water as the reef had been devastated, we believe partly by cyclones and partly by crown-of-thorns star fish. A NZ couple we met were working to try and rid the reefs of the destructive star fish by injecting them with vinegar. There does not seem to be any easy quick fix and the source of the problem is still not 100% clear.
The Astrolabe reef is supposed to be a world class dive location but given the lack of water clarity and state of the reef around the inner islands we decided not to push on to the main island where we might be able to get out to the outer reef. Instead we enjoyed an extra couple of days on the beautiful island by the Manta Rays.