The Turtle Pond

To continue from where the last blog post (Fish Dinner and a Whale Story) left off, and to answer the question my sister, Zara, asked – yes, we did make it to the turtle pond later that day. We were a larger party than the morning’s fishing crew. Kim and Devon had returned from a spectacular snorkel on the wall of a nearby reef, made all the more wonderful by the excellent water clarity due to the calm weather. They joined, as did Regina, who had finished teaching for the day. That made seven of us, along with the fishing party. We were a merry bunch. After Anthea’s crew clambered aboard the local skiff, off we zoomed across the lagoon. Regina joked that she was playing tourist that day. After five years teaching at Susui Village, she had yet to make the short trip to the turtle pond, and there’s a saying that until you’ve made it there, you haven’t yet really been to Susui. It was a gloriously beautiful calm day with lots of sunshine and blue sky. It was also close to low tide, which necessitated skirting reef edges and at times coming quite close to some of the mushroom shaped limestone islets that Vanua Balavu is famous for. We passed numerous inviting small beaches, lined with coconut trees and absent of any human trace. The water was clear and varied in color from aquamarine to tourquoise; numerous small inlets appeared and disappeared, including a larger one called hidden lagoon, which Devon and Kim and explored by kayak earlier in the day. After about 15 minutes, the boat slowed as we approached a beach; the anchor was tossed out and enough rode let out to stop the boat just short of the dry sand. We hopped out and made our way along a barely discernable track through the jungly vegetation. We were instructed to be quiet so as not to scare away the shy turtles. After a few short minutes a saltwater pond appeared through the undergrowth. We crept closer slowly, squinting through the foliage in the hopes of spotting a surfacing turtle. Setoki spotted one, but overall we didn’t see much, so it was decided that we should try another approach path. Back we went to the launch. A short ride later we landed at another small beach – one that Devon and Kim had kayaked to earlier that day, in fact. From there we followed a more used track and accessed the pond from the other side.

Our efforts were well rewarded. Over the next 30 minutes we all saw several large turtles surface, take a few breaths and then submerge. There was something a bit timeless about this interlude. These were apparently quite old turtles (and their heads were certainly much larger than the – presumably younger – ones we often see in the open lagoon). They had been caught when young and then placed in the pond to mature into adulthood, but this practice had stopped many years (decades?) ago. It is unclear why there were placed there – perhaps as a food source during times of scarcity? I’m not sure. They are not harvested for food these days. And furthermore, our local friends seemed to express a bit of reverence towards these animals. They shared descriptions of the turtles they had heard which seemed to attest to their venerable age; for example some villagers describe seeing the turtles’ backs encrusted with clam shells while others remark on the thick algal growth that covers their shells. Something about this pond seemed to connect us with the past, to a different era and set of lifeways.

Another element of the setting that added to the ambiance was the bats – literally thousands of them, all roosting in several trees right across the pond in front of us. Fruit bats in the Pacific roost in large colonies. They are much larger than the average North American bat and they make a distinctive chattering, chirping sort of sound. They were aware of our presence, as indicated by their increased vocalizations and rustlings. Eventually, a large number of them took flight and soon the sky above our heads was thick with low flying bats. I’ve seen two or three such colonies this summer, but never one so large and so close as this. We watched spellbound, looking up at the flying bats and simultaneously trying to scan the pond’s surface for the next turtle visitation. Finally, after the requisite group selfie’s and photos, we returned to the boat, feeling most fortunate to have had this experience.

On the return trip to the anchorage Setoki sat cross legged in the bow, facing us. I’ll never forget the huge grin on his face and the carefree happiness that seemed to engulf him that day.

Postscript: We left Susui the next day. Setoki, Joe, Regina and other family members waved grandly on the beach as we left the anchorage. Thus began a three day passage back to Viti Levu, then 2.5 days of kiting for Devon at Musket Cove, which ended today, and tomorrow we shift to Vuda Pt. Marina for Wednesday’s scheduled haulout and placement in the hurricane pit – Anthea’s home for the next 10 months. It will take more than a week of labor to carefully put her to bed, before we fly to San Francisco August 15.

5 August 2019
Musket Cove, Malolo Island

Fish Dinner and a Whale Story

I just returned from a fishing trip with Setoki, his five year old son, and a second good-natured young man from Susui Village, where we have been for the past week, on the island of Vanua Balavu. Setoki hails from a small island east of Fulanga, in the southern Lau Group, not far from Tonga. We first met him at last Saturday’s feast, which the village put on for the 30 or so cruisers on 12 yachts that had arrived for the well publicized event (most of since moved on; there’s just two boats here now, including Anthea). Setoki is married to Regina, who is the head teacher at the village primary school here. Regina is from Rotuma, and is a relative of Wilsoni Hereniki, a well known Rotuman author and professor at University of Hawai’i Manoa. In addition to his academic writings, Hereniki has also made a film, The Land has Eyes, which we watched before the cruise. Interestingly, Regina’s relatives acted in the film, e.g. the doctor and two other as roles well. The title of the film is the first part of a well known proverb, “the land has eyes and teeth,” referring to natural systems of justice, outside of human structures of accountability and consequence. It’s a great film and well done, too.

But I digress..

As agreed the prior evening, Setoki and company picked me up 8am sharp this morning and off we went for some open boat line fishing for the next four hours. It was dead calm, and had been so for the last 18 hours. The water was crystal clear, with 60 or more feet of visibility. We could easily see the bottom. It was like being suspended on liquid amber. We fished at three or four different spots, all within a two mile range of the village, inside the lagoon. At each spot, over went the anchor (local style – four lengths of rebar held together at one end by a pipe and then splayed out), hooks were baited and dangled with hand lines just above the bottom. While waiting for the bites, I told stories of bears and mountain lines from California, which were appreciated. All told, we caught about 10 fish. Most (but not all) were small, not much bigger than the fish we used for bait. I caught two, which is two more than I’ve caught all season. The biggest fish we caught (Setoki pulled it in) was a couple pounder, called a Kerakera. It’s cleaned and in our fridge. That’s the fish dinner part of this story.

The whale part of today’s story is perhaps more interesting, certainly more unusual, than the fish dinner. While moving from one fishing spot to another, Setoki and his friend spotted something off on the horizon, but still in the lagoon. I could make it out too, after they pointed it out to me. Setoki thought it might be a boat without anybody on it – strange, and definitely worth investigating. When we were still a quarter mile away from it, an unmistakable plume of spray erupted – a whale! Then, to our astonishment and wonder, we realized that there were two of them and one was much smaller – a mother and calf. We approached, slowed, cut the engine and drifted. We could hear the water lapping against their hovering bodies. After a few minutes they each took a breath and dove. I’ve never seen such dear little flukes before! We slowly motored away and resumed fishing. The mother and calf surfaced not far away and remained on the surface. After pulling in a few more fish we decided to have another look at the whales before returning to the village. We approached from the side, as per Niue whale watching guidelines, and cut the engine about 70 feet from the pair. While drifting slowly by, we had several minutes to marvel. The mother’s occasional breath, her great size, the way she kept between us and her calf, and the more rapid breathing of the calf were all spellbinding. Kim’s been reading Moby Dick aloud, and while Ishmael hasn’t even met Captain Ahab yet (yes, Melville did take his time with this story), I couldn’t help but reflect on the history of whaling, which included Fiji and Fijians (I believe Queequeg was from Fiji).

But unlike in Moby Dick, all of us were humbled by the experience of seeing this mother and calf; we marveled at our good fortune to come upon this humpback pair, rather than seeking it through whaling. Setoki said these are the first whales he’s seen in the lagoon since he’s been here (five years) and his friend, who’s lived here all his life, said this was only the second time he could remember seeing a whale inside the lagoon. So this is a pretty rare occurrence, which is why we all regretted not having a phone with us to take a photo and why Setoki’s son couldn’t wait to get back to the village to tell his friends about the whale. There are only three passes on this side of the island, and we wondered how difficult it would be for the mother to find her way out to sea again. I hope they both will be fine and will soon find their way out.

After our second visitation with the whales, we headed back to the village. Once in the anchorage, Setoki pointed out where the giant clams were being raised. Interestingly, the whole bay in front of the village is a Marine Protected Area, which the village established back in 2009 at the suggestion of Lesi, who was then a fisheries expert in the Fisheries Department (he’s now retired and returned to Susui last year, after working post-retirement as a pastor for a few years in Suva). What impressed me about this MPA is that it is independent of any government or NGO effort and was instead created through a consensus process in the village, when Lesi proposed it during a Christmas leave visit. As an MPA, it is strictly off limits to any fishing or gathering – a point that the chief emphasized to us when we did sevusevu last week.

After locating the giant clams and suggesting we snorkel them later, we all clambered aboard Anthea and enjoyed coffee, hot chocolate and biscuits. After a bit, we said good-bye for now, but not before making a plan for them to stop by Anthea at 3 this afternoon to take us to the turtle pond. I’ve heard of these turtle ponds, but have yet to see one. Kim and Devon are off in the dinghy snorkeling somewhere, so I hope they return in time for the turtle pond excursion.

Susui Village
30 July 2019

Photos from Vanua Balavu


Mushroom Islets in the Bay of Islands


Drone photo of Anthea at anchor in Bay of Islands


View of Anthea from hike above Bavatu Harbor


Gossan at base of crevice in ancient uplifted reef


Islets in Bay of Islands


Drone photo of Anthea in Bay of Islands


Exploring the inner pools at Bay of Islands


Trough of low pressure approaching Vanua Balavu, view from overlook hike from Bavatu Harbor


Mounded islet, Bay of Islands


Kiteboarding at Susui village, Devon with helper


Devon kiting at Susui


View of Bay of Islands from overlook hike above Bavatu Harbor


The hike from Bavatu harbor en route to the overlook

A Sail into Fantasy

A NZ based weather guru predicted a NE breeze for the coming days, a perfect angle for dashing to Vanua Balavu in the northern Lau group. We needed a month’s worth of provisions to make that journey worthwhile, as the few stores in the villages of this extensive island are often out of stock of even the most basic supplies. Taveuni’s northeastern tip would give us easy access to the basics, and it would be a good jumping off point for Vanua Balavu, so, with Mr. Perkins passing each test we gave him, we ventured out of Naqaiqai Creek and headed for Taveuni.

Not sure whether we could fully trust Mr. Perkins, our plan was to sail every mile possible, reserving him for tight spots and anchoring. Out we beat into a 15-20 knot breeze, tacking our way around reefs and into the clear water between Vanua Levu (Fiji’s biggest island) and the garden island. Soon we encountered wind against current, and we were pounding into a short, steep chop. Along the coast of Taveuni we saw boats gaily motoring in the flat calm nearshore waters, going dead to windward. But we persevered under sail and were elated to feel Anthea alive once more. The sky was blue, the air clean, and our spirits were soaring as we headed onwards to more cruising, rather than retreating to mechanics and machine shops in Nadi.

A quick check of the forecast underway showed the wind shutting down rather than backing to the NE. It was Saturday and we still had several hours of sailing before reaching the anchorage. We soon realized that our only window for sailing to Vanua Balavu was Sunday afternoon to Monday morning: 15-18 knots of ESE breeze was forecast, diminishing to 10 knots closer to the isles of the Lau group. We needed the fresh breeze to power us through the predicted 2 meter combined swell and wind waves at the beginning of the journey, so while others saw a weather window for a 4 a.m. departure on Monday, in 8-10 knots of wind and a slightly diminished sea state, we knew that a forecast of 8-10 knots of wind strength could easily diminish to 5 knots or less. That is fine wind for a flat sail to windward, but totally inadequate for keeping the sails filled while the boat bashes up and slides down the waves.

Mark fortunately recalled that the shops on Taveuni only open after 3 p.m. on Sunday – too late for us to provision, depart and get through the pass in the reef with daylight. So, while pointing high, we entered full rush mode and made lists, gathered bags, egg carriers and the wallet, unearthed dinghy wheels, pins and oars, untied two diesel jerry cans and one for gas, and raced for the anchorage. We made good time once out of the current, and even paused to rescue a fender that had not been properly tied on after water play around Anthea in the creek. As soon as the anchor was down, we powered into even higher gear: after untying the dinghy and attaching the halyard on Hektor’s bridle, Devon heaved the halyard with vigorous hauls on the line while I cinched the slack on the winch and Mark guided Hektor over the life lines; a quick switch to the main halyard on the dinghy engine, this time with Mark guiding the engine down while I stabilized Hektor and Devon hoisted and lowered the halyard. We dumped all items into the dinghy, and off Mark and Devon went to provision before the shops closed, while I cleaned the fridge and started preparing the boat for an overnight journey.

In an hour and a half Devon and Mark were racing back, thanks to our new friend Mani, a kava farmer, taxi driver, and jack of all trades, who was there to meet Mark and Anson at the beach and shepherd them from store to store. With Anthea’s crew all back aboard, and the first half of Sunday to prepare the boat, we dialed back our frenetic speed to normal once again. The next morning we made steady progress transforming Anthea from a day cruiser to an overnight passage maker. Sea bunks were cleared, jack lines attached for safely venturing forward of the cockpit in a rough sea, life jackets inspected, tethers unearthed, and our windpilot re-rigged with lines to the wheel (all by ourselves, without Q to guide us).

We had expected to tack our away along the islands just east of Taveuni, but the wind filled in as a southeasterly breeze, and we pointed straight and true along our course. Several boats sought shelter at beautiful Matagi anchorage, planning to depart for Vanua Balavu once the wind died down. We passed their tranquil anchorage and headed for the pass between Laclau Island (one of the most elite resorts in the world, owned by the founder of Red Bull, and decidedly not cruiser friendly), and the barrier reef to its east. Had we full faith in Mr. Perkins we would have simply furled the jib and motored to windward, against a current and through the ½ mile wide and mile long pass. But we had daylight to spare, and, more importantly, no desire to have Mr. Perkins run away mid pass. So we tacked, and tacked, and tacked again, gaining ground each time, but nothing like our usual sweet angles to windward. The breaking waves along the reef were easy to see, and there were only a few lurking dangers, so we managed to make it through, our nerves mostly intact, and set out on our first 15 mile leg to the south, where the forecasts reported quieter seas.

With some trepidation we lowered the Wind Pilot’s rudder, attached the vane, and made the lines fast to the wheel. With a double reefed main and jib, Anthea was balanced as could be, and “Windy” steered true. A few minor adjustments and we were set for the gusts and lulls. Anson said it would be good for us to rig Windy, as we’d have to wean ourselves from his rigging expertise at some point. Success was sweet – we only had to reference the manual once, and we even incorporated new blocks to reduce chafe.

Freed from the helm we rejoiced in the conditions – a bit bumpy, but totally manageable. I had prepared dinner earlier at anchor, so a quick dash below was all that was needed to enjoy dinner at sea under the darkening sky. It was a “pinch me” moment. We weren’t sure if this windward passage would be comfortable enough, for 2 meter swells, although small for this part of the Pacific, are generally uncomfortable to beat into. And 18 knots exceeded by 3 knots that cruiser’s adage of gentle persons’ passages to windward. But Anthea was built for upwind ocean races, so she settled into her keel and pointed us true, the wind vane following every back and veer of the wind, while we marveled at our good fortune.

Devon stood the first four hours of watch, calling us up to help tack as planned to avoid outlying islets and take advantage of the protection their reefs afforded. I stood watch next, and by the time Mark was called up we had arrived at a pausing point. We needed good daylight for the pass, so Mark’s watch consisted of heaving to in a reef free section of sea and keeping us away from the outlying islands. Devon and I slept blissfully below until dawn, when we set sail for the pass while there was still wind. Rain squalls came and went as we waited for visibility to improve, once more heaving to. Even as we stalled our progress to wait for light illuminating sharp coral reefs, we were fully protected from the seas, so other than the dreaded transit of the pass, with Mr. Perkin’s help of course, all went better than we ever imagined.

We followed our friend Diego’s track into an anchorage just a mile inside the reef, and around two small points of land. Long fingers of coral jutted from each point, difficult to see in the morning light, so we ventured slowly forward and into the shelter of a small round cove. It wasn’t fully protected from the swell that crashed upon the barrier reef, for at high tide waves stalled on the coral and then regrouped to roll gently inside this round basin. But it was the most exquisite anchorage we had ever seen. We felt as if we had journeyed into the landscape of a fantasy novel.

Here uplifted coral peaks were eroded by the sea to form mushroom islets dotting turquoise coves, their stems supporting whimsically shaped mounds, some tall and thin, others squat, and occasional ones so perfectly proportioned that we stared in disbelief. Miraculously, plants covered these sharp limestone remnants of ancient coral, roots burrowing into every crevice in pursuit of life. Even the smallest islets had trees competing to find footholds, their trunks, weathered and gnarled by the wind, twisted in natural bonsai forms. Decorating the undercut limestone stems were bulbous red and black globs called gossans, formed from iron and manganese, more mobile elements that precipitated out and dripped down over the millennia. Beyond the coves, lapis water met soaring cliffs, their heights covered in lush forests.

Kayaking in and among these islets, we wound our way around and back into hidden coves with magical pools. Some inlets took us into mangrove forests (one filled with fruit bats, reminding us of Naqaiqai Creek), others opened into broader bays. Small white beaches with soft sand appeared around corners, dotted by a palm tree or two and edged by the forest-covered spiky limestone ground. Small caves channeled water in and through, with one large enough to enter and land in a world of stalagtites and stalagmites.

We soaked up the awe and wonder, spending days in the magical Bay of Islands after a brief detour to Daliconi village to present kava for the sevusevu ceremony. In this fantasy landscape we rested, slowed down and filled up our souls once more until another trough of low pressure sent us around the corner into Bavatu Harbor. There we hiked to the top of a hill with a stupendous view of the outlying islands, the barrier reef, and the Bay of Islands. Kim
PS I hope to be able to upload photos to give you more of a taste of this exquisite part of our journey.

Mutual Aid

Mary and Arthur pulled up to Anthea in their dinghy with a bucket of oranges from their trees. We invited them aboard and soon learned they lived on the banks of Naqaiqai Creek, just across from Anthea’s anchorage. The wind was howling down the creek and a storm was moving in, so they, as we, were confined to the shelter of this small bay. They asked if we might have medicine for Mary’s headache, congestion and cough, as they weren’t able to dinghy to the nearest clinic on a nearby island. Mark offered them slices of the holy sacred pumpkin pie baked the night before while I searched our medicine cabinet and put together a care packet of Tylenol and Sudafed. With little to no fever, no stiff neck and no difficulty breathing, we figured our medicine, delivered with careful instructions and warnings about dosage, would do no harm, and that tincture of time would heal Mary’s cough. We shared our tried and true practice of steam treatments for coughs and talked about life on the water and land. The trade of fruit for medicine was mutually beneficial: we were swimming in medicine, but fruit poor, so their oranges were a delightful addition to our provisions.

Life on the creek was quiet for those final few days of Andrea and Anson’s time on Anthea. We baked, watched movies, and swam around the boat, all rather mundane activities after the ecstatic snorkeling trips, beautiful hike to the waterfalls on Taveuni, thrilling spinnaker run to Rambi and walks along Albert’s Cove’s glorious beach. Yet magical moments were still to be found, this time up the mangrove lined creek.

We first ventured into the mangrove forest to offer kava to the family who resides above its head. The tide was rising as we motored through the winding waterway, finding deep water in the center, and giving the curves a wide berth. Soon we were paddling in the shallows, listening to the calls of the parrots and barking doves in the soaring mangrove thicket. The current propelled us forward, and side streams beckoned with their bushy mangrove lined banks, mahogany colored roots reaching out like curved stilts into the briny waters. In the main stream tall mangrove trees soared and arched to form a natural cathedral. The forest engulfed us and we were mesmerized. Gently, slowly we drank in this newfound beauty, all of us silent as we reveled in the mystery of this liminal space between water and land.

Finally we ran gently aground and disembarked on the roots and mud. After securing the dinghy to a tree we searched for the path and made our way up a gentle slope, past grazing cows, and on to the homestead. The kava presentation was anticlimactic, consisting only of handing the bundle of roots to the elder women of the house and saying a quick hello and goodbye. But the mangrove journey, and the sight that was yet to come, made the trip entirely memorable.

By the time we made it back to the dinghy and began paddling through the shallows, the storm clouds had gathered and the wind rushed through the old growth mangroves. We maneuvered through the winding creek, paddling into deeper water. With no warning a sudden gust of wind rousted thousands of bats from their sleep, and, as one, they lurched into flight, screeching and calling in deafening droves. We stopped all movement and immersed ourselves in the spectacle of storm clouds darkened by wings beating and bats soaring. Some circled low overhead and sought out branches for hanging, landing awkwardly and swinging upside down until another gust whistled through the trees and rousted them again. We paddled under the cathedral and sat, our eyes gazing skyward, awestruck by the density of life and the drama of storm and flight.

The following day Anson, Andrea and Devon inflated the kayaks and ventured into the side streams of the creek. Devon maneuvered the dinghy with a kayak paddle from the bow, while Anson and Andrea paddled their orange inflatable pods into the shallows. The rain began in earnest while they were exploring, and with the wind on the nose for their return, Devon revved up the dinghy engine and towed the two to Anthea. He couldn’t resist a Mr. Toad-inspired slalom run at the end, and the drowned rats, equal part elated by their excursion and exasperated by Mr. Toad’s wild and wavy return to Anthea, leapt aboard, soaped, shampooed and rinsed in record time, before plunging below into the warmth and comfort of the cabin.

The next day, as the storm cleared and the wind died down, we set out for Taveuni, and that, of course, is when Mr. Perkins ran away. You know that story, and have read of Mark’s truly heroic deeds. While he worked nonstop to bring Mr. Perkins back to life, Devon and I took care of the mundane. Day one we accompanied Andrea and Anson to Taveuni and provisioned for the expected sail back to Nadi, where we planned to seek the services of a mechanic and access machine shops. Day two we went ashore to Mary and Arthur’s to do laundry. They had visited our boat again and wondered whether we had any glue for their dinghy. We said we’d search our spares and asked whether they could direct us to fresh water for laundry. They invited us to their compound to use the water from their taps.

Devon and I landed the dinghy with bags of dirty clothes and sheets and a small vile of glue for their boat. Arthur and Mary live in a delightful compound with extensive roof water catchment systems, an outdoor covered kitchen, and a rolling lawn dotted with coconut and breadfruit trees, many of which house chicken coops in the lower branches. Bamboo poles serve as ramps for the chickens to reach their roosts at night; during the day the birds scratch and peck in the lawn until the tide sucks the water off the mudflats, revealing crab-filled shores for feasting. Arthur and Mary fish the seas and farm the land, intermingling crops with lush tropical forest. By burning small sections of dense growth, they create fertile soil for planting their subsistence crops. Breadfruit, coconut, orange, mango and papaya trees are interspersed among taro, cassava and sweet potato crops. Their pigs forage the forests during the day and wallow in their large fenced enclosure during the night. Hundreds of coconut husks in one corner of the pen reveal the rich diet which fattens them up.

Devon and I were directed to the bathing and washing tanks behind their home. We set up camp and began to wash weeks of salty, sweaty laundry. With rotating buckets for soaking, agitating, rinsing, wringing and re-rinsing and re-wringing, we powered through the mounds. Nearby Mary and Arthur were smoking the fish they had caught in the evening, placing banana leaves over the fish to keep the flies at bay. Devon duly noted my slacker pace as I struck up conversation with Mary mid-wash cycle. When she saw the stains and grime on Mark’s, aka Axle-nut’s, shirts, she offered the board and brush to bring us up to Fiji standard for clothes washing.

Once again our lives intertwined with Arthur’s and Mary’s in ways that served both parties. The dinghy repair glue would only be found on Viti Levu, and then with great difficulty and substantial cost. And on our side, fresh water was scarce, especially with storm clouds blocking our solar panels for days on end and no engine to charge the batteries to run the watermaker. We certainly couldn’t spare fresh water to clean our clothes under these circumstances. But we did have enough power to charge their cell phones (their generator was under repair, and their small solar panel only ran their lights). On board we plugged in their phones and turned Anthea into a speed drying factory, harnessing the brisk breeze and elusive sun, while catching flying clothes and rescuing clothes pins from the sea.

One morning Arthur delivered two lobsters, cooked the night before, after returning from their night fishing trip; we rinsed off their plate and piled on three banana pancakes. Their lobster was divine, served over pasta with a touch of olive oil and salt; I only hope they found the pancakes a treat as well. The giving and receiving of support was good for our spirits during these troubled times. Ultimately we knew there were people to turn to, people who knew not only how to live, but how to thrive off land and sea.