Nature’s Majesty: Snorkeling the South Pass, Fakarava – June 10-12
There’s consensus aboard Anthea that the snorkeling here is the most spectacular we’ve ever done. Mere words cannot do justice to the awe-inspiring natural beauty of the underwater world we’ve been privileged to experience here. We drift snorkeled the pass twice yesterday (July 9), several times today, and will again tomorrow. I’m not sure I knew that such beauty existed, though perhaps I had an inkling from some of the National Geographic marine films we’ve all seen. It’s clear to me why Fakarava is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
It began with a wonderful cross-lagoon sail in the morning – 18 miles of beautiful, flatwater sailing, 60 degrees off the wind in about 12 knots. Anthea had a bone in her teeth and was heeled over nicely the whole way, churning along at 6.5 knots or faster. We dropped the hook in 55 feet of water in the main anchorage just north of the south pass. About 14 other boats shared the anchorage, including a large sport dive boat out of Papeete and the graceful 130 foot modern luxury yacht Antares, which we first saw in Nuku Hiva. After a quick meal, we got the dinghy in the water and the snorkeling gear loaded and took off for the short ride to the pass. Just inside the pass we passed several dive facilities, complete with multiple shore-side huts where land-based divers may stay. Two or three skiffs were taking scuba divers outside the pass to begin their drift dive with the flood tide. The numbers of divers and the diving infrastructure was unlike anything we’ve seen in the Tuamotus, where it’s generally just been us diving coral heads and passes, with no one else around. We began to realize how special this place really is.
We dinghied through the pass to the ocean side, against the flood tide. The color of the water was a rich, deep aquamarine blue. Just looking over the side of the boat was enough to reveal the spectacular clarity – we could easily see the bottom, even in 80 or 90 feet of water. After donning mask, fins and snorkel, we all jumped into the water. Immediately, a magical underwater world of amazing blue-tinted beauty enveloped us. As the current slowly carried us into the pass we began to take in the scene. Looking straight down we could see fish, individual sharks, coral, and longitudinal lenses of sand, probably 80 feet below us. Off to the right the bottom rose up towards us, and further in that direction a more vertical topography of coral and fish was visible, near the north edge of the pass. Shades of blue were the only markers of depth or distance; the clarity of the incoming ocean water was superb. On this drift we maneuvered to stay in the deep water portion. About midway through the pass we spotted the first large groups of sharks. They were massing near the bottom, seeming to prefer hovering over the sandy portions. At first it was hard to believe what we were seeing – how could so many sharks congregate so closely together?! The closer we looked, the more we saw. It was truly incredible. Never before had we seen such a large concentration of these extraordinary animals; it was impossible to count them, but they numbered in the hundreds. They seemed to be swimming in slow holding patterns, moving side to side and around each other, but not really going anywhere. Flashes of white showed when one would turn in a manner to reveal its underbelly. As we drifted over this amazing sight, I felt like I was peering through a looking glass into another world. The divers in our group, Anson and Devon, went down for a closer look. Anson dove down, down, down, eventually hovering just above the throng of sharks. He was so far down he looked diminutive. After communing, he began his ascent, augmenting his flutter kick with stroke after stroke of breastroke, moving vertically upwards, getting bigger and more visible, less blue tinted, until he reached the surface. Devon too, dove down, and after a closer look, did his signature u-turn and skidaddled for the surface when he got near the end of his breath. We drifted onwards, in awe of the beauty and majesty of this underwater world.
As we approached the lagoon side of the pass we positioned ourselves so the current would carry us around the north corner towards the anchorage. Here, the current increased as the water shallowed to around 15 feet. Another stage of the drift snorkel dive commenced. At this depth the water had no blue tint, it seemed absolutely colorless, like a clear, fluid medium that carried us along over an exquisite waterscape of coral and colorful tropical fish. The diversity and health of the coral was unlike anything we’ve seen so far – brain coral, staghorn coral and many other types carpeted the entire bottom in an unbroken manner. Scene after scene of brilliantly colored fish came into view and then disappeared as the current carried us along. Bright green parrot fish munched coral, Moorish idols chased each other, bright orange and yellow fish darted for cover as we approached, schools of small tourquoise blue fish hovered over coral, ready to seek cover when needed, groupers lazily swam away as we approached, moray eels gave us sidelong glances. An endlessly unfolding tapestry of life in a healthy coral ecosystem revealed itself to us as we floated by. Kim was so overcome by the beauty that she wept inside her mask, her tears streamed from seeing such vibrancy and health in a world too often damaged. When the water again deepened and we approached the edge of the anchorage, we all clambered back into the dinghy, exclaiming at the spectacular beauty we had just seen. Anson started up the outboard and out we went for a second drift through the pass.
How privileged we are to be here. Fakarava’s South Pass is probably one of the world’s most beautiful and unique underwater environments. I didn’t know such exquisite, amazing places existed; that they still do in this human-dominated (Anthropocene) era is even more incredible. UNESCO’s recognition of the uniqueness of this atoll and the attention scientific and conservation communities give this place is wonderful. I certainly look forward to learning more about this area when I can. And for now, I am grateful to have been able to peer through the looking glass of my mask and experience nature’s humbling beauty.
Diving (a poem by Devon)
Diving down, down, down,
swirling in currents, pushed past coral,
side, side, near miss, kick up, kick down,
colors blurring, fish passing,
air gone, lungs burning,
up, up, up,
break surface, breathe,