Swimming with Sharks in the Coral

2 days ago I jumped into the water, and there were 50 sharks right in front of me. And it didn’t bother me.

We’ve been at the south end of Fakarava for a week now, and the snorkeling in the pass is terrific. The best I’ve ever experienced. There are so many sharks here — all black-tipped reef sharks ranging from 2-5 feet (so far) — that you eventually stop caring that much about them. Unless you are Jenna and you are shooting underwater video, then you swim out to sharks with the camera when they wander by.

When I jumped in and saw the fifty sharks, we were doing our first dive in the pass itself, where the entire sea floor is covered with colored coral down past the 50 feet of underwater visibility you get here when the sun is out. There are thousands of fish, all within sight, and it’s amazing. This particular group of sharks swam away as fast as they could when they saw me jump in, so within a few minutes of our arrival all four of us were drifting with the dinghy on the incoming tide through the pass. We wound up drifting about 2 miles back to Sophie, watching fish and coral pass us 10 feet below. Jenna filmed pretty much the entire trip. It was a blast.

When we first arrived here a week ago, there were 5 boats anchored to the east of the pass and 0 boats anchored to the west (where it is uncharted). Locals in the north of Fakarava who live on a boat and run a dive business urged us to anchor to the west of the pass, saying that there is better anchorage (meaning less coral) and closer proximity to the famous pink sand beaches of this atoll. So we decided to give it a shot. We motored out of the channel at 2 knots with Jenna and Leo on the bows looking for coral heads. There were a LOT of them, and you could see them with spectacular clarity as Sophie’s keels passed over them with what appeared to us as inches to spare. When we wound up in the area where we were told to anchor, all we could see were really big coral heads right under us, along with 5 boats all anchored on the other side of the pass and 0 boats anchored here. So we turned around, retraced our steps and anchored with the herd in the east.

Of course within 2 days there were three big cats anchored over on the west side of the pass. A day later a 200 foot mega yacht anchored there as well. We now assume that if they were there when we arrived, we would have figured out a way to live right above the coral, maybe in the same way we seem to have figured out a way to swim with the harmless reef sharks here. But in my book right now coral is more dangerous than sharks.

The east side of the passage isn’t exactly coral-free, but the coral heads are much smaller (meaning lower) with less chance of wrapping your anchor chain entirely around one. We were quite comfortable our first night here from an anchoring perspective, with half of our chain mostly on sand, then running straight through some small coral heads for 80 feet up to the boat in 35 feet of water of water. Then the wind shifted, and we had some squalls with westerly winds appear. This is opposite the normal easterly trade wind direction, and we spent a night with the wind blowing us in the direction of a beach/reef 150 feet away in 20 feet of water. (The coral heads were much closer). We survived the night, and moved the boat out to a deeper part of the anchorage first thing the next morning. We have a buoy tied to our anchor, so we can tell without putting on a dive mask exactly where it is. We’ve been comfortable (meaning feeling safe) in this spot for the last 4 nights, even last night when squalls blowing up to 40 knots (from the east) came through and our anchor buoy was 15 feet off our port midships. On windy nights we track the boat’s position on a chartplotter, and we weren’t going anywhere, so we were able to sleep. Mostly.

It was cool during last night’s blow to see the little power monitor that displays the amount of electricity being produced by our 2 windmills hit 60 amps at one point.

One problem you can have when the length of your anchor chain is shortened by being hung up on some coral is the reduction of what’s called catenary action, the ability of the sagging length of chain to act as a shock absorber that absorbs pressure from waves and wind during a blow. When I took a little dive this morning to check out our chain, I saw that the snap hook we use to attach our anchor bridle to the chain had bent almost into a straight line. (We have six replacements coming with Max on Sunday). It was previously damaged, but it was still pretty cool to see how a storm can make metal bend. Way cooler and scarier than sharks. Since it was still functioning, I left the snap hook (now a pin?) in place and tied a length of kevlar rope from the bridles to the chain as a backup.

Oh yeah, Max and Becca arrive Sunday morning in Papeete. We are incredibly excited, although I was joking with friends last night that I may hug Max’s dufflebag filled with spare rigging parts and fishing gear before I give him or Becca a hug. We’ll see.

We assume we will leave here tomorrow morning and make the 220 miles to Papeete in a day and a half. The forecast calls for southeasterly winds from 15-20 knots, and Sophie will be sailing to the west. She will be a happy girl, even if we get a squall or 2. I am much more comfortable in 30 knot squalls at sea than I am in a coral anchorage.

Life on Sophie continues to be wonderful. Unless it’s squally, we are spending an hour or 2 in the water each day. We went on a day trip complete with a picnic lunch over to the pink sand beaches and wound up hanging out on our own little island. School is going really well. In true Utzschneider tradition, we are now playing SCRABBLE ™ every day, and Hazel has won the last 2 nights. The kids are memorizing their 2 letter words, and Hazel’s reading has noticeably improved since we broke the board out. There are no stores or Internet here, but there is a dive pension at the pass with a dining area/bar on stilts right over the coral. They welcome people from the boats during happy hour for a beer, and it was during one of these where we saw locals swimming through the sharks. It made us realize that we could do that too. We made new friends from Vancouver who are out here on s/v Hydroquest (www.svhydroquest.com), and our old friends from the Lagoon 500 Pacific High (www.pacific-high.com) came by for dinner last night. We served a Leonetti and some Jenna dowry (a ’97 Opus One cab), and Klaus in particular left Sophie a happy man.

We are so fortunate to be out here doing this, and it’s hard to believe that we’ve only been gone for 2 months.

1 thought on “Swimming with Sharks in the Coral

  1. Nice to know there is some swimming with sharks that is pleasant! Great Scrabbling – and how is your Francaise? Tove´

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