Groupers galore: French Polynesia, June 2018 (Part 2-Fakarava)

Thursday, June 20, 2018

Our first morning in Fakarava aboard the Aqua Tiki II was the usual chaos of trying to synchronize loading gear, guesstimating how much weight to wear and organizing who goes first with who.  Tanya, Kevin, Emily and Doug went first in the skiff, which would be a very tight squeeze with all of us and our cameras and gear.  We are diving with steel tanks, allowing us to pare weight.  I went down easily with two 2# weights, with a 2 mm wetsuit with an additional farmer john piece on top, with a hood and booties.

The dive itself was heavy current. The three of us were paired with Mehdi, while the others went with Karine.   On the bottom, we could hold position for a while.  There were many reef sharks, none approaching all that closely.  The best material was at the end, in 45 feet of water, when I was low enough on air to begin ascending.  There was an overhang with many colorful fishes posing, as well as a sleeping shark on the bottom.

(85 feet, 59 minute)

Our second dive was a beautiful coral reef with large schools of snapper and a grouper cleaning station.

(61 feet, 1 hour 20 minutes)

Friday, June 21, 2018

Our group “won” a coin toss the day before to be the first group in the water at 6:30 am, in order to fit in 2 incoming tide dives in the morning.

It was worth rising early to dive the famous south pass of Fakarava and the “wall of sharks”.  Another group of divers was aligned along a ridge at about 70 feet, with a seemingly endless parade of sharks patrolling to and fro in front of them, a breathtaking sight.  We hunkered down at about 90 feet depth, then assumed their places on the ridge when they moved on. 

A breathtaking sight: a “wall of sharks” in French Polynesia

Our ascent was over a beautiful hard coral garden.  There was lovely dappled light in the shallows and in “the pool” area in which we finished our dive.

(89 feet, 1 hour 13 minute)

The marquee attraction of French Polynesian summer: Camouflage grouper. Individuals differentiate into pale males (as here) and more darkly colored females.

Our second dive, beginning further out towards the ocean, was equally stunning, albeit completely different.  At depth, the hard coral appeared mostly brown at first glance.  Part of that was the mass quantities of groupers, all facing the same way, as if toward mecca, part of the early wave assembling for the coming yearly spawning.

Expectant groupers await the full moon and the signal to spawn en mass at Fakarava and adjacent Kaeuhi.

  Mehdi pointed out a massive school of yellow fish down below, deep.  We were already at 100 feet, but the water was so clear they could be clearly seen clustered in an infolding in the ridgeline.  Greg swam down. We later learned he touched briefly down on 148 feet.

When he ascended, I decided to make a run for it.  I didn’t think I went as deep as he did, as his ascent seemed to cause the school to flow upward.  They were still tightly aggregated.  I glanced at my gauge on my way up-120 feet-so I thought I probably hit 130 feet, as deep as I’ve ever been.  (A week later, I checked my gauge and was shocked to see I had been to 144 feet, by far the deepest I’ve ever been.)

Up at shallower depths, random sharks passed by regularly. 

Most of the sharks seen in French Polynesia are gray reef sharks, but blacktip reef sharks are common as well, with sightings of whitetips, tiger and lemon possible.

A group of blue-striped snappers was posing over the coral gardens.

(144 feet, 1 hour)

The afternoon was a long crossing over to an adjacent atoll, Kauehi, punctuated by trolling.  The first bite was a beautiful bonito, which was pronounced too small and released.  The second tug yielded a glittering yellow-fin tuna, which was pulled in by Benjamin and Karine, as Sido the cook waited with a large knife.

Steve, Emilie and Greg watched Sausage Story on the back deck, followed by a second feature, Woody Harrelson’s Lost in London.  Greg, Steve and I started the film on the deck, then moved into the salon as the crowd expanded.  Popcorn was made, salted, buttered, and passed around, until the film came to an abrupt end when Greg’s laptop, hooked up to the TV, ran out of battery.  At that point, my borderline seasickness, with nothing to distract me, bubbled to the surface and I went downstairs to lie down.

I thought I was just dozing, listening for the dinner bell, so was surprised when Steve appeared later, recommending the coconut flan, saying I missed dinner.

Saturday, June 22, 2018

Passe Arikitamiro

There were no other boats at Kauehi.  An early start and a single group were planned.  As loading even 3-4 divers and a guide was challenging, with equipment heaving, we were dreading this.  Instead, there was a series of delays introduced by equipment failures at the last minute, including Kevin’s regulator and an emergency repair to the gas line of the skiff.  It worked alright, loading a few at a time, getting them suited up, and having them hold their cameras on their laps.  We did a negative descent, entering with emptied BCDs and swimming down as soon as we hit the water.

Once down, the current was a torrent.  The divers had to hunker down and hang on.  I saw Steve being swept up current and Mehdi’s eyes following him.  He seemed to be indicating I should hang on and stay put, and I struggled mightily to do so.  The current swept us along and we rejoined Steve further down.  I later learned his BCD had somehow inflated while trying to stay down and he had been carried all the way to the surface.  He was sure he would not be able to rejoin the group so was pleasantly surprised to find us again.

The best part of the dive was the end when we found ourselves in a field of groupers pointed into the current, in every direction, with sharks darting through periodically.  By this time, I realized my right hand strobe was not working, presumably out of battery power and had changed to a single strobe set-up.   

Camouflage groupers converging toward a mid-summer's full moon, intent on spawning.

A confusion of Camouflage groupers convening for a group procreation event in Kaeuhi, Tuamotos, French Polynesia

(104 feet, 1 hour 1 minute)

Our second dive was much calmer, on the outside coral reef, a hob-goblin set of mushroom-like formations and tufts.

(71 feet, 1 hour 14 minutes)

Sunday, June 23, 2018

Crazy dive!  Yesterday, we missed the shark hole, but we hit it today.  We had a hard fast descent to the canyon, followed by a swift drift along it.

Karine hit the mark this time.  We found ourselves in an incredible aggregation of massing groupers, but we quickly moved along to a large hole in which sharks were circling like a crazy circus. Imagine a velodrome with madly cycling shark racers.

A crazy confluence of circling sharks (Kaeuhi, Tuamotos,, French Polynesia)

Exiting the hole was another thing.  There was an arena-like arrangement of rocks surrounding a sand pit.  Most of the divers had exited by the time Greg and I arrived.  Tanya was hanging on at the exit to show what mark to hit.  She wasn’t far off.  It seemed it would be easier to pull myself across the sand to reach her.  In retrospect, circling the arena would have been more shielded from the current and more efficient.  Once I reached the exit, there was a crazy confusion of bubbles everywhere and we were back on the plateau, unshielded from an intense, mask-shaking current.

Even trying to swim a meter above the reef required too much effort.  I checked my gauge and didn’t like what I saw:  at 60 feet depth, I was down to 600 PSI (500 PSI being the usual benchmark for starting an ascent).  Ordinarily, this would not be a problem, if I could simply ascend.  I showed Karine my gauge and she took the camera. There was still a long sloping reef to ascend against a terrible current to reach the mooring where the skiff waited.  Suddenly, Mehdi appeared at my side, proffered his octopus and grabbed my arm.  We began swimming up the slope, buddy breathing, until we reached the mooring, did a safety stop, when I switched back to my own regulator, now down to 200 PSI.

I wondered again if I should switch to the larger steel tank.  I had consistently had to breath down my tank to 200-300 PSI to stay down as long as Greg and Steve, using the larger capacity tanks.  Usually, I am the one to emerge with a large reserve of air.

(102 feet, 52 minutes)

Our second dive was at the buoy, much more tame.  I went in with the camera showing the battery was 2/3rd full, but it didn’t make it through the dive.  The deeper we went, the denser the population of the gathering and expectant groupers.  They faced into the current, every which way, down on the floor of the ocean, tucked into crevices, perched on top of coral heads and in the water column.

A mass grouping of groupers gathers in anticipation of the full moon in summer in the atolls of the Tuamotos, French Polynesia.

The afternoon was occupied with drone flights, a short exploratory skiff ride, and sampling coconut apple (the interior of a coconut, instead of being filled with water, is occupied by a styrofoam like, slightly sweet, slightly soapy  “apple”.

(70 feet , 1 hour)

Typical French Polynesian dive site (Kaeuhi): An opening in the atoll, a channel, provides communication between the lagoon interior and the ocean beyond.

Monday, June 24, 2018

The moon was so bright through our ceiling hatch it seemed it might impede the arrival of sleep.  I was too tired to actually dig out my eye mask, so apparently it didn’t.

After emerging from our second dive the prior day, we voted to stay put one more day at Kauehi.  Although an occasional boat came and went, we were remarkably alone most of the time.  The discussion pivoted on Douglas’ assertion that whether we were here or at Fakarava, the chance of actually being in the water when the mass grouper spawning happened was slim, since it probably would happen when it was dark.  At least here, the water was remarkably clear and there was little competition for the prime dive site.

For an extra security margin, I switched to the big ass tank, guessing correctly that I could shed the 4# of weight I was wearing .

Our swim down was easier and more direct today, although it seemed to take a bit more hunting to find the right canyon and cut-off to the right to find our destination holes.  There was plenty of current but more manageable than before.  While trying to hunker down, the tank was a wallowing pig, threatening at times to turn me over.

The circling circus of sharks was in full force. 

Galloping sharks circle an arena-like “hole”. Kaeuhi, Tuamotos, French Polynesia

Only Karine’s signal that we were approaching decompression prodded us out of the arena.  The exit was much easier today as well.  Still plenty of current, but not the rip-your-mask off variety.

(85 feet, 1 hour 10 minutes)

(72 feet, 1 hour 3 minutes)

In an amusing cross-cultural miscommunication,  Mehdi spoke of a film that had been mentioned earlier, The Post, with the actor “champagne”.   It took a while to decipher that he was referring to Sean Penn.

Our 6 hour crossing back to Fakarava was smoother.  I spent it out on the open air back deck, not tempting seasickness by being inside the salon.

When we arrived back in range of other boats and it was time to take the sails down, Mehdi and Karine showed the teamwork and seamanship that enabled them to sail their own 30-foot boat from France, across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific to French Polynesia.  The sails needed to be retracted, but wouldn’t roll up smoothly.  Eventually, the situation was resolved by Mehdi going up the mast in a basket.

Mars could be seen low in the sky, like a golden jewel, seeming much larger and more brilliant than usual.

Tuesday, June 25, 2018

Passe Tumakohua

We’d heard that grouper in north Fakarava have been sighted spawning, so didn’t know what to expect on returning.  The full moon was approaching, but the event apparently can happen within a few days before or after.  Once down at 90 feet, it was apparent the grouper at south Fakarava were still waiting expectantly.  What the signal is for this mass event isn’t known, but the crowd was swelling and individual groupers, presumably females, appeared swollen to bursting and had taken shelter in alcoves and underhangs and recesses on the reef.  Overhead, like airplanes in a holding pattern, was a grid of waiting, presumably male, groupers.  The pale grey ones seem the most territorial and belligerent, with snout-to-snout standoffs observed regularly.

Steve’s capture:  Groupers lining up to spawn as the full moon approaches in summer, Tuamotos, French Polynesia

We did two dives in the pass.  My goal for today was to test out the video capabilities of this camera.  I had figured out how to set the white balance, now to put it into action.

The first dive, I took video clips, but my white balancing didn’t succeed. Our ride along the hard coral garden was graced by 2 spotted eagle rays. I spent the between dives time on the deck trouble shooting .

I ran out of battery halfway through the second dive, after shooting more video, still unsuccessful with white balancing.  Maybe too deep?

Greg, Douglas and I did an afternoon excursion to the pink sand beach to shoot over-unders, as Tanya threw fish chunks into the water to bring in the young black-tipped sharks.  The hardest part was dealing with recurrent Douglas creep, into the corner of your image.  He responded rather petulantly when called out.  Sunset coincided with the moon rising as we headed back.

Over-unders are tricky, balancing two exposures, one for the topside and one underwater. Lying down prone on the pink sand of Fakarava Sur is surprisingly strenuous! Blacktip reef sharks circle in the shallows.

(98 feet, 59 minutes)

(93 feet, 1 hour 13 minutes)

Wednesday, June 26, 2018

The groupers were still poised and waiting for their biologic signal on our first dive, a seething, moving mass at the bottom of the ocean.

The second dive was a disaster dive for me.  As soon as I fell backward with my camera and hit the water, I felt the rudderless sensation that only results when one has lost a fin. Looking down, everyone was making a beeline for the bottom.  I didn’t see the fin descending, then remembered it floats.  By this time, Benjamin in the skiff had spotted it on the surface and motored the boat around,  pushing the fin toward me.  Problem one solved, I headed for the bottom.  En route, I started to straighten out the strobe arms from their jumping-into-the water folded-up position, only to have the right-hand strobe fall off in my hand.  I could see the strobe mount was still in place, but try as I might (in the water column at 70 feet, behind a line of I-only-have-eyes-for sharks divers and dive guides, I could not get it to thread.  After struggling and seeing an incredible river of continuous sharks parading past, I gave up, wrapped the fiber optic cord around my hand, let the strobe dangle a few inches and reposition my left strobe over the lens.  Complicating the effort to shoot was the fact that my mask was continuously flooding.  I could see my initial shots were too dark, but had to hang on due to the current, so couldn’t free up my last hand to make adjustments.

“Shoot up” I told myself.

Gray reef sharks parade back and forth in the channel separately the lagoon and ocean at Fakarava Sur.

In the shallows, the camera acted weird-it would neither turn off, nor on, or fire.  It was locked up.

We finished at the village , where children were snorkeling with large Napoleon wrasse and a passel of young black-tipped reef sharks.

Steve’s shot: In “the pool” near Tetamanu Village, Fakarava Sur, young blacktip reef sharks circle a resident Napolean wrasse.

A bulldog on the dock crouched down, muscular shoulders peaked, then dove into the water at an approaching black-tip shark, which scampered away at the dog’s leap.

Greg and I were the only takers for a snorkel near Tetamanu village, where I worked an over-under of the pier.  I had a hard swim back against a current.  Thankfully, Karine came to find me at the dive shop pier, saving me a swim all the way to the bar.

(98 feet, 1 hour 12 minutes)

(75 feet, 1 hour 11 minutes)

Thursday, June 27, 2018

A skiff came by as we were loading for our first dive, saying they had been out at 5:30 am and there were “fireworks” from the groupers spawning.  We found a heavily bulging pregnant female and tried to wait her out, but the show didn’t go off while we were there.  The groupers are hermaphrodites, with the females assuming the camouflage coloration and staying low to the reef, and the males becoming pale and aggressive.  Later in the day, we watched a film which showed in slow motion how the successful male swims alongside the female for a few seconds, with other males in hot pursuit, contributing their sperm to the clouds of gametes released into the water column.

What a spawning event would have looked like had we be in the water to capture it: a puff of milky, gamete laden cloudy water.

In the continuous stream of sharks, 2 spotted eagle rays swam by, closer than our prior sighting, close enough to make use of my zoom capability.

Making use of the zoom capability of my rig, as well as kicking hard while trying not to chase these graceful spotted eagle rays (Fakarava, Tuamotos, French Polynesia)

Our second dive, to the wall of sharks, was more pleasant in every way than the prior day’s disaster dive.  The sharks were a continuous throng.  Even I got into deco, 6 minutes debt, which had been whittled down by the time we slowly wound our way up to the shallows.  In the “pool” at the village, we had a prolonged, very satisfying end to our dive in 2 feet of water, with the black-tip reef sharks circling and large Napoleon wrasses more approachable than usual.  We probably were in the water close to 2 hours by the time we finally hauled ourselves back out the water for the quick trip back to the Aqua Tiki.

In the pool near Tetamanu Village, Fakarava Sur, Tuamotos, French Polynesia: Napolean wrasse

Blacktip reef sharks circle the shallow pool at Tetamanu Village, Fakarava Sur, Tuamotos, French Polynesia

I learned, the hard way, that I should be “burping” the wet lens on entering the water.  I was working on an over-under, shakily perched on dead staghorn coral branches on the edge of the pool, when I suddenly realized there was a bubble of some type appearing in my images.  I expected to see a defect on the wet lens, but it looked fine.

(97 feet, 1 hour 2 minutes)

(93 feet 1 hour 49 minutes)

Friday, June 28, 2018

I was up early enough to see the full moon emerge from behind a puffy pink cloud on the horizon.  It was breezy as usual, but Greg encouraged me to go for a flight.  We have had “high wind advisories” on virtually all of our flights this trip.  He headed for a tiny distant sandy island with a smattering of palms trees, some 8000 feet away.  I played it conservatively, especially since I was momentarily losing contact with the drone as I launched.  The first went well enough that I was encouraged to go for a second flight.

I completed 2 flights by the time Steve emerged from our cabin below deck.  It was been a good exercise for me to prepare the drone for flying (the hardest part is to remember is to confirm the camera has its tiny card in place and to format it, as well as to think about what strength of neutral density filter to use (4X seems to work pretty well for early morning flights).

Dive 1:  87 feet, 1 hour 1 minute

Dive 2 (85 feet, 1 hour 24 minute)

Gray reef shark, Fakarava Sur, Tuamotos, French Polynesia

Both dives were devoted to sharks, sharks and more sharks.  The grouper population had clearly dropped over the past day, indicating most of the reproductive activity had already happened.

A wall of sharks in French Polynesia: Squadrons of gray reef sharks

Our first dive took us to all 3 “walls” of sharks, areas in the trench where the sharks seem to congregate.  I had been having enough trouble with the camera running out of battery before the dive or an hour was over that I had been using Reef’s rental in recent days.  I had recently compared menus to make sure all settings were similar.  For the first dive, I took the rig with Reef’s camera inside, swapping it out for mine on the second.  Thankfully, it performed flawlessly both dives, removing my doubts about it possibly being defective.

Whitetip reef sharks, Fakarava Sur

Besides the endless procession of sharks, a highlight of the “voyage” down the canyon of sharks was a pair of spotted eagle rays.  I was lagging behind the group with Mehdi, so had them almost to myself at fairly close range (a perfect application of the far end of the zoom range, 42 mm).

Grunts school in abundance beneath a pier, Fakarava Sur, Tuamotos, french Polynesia

We had a surprising ending to our stay in Fakarava.  After a smooth 4-hour afternoon run from south to north, punctuated by enough rain to drench our drying gear draped over all available railings, we arrived to find Aqua Tiki’s mooring  occupied by an older German man, who rebuffed shouted admonitions to relinquish it.

Saturday, June 28, 2018

Steve, Greg and I paid a visit to Hinano Pearl Farm, run by an older German man married to a Tahitian woman.  He explained their practices.  They have been plagued in recent years with health issues and a fire which burned down their atelier and much of their inventory, forcing them to display the wife’s products in their living room.  Chatting after a bit of shopping, we learned he was trained as an architect in Germany and ended up there after he was paid in land for his services in designing a development.

Sidonie picked us up and ran us to the waterfront Breton galette restaurant  LA Paillote Fakarava (honey, brie and walnuts a good combination and the artisanal ginger ice cream was the best I’ve encountered since our China Moon days).

I had to make a run back to the boat after our transfer to the dock.  My bag count came up short-the rental Reef Think Tank bag was just out of sight in the salon of the boat, there being too many bags filling the back deck.  We just beat the rush at the airport, with a huge influx just after we checked in.  Greg and I watched the first half of Thoroughbreds, a distinctly creepy movie featuring two adolescent girl friends, with a symbiotic and chilling relationship.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

(our 29th wedding anniversary)

What to do on a Sunday at Papeete?  To our surprise, the stores were closed in town, the shuttle wasn’t running into town from the hotel and even the hotel’s spa wasn’t open.  After a leisurely breakfast, Greg and I wandered over to the activities counter and learned we could do a half-day island interior excursion.

Our group filled the back of an open air Land Rover, including 2 sisters originally from Barbados, a British couple from the Gold Coast of Australia celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary and a young newlywed couple on their honeymoon from Idaho.  Heading inland to a waterfall on a pock-marked dirt road, a rainstorm made the overhead covering sag, leading to general hilarity as we tried to push up on the sagging shelter in attempts to direct the cool rain anywhere but down our backs.

Waterfall in Tahiti, French Polynesia

Steve and Greg flew the drones at most stops when the rain permitted while I whipped out my up-to-this point languishing tripod and land photography gear.

The locals play volleyball on a black sand beach on the island of Tahiti.

Shooting a beautiful black-sand beach with a terrifying-sounding blowhole, I was rushing, trying to finish up quickly using a neutral density filter to smooth the water, when the guide appeared to say it was time to go.  I nodded and said I’d just be a minute.  Then Greg appeared, imitating our Rangiroa dive guide Lea: “Look at me…Marie, look at meeee!”

When I arrived back the vehicle, folding my tripod up en route, he had orchestrated the entire truckload to greet me with “looooook at MEEEEE!, complete with the 2 finger hand gesture, which depending on the culture, might add emphasis or be obscene.

Stopped at an overlook of the bay, the sun was setting.  Greg and Steve whipped out the drones.  Greg had immediate interference in signal and aborted early.  Steve flew out toward a distant point and was returning when he suddenly lost signal…for some minutes.  Greg and I strained our ears listening for it and whipped out long lenses and started scanning the sky for any sighting, to no avail.  Thankfully, after sweating bullets for long minutes as the battery drained, the return to home function kicked in and it finally appeared in the sky over our heads and he recovered it.  By this time, I had been dispatched to let the waiting group back near the vehicle know what the delay was.  As we loaded back in, the guide mentioned there was a police station across the street and suggested that might have caused the interference.

On the way back to the hotel, we assessed the distance to Carrefour (half an hour’s walk), our need for limes and tonic water to accompany our remaining Bombay Sapphire gin and the recurrent rain.  The rain, proximity of the hotel restaurant and the availability of tonic water and limes through room service decided our evening:  cocktails on the veranda, followed by a thoroughly tasty meal.  Greg orchestrated a rosé Taittinger champagne for our anniversary, and we shared starters of fois gras with yuzu and a quinoa and shrimp carpaccio, followed by fish for Greg and me (the honeymooners had endorsed the mahi-mahi) and pasta with duck confit for Steve.

The honeymooners didn’t stay to chat.  We surmised they were Stumpers, as they gradually began to clutch at each other as the free-wheeling conversation progressed during our excursion.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Our last day in Papeete.  The spa was closed the prior day, but I had left a message with my requests for services.  A woman called me back in the morning, but wasn’t certain there was enough time before our afternoon excursion’s departure.  She hadn’t called me back by the time we met up with Greg at 9 am for breakfast, but I thought I was on for 11:30 for as many services as we could squeeze in.

For $170, Greg arranged for a very late check-out (8 pm)/aka a day room, which would allow us shower and rearrange our bags before departure for our midnight flight.  I wheeled a couple of bags over to his room on my way to the spa.  It turned out my appointment wasn’t as firm as I thought, but the lovely French aesthetician (married to a half-French, half-Tahitian man) had time for a manicure and pedicure, which went a long way to restoring me to a civilized appearance.

Our excursion in the afternoon was less successful, around the perimeter of the island, with stops in a sacrificial sacred site, a botanical garden and back again to the blowhole and waterfall of the prior day.  Our guide was a continuous stream of information, switching back and forth between French and English, for the benefit of the French couple from Brittany in the front, and me in the middle, but Steve and Greg in the back clearly didn’t enjoying this running commentary.  I saw it as a preview for a future trip for sites to shoot and a good exercise in French comprehension.

Greg:  “We should’ve rented a car!”

The way home was on a much newer plane with a better entertainment system, still with painfully small seats.  Phantom Thread and The Post helped to pass the time decompressing from a thoroughly magical tropical idyll.  On the ride home from LAX, I called our friend Cindi and confirmed the 2 spots we’d spoken for on Dive Discovery’s French Polynesia trip in September 2019. That’s right, we need more time with the dolphins of Rangiroa, the sharks of Fakarava and hope the humpback whales of Rurutu will be approachable come September 2019.

Schooling Humpback Red Snappers, Fakarava, Tuamotos, French Polynesia

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