Dragons and Sea Monsters and Snarling Sharks

After a couple of weeks of snorkeling in the Tuamotos, I’d give full credit to the mapmakers of old who drew sea monsters at the edge of the world. Imagine yourself a young sailor aboard a ship bound to sail the seas for the greater glory of merry old England, and finding yourself staring into the briny blue at the noggin of a hammerhead shark–a beast you’d never even heard of. There are sea monsters, I tell you, and we’ve been snorkeling with them!

In our first snorkeling with sharks adventure at Kauehi, we quickly decided that reef sharks are like puppies. They’re not that big, and they probably couldn’t fit my whole leg into their mouths. But maybe I went from thinking all sharks want to eat me to thinking reef sharks are my friends a bit too quickly. We returned to the boat excited to compare the photos I’d been snapping with those in our fish book, and realized I’d been happily letting the current draw me up to a sickle fin lemon shark, one the book says is “solitary and considered dangerous.”

Since then, we’ve seen more sharks than we really wanted to. Most of them are allegedly not dangerous, but we found that small comfort while swimming jaw to jaw with the biggest ones. We’ve also seen giant barracudas, massive moray eels, tropical fish in an array of psychedelic colors, and the craziest sea monster of all, the gigantic humphead wrasse (it’s worth Googling him, but I promise, he’s bigger than he looks). At one point, drifting with the tide through the pass at Fakarava, another atoll, we watched a giant grey reef shark, a humongous, sharp-toothed barracuda, and an elephant-sized, completely unreal-looking humphead wrase all casually swim into the narrow channel we had planned to use as an escape route to keep us from drifting out to sea when the tidal current picked up. And this, mind you, was a channel leading to a lovely, shallow beach where children swim. Never let your child swim in a tropical beach without posting snorkel guards on the perimeter.

But what makes these atolls so glorious is the vibrant, healthy coral that created them–some of the first really vibrant (not algae-covered) coral we’ve seen. Our biggest challenge here (other than not running into rocks in this barely charted terrain, and we nearly failed at that two days ago) is protecting this sensitive ecosystem while we enjoy it. Coral is fragile, and global warming and ocean acidification are putting heavy pressure on this unique habitat. Acidification is associated with more of the bleaching events that have destroyed coral worldwide. Likewise, coral is sensitive to pollution, and, of course, big, heavy things like boat anchors and chains. We think most cruisers appreciate that and have, like us, done their best to avoid anchoring where their anchors and chains might take out coral heads. This can be harder than it sounds, especially when you’ve sailed all day to a spot where you are excited to stay and it’s too late to move on to somewhere else. But, we pick the sandiest spot we can find and tie buoys to the chain to keep it floating above the coral heads. So far, this seems to be working.

We’ve also tried to be extra cautious about what goes overboard or down the drains. This mostly means we’ve held off on cleaning and bathing while in the atoll lagoons, but who needs soap with all this swimming anyway? We also cut sunblock and bug spray out of the daily routine, as these aren’t particularly fish-friendly. Really, we dropped the sunblock several months ago when we turned brown, but the bug spray I had adopted as my new perfume after I was viciously attacked by the wasps, mosquitoes, and no-no flies in the Marquesas. They are more deadly than sharks.

Today, we skirted through the south Fakarava Pass. I stood on the bowsprit scanning for shoals while Rob piloted us through the current, and, in spots, I could even see the bottom of the ocean through 100 feet of clear, blue water. We are making our way to Tahiti, and should be there in a couple of days.

One thought on “Dragons and Sea Monsters and Snarling Sharks”

  1. That humphead looks like something that would be used in an animated film for children! Kinda cute in a big way.

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