This trip goes down as one, if not the finest expedition of my life. To qualify as an “expedition” it should have the following attributes: remote, rarely or never attempted, difficult, and requiring great planning and usually heroic effort. Having two amazing chefs and a luxury yacht probably removes ‘difficult’ from our list, but we topped the scales on remote and never attempted on this one, and if you add what our chefs went through to get food on this boat we definitely have heroic. Although swimming with dozens of sharks cannot be described as easy…
But first, we must rewind to find out how we got here in the first place. Everything about The Best Odyssey from an operational standpoint got a lot harder this year in the Pacific. In the Caribbean you have marinas, yards, places to buy just about anything you want on almost every island, in every port. Of course you also have a much more tame and crowded experience so while operating in the Pacific is a lot more challenging the rewards are as vast as the body of water, they just require a lot more effort. I know I’m not the only one on this boat thrilled to be back in a part of the world few ever see. From the Gambiers, a beautiful spot but unfortunately very short on anything for our chef team, and where we were only able to dig up 50 gallons of diesel (at a shocking price) we motor sailed in light airs 450 miles northwest to Hao Atoll, the start of our next adventure. Arriving at the crack of dawn on the 10 th and navigating through the narrow pass through the reef into the tranquil and spectacular lagoon was only partly clouded by the fact that we had almost zero fuel remaining. I knew nothing of Hao- but I was praying we’d find some fuel.
Hao was developed by the French to support the nuclear bomb tests on nearby Mururoa, which went on for 4 decades. The below and above ground testing thankfully finally ended in the 90’s and Hao has dwindled in population from over 5,000 to a mere 700. It’s a charming, clean and friendly place that has a pace that ‘slow’ doesn’t do justice. Within minutes of our arrival most of the town’s children and not a small amount of the adult population were ogling the strange newcomers (apparently Hao gets about 5 cruising boats a year, and we were the only ones currently there). Even though we were right in front of town the water was a magic clear blue, a nearby reef teeming with fish. I could tell we were going to like it here. And a local quickly arranged for the local Mobil truck to come down and fill our very empty tanks. Never mind the cost, when it comes to French Polynesia everything last thing is in the category of rip off, and you just have to shell out.
Our group arrived the next day. Shane and his friend Craig from Seattle, Martin and his girlfriend Lena from Singapore, Iain and Tobey from the UK. Iain and Shane were with us last season in the Caribbean, for the rest this would be their first go on Discovery. Hao abounds with friendly people, and their hospitality was just beginning to show as Cynthia and her husband, owners of the only pearl farm in Hao offered to drive me out to the airport. I was hoping that maybe one or two would be carrying a few boxes of fresh goods. I’d sent a desperate last-minute email to each that our chefs hadn’t had any luck finding more than a few scarce supplies and we needed whatever they could procure in Tahiti. Unfortunately none received the email with enough cushion to get anything so we’d either have to catch a ton of fish, or send Lars back to Tahiti.
But for the time being our chef team felt they could make it work. There was zero wind, and none in the forecast. Usually this fact would suppress the mood on board, but it’s hard to be down in such an amazing place and I think our friends were more than happy to take it in. The next morning we took a trip out to the pearl farm, something none of us had seen. Cynthia and her husband and a few others picked us up in their sizable skiff (I think the pearl business is a good one) and took us south some 15 miles, nearly half the length of the lagoon.
Without going into great detail, I suppose the way to describe the day would be to say it was spent very slowly. Which is to say, just as it should be. Towering palms, white coral sand, turquoise warm water, cold beer and good company certainly helped. OK, so with some wind it would have been the most gorgeous flat water kiting any of us had ever done, but I think we were all just fine with the present reality. The day set the tone for the rest of the trip- a fine tone indeed.
The next day we spent searching for manta rays, which proved unsuccessful, but I was able to spear a few tasty fish for dinner and Cynthia gave us a beautiful yellow fin tuna which Lars expertly turned into mouthwatering sushi and sashimi the next day, so all was not lost. One more visit to town the next morning proved valuable as another supply boat had just come in, which our chefs took advantage of and cleaned house on just about every fresh good available. Craig had to serve his dirty club forfeit (a staple Discovery card game) by donning snorkel gear for a romp through town- very entertaining. And now, let us talk about sharks. Lots of sharks.
Back on my last trip to the Tuamotus we spent a bit of time diving the passes that most of the low-lying Tuamotu atolls have. Passes are narrow channels that are the only way water enters and exits the lagoons, some of which are over 30 miles from one side to the other. The passes team with life, as currents can reach upwards of 20 knots on the ebb tide, which create perfect conditions for coral growth. The coral of course attracts great numbers of fish- which of course attracts sometimes impressive numbers of sharks. Back in 2001 on one particular night dive that went very wrong my dive partner and I spent the better part of 11 hours (all night) in the water with a great number of reef sharks after we surfaced with no chase boat in sight. This time around I was determined to get everyone in the water to experience these incredible creatures, but for a relatively shorter length of time, in let’s say- less demanding conditions. If you would like to read about that fateful evening some years ago, go here.
So we moved Discovery just off the pass, spotting a few black tip sharks circling the boat before we even had the anchor down. This was going to be GOOD. Everyone tumbled into the dinghy (some maybe a little more hesitantly than others, it’s true) and we raced off, going outside the lagoon so we could ride the flood tide back inside. I have to put this in some perspective. Many of this group had never seen a shark. Just a few months ago Shane went snorkeling for the first time with us in Panama and was fearful of even being in the ocean, now he was heading out to purposefully swim with sharks!
I tied the dinghy line around my waist and in we went. The current grabbed us immediately and we took flight into the pass. Coral and fish of every type swept pass, and then so did sharks. Grays, black tips, white tips, even a nurse or two. I never actually took count but the overall consensus was somewhere over 20. None were huge, but multiple 5′ sharks a few feet from your mask is enough to get the blood pumping. The run only took maybe 10 minutes and when we all got back in the dinghy we were spinning. “Let’s go again!” came out in unison. Sharks are beautiful creatures and must be seen to be appreciated. This was one hell of a crash course. We kept doing runs until everyone was frozen, then reluctantly retired to Discovery to warm up and swap stories. I spend an awful lot of time in the ocean and have been fortunate to have seen some amazing things over the years, but this was some of finest and most exciting snorkeling of my life.
With memories of the night dive gone bad some years ago I hesitantly proposed that we should do another run through the pass under the nearly full moon that night. I never thought anyone would actually take me up on it, but incredibly everyone was game. It’s hard to explain the rush that comes from gliding along at such a rate at night, white eyes lit by your dive light, dark shapes lurking, how many there but not seen? It was a high-adrenaline day and I know there were some solid sleeps that night. But the adventure was just beginning…