Sunday, June 16, 2013

Fakarava, Tuamotos

Leaving Kauehi was not easy as it was by far one of the most beautiful places we have ever been.  But leave we must as we are only allowed 90 days to explore the entirety of French Polynesia and the clock was ticking.  So with tide tables in hand, off we went to the popular atoll of Fakarava. 

Starting into the pass, note the
calm water on the other side!
Fakarava is one of the largest atolls in the entire Tuamotos and has two entrances into the lagoon – the north pass and the south pass.  Being fairly new at traveling these passes (and having heard of a few harrowing experiences from cruising friends) we opted for the larger and downwind option, the north pass.  Arriving at what we thought was slack tide (based on two different sources) we took a look and decided it seemed…um….passable, so started to make our way through.  

At first, things seemed fine – we only had about 1 knot of current against us, so not too bad.  As we got farther in however, the current against us began to climb and soon we were fighting a 3.5 knot current!  Yes – 3.5 minus what was currently our 5 knot boat speed (due to a little furry growth on the bottom) now meant that we were only moving forward at 1.5 knots.  I CAN WALK FASTER THAN THAT!

The view from within the pass - not as nice!
Needless to say, we did make it through without any mishaps, but now having a total distrust of all sources of tidal information, we just try to watch the ups and downs over the course of each day and do some estimating on our own.  With our EYES!  Of course, that will only get you so far since if the winds are high (which happens OFTEN) extra water is likely filling the lagoon, potentially creating a continually out-flowing current in the pass – so then who knows when it might be slack (um…never?).  Have I mentioned how frustrating this tide/pass conundrum is here?  It is a FAVORITE topic among cruisers.

But enough of tides and passes!  Let’s move on to the fascinating process of pearl farming.  Many of the atolls in the Tuamotos are renowned for their pearls – just like the ones women everywhere wore in the 50s, only these are dark grey instead of pearly white.  They are quite beautiful, so we wanted to visit a farm and hopefully purchase a few quality samples at a good price.  

Through our friends on Cassiopée (thanks AGAIN guys!) we soon had a reservation to visit the Hinano Pearl Farm (ironically the same name of the only beer you’ll find in this area).  What a great experience!    We were thoroughly educated on the process of pearl formation.  For someone like me who had zero idea of what it takes to cultivate a black pearl, I was amazed at the long and fairly complex process that needs to be followed before one single pearl is created.  Now I understand why they are so expensive!

Where the pearl surgery is performed...
One might THINK that you simply find a qualified oyster and throw it out in the salt water for a couple of months (years?) hoping for the best – but of course it much more complex than that.  First the “farm” will purchase oyster shells of a certain quality, taking particular note of the colors of the inside of the shell – which will often determine the color of the pearl the oyster will create. 
Next, they place a precisely formed “fake” pearl – usually a bead made of shell and approximately 3 millimeters in diameter – in a small pouch within the oyster.  This is a very important step as they must take out what was already growing within the oyster and carefully replace it with the perfectly round replica without doing any harm.  The goal here is to implant the fake without the oyster realizing anything has changed.  If it does, it’s highly likely the oyster will reject the surrogate and stop producing altogether – which of course they won’t discover until many months have passed.  So it’s rather a fine surgery of sorts, all done without opening the oyster more than about ½ an inch!  

After they have successfully implanted the “fake” pearl the oysters are “put out to pasture” (if you will) in just the right depth and sea conditions for 6 months to start cultivating the lovely dark grey layers that make these fakes into the real beauties they become.  After 6 months the oysters are collected and carefully opened to see if the process was successful.  If it was, the new pearl (consisting of the original fake now covered with many layers of “real” pearl growth) is removed from the oyster (using that same careful technique) and a new “fake” of the exact same size is inserted in its place.  

Our guide showing where the growth pocket is.
WHAT???  You mean you don’t just leave it in there to get bigger and more beautiful with each passing month?!?  Apparently not!  We learned that a pearl left for a long time hardly EVER turns into the big beautiful pearl some lucky duck just “discovers” in the movies.  In real life that pearl would be lumpy and misshapen – plus the layers would not be as strong and so the pearl could be easily broken – making the customer who paid big bucks for it VERY upset!   Because of this, it’s highly important to regularly introduce a new, perfectly round fake for the oyster to keep covering up.    Sounds strangely similar to our government….but I digress.

So!  This is how they get different sizes of pearls – by replacing the newly grown pearl every 6-12 months with a new like-sized fake.  Then the new (larger) fake is covered with beautiful layers until its a few millimeters larger yet….and so on and so forth.  It turns out those really large black pearls that are so incredible valuable if they are perfectly round and without blemishes cost that much because they can take up to 6 YEARS TO GROW!!!  Yep – that’s some serious time invested!  These are obviously very patient people.

"A" grade pearls on display.
Just like diamonds, black pearls are graded by size, shape and blemishes (or rather a lack thereof).  Top grade is an “A” and just like school – the lower you go the less quality you get.  “B” pearls are still of very nice quality and to the untrained eye a “C” quality pearl might also be acceptable.  But after that things start to go downhill pretty quickly.  We actually liked some of the “lower quality”, misshaped pearls as they were often pretty interesting to look at.  These pearls are often relegated to a quick leather necklace or bracelet for not very much money (now owned and proudly worn by yours truly).  While I love my “imperfect” cheap pearl, we also decided to purchase a couple nicer samples as this chance is unlikely to ever present itself again, especially at these prices.  Overall, our visit to the pearl farm was a fascinating and educational experience. 

One of the best (non-environmental) aspects of French Polynesia is the access to quality baked goods – which one soon becomes addicted to.  Prior to leaving North Fakarava, we made an early morning run to get a few (much sought after) baguettes at the local bakery/market.  This is one of those cases where the early bird will get the worm and the late bird will get……..nothing!  The residents here, being governed by the French, have developed a fine affinity for perfectly baked baguettes (crunchy on the outside but soft and airy on the inside) and they are baked fresh every day.  When they are gone, they are gone for the day – so get them while you can as they are a real treat and one of the few items in French Polynesia that do not cost an arm and a leg.  If you are REALLY lucky, you might also find chocolate croissants (pan chocolate) that are absolutely delicious!

The moon mid atoll - beautiful!
Baguettes on board, off we went to the south end of Fakarava.  Fakarava is approximately 30 miles long (north to south) and 10 miles wide – so it can take a while to make it to the opposite end.  There are many lovely (non-charted) spots to stop along the way – so you don’t have to travel the whole way if you get a late start.  We chose to stop half way down in an uncharted spot for a night and had the place completely to ourselves – which is much rarer than you might think.  After moving to the SE corner – called Hirifa – for a few days, we proceeded over to the popular anchorage on the west side of the south pass.  

The south pass of Fakarava is almost legendary in diving circles, with folks arriving from all over the world to pay for a chance to dive these shark infested waters.  How cool is it that we were able to drift snorkel them for FREE!  Yes, yours truly, proud member of the JAWS generation, actually got knowingly in the water with SHARKS!  Thankfully most of the sharks here are of the black or grey tip variety, which are only about 3-4 feet long and not very interested in humans.  The ones that swam near me did take an inquisitive look, but when I showed them my menacing fist (HA!) they quickly darted away.  Take that long anticipated fears!!!  Of course if you dive here you actually get down to a level where you would be surrounded by 100’s of sharks – some that are fairly large.  Definitely not something this girl was ready for, so we just stuck to the drift snorkel – thank you very much.  

And what an amazing experience it was!!!  Basically you take your dinghy over to the beginning of the south pass just after the turn of the outgoing tide.  We’ve learned that you want to give it maybe 20 minutes after the turn as the clear water from the outside of the lagoon translates to much better visibility in the water.  Than you tie the dingy to you and let the incoming tide carry you (and your dinghy) past a wonderland of exotic and beautifully colored fish – FANTASTIC!  

South Fakarava after one of the frequent squalls.
We did the drift twice as there was so many fish to see, from tiny little clown fish to huge brightly colored parrotfish, that you just couldn’t see everything in one pass.  The drift takes about 20 minutes and the farther in the faster you go.  At one point I actually tried to slow my progress by swimming against the tide but soon discovered it was completely hopeless.   You just have to let the water carry you along and see what you can as you go.  Next item on the Christmas wish list????  An underwater camera!   I was dying to post some pictures of all the amazing fish we saw, but alas – no ability to shoot underwater at this time.  Sorry folks!  

Other than the snorkeling there is not a lot to do in south Fakarava other than enjoy the beauty of the area, so that’s what we did.......for 5 heavenly days!  We did accomplish several boating projects (which never end), such as repairing a tear in the mainsail and a major cleaning of the bottom of the boat – but we also got in a fair amount of relaxing and enjoying our surroundings.  South Fakarava is a little slice of heaven and we were happy to spend a good amount of time there.

Stay tuned for our further adventures in the Tuamotos when we travel to the river that is Anse Amyot and explore the wonders of Apataki…

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