Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Tuamotos - French Polynesia

Click to enlarge
The Tuamotos, meaning “Distant Islands” are an archipelago of 76 atolls in French Polynesia covering some 328 square miles. Each atoll lagoon is surrounded by a ring of coral only a few feet high and only a few hundred yards wide at most. Some of the coral “rings” or atolls have palms and coconut trees and are like small islands and are called Motu. Inside the atoll the water is normally only a few hundred feet deep at most, studded with coral heads rising to the surface whereas right outside the atolls the depths plunge to more than 4,000 feet within a few hundred yards from shore.

The atolls are home to an abundance of marine life from vibrant corals and sponges, brightly coloured tropical fish and larger fish like sharks, grouper, rays and sometimes turtles. Each atoll is like a very large aquarium and a divers and snorkelers dream destination. Some of the atolls are only a few miles across whereas a few are over 20 miles wide. 

Google earth image of the Tuamotos

In order to enter a lagoon, you must go through a pass and most atolls have one pass but some have two or three. Each pass must be entered at a prescribed time set by the tides which govern the amount of current entering or exiting the lagoon. During times of high wind more water may enter the lagoons by being blown over the coral barriers and thus ebb currents are often stronger than flood currents and make for a bit of a challenge to estimate time of slack water.

Another boat entering a pass

The Tuamotos atolls are sparsely populated with a total population of only 16,000 but some of the atolls are unpopulated.

Anchored in Raroria

Raroria atoll
After our wonderful 3 day sail from Nuka-Hiva to Raroria we entered the lagoon through the narrow pass at about slack water. The current through this pass can run at over 8 knots but we only experienced about 1-1.5 knots against us due to it being slack water, or there about. Slack water times seem to be one of the main topics of conversation with cruisers in the Tuamotos as there is no official current table. An enterprising cruiser has created an excel spreadsheet which tries to estimate the slack water times at each atoll but it is just a guestimator, but certainly better than nothing.
Once we entered the lagoon we slowly motored our way across the atoll avoiding the coral heads that are dotted around the lagoon. These coral heads rise from about 150 feet to just below the surface and would be disastrous if one hit one. They can be seen as light areas in otherwise deep blue water so Jude stood on the bow and gave me instructions as to where the coral heads were so as to avoid them.

We made our way across to the Kon-Tiki Island anchorage which is on the eastern shore of the atoll 16.04S 142.22W, it is a large anchorage and there were three boats there when we arrived with several hundred meters between each boat. The anchorage is named Kon-Tiki anchorage as it is where Thor Heyandral landed on his passage from Peru in 1947 on a balsa wood raft. I remember reading about the adventure when I was younger and it is quite an experience being here. 

The atoll is simply quite magnificent: clear blue waters, small islands with sandy beaches with palm trees, straight out of a holiday brochure.

We lowered the dinghy in the water and donned our snorkeling gear and went to explore one of the coral heads. The coral and sealife around the coral heads is magnificent with vivid coloured fish and coral and an abundance of species we spent a few hours visiting a few different coral heads before heading back to the boat.  

Hermit crab on a coconut

We spent a week in Raroia at two different anchorages snorkeling as many of the coral heads as we could and exploring the nearby Motus.

Makemo Atoll

Vibrant coral
Makemo Atoll
Departing through the pass Raroria on the afternoon slack water we picked up a nice south east wind on our beam that gave us another great sail for the 108 miles to Makemo where we arrived just before dawn and conveniently slack water to enter the north east pass. As the light improved we slipped through the pass with about 2.5kts of current against us and anchored off the village of Makemo. The anchorage is not that great in a SE wind with a 2ft chop coming across the lagoon and 20kts of wind. We dropped the dinghy and took it into town to have a look around and try and stock up on our depleted pantry. We took the dinghy up a shallow river and tied it up to a bridge and walked the short distance to town along a pretty but deserted street. The houses, although simple, were very neat and tidy with flowers trimmed hedges. The small stored had an adequate selection, but not much selection on the veggie front but we scored some potatoes and onions! We also purchased some ice cream and chocolate!


As the anchorage was exposed to the wind and chop we raised the anchor and headed off to another anchorage about 2/3rds the way up the atoll which reportedly had better protection from the wind. We wove our way around the coral heads for a few hours and dropped the hook in crystal clear water in about 40 feet.
A long sandy beach fringed with palm and coconut trees, stretched for a mile or so along the motu which we looked forward to exploring once we settled in. Although the wind was still blowing the chop was very light as the reef in front of us provided some protection.
Over the next few days we explored on the beach where we found a fire pit and organized a pot luck evening on the beach with crew of the 4 other boats anchored. We had a great evening of hermit crab racing and catching up with the crew of the other boats.
Abandoned building from 1800's

The “middle anchorage” in Makemo has a spectacular reef to snorkel. It is over ¼ mile long and 100 yards or so wide. The colours of the corals and their formations are simply amazing. Fluorescent yellow and purple corals, reef sharks, octopus and a plethora of large and small tropical fish. We ended up spending several days snorkeling on the reef each time seeing something new.

Beautiful "Enough"
Tahanea Atoll

With slack water being at 8am at the north pass of Makemo we had to depart the anchorage at around 6am never a good thing as the light is poor to see the dangers of the coral heads in the water. Fortunately Charlie and Zoe on Valendra had made the passage a few days before and had a track on their chartplotter so we, and another boat, French Curve, followed them across the lagoon where we had a very uneventful exit of the pass.

Rainbow over Sarita

Plastic washed up on the atoll

Hermit crabs eating coconut

Again we had great winds for our 60 mile passage from Makemo to Tahanea. We arrived at the pass in Tahanea during a flood and there was quite a bit of chop in the pass. We anchored just around the pass with a few other boats with the wind still howling at 20 knots but with some protection from the chop.

Giant clam
Tahanea has a few anchorage spots and we decided to move to the one east part of the atoll which should give us good protection from the SE and North winds. Again we arrived and found another part of paradise, albeit it slightly different. We were able to walk along the long coral atoll fringes where Jude found a beautiful Japanese glass fishing net buoy. Quite amazing that it survived being blown across the coral reef never mind across the Pacific. I also found a very nice fish cutting board, which I had been looking for one. We were however dismayed at the amount of plastic washed upon the shores of this part of paradise. Anything from drink bottles, bottle caps, fishing buoys, rope, nets, shoes, deodorant sticks. You name it and its washed up on this remote reef, polluting paradise.

Fakarava Atoll

After studying the weather we decided that it was time to leave Tahanea and head for Fakarava – as the winds and seas were due to build in a few days time and we did not want to get stuck in Tahanea, nice as it is but Fakarava is supposed to be even more spectacular. Before we departed we took the dinghy over to the east pass in Fakarava and on slack water drift snorkeled over viewing the dense and brightly coloured corals. The Tuamotos, being so far from anywhere and sparsely populated still has amazing coral reefs and marine animals. Who knows how long it will last though.
South Fakarava mooring
High Street Fakarava
After a bit of a boisterous chop in the pass on exit we raised the sails for our 54 mile passage to the Fakarava South pass. With a following wind of 20 plus knots and following seas it was a bit rolly but we made good speed and arrived at the pass just after slack water. With the winds coming from the SE and the pass entrance pointing south it made for a bit of a challenging pass entry not helped by the fact that Garmin charts are inaccurate and put us going over a reef so we navigated by sight with Jude on the bow looking for coral heads and other shallow water. We navigated our way around the shallow reefs and to the anchorage and dropped the hook having to “float the anchor chain” with a fender above some coral heads. Although the winds were still blowing 20 plus knots the protection of the reef in front of us significantly reduced the wave chop. The anchorage is quite large and the 5 other boats there were well spread out. 

Apart from the usual exploring of the sandy Motus and reefs Fakarava has world renowned diving in the pass. We took the dinghy over to the pass and looked into the water where we saw the amazing coral but also a dozen or so sharks. Its not the most natural thing to swim with sharks but in we went and swam against the strong current taking in all the wonderful marine life and circling sharks. The visibility in the water is excellent, easily over 60 feet so we could see into the depths of the pass. Later in the week I managed to tag along with another couple who wanted to dive in the pass. We took their dinghy into the middle of the pass at slack water went in the water and down to about 70 feet still tethered to the dinghy above and drifted with the current in the pass for about  45 minutes. The sharks here were more abundant and larger and were accompanied by a beautiful pair of spotted eagle rays. 

Fakarava used to be the administrative capital of the Tuamotos before it was flattened by a hurricane, date unknown but the island still has a population of around 1500 people mainly in the north part of the island.

After spending 5 days anchored near the pass we decided to move across to Hirifa in the SE part of the atoll. We found another beautiful spot to anchor with only one other boat there and perfectly calm waters, long sandy beaches to walk along and some great swimming.          


  1. Sounds like you are having a wonderfulvoyage!

  2. Glad you enjoyed swimming with the Stingrays, and it looks like you're having a fantastic time. It looks like it's much the same weather as last year. Fair winds to the rest of the Societies and don't forget, the beer only gets cheaper from here on in ! Richard Panthera