by dusty middleton
A good buddy of mine had his boat moored inside the atoll of Fakarava, deep in French Polynesia. When he invited a group of us to travel down with him and explore the beautiful islands of the Tuamotu… there was no possible way to say ‘no’.
Put it on the credit card. That’s what plastic is for.
I had been down to French Polynesia years earlier… as a younger man. I had a great time, didn’t want to come home, and, during that trip I heard talk of the Tuamotu, curious tales of black pearls and heavy reef passes.
Hundreds of islands, barely sitting above sea level. Coconut trees and reef fish. The most sharks you’ve ever seen. Morey Eels like anacondas.
And a huge ocean out there. Powerful.
Inside the atolls it’s serene. Crystal clear water. And huge areas of safety.
We flew in from Pape’ete. It was evening. We offloaded our bags, our boards. A festive air as it got dark, and we walked from the little airstrip to the dock. Curbside. Right as it got dark a little boat came and picked up half our group. Tossed the rest of us some cold beers and headed off across windy water. I could see the running lights of a moored ship a mile or so away. As it turned to night my brain made the assumption that we were facing the open ocean. The boat was so far away, the wind swell was slamming against the rocks and the dock in front of us. My perception of scale wasn’t quite right.
In the morning, I realized that our ship was moored inside of a lagoon, inside of an atoll much larger than I had ever imagined. My concepts of what an atoll encompassed, were wrong. The interior of Fakarava is miles and miles across. The thin strip of flat land and reef that encircles the safe water, is so unsubstantial, that the human eye can’t see the circle. When the swell is large, you’ll see white water on the horizon, and that’s how you can tell the border.
Outside the atoll the ocean is huge and vicious. Outside the rocks and sand it’s deep water moving fast. Deep water in a different state of life and energy.
Most of the Tuamoto atolls only have a couple ‘passes’ where a large boat can enter and exit the interior. Some of the atolls have no passes.
As exploring surfers, the south facing passes are the ones we were honed in on.
The miles and miles of shallow reef with huge swell pounding relentlessly caught my attention. I know there must be a handful of working peaks for all those miles of bending reef, but the passes are the “safe” choice. The only realistic choice.
Small waves are dangerous.
On one of our first sessions in this new world, with the advice to be careful, I caught my first wave, just a shoulder high runner skimming along the edge of a beautiful coral garden…
I was relaxed and happy, little top turns, an easy line, the wave was wrapping into the channel, and as I rebounded off the lip, and went into my next bottom turn, the white water nibbled at my ankles and knees, and my board disappeared. And I was into it.
The reef is right there. And on the smallest days there’s no water, no escape.
As soon as I went down I was on sharp reef.
On the north shore we have bottom contour. Sharp edges and ledges. Little caves and pinnacles. Wana. Some razor sharp spots that will slice. But most of the reef and rock is subdued. You can push off with your feet. You find yourself smashed to the bottom, and maybe you’ll resurface with barely a scratch.
Not so in the south pacific. The reef is all living coral. The bottom is not smooth or flat. There is no escape. And when the swell is small it’s the most dangerous.
The waves are breaking right along a wall of knives. When I went down on that first wave I had no idea what I was getting into.
I rolled and smashed across coral. My leash wrapped around dry reef, and I was pulled to a halt. The water receded from my wave, and I was sitting chest deep, well-scraped and bleeding, bruised and shocked. I tugged my ankle hoping to get free. No go. And the second wave exploded on me. During that thrashing I spent some seconds grabbing at my ankle and got my leash off. When the water receded my heart rate was up. I said good luck to my little surfboard and jumped for it. Climbing and skimming side ways and out, trying to get to deeper, ‘safer’ water as quickly as possible. This beautiful ocean is full of sharks. I had spent the previous day diving this exact spot, and seen the most sharks in my life. Most of them are just fun little puppies. Four to six foot black tips. But right there on the edge of the pass near deep water, we had seen two large, mean grey sharks, who had played the game of sitting just almost out of our sight. And now I was swimming above their home, bleeding from dozens of angry slices. My knees and arms were banged up and not working at their full ability, but I was energized from my beating and made it to the boat nice and quick.
It took a couple minutes to check every wound. There were a lot of them. Luckily they were all just cosmetic. Nothing deep enough to make me throw in the towel. Luckily I didn’t need to seek emergency medical attention… because I don’t know what we would have done. We were out in the middle of no where.
Five minutes and I was calm and confident that I wasn’t too badly injured. I swam back to the shallows, waited till there was a break in the sets and climbed across the shallows back to my board, untangled the leash from twists and turns in the coral and then climbed back to the deeper water and continued my session.
A bit more cautious for the future.