Friday, January 1, 2010

Yacht Cruising in the Tuamotu Archipelago

Flickr user Poverarte

Words: Christelle Holler

This group of islands is among the last discovered by Europeans en route to “Terra Australis Incognita”. Spread over 800,000 square kilometres, the 78 atolls of Tuamotu archipelago remained uninhabited until the first migrants travelled on their large outrigger canoes from South-East Asia about 2000 years ago. Today, these islands account for a total population of 15,000 in comparison with the 260,000 of the whole of French Polynesia. In 1521, Fernando de Magellan was the first to discover one of the Tuamotu atolls situated at the northernmost point of the archipelago. In 1567, the Spanish navigator Alvaro de Menda├▒a de Neira sailed through French Polynesia from the east to the west without seeing any land whatsoever, and it was only in 1606 that the Portuguese explorer, Pedro Fernandez de Quiros, sailed through the Tuamotu atolls and positioned them on a chart.

Located between longitudes 134 deg W and 150 deg W and latitudes 14 deg S and 24 deg S, the Tuamotu atolls cover an area 1800 kilometres long and 600 kilometres wide. It is an incredible playground for yachts with excellent sheltered anchorages within the lagoons of the various atolls accessible from the ocean through their reef’s natural passes.

The atolls are all remnants of ancient undersea volcanoes, which erupted and created islands between 10 and 12 million years ago. Given the tropical climate, coral developed around the shores. Over the millennia, erosion and the movement of the underwater geological plates made the volcano slowly sink back into the ocean while the growing coral reef stayed close to the surface . The classic atoll with a lagoon within a bounding reef was then born. The atolls are the last stage of development of an island in French Polynesia. The natural phenomenon of a pass is the result of former rivers whose fresh water flow, hostile to coral polyps, from the mountains into the lagoon and through the fringing reef creating a clear path into the ocean.

Despite their remote position, comprehensive provisioning is simple for yachts thanks to local agents and the daily domestic flights from Tahiti to the main atolls. Nothing is easier than entering a lagoon and finding the perfect anchorage spot for the night or for several days, while many yachts cruising the area, travelling and exploring one atoll after another. With guests on board who want to make the most of their days in a new place, it is recommended that the boat is moved at night but unless a captain is familiar with the area, it is not recommended to enter the lagoon in darkness. Guests are then able to wake up in the morning and have breakfast in a new environment. The remoteness and pristine condition of the Tuamotus make visitors feel that they are the very first to explore an untouched island surrounded with a crystal clear blue water. For the majority of the time, your yacht will be the only one in sight. Furthermore, there are absolutely no security issues anywhere in the archipelago whose islanders welcome visitors.

The prevailing trade winds usually blow from the east or southeast. Although several itineraries can be drawn up to travel the Tuamotus, a perfect 10- to 15-day discovery trip will take you from Fakarava to Rangiroa. This downwind route is considered more comfortable by some captains, especially for sailing yachts. For longer trips, the itinerary could start further southeast in Makemo or Hao and finish in Rangiroa or in the Society Islands. The opposite itinerary is possible but crossings are likely to be slightly longer because of the wind direction. For guests arriving in Tahiti by air, an onward flight to the Tuamotu island of choice by charter flight is the quickest and most comfortable option. Rangiroa, for example, is only an hour from Tahiti.

Tahiti and her islands are famous for their precious black cultured pearls. Most of them are grown in the atolls’ lagoon. Pearl farms are seldom marked on charts and often their only indication is lines of buoys that are sometimes difficult to see from a large yacht. The best way to avoid a close encounter is to have a crew member in a tender ahead guiding the mother ship using VHF.

One of the highlights of visiting the Tuamotu archipelago is the beauty and abundance of marine wildlife. The Tuamotus are considered a world-class dive destination and yet, given the small number of people living there and their scant tourism, most atolls do not have a local dive shop. In most areas both crew and guests will feel that they are diving pioneers. The water is warm all year round and the visibility is excellent. Most dives are shallow and easy but allow unforgettable encounters with dolphins, manta rays, turtles, marlins and many other species. It is also the perfect area in which to get to know the different species of sharks, which are all protected by local government law. Conservation has been made a priority in the country and it shows while diving.

In order not to miss out one single interesting spot and to dive safely, it is recommended that yachts should have a private dive guide on board. By law, such guides are also instructors and although it is not mandatory to carry them, the added interest and value for both the guests and crew is huge. The guide will customise diving and adapt the dives to match the experience of the guests, whatever their experience. An onboard diving instructor will allow the guests to dive or snorkel whenever they wish without the hassle of booking rendezvous diving, or fitting in with their timings and availability thus providing flexibility for both the yacht and its guests. The instructor will also train and certify new divers, including children, and coordinate all the water activities during the cruise. He will arrange snorkelling ‘safaris’ in the most beautiful places of a lagoon and he will also be able to advise and guide the yacht’s captain while navigating around the islands. The company of reference for private and customized guide services aboard superyachts in Tahiti and her Islands is Tahiti Private Expeditions. Their reputation is excellent while their knowledge of the islands and their best dive/snorkelling spots, even in the most remote areas, is comprehensive. They can also provide tailored itineraries to match guests’ expectations. Other services are HD video and editing of customised movie of a trip and introduction to rebreather diving for dive experts in search of new underwater sensations.

In the Tuamotu archipelago, a great number of the dives will take place in the passes of the atolls while the current is flowing into the lagoon. The direction of the current is determined by a combination of different factors (tide, swell, wind) and it is very tricky to pick the right time to dive but it should be noted that diving should never be undertaken when the current is going out of the lagoon. Because of the unpredictable nature of the currents, it is imperative that the dive guide is equipped with a safety marker to allow the tender’s driver to locate the group easily. A guide will make a drift dive easy, even for beginners, and will know exactly where to find the wildlife. Drift diving is a marvelous way to encounter pelagic fish while giving the sensation of flying over the ocean landscape. After a thorough detailed briefing before getting into the water, a tender should always follow the group throughout the dive and pick them up at the end to return them to the mother ship.

While Rangiroa and Fakarava are the most famous atolls to visit and dive, the surrounding atolls are as interesting to discover. Rangiroa is the second largest atoll in the world. It features two passes which are known worldwide by dive experts. Fakarava became a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 2007 along with five neighbouring atolls, thus combining local development and the preservation of the environment. Fakarava’s north pass is the largest in French Polynesia and the current can be very strong but the diving it offers is breathtaking. The south pass is narrow while its depth restricts its access to superyachts without excessive draught. Most yachts will therefore choose to navigate through the lagoon from the north to the south pass. Diving there is absolutely unique. The drift is not very strong and it is the perfect place to encounter a school of hundreds of grey sharks swimming quietly past clown fish and other colourful inhabitants of the reef. For snorkellers, it is one of the best spots in the country in which to discover the incredible protected marine wildlife.

There is no place like the Tuamotus for nature enthusiasts on a yachts. Besides being beautifully scenic and peaceful, it also offers some of the world’s best diving and straightforward provisioning of high quality. Cruising this most beautiful archipelago seems to have been tailored for superyachts.

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