The Tuamotus (or, at least one of them!)

10/10/2008, Toau

We arrived safely in the Tuamotus, at a little inlet called Anse Amyot, on the Atoll of Toau, at 11 a.m. local time, Saturday, October 4.

The passage wasn’t so bad. Although not a typically easy South Pacific crossing (where you don’t touch the sails for days on end), this one required some work, but was not a messy, sails-up-and-down, nasty-wind-and-rain crossing either. Some place in the middle.

As compared to the Marquesas Islands, which are volcanic, verdant, and mountainous (like HI), the Tuamotus Atolls are coral, sandy, and low. They are made up of reefs, sand bars, and islets, strung in huge, open circles, surrounding what was once also a tall, volcanic island, like the Marquesas, but which has long since fallen into the sea. Nothing is higher than the palm trees that grow out of low-lying sand bars. Think pearl necklaces thrown onto a floor, in oblong and other funny shapes, but here strewn about the sea. In places, the reef has been able to reach up out of the sea, and form a little islet, or “motu.” Hence the name, “Tuamotus,” although we’ll need to find out what the “Tua” part means. (To a motu?! If you leave, do they become the “Fromamotus?). (OK, we looked it up. “Tua” is Polynesian for “many.” So the word Tuamotu means many islands. Interesting, as this is also the translation for the European word for this entire region of the Pacific, “Polynesia.”)

We picked this particular location, Anse Amyot, on Toau, for two reasons. First we had heard good things about the hospitality of a couple that lives here and operates a sort of restaurant in a shack near the beach. Second, because one can access Anse Amyot, an indention in the reef, without actually entering the atoll, we avoided the need to time the tide, which one must do with some precision when entering the atolls here. The tide flows in and out through narrow openings, and the tidal flows can be very strong, making the Tuamotus notoriously difficult to enter and exit.

The entrance into Anse Amyot was relatively easy, as there were two easy-to-see channel markers on the port and starboard sides, as well as two marks-in-line that one can line up to follow in. It was a bit of a challenge at first, trying to figure out which of the posts were channel markers and which were the marks-in-line, as from about two miles out they all crowded together and were all the same dull black color. But as we got closer, things sorted themselves out, and we had an easy entry.

As we entered the tiny bay, a bright yellow speed boat came out from shore to say hello. This was Valentine and Gaston, the owners of the island, the attendant fish and pearl farms, and the restaurant we’d read about. They had big friendly greetings for us. When we told them we’d just come from the Marquesas, they asked if we had any pamplemousse. We did, and shared some with them. They invited us to come to the restaurant the following day, on Sunday night.

We looked about the bay (can I call it a “baylet?” It is quite small, and one can dingy across it in about five minutes.). There were two other boats already moored, both French flagged. A short time later, a dinghy from one of them stopped by, and Thierry said hello and also welcomed us. He told us that he was sailing with his wife Coco, and that Claude and his wife Jean were on the other boat.

We were curious about the restaurant. There are only coconuts and fish to eat locally here. What would be served: poisson au coconut?

We settled in, made dinner, and then went on deck to watch the stars. We were able to identify Scorpio and Sagittarius for the first times in our lives, as they are high and well-lit this far south. One of the dominant stars in Scorpio is “Antares,” Greek for “rival of Mars.” Aptly named! When we later spoke to Claude, we both thought it to be the red planet, but referring to our favorite reference book, H.A Rey’s “The Stars,” straightened us out. We later read some information about the importance of the heavens to the sea-faring Polynesians. They named months after stars or star groups that rose at twilight at the relevant time of year. The Polynesian name of the first month of they year, for example, is “Heua,” our Antares. May is “mataiki,” (Plaides), June is “akeo” (Betelgeuse), and July is “taku’ua” (Sirius).

It’s fun how it ties together in certain ways. Back home, in the Northern Hemisphere, it takes another month or so until Sirius, the “Dog Star,” can be seen at twilight. Hence August’s “dog days of summer.”

We dinghied to shore the next night. After tying up, we walked up a pier made of weather-worn wood slats, and were greeted with a screech by the resident pet. Not a dog or a cat, but an orphaned frigate bird, Lili, resting on a perch at the end of the dock. Gaston and Valentine had rescued Lili as a chick when they found her mother dead nearby.

Lili didn’t show any intention of moving, but wasn’t really attacking us either. She screeched again. Was this a greeting? A warning to protect her turf? As we later learned, it was neither, but instead the only thing Lili could say: “Squawk, Hey, got any fish on you?!”

We walked over to the restaurant. It rocked. It was open-air hut, one dining room with an attached kitchen, with walls of bamboo and thatch, hung out over the water’s edge. The long table was covered with a red cloth patterned with big white flowers in the Polynesian style. We met and talked to the others, sipping on wine and beer that we brought from our boats. Unlike most restaurants, there was no menu, and we all helped prepare. And Gaston and Valentine were our hosts but also are table mates.

The food was indescribably delicious. Yes, fish, and lots of it. First a tangy raw calamari dish that Jean had made, which we nibbled on as an appetizer. And then fresh French bread. Rice. Curried octopus. Fish in coconut milk. Lobster! Breaded fish patties. Fried fish. A barbecued jack. And, to finish it off, “Magic Pie,” the lightest, fluffiest, melt-in-your-mouthiest lemon meringue that we I have ever eaten. We insisted on the recipe, wearing down Valentine’s initial resistance (“You can’t have it! It’ magic!”).

It was a wonderful evening. We learned that Thierry is a former French navy mechanic who rebuilt his Jeanneau from scratch after purchasing it from salvage; it had been underwater for a number of months, and was again a beautiful boat. Claude is an oceanographer, preparing a paper on the currents in the Mediterranean, married to Jean for some forty plus years. Sima kept up a steady conversation in French, Paul struggled to keep up, and sometimes we switched to English. We talked late into the night.

We came back on shore to lend a hand to Gaston the next day, who was building a small bungalow to serve as a guest house. The work had the flavor of a country barn raising, with Paul, Claude, Thierry, and Gaston measuring, sawing, and hammering away; in the course of the day, the bungalow went from substantially incomplete to mostly done.

On the next day, Paul went out to the fish trap. He’d never seen one before. It was made up of a series of huge V-shaped chutes made of wire mesh fence set up in about ten feet of water inside the atoll, along the same idea as the chutes used to herd cattle.

The legs of the first V chute were each about 200 yards long and the opening across the top of the V was about 250 yards. The opening sat in about 15 feet of water. There is no food or other lure involved. The fish, swimming merrily along about their business, might bump into the V. When they bump up against the fence, they change direction. Sometimes, they swim out, and sometimes they don’t; instead, they swim to the other side. Bump. And reverse direction. Bump. And so it goes, as they funnel down into the V. At the bottom of the V, there is a gap in the fence, about 10 yards across. The fish, bump along, and venture on through the hole. A second, smaller V chute awaits them, this one with legs only 30 yards or so, and the game begins again. Except this time the hole at the base of the V is even smaller, a couple of feet across or so. The fish funnel down into this V, and end up in an even smaller V-shaped pen, this one with no hole at its base. The water has also gotten shallower as one moves down the chute, so in this last pen it is about three feet deep.

We pulled up to the side of the fish trap, and Gaston grabbed a big wire mesh net, about the size of a hockey bag, and harpoon. Here’s where the fun began!

The trap was chock full of all kinds of fish from the reef, some of which were quite beautiful; but also, alas, quite edible.

Watching Gaston go about his work in the fish trap was like watching a merman at work, and we laughed out loud at times. First, he jumped into the water, and then, like a porpoise showing off at SeaWorld, launched himself up and over the wire mesh fence and into the pen. He was surrounded by fish.

But Gaston! Look out! There are some black tipped reef sharks in there, and they must weigh forty pounds each. No problem. First order of business, get rid of the reef sharks. Gaston stalked each of the sharks, and then GRABBED them with his hands, one by one, picked them up out of the water, and threw them over the fence.

Next, there was a long moray eel swimming about, and these don’t do anyone any good, Gaston told us. Picking up his harpoon, he speared the eel, picked it up, and threw it out of the trap. Then, picking up the cage, he began to herd the fish into the wire cage. Dozens of fish were trapped at a time. He’d then hand the cage to us, and we dumped it out onto the floor of the boat, which was soon buried in fish.

On other days, we’d zoom out to the fish trap at lunch time. Gaston would jump in, grab some fish with his bare hands, and we’d zoom back with our meal. Gaston made it look easy, but we knew we were watching a craftsman at work.

Some of the fish were earmarked for Lili, whom Gaston and Valentine would feed from time to time. Sima took on this task one day, and the results were hilarious, as is captured in a series of attached photos.

On another day, we took a trip out into the atoll to help harvest pearls. Gaston zoomed us across the basin of the atoll in his boat. The basin is filled with coral heads, some which come above the water, but many of which don’t. Coral heads scare the bejeepers out of us, and we wouldn’t dare navigate so close to them. Gaston, however, zipped through at speeds over 20 knots, threading his way among the coral heads, whose placement he knew like the back of his hand.

There are some good photos of Valentine checking and then removing the pearls from the oysters. In the end, Gaston grew quite attached to the battery-powered tools that Paul brought ashore to work on the bungalow, and Paul gave them to Gaston as a gift. In return, Valentine gave Sima some very fine pearls.

And so passed a week of lovely days in the Tuamotus. It was a relaxing, different place to visit. And, like so many of the places that we’d been before, it was the camaraderie of the friends that we met – Gaston, Valentine, Claude, Jean, Thierry, and Coco, that made it so memorable.

11/05/2008 | Joanne
Amazing journey so far! The Galapagos have always been on my dream list, now I’ll have to add the Tuamotas! It’s especially envy provoking as we face shorter days and colder weather,although the fall foliage is peaking here in York right now, and I was in NH for Scarlett’s BD and enjoyed very much the colors there. Alaska was amazing! My two finger typing doesn’t really allow me to go into detail! All is well here, it’s great to see more of Casey. She has a temp job in a lab at UPenn. I’m looking forward to next weekend Janet Dionne’s wedding, and Marie’s 50th BD. I’m driving up with the Getraer clan, then the next weekend Bill and I will take the “boys” to DC. I hope to see the Georgia Okeffe exhibit. Then it’s Thanksgiving! The kids will be home, Gamme and Pop, Anna and Bruce will be coming so should be fun. I’ll try to get them to send you a hello while they are here, I got your art work back from the gallery, it looks pretty good, I hope you like their work. Take care, where to nex
11/17/2008 | Gen, Emily and Julia
Glad to hear you guys are still enjoying your voyage. I have been reading your blogs to the girls and they are trying to look up all the places you have been on the map. It’s been quite a learning experience for them. Safe travels!!!!
11/17/2008 | Jackie
Hi Paul & Sema, Great to hear from you again so soon. We had a fun time at Janet Dionne’s wedding. Jeannie passed on the latest news about your current location to others. The reception was at the Danversport Yacht club. Marie’s birthday get together was nice the next day.
I’m happy for you guys. Seems like you’re having a great time – challenging, enriching and invigorating. ‘bet you enrich the lives of the people you meet up with as well.
As they say in Scotland, by for now,
and stay well.
Peace & Love, Jackie
11/22/2008 | sabin
paul, great to hear news of you. Hope to speak soon. much has happened at home since you left. love to you both


12/03/2008 | jeannie
OK-that’s my favorite picture-Sima with the fish for the bird…. gorgeous…. adorable…. colorful,too
Look forward to seeing Paul soon
love, jeannie
12/04/2008 | ayse
awesome post. Your adventures and pictures are literally warming me to my bones… Sitting in my office in a big fat fleece, thinking of Polynesia…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s