How to swim with sharks in French Polynesia

We recently had a debrief with our crew about swimming with sharks, and thought we’d share with you. Here’s what we have learned so far during our trip…

BLACK TIP AND WHITE TIP REEF SHARKS
These sharks are easy to identify and are pretty much harmless; most of the time they are scared of people. They are typically 4-5ft with some individuals getting bigger (although some photos trick you into thinking they are larger!)

Their mouths are small and they are unable to bite things much larger than a fish. They are extremely cautious; they’ll circle a fish head several times and poke it before attempting to bite it. If you get them into a frenzy (lots of bloody fish attracting lots of fish and sharks) then they get more jumpy, but they are still pretty wary. This is generally true of all sharks because as predators they can’t afford to get injured — catching food is tough when wounded, and they might starve.

Incidents of black tips and white tips injuring humans seem to be extremely rare. One young diver in Fakarava got too close to frenzied sharks while diving at night (which happens to be their feeding time) and a shark knocked his regulator, yanked it out of his mouth, requiring several stitches to the young diver’s lip.

A more serious incident occurred with our local friend when he was nine years old; he was splashing around in poor visibility water and a black tip bit his butt! His gluteous maximus required several stitches. From what I can tell, this is characteristic of the vast majority of shark attacks on humans: in poor visibility, the shark bites a person by mistake thinking they are a fish (or seal, in the case of great whites). They realize their mistake and most often don’t bite again.

GRAY REEF SHARKS
They are much more hefty and bold than the black & white tip sharks, typically around 6-7 ft. Everyone claims they are safe to swim with. However, they can sometimes be uncomfortably “curious”, investigating who you are. In that scenario the best way to persuade sharks to move away from you is to face them directly; you become much larger, and are not exhibiting prey behavior, so they distance themselves. Making eye contact is also an effective way to shoo them away; like dogs, sharks are intimidated by your gaze.

The main instance in which gray reef sharks are in fact dangerous is during spearfishing. If you shoot a fish the shark will happily try to grab it regardless if the fish is on the spear or in your hands. So the protocol for spearfishing with sharks is to have a buddy who can pull up your float line with spear gun and wounded fish as fast as possible; and the spearfisher stays away. If solo, people take care to ensure there are no sharks in the vicinity and they try to get the fish out of the water as soon as possible. The Tahitian name for this shark is “Raira”, and we often heard the refrain from our friend Bruno in Faaite, who took our crew spearfishing: be careful with the Raira when you catch a fish!

Hungry Wolves in a Food Desert

 

the hungry wolves… don’t be fooled by their suave appearance, they’ll eat everything within sight

 

“You guys should bring protein powder and lots of granola bars. I’m not sure how much food we’ll be able to find out here…” I told Michael. The supply ship to Fakarava had broken down so the atoll was in a slight food panic. 

Michael was visiting us in Fakarava, along with our three other high caloric intake friends – Alex, Ben, and Johnny. Our ship’s dry stores were plentiful, but the fresh food had dwindled over the last two weeks during our passage from Marquesas. How would we feed the hungry wolf pack and sustain the froth for surf, diving, and exploration??

Here’s where it pays to have great cruiser friends. Our buddies Tom & Sonya on Pakia Tea were anchored at the village of Fakarava, a full days sail (from where we were in the south pass). The winds were also very strong, gusting to 25knots. “The supply ship is finally arriving tomorrow,” Tom reported. “But you’ll never arrive on time for the fresh stuff, the food will be gone by noon.” 

 

our food saviors, Tom and Sonya on their catamaran Pakia Tea (pronounced Teh-ah). We met in the Galapagos, crossed the Pacific and met in Gambier, and now met again in Tuamotos!

 

Thankfully, they kindly offered to buy fresh produce for us at the village, and sail it down to us. I suppose they were repaying a favor: last month, we had sailed 30lbs of pamplemousse and limes from Marquesas to deliver to Tom & Sonya, who had been in Tuamotos for months already. 

What goes around comes around… we were very grateful for our friends delivering the food. Now we could start the trip with the fellas with plenty of groceries.


Three great days in Fakarava

 

Our view from the anchorage of a nice bungalow overlooking the lagoon


   

Some places are best described by the pictures… Fakarava is one of them. 

The comment in the previous post from Ellen & David was telling: they said this was their best snorkeling & scuba from several years sailing around the world. I hope this shows a glimpse of what they mean…


A surprise on the way the the restaurant… what’s that in the water??

  

The cook is filleting fish and throwing the leftovers to the blacktip sharks, swarming like hungry dogs!

 

 

Hum… it’s just 2 feet deep, but does anyone want to go swimming? check out the next photo.


 

Sabby cruising through the blacktip shallows. Turns out they are totally harmless.

 
 

The snorkeling in Fakarava’s south pass is a feast for the eyes.

  

Although the pass itself is 80 feet deep, the steep coral walls rise up to 3 feet deep, making for perfect visibility in shallow water.

Captain K freediving and stoked

Schools of fish congregating around the pier pilings owned by the dive center.

Numerous fish taking shelter under the boats.

 

A fat Napolean wrasse non chalantly munching on the reef’s goodies.

    

 

Next to the coral wall, looking up at the silvery water and the colorful fish.

Besides blacktip sharks, heftier gray reef sharks also patrol the pass.

  

 

We attach the dinghy to a mooring ball on the outside corner of the pass, and drop down the mooring line for a SCUBA dive. We keep someone aboard as a dinghy operator, and the divers drift with the current into the lagoon.

  

Diyana with oncoming traffic. Fakarava’s south pass is famous for its “wall of sharks”. It begins at around 70 feet of depth.


 

The sharks become so numerous its unbelievable.

  

Running out of air quickly because our hearts are pounding !

 

Even returning to the mothership is gorgeous… note the currents in the pass in the background.

  
 

The ladies getting ready for a big night at the …. dive center. That’s the only thing around here. The closest town is at the north pass of Fakarava, almost 30 miles away (5-6hrs by sailboat).

  

What a fine looking crew! Especially with a backdrop of mother of pearl shells. It was time to say good-bye to our wonderful friends Matt, Diyana, and Melanie. They were flying back home the next day, after three weeks on the boat sailing from Marquesas to Tuamotos.

 

I tell you what, those colors just don’t get old…


Want to see what this amazing place looks like from the air? Check it out!  

Fakarava’s South Pass: Aerial Photos

Aldebaran anchored near the South Pass. The pass is located in an area with ideal protection from the prevailing SE trade winds – which is rare for Tuamoto passes

Fakarava is a World Heritage site, famous for diving. First though, we were blown away by the view from the air. Since the sun was shining and winds were calm, we flew the Honey Bee right after anchoring, to capture these pictures. 

Satellite images and nautical charts of Tuamotos seem to indicate they are uniform “rings” of land with lagoons in the middle. Not true… As you can see from this picture, most of the “ring” is composed of sparse bits of land with channels. In fact, the majority of the atoll is just submerged reef for miles on end, with no land in sight.

We’d like thank our Green Coco Patrons (www.patreon.com/greencoconutrun) for contributing monthly to our media & video fund. This fund allowed us to buy the DJI Mavic drone (among other photographic goodies) which lets us see and share these atolls from such an unreal perspective! 

Enjoy!


  

Notice the heart-shape in the coral reef! Here is a closer view of Fakarava’s South Pass, with the dive center & small rustic hotel that houses enthusiastic divers from all over the world. The structures extending across the reef are piers for docking boats; one pier even has a restaurant for visitors.

  

We were anchored with two catamarans and a large monohull on the first day. Lots of boats come to this spot. Rough ocean outside, smooth lagoon inside

 

Aldebaran in paradise… so proud of our old trimaran for making it down here!