Makemo’s Trou de la Baleine

Trou de la Baleine, the blue pool in the foreground. Aldebaran is the dark dot anchored in the background near the motu surrounding the lagoon.

The story goes that ancient Makemo natives would paddle their outriggers after humpback whales that entered the pass, and “corral” them towards the eastern corner of the atoll; then proceed to kill one of the whales and feast on it for weeks. Hence the “Trou de la Baleine” was named, translated to “Hole of the Whales”, a remarkably blue and deep sandy pool in the easternmost part of the atoll.

Our anchorage was 1/4 mile from the Trou de Baleine, in 6 feet of water with pure sand, the anchor chain visible in the clear water. To enter this area required a long and careful navigation around many shallow coral bommies, with good visibility as usual. The prevailing easterly tradewind blows over the land so the water is smooth as a duck’s pond.

Heading out on the Lambordinghy with spearguns

Sabrina swimming in the Trou de la Baleine.

Our friend Henere had a go at spearfishing in the Trou de la Baleine but a lemon shark scared him off!

The Trou de la Baleine is 11nm east/south-east of the village of Makemo, but slow progress is required due to the large density of coral bommies around this lagoon — to get the sun above you for visibility, it is best to transit towards the east after 11:30am and arrive before 3:30pm, and then back to the west between 9:30am and arrive before 1:30pm; otherwise, the glare from the sun prevents seeing the coral bommies.

Location of Trou de la Baleine

Walking across the shallows in the eastern side of the atoll

Coral and Clams mingling in the shallows

Green Coconuts are the best! 

Birthday in Makemo!

From Left to Right: Henere, Leon, Capt K, Soraya, and Kumuhei. Sabrina is taking the picture!

To celebrate Capt K’s 37th birthday, we invited our local friends in Makemo to join us on a 4 day excursion around their atoll. Let’s start with a bit about our friends:

Leon & Soraya: awesome people who love their atoll’s turquoise water!

Leon & Soraya — we met Leon in Marquesas, at the Hiva Oa Boatyard, while repairing the fiberglass damages on Aldebaran (in July of 2017). He’s incredibly enthusiastic about everything he does, and kindly invited us to spend Sabrina’s birthday in Makemo last year, on our way through the Tuamotos.  So it’s uncanny that now, the following year, we were celebrating Kristian’s birthday with them too! Leon is a professor of mechanical repair at the college in Makemo, and Soraya is a retired admin from the government center.

Henere & Kumuhei: They are neighbors of Leon and all teach at the same school. We met them at a pizza party that Leon organized at his home (he’s got an amazing wood-burning oven!). This lovely couple grew up in Tahiti, and just moved to Makemo a few months ago after completing their teaching credentials in France. Henere teaches physical education and Kumuhei teaches English. Living in the Tuamotos is a new experience for them, but they are embracing the atoll life to the fullest!

Loading up the crew at the Makemo wharf, with a stern anchor in 10 feet of sand, and bow line to the dock cleats.

My biggest surprise was how excited all four friends were about being aboard the sailboat. “There are no mosquitoes! The view over the water is so magnificent! Life on the boat is so fun!” They kept exclaiming with glee. I never realized that being on a sailboat would bring them so much joy to the locals who seem to live the ocean life daily! This in turn gave us a lot of satisfaction.

These guys were incredible crewmates– always present and nearby ready to lend a hand with the anchor or loading equipment, keeping a lookout for coral heads to avoid, and generally making our life as captains running the boat remarkably easy.

We went to two spots on the atoll: the motus in the SE side called Napahere, and the shallow anchorage in the far eastern corner, called “Trou de la Baleine” or Whale’s Hole.


The most distinct thing about cruising with locals was how they created so much food and camp comforts directly from the land, with very little. Here was the approximate order of events for the first 24 hours:

  • 2pm. Arrival at the Motu Napahere. Within 10 minutes of dropping anchor Leon and Henere were campaigning to spearfish, which we harvested fresh fish until late afternoon
  • 3:30am. Leon and I went to shore with the full moon to look for lobsters
  • 9am. The crew goes to the beach to set up camp, by turning palm fronds into floor mats, serving dishes, and shade; they start a fire to bake breadfruit, lobster; gather brown coconuts on the ground for coconut milk, and green coconuts for drinking coconut water;
  • 12pm. With very little to start, a decadent feast is created!

Upon arrival in the motus, Soraya got to work taking down palm fronds from the coconut trees to start “decorating and furnishing” our camp. These become lovely floor mats for meal time.

Breadfruit from the village was toasted over the fire that Leon made on the beach.

Brown coconuts from the ground around the motu were harvested and we grated them to make coconut milk for the poisson cru (Polynesia’s staple sashimi dish)

Close-up of the coconut milk process: grated coconut flesh (from hard, brown coconuts) is then squeezed through a tshirt (or cheese cloth) to extract delicious coconut milk unlike anything you can imagine!


Grilled lobster fresh caught that morning.

A little bit of the feast over the palm fronds… simple and glorious.

Naturally, we have to cap it off with this image, which captures the essence of the “Green Coconut Run”! Sharing the Good living!

10 Rules of Spearfishing with Sharks in Tuamotos

After missing a shot with my speargun, I’m surprised that within 10 seconds there are a number of reef sharks clustering around the scene to see if they can take advantage of an easy meal.

The Tuamotos (French Polynesia) are full of fish, but they are also full of reef sharks. This is one of the archipelago’s wonderful attractions: observing these magnificent creatures from up close, on a daily basis. Fortunately, according to the locals, the sharks are 99% harmless to humans — except if you are spearfishing.

Some background: Reef sharks spend most of their time cruising right next to schools of fish without giving them any grief. The reality is that fish are really fast and are quite difficult for sharks to catch. Like us, they don’t want to waste their energy chasing things they aren’t likely to catch. Sharks need a competitive advantage — hunting at night, hunting in packs, or finding vulnerable fish. Speared or hook caught fish qualify as the latter option. In their excitement, sharks can inadvertently take a bite at whatever happens to be next to the dying fish, such as the spearfisher’s arm, so special attention is needed.

Kristian and Ethan diving down for a shot at some fish. You want a good shot to ensure the fish is immediately put down and ideally does not struggle, so you can get the fish out of the water as soon as possible.

Last year, after our arrival, we spent several weeks in the Tuamotos before even trying to spearfish; and then still we proceeded very cautiously. The turning point for us came when we met Bruno, a Tahitian spearfishing champion who now lives in Faaite atoll.  Bruno taught us much about both lagoon reef hunting and pelagic pass hunting in a series of memorable dives. Since then, we have cross-checked that knowledge with a few dozen spearfishers in Tuamotos.

Eventually, we came to understand the principles of when it is safe to spear fish, and how to do it.  Our experience culminated in our spearfishing sessions in Makemo’s north pass, which has the highest abundance of reef sharks we’ve seen in Tuamotos– along with Fakarava and Haraiki atolls. Here is what we have learnt, digested into 10 handy rules:

Rule #1: “Always dive with a buddy”. Here Sabrina demonstrates the technique of grabbing the (spear)gun and fending off sharks, while Ethan the shooter has the fish which is still held in the actual spear. It sure is nice to have two sets of eyes in this situation!

Another view of the above photo: Ethan holds the goat fish above the water while keeping an eye down below.



Rule #1: “Always dive with a buddy.” Your buddy should grabs your gun and act as the ‘bouncer’, to make sure no toothy guests enter your party uninvited. This is mainly accomplished by maintaining eye contact. Don’t jab them or make sudden movements — unless absolutely necessary.

Rule #2: “Show no fear.” Sharks sense fear & anxiety. They become excited especially if your movements are erratic and involve splashing. If you’re afraid, don’t spearfish. You will profit from diving with them (sans gun) several more times to get comfortable, and realize they are not dangerous unless you have an injured fish next to you.

Rule #3: “Shoot smaller fish; and get them out of the water quick.” Once the fish is held out of the water, the sharks are no longer sure where it is, and the feedback mechanism instigating their excitement slows down. Smaller fish fight less than bigger fish, so are easier to handle.


If fish parts are discarded off the back of the sailboat, it  no longer remains a friendly, attractive swimming environment.

Rule #4: “Get a kill shot whenever possible.” Sharks respond more to the vibrations of a flailing fish in the water – and the excitement of their fellow shark friends – than anything else. If the spear paralyzes/kills the fish with a head shot, you reduce the chances of attracting predators to the scene and creating a mob effect.

Rule #5: “Look before shooting – especially for Gray Reef Sharks.” Like crossing the road, look both ways!  Ideally, there should be no sharks within sight when you swim down to shoot fish, in particular for Gray Reef Sharks, which are considered aggressive and unpredictable. Other reef sharks, like black tips and white tips, are much milder and pose no significant threat.

Rule #6: “If you just had a recent fight and are upset due to a quarrel, spearfishing is not recommended.” Although I can’t validate the theory that a disturbed frame of mind due to an argument adds to potential hazard of sharks… however, many locals have mentioned this to me. In fact, they didn’t just say spearfishing in such a condition is unrecommended, they said “c’est interdit” (it’s prohibited). Clear words of wisdom!


Reef sharks chasing our fish scraps. It’s true that reef sharks aren’t considered “dangerous”, but it is also true that when they are very excited / in mob behavior they could make mistakes. As the locals say, “The sharks are polite. But be attentive.”

Rule #7: “If a shark is going for your fish, let them have it.” Seems like an obvious one, but a number of spearfishers hug the fish in an attempt to paralyze it and “hide their catch” from the predators. And you guessed it, that is the most common way that spearfishers get injured by sharks!

Rule #8: “It’s usually safer to spearfish inside lagoons.” Shark populations are usually more sparse deeper in the Tuamoto lagoons, compared to the reef passes and on the outside of the atoll, where sharks are most abundant (and it’s typically deeper, which adds to the amount of time it takes to get the fish out of the water). Plus, currents are usually milder inside the lagoons, which makes it easier to return to your dinghy.


“Shark-infested waters”? The truth is that the sharks seen in this picture are black-tip reef sharks, which are very mellow creatures. However, if you see gray reef sharks, keep a sharp lookout; they are curious, fearless, and occasionally aggressive. Hence the importance of identifying the different types of sharks.


Rule #9: “Wait for good visibility.” The incoming current and lack of wind chop can greatly increase the water clarity and your ability to scan for sharks. Obviously, don’t spearfish around sunrise or sunset as nighttime is their active feeding time.

Rule #10: “Discard fish parts in non-swimming areas!” We learned this the hard way, after filleting fish on Aldebaran at anchor.  An enormous congregation of 20+ sharks began swimming around our boat, and they took a long time to dissipate. This made showering in the ocean at night much more nerve-jarring than it should be!


Ethan gutting a white goat fish at the dock, instead of the back of the boat. It pays to take a dinghy ride to shore for fillet duty! Note the parrot fish on the left side of the picture — the parrot fish is a staple of the diet in French Polynesia for many reasons. There is a conservation concern about their over-fishing, since parrot fish contribute significantly to the health of coral reefs.

There is an added complication to fishing (in general) in the Tuamotos: ciguatera poisoning, a toxin from algae that bioaccumulates in reef fish. In every atoll there are different types of fish that may or may not be consumed; along with a number of fish which are always safe. Always ask locals before eating fish to confirm that particular type of fish is safe in the area.

A whole new world…

I’ve spent countless hours of my life around waves, but I had never seen them quite this way before! This was the first time I ever brought a mask and snorkel into the waves, and I found it truly enchanting… It’s a whole new world!

There is all kinds of life happening under the waves. Fish are nibbling at the coral and the algae, swaying back and forth with the push and pull of the swells. Schools of little fish dart around the white wash using it as protection from predators.

The waves break with explosive force but underwater it’s still calm. The vortices of whitewash make incredible patterns, backlit by the sunshine above.

Having FUN in the waves.

This is the view from the beach. Who could imagine that all that magic is happening underwater just offshore? Having a mask & snorkel is like having a superpower… the ability to see what is not at all apparent. Add waves to the equation for a totally mind-blowing experience of fluid dynamics!

Snorkeling the west pass

The drop off at the west pass of Makemo is incredible! We anchored the dinghy right at the pass (note white dot in the aerial photo above), from where we could snorkel in the shallows and hover over the depths. The only catch? Be sure to do this on incoming tide, which is fairly mellow at this location. The outgoing tide rips like a river current!

View of the bright red coral rocks at the pass.

Atolls are like icebergs… the vast majority is underwater.

Just looking at the water’s surface is transfixing when the colors are this vivid.

Sabrina with the lambordinghy.

Lots of beautiful coral around the west pass of Makemo.

Looking across the pass to the other side.

Wonderful coral formations in the shallows. Epic snorkeling in 1 ft of water.

I couldn’t get enough of this drop-off… with turquoise water covering shallow coral on one side, and cobalt blue deep water on the other side, plummeting down into the 100ft deep pass, different layers of coral communities as you went down….

Makemo’s West Pass: Bird’s Eye View

Makemo is the among the four largest atolls in Tuamotos (after Rangiroa and Fakarava; and it is slightly larger than Hao in comparison).

Makemo’s West Pass is a unique place — this may be the most remote pass of the larger atolls in French Polynesia. Remoteness, as we’ve discovered, equates very closely with abundant marine life! It is 26 nautical miles from the atoll’s village, which by sailboat is 4-5hours or by power boat 1.5hours. This makes it a little far for the locals to visit with regularity, so fishing pressure is vastly reduced; and there is negligible tourism in the atoll besides sailboat transit.

The nook in the reef, where we are anchored, provides decent protection from the East, and excellent protection from the North-East through to the South-West. For South or South-East winds, the deeper part of the cove would offer protection, which we evaluated by snorkel and deemed adequate for a draft as shallow as 6 feet.

The downside of this anchorage? It is “choc-a-bloc” with coral bommies littering the anchorage, which means that using floats on anchor chain is an absolute must, and the ability to dive to depths of 50ft on the anchor is also critical, as likelihood of the chain being snagged is… 100% certainty, even with floats. This is a non-trivial challenge to overcome when visiting this spectacular place.

Navigating a Reef Pass with a Broken Throttle Cable

The wind freshened and Aldebaran was back under sail, cantering like a horse in open pasture. However, our estimated arrival time, based on our current speed of 6 knots, was 1am in Makemo. No good! Rule #1 is never arrive in the dark, especially when it’s your first time in a reef pass.

So we took down the mainsail, and just plodded along with the genoa headsail at 4 knots. Nevertheless, by 3am we were just a few miles from the reef pass. So we “hove to”, which is a technique to park the boat mid-ocean. I set my alarm for 5:30am and got some shut eye.

As dawn broke, we motored the last 45 minutes to the reef pass. Peering through the binoculars, we surveyed the pass: the current looked mild, without any standing waves caused by strong current. We kept motoring into the pass at an even pace.

Then spontaneously, just as we were flanked with the waves breaking on both sides of the pass, the engine suddenly lost power! It was still running in forward gear, in idle, but didn’t respond to acceleration — the throttle cable had snapped! The boat lost momentum and started slipping out of control due to the current eddies. I hollered at the crew standing watch on deck, and did a u-turn to take Aldebaran back to sea, a maneuver assisted by the mild outgoing current.

Aldebaran drifted outside the pass without danger, as the wind was blowing us away from the land. Unfortunately, the outflowing current was supposed to strengthen substantially during the next 30 minutes so we had to work fast.

After shutting down Mr. Isuzu, we opened the hot engine compartment and saw the throttle cable had broken at the connecting point with the engine’s throttle lever. After attempting a jury rig with tape for 10 minutes, I ended up attaching a string directly to the engine’s throttle lever. Sabrina made a loop on the other end to hold onto — like a waterskier hanging onto a line — and by leaning her weight back, she could pull on the lever, and accelerate the engine. Bingo!

Since we had to keep the compartment open for the string to pass, the diesel engine was making a cacophony. Sabrina wore big earmuffs to shield the noise. “If the string breaks,” I told her, pointing into the sauna-like heat of the engine compartment, “You’ll have to jump in there and pull on this level over here, ok?” She nodded with wide-eyed apprehension.

“Ready to go!” I told Gary and Ethan, our lookouts on the deck. They smiled, not quite knowing just how jury-rigged our throttle cable was. No need to cause alarm, I thought!

The string solution worked like a charm – thanks to Sabrina’s diligent effort. We motored through the pass and then meandered through a series of coral bommies to reach the anchorage. Poor Sabrina was feeling disoriented facing backwards, watching the landscape whiz by on either side, focused on her task of pulling the throttle string. She was relieved when I gave her the word to relax — we could now easily coast in idle into our anchor spot . We dropped the hook and the boat was safe. Success!

The next day, I removed the throttle cable — it had broken just a few millimeters from the end, where the metal threads attach onto the engine lever. Wow, there is no way we’d even suspect that strong metal rod might ever fail! 4000 hours of engine vibration in one little spot did the trick!

We have a spare throttle cable on Aldebaran but we didn’t need to use it — there were still sufficient threads in the existing throttle cable’s metal end to reattach to the lever. Two hours later, hands filthy with rust & grease, the boat was back in action. However, we weren’t planning on going anywhere. It was time to relax in Makemo’s west pass, and enjoy what this wild remote area had to offer.

Makemo Atoll, home of Leon and Soraya

“Leon, nous sommes arrivés!” Sabrina told our friend enthusiastically over the phone, advising that we had arrived. “Magnifique!” Leon responded, and told us how to find his house — distinctly salmon colored and hanging over the water’s edge 1/2 mile after the pass.

Aldebaran anchored in Makemo. Note how narrow the land is: there is no potable groundwater, so everyone must capture rainwater and store in tanks.

How often do we arrive in a new island after 500 miles of ocean crossing and have a local expecting us with cold beer and snacks?? The answer is never. Our connection with Leon came from a surprising place.

Motor sailing in light winds to Makemo

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