Dreaming in Fakarava

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This far-flung Pacific Ocean outpost of France, otherwise known as French Polynesia, has been the inspiration of dreamers, the avant-garde and the impressionists.

 

Cavorting mantas, a wall of sharks, 10,000 groupers and 10 million fishes (if you care to count) in blue water are the wet dreams of underwater explorers. There is only one place in the world for such dreams in blue — Fakarava, Havaiki-te-araro, Havai’i or Farea, an atoll in the South Pacific.

From the air, Fakarava crudely resembles a rectangle; its length is 60 kilometres and its width 21 kilometres. The atoll boasts a wide and deep lagoon with a surface of 1,112 square kilometres and two passes. The main pass, Passe Garuae, is 1.6km wide and is located in its north-western end. . It is the widest pass in French Polynesia. However, it is the south pass, Tumakohua, commonly referred to as the Tetamanu pass which has recently attracted global interest.

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Fakarava is not just a playground for dreamers and adventurers in search of off-the-beaten-path escapades. By virtue of its remoteness, as well as the low impact a local population of 850 people places on the marine environment with subsistence fishing, the atoll flourishes with lush, undulating coral meadows, mangrove and sea grass harbouring many species of corals, birds, fishes, plants and crustaceans. It is a sanctuary for marine species. In 2006, along with its immediate communities of atolls — Niau, Raraka, Taiaro and Toa, Fakarava was designated as an UNESCO Marine Biosphere Reserve.

Atolls are remnants of old extinct volcanoes. After the cone erodes away, reef building corals protect the residual ring of volcanic rock from further erosion. Ocean swells eventually cut channels (or passes) on the leeward and windward sides of the atoll, allowing the inner sea to rise and fall with the tides. Through the day, tidal currents flush in and out through the channels, bringing nutrients and marine life in abundance. These channels are the regular hangouts of sharks and rays. Enthusiasts of tropical reefs will find that the diversity in French Polynesia pales in comparison to reefs of the Coral Triangle, literally. However, what it lacks in variety, Fakarava impresses with sheer numbers and pristineness. From pompously splendid butterflyfishes and damselfishes to couch-sized Napoleon wrasse, the biomass of marine life here is more than enough to support the needs of an omnipresent shark population and entrance the well-travelled divers.

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The underwater splendour of the Fakarava Biosphere is best experienced during incoming tides. Looking into the valley of the pass, you will see schools of grey reef sharks blithesomely hovering, facing into the current, and slowly flicking their tails from side to side, ostensibly holding positions among their rank and file. Where the current subsides in the inner lagoon, the greys give way to wandering white-tip reef sharks, mingling around huge schools of snappers and fusiliers in search of an easy meal.

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Within all the channels of the Biosphere, sharks, turtles and groupers are commonly found in the presence of gaudy wrasses, bannerfish and parrotfish, grazing nonchalantly on the coral meadows. A healthy abundance of fish lives in status quo with the predators in grey. On the outside reef, eagle rays, mantas, silver-tips, hammerhead sharks, tunas, and huge congregations of red bigeyes are typically found not only in the blue, but also on reef slopes and around the mouths of channels.

In a nutshell, this pretty much sums up the excitement over Fakarava. Hundreds of sharks, pristine reefs, more fish than people on a Saturday afternoon at Times Square, white sandy beaches lapped by warm turquoise water, and killer sunsets all go hand-in-hand with champagne.

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If it is raining sharks in the other passes of the Fakarava Biosphere, then there is a perpetual hurricane in the channel of the Tumakohua Pass. On an average day, you will probably encounter about 300 sharks face-to-face, but they are always in the distance. At a ledge known as the Observatory, the number of sharks can be as many as 500. This is the famous wall of sharks, the signature of Fakarava, found nowhere else in the world. This may sound like an exaggeration, but in 2015, a group of researchers returned one afternoon and announced a count of over 700 sharks in the narrowest part of the channel.

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From the moment you encounter the sharks in the bottleneck of this channel, the congestion is obvious. Hundreds of greys hang almost motionless in the current, filling the entire void between the reef and the surface. Small groups of whitetips lounge on exposed sandy patches of the channel, where the current washes oxygen-rich water through their gills. The sharks in the school swim slowly through the pass until they get to a point where the current starts to abate and then they peel off and quickly re-join the back of the queue. It may seem like a senseless routine but if you have to keep swimming to breathe, you may as well do it in an abode with an abundance of food.

If this has not triggered your dreams, plan your visit down farther south during the full moon of June or July, for one for the biggest orgies of fishes ever. Imagine 20,000 groupers (Epinephalus polyphekadion) aggregating in the Tumakohua pass for an annual phenomenon, transforming the bottom of the channel into what looks like a Persian carpet stitched with either horny or pregnant groupers. This is an annual buffet for the sharks; each evening, and especially during the aggregation period, hundreds of sharks wreak carnage on thousands of fornication-engrossed groupers. Besides the groupers, tens of thousands of surgeonfish, fusiliers and damselfishes too have sex in mind. They spawn soon after the groupers, much to the delight of the sharks. The channel becomes a soup of sperm and eggs. This is the sexy secret of Fakarava that has recently been a hot topic on French TV and National Geographic.

Fakarava is where divers’ dreams come true, where their quest for adventure becomes reality, and where living the dream takes on new meaning. With its blue water, sharks and sexy phenomenon, Fakarava is a picturesque postcard, and one of the prettiest places on our planet.

Beware though, you may not want to leave

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Essay and images by Michael AW ( OG 42)

 


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