I sat on the side of our dinghy with my feet already in the water. We, Theresa, Morgan from Nomadica and myself, had just arrived the false pass at Totegegie, an island in the Gambier Archipelago. We had carefully gone through the pass and dropped the dinghy anchor in a sandy spot just at the outer entrance to the lagoon.
Already while preparing the scuba mask for our free dive we saw two black tipped sharks circling in the sandy spot.
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We jumped in and sunk into the crystal clear warm water at a rising tide. We stayed on the surface for a bit to check out what the sharks were up to. They did not seem to notice us.
A spotted stingray flew across the patch as we dove. Head down at the edge between the large corals and the sandy spot I almost rubbed nose with Wanda – a gigantic grouper. She was more scary that the lazy sharks.
Wanda turned and put her side to me. I could see her eye investigating this strange and rare creature. She was in no hurry.
She knew her protection from any spear gun was called ciguatera (fish poisoning) and so did I.
Wanda was at home and little did I know at the time that later the same week we should meet again. It was not predestined – I think.
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You are reading a short story about our time in the Gambier archipelago in French Polynesia in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It is a place with history and a place with beauty.
We arrived directly from Panama to the Gambier archipelago in May 2022 by boat. sv Escape. Our home.
Crossing to French Polynesia directly from Panama is a long sail but not stressful if one decides to go in the right season and sail conservatively. As most cruisers, we chose to go in the season hoping for a nice quiet downwind sail in the endless south east trade winds.
We lifted anchor on April 10th from Panama and arrived in The Gambier 1 month later. That month held one week of too little wind, two weeks of perfect South East trade winds and one week of varied wind and rain.
Our article on the crossing – ‘The Pacific drift‘ – will be published in the Flying Fish 2022 Christmas edition and then here on this blog.
On May 10th, 2022, we sailed through the South West opening in the reef and entering the lagoon early afternoon. The lagoon is unique in French Polynesia with its many islands, motos and corals.
The sun was setting and the colours changed into smooth warm. Theresa put our camera to work while trying to look out for bommies (coral heads) as we ploughed through the mainly unchartered lagoon.
The lagoon is huge. Almost 30sq km and only partly surveyed. Navigating the lagoon is to navigate a maze of pearl farms and to keep a constant lookout for the different shades of sea colour that are your only telltale of where the coral bommies are.
There are 5 major islands (Akamaru, Aukena, Kamaka, Taravai and Mangareva) neatly spread out in the lagoon where Mangareva is the northernmost with the main settlement in Rikitea.
There are reminisce of settlements on all islands and some motos, but today there are only single families living in Taravai, Akamaru and Aukena. All islands offer excellent sheltered anchorages with good holding.
Pre-European occupation (or Christening) life in the Gambier islands was tribal with ongoing inter-island wars each with their own king but vassals to the king of Mangareva, Te Maputeoa (reign between 1830 – 57). The European James Wilson arrived in 1797 on behalf of the London Missionary Society – on a mission.
Early 1800’s there was an upheaval giving King Pomaré of the Societies Islands (Tahiti) influence in the Gambier. All of the islands was annexed as a French Colony in 1880, after being held as a protectorate since 1842. (Ref Wikipedia)
We carefully passed east of Taravai, the westernmost island in the archipelago, and headed for Mangareva. The final leg of our crossing was in crystal clear beautiful waters and we arrived the main settlement Rikitea as the sun dipped behind Auorotini the highest peak (440m) in the archipelago.
Anchor was dropped in 15m of water and sv Escape lay still for the first time in a month.
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After a week in Rikitea to register our arrival, to check out the local shops, some minor hiking and in vane try to get online, we wanted to change scenery. Together with the other few cruisers, we lifted anchor and set only the front sail towards Totegegie.
Totegegie is the island where the Gambier airport is located and the waterway is well surveyed and marked. On only needs to stay clear of the omnipresent pearl farms.
After passing the narrow but well marked channel out of Rikitea we turned towards the False Pass (shown in the upper left corner in the picture above) and before long 5 cruisers anchored inside a small submerged lagoon in 10-15 meters of clear water.
The evening brought bonfire, good food and shared stories of crossings. The moon was out before we all returned to our boats and turned in that night.
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The next morning after an early breakfast, we found ourselves sitting on the edge of our dinghy as described at the beginning of the story. It was a great morning and as the tide rose we would not let the opportunity to investigate the false pass slip away.
Morgan from Nomadica dinghied across to us with a big smile, mask and fins asking if we were ready to go. We were. Vetle stayed on Nomadica.
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After the first rubbing of nose with Wanda, she was not that intimidating. She was moving calmly at the edge between the sand and the large corals. She was in no hurry and swimming gently we could almost touch her.
She did not go far from home so she showed us under which coral she lived, we met the neighbours (that were smaller) and after some more meeting and greeting, we turned our attention to other parts of the reef and false pass.
The reefs teemed with life. Small aggressive clownfish in the anemones, butterflies (longhorn, redfin etc), goat fish and surely the omnipresent parrotfishes.
The reef was circled by some 1.5m black tip sharks that had this sandy spot as their home turf. They payed little attention to us once they had circled a couple of times to check us out. They figured we were neither competition for food nor food.
We ended our dive by lifting the dinghy anchor and drift with the inflow across the reef and into the lagoon itself. It is fun to stay at the surface and watch a living reef drift by and only do the occasional dive to check out some details.
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We stayed in the Gambier for 3 months. We visited the Islands, free dived the reefs, enjoyed the Sunday BBQ with Hervé and Valérie on Taravai, leisurely walking the paths of now depopulated islands and hiking the peaks of Mangareva.
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We kept turning the pages of our calendar and soon August appeared. That is winter at 23S and as we hunkered down in the rain and wind in Rikitea, we prepared for our 850nm crossing to the Marquesas, Fatu Hiva.
Fatu Hiva, where ‘Bay of penises‘ was renamed ‘Bay of Virgins‘, where Tor and Liv Heyerdal still are remembered and where one may wake up and, before having the required coffee, think one just anchored in Jurasic Park.
We lifted anchor on August 10, gently excited the lagoon through the North West entrance, turned north, winched the sails and started a looooong upwind ride that was not on Predict Wind.
That ride and our Marquesan exploring is for next blog
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Regards from all of us to all of you