Magic Log #14: Makemo

Somewhere on the 500 mile passage from Nuku Hiva to the Tuamotus, I had a dream about our destination. I had only ever been to an atoll once before, on a one day dive trip in Belize. That was a long time ago now, but the neon blue water, sand, palm trees, and sharks swimming about in the shallows left an indelible imprint in my memory. The dream I had took me back to that time, and I imagined anchoring Magic in crystal clear water, then diving down and finding myself surrounded by coral heads and teeming fish. It seemed like such a fantasy, and I tried to put it away in my head — along with all my other high hopes for these islands — so I wouldn’t be disappointed when I was ultimately confronted with reality.

It’s still hard for me to believe, but all my dreams about the Tuamotus came true. The atoll we made landfall at, Makemo, is a paradise. It’s not perfect, but for us and what we want to do on our boat the highs are so high and the lows are so minimal that every day we spent there was a joy. While we had originally only planned on a week or two, we ended up staying a month.

We had a very pleasant time on the passage. After leaving Anaho Bay in calm conditions we made our way around the east side of Nuku Hiva. At the northeast corner of the island several bottlenose dolphins visited the boat for a little while, and soon after a nice breeze came in and we started sailing. Soon after we passed dramatic spires on Ua Pou, the last island we would see until Makemo.

We spent five days sailing to Makemo. This was a pretty slow pace for us; entrance into the atolls is controlled by the tides and while we thought about arriving earlier, it would need to be a full 25 hours earlier and require us to maintain a fast pace throughout the passage with little room for error or we would miss our entrance window. The extra time made for a great, lazy sail; we didn’t need to worry about our speed, and even had to slow down the last night as we approached Makemo, reducing our sail area until we were only making three knots. We were close hauled most of the way but things were comfortable, with squalls becoming less frequent and the weather clearing up as we got further away from the equator. On the first day I caught a couple nice tuna — 15 and 30 pounds or so — which gave us plenty of meat so I stopped fishing the rest of the way (we froze half of the larger tuna, which still tasted great after thawing so in the future we might just keep fishing and fill up the freezer). That same afternoon a booby visited the boat and landed on the solar panels. The rest of the day it preened and stared at us with its beady alien eyes, and then it spent the night there, roosting with its head tucked into its feathers and getting up to stare at me and make clucking noises when I went out into the cockpit.

In the morning the booby flew off, and for the next four days we sailed along uneventfully. At first light on the last day we were 12 miles or so from the east pass on Makemo. We started motoring in on both engines, but the starboard engine overheated and we continued on just the port engine (the overheating was due to a coolant leak, since fixed; I keep getting more and more appreciation for having two independent engines, though). We were planning on entering around slack at high water, and were still a couple hours early, but as we got close we looked into the pass and it didn’t seem too snarly, so we continued on in. From when we started entering the pass to when we anchored and snorkeled around the boat was a magical experience. Turquoise shallows surrounded by deep blue water, breaking waves, palm trees, it was like a postcard. We motored around a few charted bommies — coral heads that grow from the bottom of the lagoon up to just below the surface — and anchored near the west side of the pass, with a few other boats nearby and a town on shore. We got in the water right away and found 100′ visibility, groups of fishes in midwater, and a bottom covered with small limestone and coral heads. The water was a little cooler than the Marquesas but felt great. After relaxing on the boat we went out snorkeling at three nearby bommies. This first taste of sea life in the Tuamotus was wonderful, lots and lots of fish around and some good coral near the surface. One bommie had several white tip and a few black tip sharks patrolling around, staying away from us but pretty much always in view. Upon returning to the boat we were exhausted from the passage and the flurry of activity afterwards, so we went to bed early and got a good 10 hours of sleep.

We felt great the next morning, and after breakfast went diving at a bommie close to the anchorage. This was a neat dive, lots of limestone formations in 30-40′ of water. Not much coral but there were a fair number of fish and several sharks. We came back to the boat and a little while later went out again, heading to a beach on the other side of the pass to walk around for a while. This beach was stunningly beautiful, palm trees and clear, blue water. As we walked along we admired large coral heads in the shallows, saw a shark pass by just feet from shore, and watched a couple of hermit crabs trying to evict a third one from its shell.

We continued to explore the area around the town. We were particularly interested in the pass which we used to enter the atoll: these are supposed to have the best diving in the area. At first we checked out the pass by snorkel, heading to the entrance while it was flooding strongly and then floating in on the dinghy. Huge fields of healthy coral filled our view as we zoomed by, watching fish sheltering from the current and occasional sharks roaming around. Within minutes we were more than a third of a mile inside the lagoon, after which we got back in the dinghy and went out for another run. We did this over and over, checking out different parts of the pass and seeing which areas had the most life.

The next day I went out by myself to try to dive the pass around slack. The current was still ebbing very strongly as I got to the pass so I went ashore and hung out for half an hour or so, after which the tide seemed to be slowing down so I went in. The current was still extremely fast, at least four knots in places. I started in about 30′ of water and had a hectic first few minutes zooming over the coral and trying to get things under control, before I got spat out into the main channel and deeper water. I slowed down a little but was still going fast, looking around at a few fish and sharks but after a few more minutes I was out of the lagoon entirely. After finishing the dive I wanted to come back in and wait until closer to slack, but I saw a mooring ball on the wall outside the pass and decided to dive there instead. This was a wonderful dive: a sloping wall was covered with some of the best coral I’d ever seen, lots of fish and a few big shoals, several sharks, tremendous visibility of 150′ or more, and easy navigation. Even with the strong ebb there was very little current, as this spot was in a big backeddy. It seemed like the perfect place for a mellow reef dive.

The next day we both left to dive at the mooring with Dan and Kristy, the crew from a boat, Te Poe Rava, who we knew from La Paz and had just arrived the previous day. We were hoping for a gentle ebb but the flood had already started; there was a little current at the start of the dive, which increased more and more as we continued. Lisa and I stayed near the mooring in shallower water, making our way upcurrent and then drifting back and finishing the dive early as the current got to be too much. Despite this trouble we had a great time. Dan and Kristy finished their tanks by floating in through the pass, and reported seeing lots of sharks and other critters. This inspired me and late in the flood I went back to the pass with Lisa. The current was considerably less than when we snorkeled here a couple days earlier; we did another snorkel through the pass then I tethered myself to the dinghy and went diving while Lisa snorkeled at the surface. I had a nice time in the outer parts of the pass floating past the coral and fish. Further in I floated through a part of the pass that we’d ignored previously, and we came across an amazing scene. A large shoal of bigeye scad was down near the bottom, frantically swimming around with dozens of gray reef sharks and several huge dogtooth tuna in the mix. After passing the bigeye scad there was a large school of bigeyes (not related to bigeye scad, though both do have rather large eyes). I tried to swim upcurrent to stay with these fish, but dragging the dinghy was too hard and I floated past them within a few minutes and ended the dive. Lisa had been watching all of this from the surface by snorkel, and was just as excited by this experience; we wanted to spend a lot more time with these animals.

All of these scenes were clustered within one square mile surrounding the anchorage. With a town to explore and reprovision at, and decent WiFi at the boat, we weren’t eager to move on. We spent another two and a half weeks in this anchorage, getting to know the area more and more, building up our comfort zones by diving almost every day, and sometimes twice a day, at either the outer wall or the pass itself.

Initially we focused on the outer wall; I dove here with Lisa five times, and twice more solo. While the coral continued onwards well past the mooring ball (I hope and presume it surrounds the entire atoll, though haven’t seen enough to be sure), we only ever dove around the mooring, since it was so convenient and never got boring. After the early hiccups I got better at timing our dives, and we never had to deal with much adverse current again here. We got used to seeing the reef’s regulars — a big school of barracuda was usually around, and quite often there were schools of snapper, rainbow runners, parrotfish. Smaller fish could consistently be seen in the same place; Dascyllus in certain coral heads, a bannerfish that always seemed to be hanging out beneath the same piece of coral. I started to get an understanding of the reef as a community, an underwater metropolis where many of the fish have permanent homes or preferred places to make it through their days. I continued to be amazed by the conditions here. On my second solo dive I went down to 130′, watching the wall continue dropping into the abyss and then looking all the way back up to the clearly visible waves at the surface. So many sights stick in my memory: an octopus we found which came out to peer at us, parrotfish spawning in the shallows and leaving the water milky with egg and sperm, regular sharks cruising over the reef and occasionally a huge napoleon wrasse. Easily one of the best places I’ve ever dived.

Diving in the pass took longer to figure out, but was even more spectacular. While the rest of the pass was great, we were really interested in the group of scad, sharks, and tuna. I dove with this menagerie five times with Lisa, three more solo, and we did drift snorkels over them several times too. At first things were a little rocky; we had trouble timing the tides right or locating the animals, and drift diving together was new to us. We quickly got things sorted out, though, and started being able to dive with them reliably. The best dive was one where we dropped right in on the sharks right around slack. Right from the start we were surrounded, with some clusters of over a dozen sharks all right next to each other. There was no current, and we got to hang out with them for twenty minutes. The main highlight was a bigeye scad with a torn up back that came swimming right up to me, panicking, before taking off. A grouper chased after it and bit at the wounds on its back, then another fish started chasing it too, then a shark arrived and that was the end of the scad. The current turned during the dive and started carrying us away from the sharks. We passed through the bigeyes, some of which were trying to predate on sharp nosed puffers. There were still sharks around, and this was nice, but eventually we drifted past them, the reef petered out, and we surfaced. It was rainy with poor visibility, wind and wind-against-tide waves, but we didn’t care and felt great on the ride back to Magic.

It was especially interesting to see these fish hanging out in roughly the same place all the time. I suppose the scad never fled, even though there were so many predators around, because there was so much food for them being flushed in by the tide. The pass has such a concentration of nutrients that all manner of fish congregate there to feed.

On days when we weren’t diving the outer wall or the pass, we would often dive one of the bommies near the anchorage. These never offered up huge surprises, but we would usually see sharks and lots of fish and interesting macro life — pipefishes, striped shrimp, scallops, many clams of all different colors.

Even the anchorage was great to check out. We loved seeing the school of unicornfish that hung out under the boat, with their ridiculous horns and love for any food scraps that went overboard. One evening I did a night dive from the boat, heading off with a reel to wander around, seeing several morays, lots of urchins, sleepy unicornfishes and other critters.

We were probably at the anchorage a week before we even went into the neighboring town, but this was a cool place too. Flat concrete roads made for great biking and skateboarding, and wandering around and seeing all the happy residents walking or biking made for a relaxed time. Provisions at the stores were meager, but we found some fresh vegetables and some basil bushes growing near the wharf which Lisa was very excited to harvest from.

The town and pass area had even more activities on offer. We did some more beach hiking, and I started hiking out to the point on the opposite side of the pass from the town. There was a wave here that looked good, and I started studying it and went out to try surfing it once. The waves were breaking close to the rocks and I never did get a ride. Later on during our stay there were some northerly swells which generated breaking waves further out, but these were double overhead and after cracking a rib while surfing on Nuku Hiva I was more concerned than normal about my mortality.

I never really knew what to expect from surfing in the Tuamotus, though I’ve heard about waves at other passes which I want to check out. I did expect a lot from kiteboarding here. During the first week and a half there was very little wind, and while this made for great and easy diving conditions I was wondering if the kiting was going to be a bust, too. Fortunately, the wind did eventually fill in and for most of the rest of our stay there was always a breeze. I got in ten days of kiting while we were in the atoll, and there were a couple additional days with good wind where I had equipment issues and didn’t go out.

Kiting at Makemo took some adjustments from Mexico. By and large these were positive changes, but only with some preparation. Because the winds here are tradewinds rather than sea breezes, the wind blows all day and night and is generally weaker. I was glad I’m able to kite in wind speeds down to 11 or 12 knots, and want even more than before to get proficient with a foil board so I can more easily stay upwind in light air. There was some stronger wind, but only one day where it was consistently above 20 knots (this was also the cloudiest and squalliest day we had during our stay, I think a cold front was passing through). With the reduced fetch there were never large waves like La Ventana gets, and at the town I would go to a large bommie / shoal area next to the pass and skim around in flat water in the lee, zipping past coral heads in the electric blue water. It was downright wonderful, another scene from my dreams. I eventually got brave enough to kite over the coral itself, riding around in six inches of water and watching fish fleeing below me. Then I got too brave, tried a toeside turn over the coral, and fell off the board. I didn’t want to walk on the coral to avoid damaging it (and because I had bare feet) so body dragged off the shoal, back to the board, then back off the shoal, in the process scraping my legs up quite a bit. I returned to the boat, blood running down my shins, but continued heading out on later days and having a great time.

The hardest part of kiting here is just getting the kite launched. At first I checked out some of the beaches on the opposite side of the pass, but the palm trees would soak up the wind and it wasn’t strong enough to launch on these steep, narrow, gravel beaches. The first time I successfully got out was from a boat ramp next to the town wharf. I was there with the crew from another boat, Black Watch, and we managed to set up our kites in a spot that just large enough and get out. This was a hassle and wouldn’t help me kite at other anchorages we would visit, so I started redeveloping skills for kiting off the boat. The last time I tried this was two years ago when we were in La Ventana, and we had so many problems with it that we’d sworn it off. That was a while ago, though, and since then I’ve matured a lot and have gotten a lot better at safely handling the kite. We decided to give it another shot. I tried to be careful and diligent in getting the kite in the air, but the first time I tried I spent over an hour and ended with the kite still on the water and a big hairball of lines in my hand. I stuck to it and continued making improvements, and am now able to usually get the kite launched without much of a fuss. One day I never was able to get out. At first I set up the kite, watched it invert, then farted around to try to get that fixed, only for lines on the bar to tangle and force me to release the kite from the boat and fetch it with the dinghy. I tried again, but got delayed after a footstrap on the board broke and it floated to shore. After retrieving the board I launched the kite, watched it do a death loop (due to a snagged line), then released the safety (depowering the kite) and gave up for the day. I clearly still don’t have this launching-from-the-boat thing dialed in, but have more ideas for improvements and want to get a rock solid system in place.

While this was all handled safely it still wore away at me, and later in the day while untangling a different line I had a mini-meltdown and was unable to think straight. After this and a similar episode later in our stay we talked and decided that I just need to let things like this go when I get frustrated. With all my emotional improvements over the past two years I am sometimes still fragile, and kiting in particular has a way to get under my skin. Being in such a wonderful place with such a wonderful woman is a transcendant experience, and I can’t let my quirks get in the way of our enjoyment.

The most surprising thing about our time at Makemo was all the socializing we did. In Mexico we’d never talked to other boats all that much except when we were in La Paz or ran into boats we knew from La Paz. In Nuku Hiva we knew a few other boats, but Makemo took it a step up. There was almost always someone we knew in the anchorage, and many evenings for dinner we either had people come to our boat or went over to theirs. Te Poe Rava and Black Watch came through early on, and later we spent time with Tumbleweed and Mambala. We spent the most time with a few boats that arrived when we’d already been at the atoll for nearly three weeks. Shindig and Pangaea are boats whose crews we met at our planning meetings in La Paz, and whose email updates we followed on their way across the ocean. They are kiters, and we talked about that and launching from the boat and went for a big group snorkel in the pass with several other boats joining.

Some strong winds appeared in the forecast, and we all decided to head to the east end of the atoll, where we would have protection from the winds and hopefully be able to kite off of a sand beach which Rob, on Shindig, had heard about. So one morning we left with Shindig, Pangaea, and a fourth boat, Alcyone, and motored into strong winds, past numerous bommies coming up to the surface (easy to spot in the good sunlight we had, fortunately) for ten miles to a positively gorgeous anchorage. We were in 20′ of water, with fine white sand and scattered coral heads beneath us. We were close to a long palm tree lined beach with a few shacks inland, while to the south the palm trees ended and waves crashed on the awash reefs that form much of the atoll’s boundary. We all stayed here for a week, dubbing the spot Camp Makemo with its assortment of activities on offer: hikes ashore, snorkeling, diving, kiting, and several potlucks aboard the different boats.

Hiking ashore was pretty good. I went ashore with Lisa the first afternoon and we walked along the coral beach before making our way to the outside to watch waves breaking on a bouldery coastline. I did a couple walks here later, and Lisa did several with folks from the other boats, but for me the best hike was on the reef to our south. One afternoon we dinghied over and anchored in knee deep water on the flat limestone. A strong current was running over the reef and into the lagoon, water that had piled up from waves breaking on the outer edge. We made our way closer to the edge of the atoll, and started seeing a lot of fish sheltering behind small boulders, and one blacktip shark. We got pretty close to the breakers, looking up and down the edge of the atoll; such a unique and alien place.

I was surprised by how good the diving was just under the boat. Several times we did short dives visiting these coral heads, seeing the same fish each time — resident groupers, butterflyfishes, wrasses, dascyllus and so forth. The coral heads started looking less like rocks and more like villages, a downsized version of the huge coralscapes we had seen earlier on the outer wall. These animals need a place to live and make it through their days, and the coral provides one. Seeing and understanding a little bit of the ecology here was striking, and a new experience for me after all the diving I’ve done in the past.

Snorkeling in the area was great, too, and we checked out a lot of different areas. At first I was surprised by how much there was to see in what seemed an obscure and isolated part of the atoll, but I think there’s just enough nutrients being pushed in by the waves that life is able to flourish here.

We dived or snorkeled every day, but the main activity for me at camp was kiting. There was, indeed, a great beach for launching here, fine sand and no trees around. I kited from this beach several times, as did the crews of Shindig and Pangaea. There was a large shoal area in front, and I had tons of fun heading up and down it, dodging coral heads, seeing wildlife including a turtle, eagle ray, several sharks. The whole area was gorgeous and easy to ride around in. One especially beautiful feature was a pool, 30′-40′ deep, of blue water surrounded by shallows. One morning I used this as a sort of kiddie pool and set up my foil board nearby, using the pool to practice in without having to worry about getting blown out into the lagoon. The caution was fortunate, as one time after crashing the kite a connector popped open and it deflated, leaving me unable to ride but able to tie my gear off to a rock and walk/wade/swim back to the dinghy.

The great launching beach was tide dependent, underwater all but a few hours each day. I wanted to kite more, and close to the end of our time at camp I tried to launch from a nearby beach, which was coral gravel with some small pieces of rubble. The kite caught on a bit of rubble, blowing an 8 inch hole in it. I tried to repair it that night, patching the internal bladder and sewing some ripstop tape over the tears in the leading edge itself. Later I tried to fly this, and the repair promptly failed (the ripstop tape was too lightweight), ending my kiting at camp. I’m not sure there’s much of a lesson to be gathered from this that I didn’t already know, but it does reinforce the need to get a good system for kiting from the boat in place.

Over our time at camp we also got to know the folks who were living ashore here, four guys harvesting copra (coconut meat) from the palms. One afternoon while we were all at our boats they came by to give us some coconuts and palm hearts, and play music for us, which was really nice. The next day Lisa went ashore with everyone else and hiked for hours with one of them, David, while I was on the boat obsessed with some repair issues. I was sorry I missed this hike, but the next day — our last day at camp — we went ashore with Mike and Katie from Pangaea, and were invited in to talk to them for a while, drinking beer and having a good time. We left to go hiking, came back and talked to them a while longer, then had to head to our boat and leave the camp. It’s hard for me to personally relate to the work these guys are doing, but they seemed really happy and living peacefully, and it was great to see them enjoying life on the atoll as much as we do.

We left camp and motored for two hours back to the town anchorage. The winds built along the way, with grey weather and challenging conditions on arrival. The first time we anchored we ended up too close to a neighboring boat, and on trying to move the anchor chain kept getting snagged on all the limestone formations on the bottom. I dove down to clear it, raised the anchor, moved the boat, then dove again to help Pangaea clear their anchor, as they’d also ended up too close to another boat. (It’s not a huge anchorage, and when we first arrived only had a few boats, but as our stay progressed it slowly got more crowded.) We wanted to leave the atoll for our next destination, but the next day was pretty gross and windy so we waited and I kited some more. The following day, June 2nd, began with nice weather. I dove down and raised the anchor with a lift bag to avoid more drama, then we headed out the pass.

Our time at Makemo was amazing. In many ways it was my dreams and hopes about what these atolls are like that carried me into the cruising lifestyle, down to Mexico, then across the Pacific. Seeing this place in the flesh, and having arrived with the knowledge, skills, tools, and toys to enjoy it so thoroughly is incredibly satisfying.

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