Magic Log #13: Nuku Hiva

We were tired and exhilarated after the three week crossing from Mexico. Taiohae Bay was unlike any place we had taken Magic, a beautiful bay with jungle on all sides and a fairly busy town at its back. With a population of 1700, the town is the largest in the Marquesas and larger than anywhere in the next archipelago, the Tuamotus; one would need to travel 800 miles and pass by hundreds of islands before reaching a larger city at Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia on Tahiti.

We spent about three weeks on Nuku Hiva. Before arriving we didn’t expect that much from the Marquesas and mainly planned on reprovisioning and quickly moving on. In the end, we really loved our time here, and despite some downsides — rain, bugs — it was an intense and invigorating experience, and one that I’m still absorbing.

After a few hours at anchor to rest, we got the dinghy ready and headed into town. Getting onto shore was a head scratcher after so many days at sea; there was a concrete wharf offering some protection from the swell, with several powerboats tied up bow and stern with lines just under the surface leading out to buoys, forming a little maze. Along the wharf were several tires suspended on rusty, eaten out chains; a lot of dinghys were tied up to these, so we tied up too, and climbed up the tires to get onto the wharf and onto dry land. We walked along the waterfront, watching the beach breaking surf and enjoying the flowering trees, and perused a few grocery stores. It felt very different and nice to be on shore. After a while we came back to the boat and relaxed the rest of the evening. It was especially great to finally get a full night’s sleep with Lisa again.

Over the next few days we started adjusting to the new climate here. We’d dealt with a lot of rain on the passage but the rain at the island was another step up. There was strong rain every day. Usually this didn’t affect things too much, as it would only rain for a couple hours and often just during the night, but it’s certainly different from Mexico and we had to make some changes in reaction. The second day at anchor I fixed several leaks we’d found in the deck, after which the boat stayed pretty dry on the inside. A larger, ongoing concern was that we had to be diligent about keeping clothes, towels, and other fabric items hung up to dry; we’d developed a habit of keeping this stuff in piles out in the cockpit, which is a recipe for mold in this climate and had to be broken. A positive side to the rain was we were able to collect lots of water for showers and rinsing things; we’d never done this before, but without much effort we figured out how to direct water from our sunshades into some bins and buckets we had. During our time on Nuku Hiva we saw a couple of squalls which gave us 30 gallons of water this way in less than an hour.

At the same time, we got used to life in town. Checking into the country went smoothly; we used Yacht Services Nuku Hiva, whose proprietor, Kevin, was very helpful and gave us a lot of information about the town and island. We spent time at the main cruiser hangout, a cafe near the wharf. Mostly, though, we relaxed on the boat.

I was eager to go diving; this area was completely new to me and I wanted to see what it was like. Two days after arriving I felt pretty recovered and went out while Lisa was in town using the internet. I found a nice looking spot near the mouth of the bay, inside the east sentinel (the east and west sentinels are small, steep-to islands framing the bay’s entrance). I had a great dive, seeing lots of new fish and some familiar fish, plus a manta ray. The coral and visibility were pretty good, and the warm water was wonderful. I was comfortable the entire dive in a thin wetsuit top (the year round warm water here was a big reason we made the crossing; we have to wear a lot of neoprene when diving in the Sea of Cortez in winter or spring).

On the way back from the dive I saw several mantas at the surface in the middle of the bay, not far from the anchorage. I returned to the boat, cleaned up, picked up Lisa, and had lunch. After that we went out to look for the mantas, finding them in about the same place. Lisa went snorkeling first and started squealing with delight. There were dozens of manta rays, probably fifty in total, swooping around and feeding in the murky water. Even in the dinghy, I watched them pass under me one after another. After Lisa swam with them for a little while, we went back to the boat to get the camera gear, then I swam with them for a bit, then she went again. This was an awesome experience, more intense than anything we had seen at San Benedicto, and on top of this it was a complete surprise; we had heard of mantas at these islands but not like this. While we didn’t see this many mantas again in the bay, we saw groups of several individuals pretty regularly here and at other anchorages on Nuku Hiva. The rest of the day we just kind of soaked in the high of the snorkeling.

Seeing mantas while running the dinghy is one thing, but after the disaster last year at San Benedicto (see here) I have mixed feelings about seeing them while diving from an unmanned boat. I probably should have done this before even getting in the water, but after seeing the manta while diving I got to work on building a hopefully manta-proof anchor. Back in the US last fall I bought some 1/2″ PVC pipe, cut it into 5′ sections, and brought it down to the boat. Now 6 months later, I pulled an old halyard through these sections, with a stopper knot every 10′ to keep them from sliding around too much. My plan was to use this as the anchor rode — the PVC pipe is there to keep mantas from getting tangled in the line — and, after descending, to tie the anchor into a piece of structure on the bottom so that a manta couldn’t simply snag the rode and swim away with the dinghy.

After preparing the anchor I went out again to the same spot as the previous day to try out the new system. The anchoring went smoothly, and I didn’t see any mantas on the dive, but there were other nice sights, in particular an amazing octopus. It was just moving out in the open along the reef, and after seeing me retreated to a small rock formation. It didn’t have a good hole to squeeze into here, and I followed it from one side of the rock to another. It was a remarkable camouflage artist; in an instant it would disguise as a rock, with a mottled color and many ridgelines forming along its skin, and in another instant the ridgelines melted back into smooth, brown skin as it slinked away. I figured out later that this was a Day Octopus, which are diurnal and need to quickly hide as they roam around the reef in search of food.

Before arriving in the Marquesas Lisa had not been too interested in diving here, reading reports about murky, shark filled waters. After the first two dives I did she wanted to head out too, so the next day we did. Conditions were still pretty good, but the surge was a little off putting and we headed back to the dinghy early. At the surface we spotted several mantas nearby, and I went for a short dive with them.

We had been in Taiohae Bay for nearly a week at this point and were itching to go out and explore more of the island. I had another chance to dive before we left, and with smooth conditions out on the ocean I went to a more exposed spot, on the outside of the west sentinel. Anchoring in a narrow channel between the sentinel and a detached rock, I descended to 70′ and found an octopus clutching the anchor. They have a fondness for shiny things, and while this was pretty funny I shooed it away so I could set the anchor and go exploring. This was a great dive, probably the best I did on Nuku Hiva. Several sharks, a close up look at a turtle, clear water, and a spectacular sheer wall covered in fish rounded out the sights.

Soon after getting back from the dive we headed out for Daniel’s Bay, four miles to the west, to see a very different set of attractions. The bay was incredibly beautiful, maybe the prettiest place we’ve ever taken Magic. After rounding a corner we anchored near the mouth of the bay, beneath a 2000′ valley wall, green and ringed with spires and ridges and several tall, thin waterfalls in the distance, like silver ribbons. One waterfall on this wall, Vaipo Falls, is the tallest waterfall in French Polynesia and one of the tallest in the world, and was our main destination here.

The next morning we took the dinghy ashore on the beach at the base of the valley. We started walking up a dirt doubletrack past hundreds of fruit trees and a few houses, talked to a few residents, and paid a local, Paul, $20 for access to the hiking trail here and for some fruit after the hike. The round trip hike to the falls took about five hours, and was a great and varied experience. We had good weather on the hike to the falls, heading into the jungle, across the valley’s river a couple times, and past many ruins — stone foundations and pathways, evidence of the much larger community that occupied this valley just a few hundred years ago. After paralleling the river for a while we got some views of the falls, and we then followed a side drainage beneath huge walls to a pool at the base of the waterfall’s lowest drop. We swam up as close as we could to the falls, enjoying the cool water and the wildness of the place. As we started heading back the weather opened up, raining hard for about half the rest of the hike. The rain was warm and quite pleasant to just walk around in with no protection, and the valley became enshrouded in mist and had a very different feeling to it. We didn’t see anyone on the hike after leaving the village.

After resting at the boat for a bit, we returned to the beach to paddle surf and boogie board in the puny waves. Paul came by, I put a bunch of bananas and a bag of limes on my paddleboard and headed around the waves to put them in the dinghy. Later we hung the banana bunch at the back of the boat; they started ripening the next day and for the next week we had as many bananas as we could pick and eat.

I went out solo for a dive the next morning, outside Daniel’s Bay near point Temokomoko. I anchored in 70′ and checked out the steep walls in the area, which had little coral but lots of fish. The highlights were a few sharks and two octopus side by side in a crack. At first I just saw one of them. After watching and petting it a little I noticed what looked like a detached tentacle nearby. I touched it, and it immediately latched onto my hand and started pulling it into the crack. I had to brace on a rock to pull my hand out, and in the process managed to brush my stomach against another rock and get stung, leaving a five inch welt. The octopus around here mean business; I think the second one was using its tentacle as a lure for fish, or maybe it was just a jerk.

Our outboard was giving some trouble when I went out diving, dying a few times at lower speeds, but I managed to make it back to Magic alright. After resting a bit we wanted to go out and snorkel, but the outboard was still acting up. I installed a new carburetor we had onboard, and it seemed to be fine (the old carburetor gave us a lot of trouble last season after being fed varnished fuel and getting a saltwater bath; we’d had it repaired but it seemed to be back to its old tricks and I didn’t want to repeat our experience from last season). We went out, staying near some fringing reefs inside the bay. We saw several sea turtles, but the water was too murky for good snorkeling. We explored outside the bay and still didn’t find a good site, so we headed back and went ashore in the eastern lobe of Daniel’s Bay, hiking around and looking at the plethora of crabs making their homes in the sand, mud, and trees along a small stream.

We returned to Taiohae Bay the next day, as we needed internet access for a few more days. While staying there we tried diving a couple of times, but the swell had increased dramatically and most places had poor visibility and too much surge. I got in one dive by myself, which was mediocre except at the beginning. After descending I looked around for a rock to tie the dinghy too, only to see what looked like a rock swimming towards me. It was a huge stingray, 5′ across, which glided gently by. As soon as it left, two mantas showed up. One passed me and then headed right for the anchor line. Visions of the accident last year flashed in my eyes, but the ray saw the line in time, reared up to dodge it, and swam away (another advantage of using PVC is that it is bright white and wider than the three strand nylon inside it, making it more visible).

We had made reservations earlier to rent a car from Kevin, and spent a day touring the island, a reprieve from the swell. It was fun being the passenger (the car had a stick shift, and Lisa had to drive) and really interesting seeing the rest of the island. Generally good concrete roads twisted around through the jungle with lots of great views of the ocean and coastline. We stopped at a couple of sites with ruins, one of which was quite extensive and had some interesting petroglyphs and a magnificent banyan tree. We went up to the north coast first, came back to Taiohae bay for lunch, then went most of the way to the airport at the northwest end of the island, turning around after we climbed into the clouds and ran out of views. The upper elevation stuff in the later part of the day was especially interesting, this part of the island has very different flora with lots of conifers and tree ferns.

After returning the car we again had nothing to do in the bay. We left the next afternoon for Bahie Controleur, a few miles to the east. I was interested in diving here, but I mostly wanted to surf. We’d seen one promising break in the western lobe on the drive, and heard about a good longboard break in the middle lobe. We anchored in the western lobe, alone except for some goats and pigs along the shoreline. I went paddlesurfing a bit nearby, and checked out the much nicer break in the middle lobe by dinghy, but it was too late in the day to try surfing there.

The next morning I left a little after first light, excited for my first good surfing opportunity in over two years. I had lots of fun for about an hour in the mellow, waist-chest high surf, and then as I was finishing a ride I fell off on the wrong side — the beach side — of the board. The breaking wave drove the board into my chest. I doubled over in pain and gasped for breath as I walked in to the beach (my leash had broken earlier in the session and I didn’t have the board anymore). After resting for a bit I felt better and tried surfing again, getting another ride but it was hard to paddle with my discomfort. I went back to the dinghy and returned to Magic to rest; a few hours later I was having a lot of trouble moving (presumably my tissues were inflamed as my body started to heal). It seemed that I had probably cracked a rib, and the only sensible thing would be to forget surfing (especially unfortunate, as I’d wanted to take Lisa to the break), rest, and recover.

We spent two more nights at the anchorage. I enjoyed the scenery, played videogames, and slept. The first afternoon Lisa had some fun kayaking around the boat and enjoying the company of a few resident manta rays, but otherwise she relaxed as well. It was a fun time, and I quickly started healing.

Our next destination was, again, Taiohae Bay. In La Paz we became familiar with the concept of a cruising vortex, a place that has enough services, supplies, and a social scene that it is difficult to leave. Taiohae Bay is definitely one of these vortexes, and I was getting desperate to escape its clutches. We made plans to stay just a couple more days, finish up provisioning for the next stage of the trip, and use the internet for the last time for a while. We also had time for one more dive. The swell had come down and we went out together, finding a nice spot with little surge, decent visibility, and great coral and fish. It was really nice to do a mellow dive with Lisa, something that had been missing from our trip so far.

There was one more destination we wanted to visit before leaving Nuku Hiva. We had been hearing about Anaho Bay for weeks. This bay is on the north side of the island, protected from the swell, and it had built up in our minds into a kind of Shangri-la, a spot with calm, clear water, and a coral reef ideal for diving. We left Taiohae in the morning for the five hour trip to Anaho, finding decent but unsettled conditions. About halfway there a group of melon-headed whales (a kind of dolphin) followed us on and off for about an hour, very cool. Conditions were pleasant as we approached Anaho Bay, and I hooked and then landed a nice tuna, maybe fifteen pounds — the second largest fish I’ve ever caught, but it seemed tiny compared to the one we caught at the end of our passage. As we entered Anaho we saw some rain activity at the back of the bay, and as we got halfway in we were hit by a wall of wind and pelting rain. Visibility was shot and we could barely see the sides of the bay, so we quickly decided to back off and wait in the outer parts of the bay for the weather to pass. The heavy weather continued for about half an hour, and it was a relief when we finally got in, anchored, and had a wonderful fish burrito lunch.

Rain and squalls continued until the next morning. As things abated we went out in the dinghy to look for a good spot to snorkel or dive, but with all the sediment in the water it was hopeless. We returned to the boat pretty morose, sick of the gray weather and feeling like Anaho was a bust. Eventually we tried to salvage things by going to shore and exploring. There is a small village in the bay, very laid back and remote; it is only reachable by boat and trail, and the main ways of getting around are by foot and horse.

The tide was out and exposed a gigantic tide pool, hundreds of feet wide and half a mile long. This was a tremendous amount of fun to pick our way through, by far the best tide pool I’ve ever explored. Early on I was watching a school of moorish idols flashing black and yellow in the knee deep water when I noticed a suspicious animal swimming away. I followed it and confirmed it was an octopus as it tried to camouflage on the bottom. I caught it — getting repeatedly sprayed with ink in the process — and carried it to shallower water so that Lisa could enjoy it for a while. It was fascinating to watch as it picked its way along the bottom, probing with its long tentacles for any place it could get away from the giants towering over it. After ten minutes I carried it back to where I found it and watched as it swam off and found a place to hide.

We also saw a good sized moray in the tide pool, many smaller eels, lots of juvenile fish and crabs, and some larger parrotfish and pufferfish. Exploring the tide pool was a great and completely unexpected experience, and reminded us that we shouldn’t hold onto our preconceptions too strongly when seeing a new place.

After a night of rain, we woke up in the morning to calm conditions. I did a few last minute boat projects, then we left for the 500 mile passage to the Tuamotus.

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