My family and I stayed inside the lagoon of Fakarava for two weeks this past June on our way to Tahiti. There was much to see and experience while we visited the atoll. It was an awesome place to discover. One of 76 atolls in the Tua Motus of French Polynesia, Fakarava is located in the Southern Pacific Ocean southwest of the Marquesas Islands and northeast of Tahiti. Like all atolls, it is hard to see sailing toward it as it is a low lying coral reef surrounding a lagoon that at one time was an island having sunk millions of years ago. Its reef crown is an unusual rectangular shape; most atolls are round shaped. Considered the second largest atoll of the Tua Motus after Rangiroa, it is 60km (32 miles) long and 25km (15 miles) wide. You cannot see to the other side of the atoll it’s that large.
Fakarava has two main villages, Rotoava in the north side where they is an airport, two roads, a couple food stores, a café or two, a hotel, a couple pensions, a pearl store, a small elementary school, and 4 dive shops. It is where the large ships dock and where most of the people live. Tetamanu village in the south can only be reached by boat, has zero cars, and one family run dive center and pension. It is where the first church was built in all of the atolls in 1874. The church is special because it was constructed entirely out of coral blocks made by heating coral into ash and once cooled, shaping the ash into blocks with water mixed in. The mortar and stucco are all made out of coral ash and water. Once dried, the blocks and mortar are as solid and heavy as cement. Amazing!
Fakarava has a couple black pearl farms and is the only atoll that has a pink sand beach, which we purposely visited while in the south to bring back home a vial of the unusual sand for our sand collection.
But most importantly of all, the atoll is known for it’s incredible diving sights and crystal clear waters. The atoll draws most of its income from pearl farming and tourism. It is known for its marine bio-diversity and as such is a UNESCO protected reserve. The UNESCO acronym stands for: United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.
There are two passes of entrance into Fakarava lagoon. Garuae in the north is the biggest pass in all of the Tua Motus, and Tamakohua in the south. Or you can just fly into the northern airport, which is what most people do. When we went through the northern pass, it was late in the day, raining and windy plus the tide was exiting. Kandu can motor 6 knots, but the current and wind were so strong that we pushed through the water at only 2 knots over ground. It was stressful. To look for coral heads, Bryce was ordered to climb the mast in the rain.
Fakarava is the only atoll we visited out of all the 76 atolls. Most atolls have really good diving, but especially Fakarava because it has two passes and several dive shops to rent equipment. I got certificated in diving there as well as my brother. It was amazing to dive. We got to see so many different interesting plants and animals under the water. The coral gardens were very beautiful in Fakarava because the lagoon’s water circulates vigorously in and out two times per day due to the fluctuating tides. The water is not at all polluted as there aren’t any mountains for water to run-off and hardly any people live there to dirty the water. The people grow coconut trees to harvest copra, but because the coral is nutrient starved, people have to import dirt if they want to grow other trees in their back yard. There are not many of the typical tropical fruit trees there, which was why we brought large bags of Marquesan limes, oranges and grapefruit with us to consume and to share with the locals.
When we first got to Fakarava, it was rainy and cloudy for three days. It was not very hospitable, but in those three days Bryce and I became certified scuba divers in private lessons (we were the only ones there) and learned how to dive down to 80 feet which was amazing. Bryce and I already had a little experience breathing pressurized air underwater using our hookah while cleaning the underside of Kandu, but being free to swim long distances underwater was marvelous. The first reef dive I did was the most memorable because it was extraordinarily beautiful. My parents, Bryce and I dove together over a colorful reef that had hundreds or maybe thousands of fish so close I could practically touch them. I also saw many sharks swimming around. The next day we dove again in the north passage to try to see three hundred sharks but when I got in the water and swam down I noticed that there weren’t three hundred, instead maybe one hundred which was still quite special. The current was strong that dive, so our instructor suggested we carefully hold on to some coral while looking around in one spot in order not to breath all our air. At one point the current was so strong I felt like I was super man. My brother took a GoPro picture upside down.
Fakarava boasts three main kinds of sharks: black tip, white tip, and grey fin, along with the occasional hammerhead and tiger sharks. Once a year during the full moon in June the sharks assemble to mate and to feast on the groupers that congregate there also to mate. We were very fortunate to be in Fakarava during the month of June to witness this special gathering of marine life. There was a 2016 Fifo documentary called “Le Mystere Merou” that filmed all about the gathering sharks and groupers. While we were moored in the south, four film crews, one from Japan, Australia, Britain and the same French documentary crew arrived to film what we got to see in person.
While in the north, along with diving, we enjoyed an incredible guided night walk along the coral reef of the outside atoll rim. Our guide showed us how to catch fish without a hook and line, but by using a club to stun them; he chased and caught three medium sized reef fish in the dark! He also taught us how to grab crabs from behind; none of us dared try! He discouraged us from collecting live shells from the coral reef, yet along the dry beach during our walk back, we amassed quite a few beautiful specimens empty of critters. During our return to the car, it started to blow and pour down rain. Luckily it wasn’t particularly cold as we all got soaked.
We stayed in North Fakarava for a week to obtain our diving certificate. While there we enjoyed fun times at Snack Plage of the nearby Pearl Havaiki Pension and tied into the web at a local cafe: La Paillote.
Then the wind changed coming from the south which generated a large uncomfortable fetch, so we decided to sail down to the south pass, which was not nearly as fun as the northern pass because the diving lessons were over. After three hours of motoring against the wind, we tied up to a brand new, free mooring buoy provided by UNESCO to protect the coral; that made things easy and very secure against the powerful wind. All we needed to do was attach two strong lines around the mooring loop, and then we dropped the dinghy in the water and motored to Tetamanu village to look around.You can surf at the south passage but it is dangerous because the coral reef is covered by only three feet of water. If you fall you’re likely to get hurt on the reef. Despite knowing the conditions, Bryce and I went to observe the surf spot anyway, while mom and dad went to deliver a large sack of grapefruit to the owner of the dive and pension center. When Bryce and I went off exploring, we found the coral block church; it was still there with a new coat of paint (on a side note – Mom sang there during their evening Saturday service). It looked bright and cheerful.
Back to our exploring, Bryce and I walked along the coral-lined pass and finally arrived at the intimidating surf spot. True to its reputation, we noticed that the waves crashed over a very shallow reef. We studied the daunting spot for a bit. The waves were perfect but the reef was not good. As we were walking back my parents also wanted to see the surf spot, so we returned together and watched the waves again. Since my brother really likes surfing and insisted on going, my dad figured out a way to get close to the surf by dinghy instead of trying to walk over the prickly coral reef.
A couple mornings later we got ready to go surfing. When we all arrived in the dinghy at the spot, Bryce and I were really excited and scared of the reef, but we headed out ignoring our fear. My mom and dad were watching from a little distance attached to a mooring while the two of us paddled together to the surf. The surf was so crazy that Bryce and I only caught one or two waves during that hour, but we felt it was a good start.
Finally the weather and water cleared to allow us to dive the southern pass. We all woke up early, ate breakfast quickly, and then prepared our equipment to dive. Before heading out from the dive center, the dive instructor gave us instructions on what we were going to do; we then loaded into the dive boat, motored to the middle of the south pass and fell backwards into the water. That dive wasn’t super exciting because there were several other people along with us. Yet we did see many groupers stealthily posing among the coral heads eyeing us as we floated by, plus we got to touch a couple large and colorful sea slugs.
We dove the south pass again the next day just the four of us and while we didn’t see nearly as many groupers, we witnessed four hundred sharks swimming nonchalantly nearby and a really big spotted bat ray; that second dive was so much better. Later that night we motored our dinghy over to a pizza restaurant built on a motu to meet up with three other boats. That’s where Bryce and I first met Emily and Isabelle from the sailboat ‘Blue Raven.’ It had been so long since we ate pizza that we ate so much it hurt; it was delicious! The next day we arranged a movie swap with the girls. Hurray, we got new movies! And just two days later after lots of snorkeling and our last surf session when Bryce left behind a couple chunks of skin from his foot, we departed Fakarava to sail to Tahiti. The weather indicated it was time to go.
Our stay in Fakarava was one of the best so far. My favorite part was learning how to dive. What an incredible pleasure to dive in warm and exceptionally clear water. I can’t wait to dive some more at other places in the world.