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Fakarava

Click on the map for an overall view of the Tuamotus
Click the map for an overview of the Tuamotus

Language: Tuamotian, French
Population: About 450 Polynesians and French, living mostly by the northern pass in the village of Rotoava.
Money: French Polynesian Franc
Landscape: Coral atoll: a ring of low coral islands (motus) encircling a lagoon 37 miles X 25 miles.
History: The history of all the Tuamotu Islands is found on the Tuamotu map page.
Visited: July 25-August 2, 2003

Read about diving in Fakarava!
Also, check out the newsletter we sent out while we were in Fakarava!

(Sue) We entered Fakarava via the magnificent southern pass, called Tumakohua Pass. Several decades ago this was the cultural, social and political center of the Tuamotus, but all that remains today are ruins of the administration buildings, a prison, and a small church built from coral in 1862.

Entering the southern pass, past the small dive resort
Entering the southern pass, past the small dive resort

     There are couple small resorts here, now, with a dive shop. the biggest surprise here was the profusion of small sharks that clustered around the yachts, just like reef fish, swarming near when food crumbs were thrown onto the water. these were 4 or 5 foot black tipped sharks, with lovely tan bodies. They completely ignored us when we went swimming. The pass diving is out of this world: with lovely coral, dozens of big sharks, and millions of fish. We were lucky enough to get to borrow scuba gear from other cruising boats and take some dives while others drifted above the divers. This time we dragged a small floating ball so the dinghy crew could keep track of the divers!
    We sailed up the eastern shore of the atoll and sent a few days alone off some vacation houses where we found domestic (but un-penned) pigs snuffling along the beach. Apparently if you whack open a coconut they go crazy for the fresh coconut meat!

Nets of pearl oysters hang on long lines in the clear water.
Nets of pearl oysters hang on long lines in the clear water

    At the northern end we navigated around and sometimes through massive pearl farms (marked by buoys with ropes between them from which the pearl nets hang.) The July Heiva Festival for all the Tuamotus was happening in Rotoava village from July 29 to Aug 2 and we saw most of it. Much more sophisticated than the Makemo dancing, the festival attracted competitors from 15 atolls who danced in full costume and large dance troops under a big enclosure every night.
    During the day we got to watch fruit races (men carrying 30 kilos of coconuts on shoulder sticks, who ran barefoot over the coral roads), and copra contests in which the men shuck coconuts and dig out the meat just as they do to prepare the copra for sale.  There were tables of seashell jewelry for sale, and demonstrations of "tressage" or palm frond weaving. Our favorite was probably the "Javelot" where the men threw hand-hewn spears at a coconut suspended on a 50-ft-high pole (15 m).

Harvesting a pearl: finding the gonad sack inside the shell.
Finding the gonad sack inside the shell.
The mantle is the dark fleshy rim.

     We got to tour a pearl farm and hear all about the seeding of the pearls (done by men from China) with seed pearls from the Mississippi River.  Each one is a sphere about the size of a pencil eraser, and covered in a yellow antibacterial agent to help reduce the risk of rejection by the live oyster.  To create the "black" (really any color other than white) color of the pearls, a tiny slice of the mantle (like the lips) of another oyster is put in with the seed pearl. Once the oyster is seeded and hung in the lagoon in its net, if it rejects either the seed or the mantle it is tossed aside.  The oysters are brought up every few months and carefully scrubbed and cleaned, then re-netted and hung again. The standard time to allow pearls to grow used to be 2 to 3 years, but now the pearls are harvested in less than 2 years.  Consequently the quality of Tahitian pearls has decreased over the years.  The older pearls used to have 1.5 mm of nacre (what we consider "pearl" around the seed), but now an acceptable pearl need have only 0.8 mm of nacre.  This thickness is determined by x-ray once the pearls are sold to the wholesalers in Tahiti. Odd shaped pearls, often with strange lusters, are called "keshi" and have become more valuable in recent years. Tahitian black pearls are very high priced: all due to artificially raised prices and control of the supply.

A large "keshi" - still a pearl, but misshapen.
A large "keshi" - still a pearl, but misshapen

(Amanda)  In Fakarava, I did my first dive since Bonaire and my certification, which was exciting with sharks around us in the southeastern pass of Fakarava. We got started a bit late though, resulting in a very slack or even slightly outward tide, which made it a bit of a struggle to get back in. But we had a float on top, and the only untoward happening was Chris's burst hose which resulted in a fountain of bubbles appearing on top, followed shortly by a very confused Christopher.
    The highlight of Fakarava was really the festival, though a lot of it was standing around in the hot sun waiting for things to happen. Javelot was a very interesting one, along with the fruit carry - which sort of turned into coconut carry. There was copra-preparing, which was interesting if slightly dull, along with palm-frond weaving. And then the dancing. There was dancing on all four nights of the fet, and finally we were able to see some more of the Marquesian haka-style, warlike dancing, rather than the more typical things we were seeing in the other islands. All the dances was probably my favorite part of the festival.

Glorious Tuamotu sailing! Inside the lagoon.
Glorious Tuamotu sailing! Inside the lagoon

(Jon)  Fakarava was one of my favorite atolls.  In the south end, we did some excellent diving (both snorkeling and scuba), saw lots of sharks, and made some new cruising friends.  Then we cruised the pristine northeast shore, exploring with our friends on Mariposa.  In the village on the north end we learned a lot about pearl oysters and pearl farming, did some more snorkeling, found some pearl oysters we could harvest, and saw some wonderful cultural events (that were originally planned for French President Jacques Chirac).

We usually have someone up the mast while navigating an atoll's inner lagoon
We usually have someone up the mast
when navigating an atoll's inner lagoon

   We had a rollicking good sail from Tahanea with our friends on the Swan 57 Cowrie Dancer.  We had to have faith in our GPS as the southern entrance pass into Fakarava leads almost due north, and we couldn't see it until we were less than a mile away.   It really makes me wonder how cruisers navigated around this area before GPS.  Even the $1,600 Satellite Navigator (based on the Navy's Transit system) that we had on Oriental Lady would have had trouble.
    We had a strange shock when we anchored that first day:  We were by far the smallest cruising boat!  Our 45' is about average for US boats (and on the large side for European boats) but our company for the first few nights were 2 Swans (a very expensive and luxurious brand of monohull) of 57' and 60', and a custom designed 60 footer.  Luckily, they all had extra scuba equipment, and were not above loaning it out, so we did some very nice dives there, drifting through the pass with the incoming current, and watching the several dozen sharks that were waiting for dinner to come to them.

Few spears hit the coconut, so a forest of them would form opposite the pole
Few spears hit the coconut, so a forest
of them would form opposite the pole

(Chris)  I really enjoyed our stay in Fakarava. We went on several dives through really nice passes in the reef, and enjoyed the festival in town. As my dad mentioned, several other cruisers loaned us gear, and there were lots of great sights underwater. There weren't many kids on the the other boats, and those were much younger than me, but the cruising community is always nice to be with.
     On the other hand, spending some time in the town and seeing the local celebrations was really great. Watching the basket weaving and coconut shelling was interesting, but didn't really hold my interest. The outrigger canoe races were fun to watch, though we couldn't see very much of them. The javelin throwing and dancing were definitely the coolest things to see. The javelins were really spears, about six feet long, with an eight inch steel blade on the end. They were thrown at a target consisting of a coconut in its husk (about the size of a person's head) stuck on the top of a vertical 15 meter (50 foot) pole. The men were standing on the edge of a circle with perhaps an 80 foot radius, and although only a few of the spears would hit in any particular volley, most of them would come pretty close. The far side of the circle (the throwers stood first on one side, then the other) became a forest of upright spears from more than 100 missed throws. I could easily imagine a tribal battle, in which these spears would be the opening volleys, with the spearmen falling back as the enemy charged across the field... they would have been a formidable weapon.

Both the synchronized groups and the talented solo dancers were fun to watch
Both the synchronized groups and the
talented solo dancers were fun to watch

    The dancing was undoubtedly the most fun thing to watch on Fakarava. The style of the groups was interesting; although they often danced in the same dances, there was almost no interaction between men and women, or any of the dancers. Most groups performed very similar dances in mixed-gender groups of 15 to 30 young people, but I personally really liked the soloists, because they gave a chance to really appreciate just how amazing these peoples' movements were. It was absolutely unbelievable how graceful and flexible they were! Apparently several islands have schools devoted to learning these dances, which involve the men stepping and stamping, and the women wiggling their hips, while doing completely different motions with their upper bodies. I can't adequately describe it in writing, but the sight was well worth seeing.

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