Sunday 30 August 2020

Waterfalls and Hills - Tahiti and Mo'orea

The Society Islands are volcanic, with towering hills rising steeply from the sea. On the whole all the settlements and roads are located at sea level hugging the shoreline. And so there is an enticing looking interior to explore.  It can be a challenge, though to find paths and routes. 

Fataua Waterfalls, Tahiti

On Tahiti, one excursion I enjoyed with friends (whilst Andy back in the UK) was to the Fautaua waterfall....quite close by to the main town of Pape'ete. To gain access I first had to visit the hotel de ville (town hall) to get permission and pay for a day pass. A short taxi ride took us to the trail head. Only one of the two trails was open (rather to my relief, as I had heard the other, upper path necessitated an element of climbing.)

The trail followed the valley floor initially through pleasant pasture.

Very soon the valley narrowed and we found ourselves in tangled green forest on narrow paths.

The trail zig zagged back and forwards across the river - sometimes providing a challenge with deep water and slippery rocks

Until we arrived at the 300 metre falls....perfect for a picnic and a swim.

Retracing our steps we lost our way a couple of times, but eventually  reached the village close to the trailhead....and were able to catch a bus back to town.


Maps showed a clear path up yo the viewpoint behind the main Tahiti town of Papeete. However, tirned out that this path was either a water company access point or non instead we took the small road up and up the ateep hills. At the top was a slightly  fancy restaurant where we sat out on rhe terasse, enjoyed the view and drank cold beer.


A lower key excursion with Andy was a quest to find our way up to the big white cross that overlooks Papeete town. We found a pleasant track up winding its way up the hills through light woodland.

We emerged onto grassy slopes...

...for a good view of the town....but didn't think to capture our arrival at the cross!

Thursday 13 August 2020

Dancing with Whales

There are few places in the world where one is allowed or able to swim with Humpback whales.  But being allowed to do something and having the opportunity to do something are two different things altogether.  When we are sitting up at night being drenched by heavy seas and rain, asking ourselves, why do we do it? This is why.

Video and Pictures courtesy of Fergus and Jenevora on Two Drifters, with whom we were fortunate to share this amazing experience.

Our first attempt at sighting whales was in the presence of three other large groups of tourists from competing whale watching companies.  Somehow we had expected to be on our own. The disappointment was palpable when instead of whales ahead of us, we saw tourist boats and groups of people in the water.  Heads up and looking cold.

It was explained to us that to swim with the whales we had to wait for the sleeping creatures to take a breath, something that might take 30 to 40 minutes, so that we would know where they were.  When they breached, we would expect to see them before they returned to sleeping vertically underwater.  This would be the chance to enter the water and hover over them, looking down some twenty metres to see the shadowy creatures below us.  It all seemed unlikely but we sat in expectation and we waited and waited.  Nothing, and then we heard on the radio that the visibility was poor so that previous sightings had not been very good.  Over forty minutes passed, there were too many people and the whales had gone.  Our guide had had enough, this was wasting time.  The engine of our launch reared into action, we were off leaving the other tour groups still bobbing in the water.   Was this it?  

Our next stop was to see the dolphins in one of the passes through the coral reef but this also proved unsuccessful.  We were, though, able to enjoy more humans in the water. This time in rather more impressive poses than the ones we had recently left behind.  Two out of two failures. We really were going to have to return another day.   After continuing further around the island, the guide thought he saw a whale breaching, and our small craft accelerated towards the apparent sighting. Two more sightings were made still some way off.  We arrived and started the waiting game again.

A shout, a change in colour of the water had been spotted, and right beside the boat first one and then a second humpback whale breached.

They were moving fast so there was no chance to enter the water to swim with them.  How could one seriously snorkel close to a whale, these were wild animals and the ocean spread out in front of us was no swimming pool.  I would have been happy to settle for another close-up experience of the breaching whales, or maybe if we were lucky a tail flick.  

We waited.  Silence and then with the engines running full speed we rushed to where the whales breached again.   "Get ready", we were told, "get in the water, don't make a noise" the guide shouted.

We were fortunate to be in a small group, only five of us and the guide and no one splashing or panicking.  We swam towards the whales but they were moving away.  We could see their shapes getting deeper and further away.   I thought I had lost them but followed the guide, happy to have seen these amazing creatures in their own habitat.  This, I think, was typical of the whale watching experience, these are wild animals, the ocean is not a zoo.

Unusually though the two, now obviously courting whales came back to us, and the magic started.  

We experienced something that few will ever get the chance to see, that wildlife programmes take many months to film and then with huge underwater zoom lenses and lighting.  We had no need for these. We spent over thirty minutes in close proximity with these two beautiful creatures.  To see them close up was enough but soon we realised that they were not only courting each other but playing with us.  When the guide and we waved our arms slowly up and down, so the whales rose vertically in front of us waving their flippers in unison.

We were even more fortunate to hear the male humpback singing to his mate. Though we cannot prove this, all the males will sing the same song this year.  Next year the song will be different.  The song is passed from one male to another in the tropical waters during the mating season and is the largest known example of cultural learning by animals other than humans.  The song appears to originate on the east coast of Australia and moving east over time across the whole of the southern Pacific.

For these wild animals to choose to spend time with us, to be able to communicate with them was something that will live with us forever.   We will work harder to preserve this magnificent species, whose survival depends on us greedy humans not overfishing the Antarctic. 

The pair of humpbacks we were privileged to have seen would have travelled over 3,500 miles from the Antarctic to breed or give birth.  They reach maturity after about six to seven years.  The gestation period is around 11.5 months, so the females will return next year to give birth.  Typically they breed every 2 to 3 years.  Here, the mothers have not yet given birth to their calves, something to save for another season.  They will be the last to leave to give the calves the best chance of survival against predators such as killer whales.

Humpback whales are known to interact with other species including dolphins and Southern Right Whales and it seems, when one gets very lucky, humans too. 

Oh, and did we forget to mention that we went swimming with sharks on the same trip.

Saturday 8 August 2020

Onwards to Tahiti and Mo'rea (Pacific Crossing to Follow)

Our sail onwards from the Tuomotus to the Society Islands was another wet and windy passage - although it started out with a gentle motor sail the wind we wished for soon built up, though not quite to gale force the seas were coming at us from all directions, resulting in a very uncomfortable and wet passage.

We approached the twinkling lights of Tahiti in the early hours of the morning, in strong winds, flying along at 8 knots. We passed Venus Point on the north west tip of the island and were suddenly in the perfect shelter of the huge but unseen moutains overlooking the bay beyond. Anchor down at 4am, and finally some sleep.

Our first priority in Tahiti was to get some of the ever-increasing list of boat jobs done. We relocated to an anchorage next to the main island marina (Taina), carefully crossing the ends of the islands main runway, (permission was required to pass both ends of the runway). Here, we were also able to complete all the paperwork work to formally check-in and obtain customs clearance. We arranged for our rigging to be repaired (though we will have to wait for parts to be delivered from Europe), and made various electrical repairs.  We were excited to find an excellent chandlery in the marina!

I took a day off from chores to celebrate my birthday with a mooch around Papeete and a restaurant lunch, with dinner on board Tintamarrre with friends in the evening.

Soon, we were off again to the neighbouring small island of Mo'rea. (seen in the distance here from our Tahiti anchorage, as a traditional outrigger canoe crew practice).

We joined fellow sailors for a weekend of immersion in local culture, starting with a group sail across from Tahiti to a stunning anchorage in a fjord-like bay, Opunhau Bay. Our hosts had a rather lovely shoreside house - which apparently appears on the obverse of French Polynesian coins. Activities included racing traditional outrigger canoes (much harder than it looks, mainly because one has to switch paddling side on command).

There were demonstrations of dancing complete with traditional band and fire eaters.

Feasts of traditional food were laid on; though the variety of foods being heaped on to our small plates, together with the lack of forks meant we probably didn't experience Polynesian food at its best! But it was a fun forum for meeting up with other sailors facing the same covid induced dilemmas as us. 

We stayed on in Mo'rea where the unpleasantly stormy weather continued, with winds in the anchorage reaching 40 knots.

Thankfully this was short-lived and we were able to go exploring; a hike up the hills behind the bay to Belvedere, through pineapple plantations and forests scattered with the ruins of abandoned villages from many centuries ago.

and the reef was not bad either.....
And paddle boarding.

And then swimming with humpback whales which an experience captured on video and drone footage by our friends on two drifters, to follow......