We are currently in Fakarava, which is the second largest and one of the more populated atolls in the Tuamotos (the other being Rangiroa). Fakarava’s lagoon is more than 30 miles long and unlike any other atoll we’ve visited, you can traverse the whole atoll in a beaconed, buoyed, well-marked channel. I still stayed on watch on the front pulpit the whole way across, but never saw a bommie the whole way. This atoll is home to over 800 people as well as a number of pearl farms (we visited one…more on that in a separate post), resorts and tourist attractions, and the airport has flights to Tahiti.
Arriving here we realize we’ve become Tuamotos-recluses. It’s nice to swing into the inhabited atolls briefly for internet and provisions, but there’s nothing better than hanging out on the atolls that are uninhabited or sparsely populated.
It’s not that we don’t like being with people…we thoroughly enjoy the Polynesians we’ve met, who couldn’t be nicer to us, and the company of fellow cruisers. It’s just that the Tuamotos, especially the deserted atolls, are the idyllic South Pacific we’ve been dreaming about: white coral islands with swaying coconut palm trees surrounded by turquoise emerald water teeming with sea life. When you’re in such a beautiful and pristine place, with no one else around, it’s a very special feeling.
So why did we come to Fakarava? One reason: the once-a-year spawning festival by the marbled groupers that occurs in the atolls passes at the full moon after the summer equinox.
We reached out using our Iridium Go to contact dive shops and get scheduled on a dive. We scuba’d down about 80 feet to the bottom of the pass and swam just above the coral watching the grouper for about an hour on the first dive. Our tanks were filled with Nitrox and I’ve never felt so energized and good after a dive, especially one that long and deep.
After scuba diving and getting the lay of the land, we began using our own replenishable electric-powered snuba. Our air compressor is portable and fits neatly in the dinghy. We have 120 feet of air hose for each of us, but we found it worked best to dive one at a time, with the other person staying in the water by the dinghy, swimming to keep the dinghy over the diver and holding the hose and playing it out as the diver got deeper.
Normally about 20,000 grouper spawn at one time and they lie thickly at the bottom like a carpet of camouflaged fish on the bottom of the pass. They choose the outgoing tide to spawn so that their eggs are taken out to the open Pacific where they have less chance of being eaten than in the lagoon.
As it turned out, this year the grouper spawned at the full moon in June and July, about half of the females releasing their eggs each month. This made the carpet a little less thick, but it was still an amazing sight.
The camouflaged females lie on the bottom, their big bellies full of eggs. The paler, solid-grey male groupers drift by above them, becoming animated with open mouth displays of force against other males in a contest for dominance.
The winning alpha male becomes the fish that gets to engage with the female in a swirling upward dance the moment she releases her eggs. The other males join in the race to deposit their sperm into the midst of her eggs, but the loss of just a second or two makes them less likely to reproduce and the genes of the more powerful male more likely to continue on. Darwinian natural selection at work.
Check out Project Gombessa, a diver’s 24 hour dive during the spawning, for incredible video of the spawning, and an excellent scientific explanation of the phenomenon – https://www.apdiving.com/en/the-gombessa-ii-expedition-2014/
There were many different scenes under the water. Our favorite was what’s known at the South Pass as the “Wall of Sharks.”
The presence of so many preoccupied grouper draws a huge number of opportunistic sharks who come to Fakarava just for the spawning. They feed on the grouper, mainly at night. The feeding frenzy gets ferocious, with sharks injuring one another in the melee…and divers could easily get caught in the fray and hurt. That’s probably why dive shops don’t do night dives during the spawning.
The scuba operator we dove with also wanted us to wear full wetsuits. I asked if the water temperature was chilly at the depths we’d be diving. They said the reason for wearing long wetsuits wasn’t the water temperature, it was the coral. To see the grouper and sharks, you swim down to the very bottom of the pass and hold on to a piece of dead coral so the tidal current doesn’t sweep you away. In that position and with the strong currents, it’s easy to brush against the coral, and wounds from coral not only hurt like the dickens, they also take forever to heal and can easily become infected, which is why the long suit is recommended to protect against scrapes.
We would come back to Fakarava at the July full moon again to dive and watch the amazing grouper spawning spectacle!