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Sail to Dive

SCUBA Cruising

When we began planning for our new cruising life I knew I wanted a SCUBA compressor. During the three years we spent buying and rebuilding our boat I researched nearly five hundred issues, visited thousands of web sites for marine equipment, diesel generators, flat screen displays, etc., etc. I spent at least ten hours researching SCUBA compressors and I never found one we could fit easily aboard (without modifications to either the boat or the compressor).

Eventually we resigned ourselves to cruising without one and consoled ourselves by claiming that since we have a child with us we would never get a chance to dive anyway. We have found the truth is that having a five year old boy aboard does reduce diving options and that it is possible to dive a lot anyway.

When we got to Hiva Oa in the Marquesas after our passage from Mexico one of the first people we met - perhaps THE FIRST person we met, was Chris Medak. She was sitting on the cement pier washing clothes in a bucket at the spigot. Within 3 minutes of meeting she was asking us if we SCUBA dive and if we are going to the Tuomotus. Three minutes later she had us following them and drift diving. You see, they were a couple (with no kids) and still needed a third person for drift diving. Of course, I never factored this into my thinking, but it is obvious now that if you are drift diving you need one person in a boat following the divers and two or more in the water.

That was our first lesson: try to find people who like to dive as much as you do and travel together. The more divers the more options.

Chris and Markus on Pez Vela had a compressor. I was immediately envious and at the same time attracted like a moth to a flame. My inner voice said "follow that boat". What we found in the end were two good friends and some great diving!

Three weeks after Hiva Oa on the island of Nuku Hiva, the largest in the Marquesas, I met a fellow on a boat named Gavin. I was in the dinghy and was hailed over by some people I knew who were aboard and was introduced. They were stowing gear or something and he remarked on what a pain it was to store his compressor. Having recently been goaded by my wife - if Pez Vela can have a compressor and they are less then 40ft then surely we can find room for one - I jokingly asked if he wanted to sell it. He paused and thought for a second and said No.

Two days later he came by in his dinghy and asked if I was serious or not, he wants to sell the compressor. A stroke of luck on our part I would say because the entire character of our cruising has been altered by our possession of this machine. It turned our the machine was a Coltri Sub, an Italian company, and one I had never heard of. It was far smaller then any of the other commercially available units I had researched and fit easily in one of our cockpit lockers. We had to shift  some stuff  around but it was no trouble.

The rest of this article is a tour of the diving we did on our first trans-pacific voyage. Our first stop being the Marquesas, our last being Fiji. 

Although we did a half dozen dives in the Marquesas I would not suggest that it should be a diving destination. But since we were there we had to check out what was underneath the surface. We did see huge schools of small fish, some barracuda and many large jacks of different varieties. On some dives sharks were seen though not be me personally. The coral was almost nonexistent.

The real diving was ahead in the Tuomotus and we arrived there in late May at Makemo in the central Tuomotus. The pass at the village was our first experience with pass diving and was a good training ground. The pass was wide with excellent reefs on either side, though a few dead spots. The reef outside the pass was outrageous, the visibility beyond compare, easily 100ft on good days much more.

We anchored just behind the town pier where the island traders stopped to offload everything the village used from toilet paper to automobiles. The dinghy trip to the reef outside the pass was less then a mile and easily accomplished in twenty minutes. Standard practice was to put in down the reef a ways to enjoy the outer reef before entering the pass.

Even better was the pass on the NW side of Makemo about 35 miles away. There is no village at this pass but a horseshoe shaped coral basin provides total protection. The pass is less then a half mile from the anchorage and the natural inflow of the tide pushes the diver right into the anchorage, an excellent safety feature. The Western side of the pass is a wall to about 40-50ft which is absolutely festooned with coral and abounds in fish. The reef outside the pass is unbelievable, far more extensive coral then at the main pass by the village.

The greatest single feature of this site, however, is the sharks. A school of 40 or 50 animals, Gray Reef sharks, sits inside the pass in a deep hollow at about 65ft. They hover facing the pass presumably hoping for a nice morsel to float past? The divers come in the pass and drift straight for the pack and just as they become visible in the distance the current turns to the right and pulls you right past their hide-out. Very exciting. Occasionally one would strip off from the pack and come over to investigate, sniff a bit here and there but they never showed any hostility or made threatening moves.

Of course we also saw numerous sharks at this site outside the pass on the main reef including some large Grays. But for real sharkiness nothing beat Tahanea in my book. About 60 miles West of Makemo, Tahanea Atoll is about the same size and shape of Makemo but is uninhabited. Sharks and fish abound in the lagoon and outside. Within a few moments of anchoring we counted 3 or 4 Whitetip sharks swimming around our boat. In the evening we threw some fish scraps and in the morning realized this was a bad precedent. Either way, we counted 5 or 6 at a time now, mostly very small, but we decided not to swim around the boat anyway.

The diving at Tahanea was the best I have ever done. The reef outside the pass was the most incredibly lush reef I have ever seen. Not a wasted spot was uncovered by some coral lushness. The fish were so numerous I felt I saw clouds floating by in all directions. Large Dogtooth Tuna swam buy and even a Wahoo I believe (though it could have been a large Barracuda). Right from the minute we got in the water there were sharks around. Three large Grays swam up from deep below and sniff us out as we clung to the dinghy putting on our gear in the water. We decided a rapid descent was the best move and quickly got down to 120ft where the sharks decided we were not edible and swam off.

On the other side of the pass is a sheer wall going down to about 200-250ft. We got as far as 130 on a few dives and the sharks at that site were curious. We saw several Silvertip sharks as well of 10ft or more who fortunately were not interested it us as well as many grays. It was a strange feeling to be backed up to a wall at 120ft with your buddy trying to melt into the rock as the shark drifts by. They always keep going though so we peel ourselves away from the wall and swim on, always peering seaward to see what might be coming.

After Tahanea we visited the famed Society Islands of which Tahiti is the largest and most well known. We were not expecting much from the Societies, dive wise. We had our fill in the Tuomotus and were biding our time for green pastures to come. But we did make some effort at Huahine and Raitea and at least in the latter our efforts paid off. 

At Huahine we only did two dives, both on the same site right outside the pass at Fare the main town on the island. The coral was wonderful, in very good condition and the water clarity was fabulous, well above average and certainly on the first of the two dives as good as the Tuomotus (which is to say as good as I have ever seen it anywhere). But the fish were disappointing. First, the site is used by local dive operators on a daily basis and the practice of fish feeding is carried out as a display for divers. This causes very strange behavior in the fish and when we entered the water where immediately surrounded by hundreds of hungry fish nipping at our hands and BCs. This and the monotony of the reef made the dive only average. There surely are more and better dives on Huahine, this is obvious, but we lacked the time to search around and find them on this pass.

On Raiatea we got lucky and picked an anchorage right at the opening of the pass behind a small islet which broke the pass into two. Just in front of the main town of Uturoa. We dove outside the reef in about 50-80ft along a slope and found nice coral, tons of fish and at least a half dozen sharks. On our final dive I startled two turtles in a cave nestled in the  wall along the North side of the Northernmost pass.

After this we left French Polynesia and stopped at Suvarov (Suwarrow) in the Northern Cooks and due to horrible weather conditions we were not able to dive. The anchorage was less then well sheltered and wind blew at a constant 25k with some days closer to 30 or more. The long fetch of the lagoon allowed waves up to 4ft to develop and the boat rocked up and down at anchor violently at times. By the time the weather cleared and conditions improved we were anxious to move on (having spent 7 days hunkered down in Suvarov) to Samoa. We did not dive again until Savai'i the big island of Independent Samoa (formerly Western Samoa). 

Savai'i is a high island with no lagoon or fringing reef, except in a few places. One of them is the bay of Asau on the Western end of the island. The opening of the bay is enclosed with a coral reef and a pass has been blasted in to allow boats to enter this huge bay. The pass was created by the US Navy during WWII.

The reef at Savai'i was excellent and in pristine condition. Clearly this is not a popular dive site or even one that any commercial operator ever visits. We did drift diving with 2 divers in the water and one in the dinghy (our Zodiac tender). The first dive ended badly with the dinghy unable to find the divers who had to swim into the pass and climb up on a small motu. The second dive went much better when the divers carried a dive flag on a retractable pole which they deployed at the end of the dive. This allowed the dinghy driver to easily locate the divers in the swells.

On both dives we saw huge schools of fish including jacks and giant Queen Angelfish. The coral was a tongue and groove structure and contained many little "valleys" to explore. We saw a wide variety of other life including one turtle and a colony of fluorescent pink anemone, with anemone fish of course. In general though I was really blown away by the condition of the coral at Savai'i.

After Samoa we made a brief stop at Wallis but again, because of weather, were unable to dive. Our next stop anyway, was Fiji so we didn't feel any great rush considering what lay ahead. We arrived in Fiji at the new Port of Entry Savusavu on the island of Vanua Levu. We anchored in front of the Cousteeau Resort, owned by Jacques' grandson Michel. We went with them on a two tank dive to Namena-Lala (called simply Namena) which is reputed to be one of the best dive areas in Fiji.

The visibility was not what I had expected. The fabled clarity of Fijian waters is clearly not something which happens every day. On both dives visibility was only 50ft and large clouds of particulate matter obscured visibility. The soft coral, however, was phenomenal and close up was more then visible. The colors are incredible and I could stare at their translucent bodies for hours. We dove on both the North and the South Save-A-Tack Passage (which we later sailed through in the Queen Jane on our way to Makongai) and on the second dive (North) we saw huge schools of barracuda as well as thousands of jacks. We also saw a few gray reef sharks skulking about. The current was strong though and we got separated from the group and decided to come up early rather then risk drifting out of sight of the dive boat. We've heard too many stories of divers being left behind on a reef until the guys wife starts asking around at the dive shop 5 hours later. Sometimes they go back and find him, sometimes they don't find him. So we have heard.

After Savusavu we sailed to a small island called Makongai. This island is inhabited only by about a dozen families and are spread around the island. A clam hatchery station and turtle hatchery are also on the island. The diving was not bad here but we just randomly picked a spot on the reef and dove so we had no reason to expect we would miraculously choose a primo spot. But again the visibility was not great.

After Makongai we spent a week at Yanutha (Yanuca) in the Mbengga (Beqa) lagoon just South of Viti Levu. This reef surrounds both Mbengga Island and Yanutha Island and the Yanutha Island anchorage is within spitting distance of the reef which to make things even easier for us had mooring balls spread along it. We watched the first dive where the local dive operator's boats tied up and the second day there we were off. I dove with a friend from another boat and after about 25 minutes of exploring a system of coral pinnacles in less then great visibility we started making for what looked like another pinnacle in the distance only to find it was a 150ft steel ship which had sunk here.

The ship was adorned with a nice collection of soft corals of varying colors and schools of little fish teemed about. The deck at the bow was at about 55ft while the stern was down around 85ft close to the sand where you can see the wheel part buried in the sand. She looks like she was intentionally scuttled. There is no visible damage anywhere on the hull.

After Fiji we headed South to New Zealand. Out of the Typhoon belt and into prime boat repair country. For the next four months we will slave away up to our armpits in solvents, resins, cleaners and polishes and cuts and bruises. All so we can return to the S. Pacific again next season for more diving, of course!