We left the island. Well, the island of Tahiti anyway.
When we landed in Tahiti it was surreal.
After looking at the scope of French Polynesia and realizing it encompasses roughly the same area as Europe it became a daunting task to figure our which other islands to visit. After some research, we landed on Fakarava.
Fakarava is spectacular. UNESCO thinks so too as it was added to the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2016. We knew we picked a great location when the local Tahitians got excited about our choice of destination. So off we flew on Friday for a three day weekend.
A quick 1.5hr flight from Tahiti and the crystal clear blue waters of Fakarava came into view. Reefs popping in and out of the water as we passed over the lagoon. We were greeted by the tiniest of airports. The plane landed maybe a 100ft from the entrance. It caught me a bit off guard when I stepped off the prop plane and saw exactly how close it was to the building itself. The nice folks from the Relais Marama welcomed us with leis’ strung of the most fragrant plumeria flowers. Nothing says island holiday like receiving a lei upon touch down. I love it every time.
Side note, and maybe I should not admit to this, but I always thought a lagoon was a murky lake of sorts next to a larger lake or river. I am sort of right in regards to the North America/ Australia definition (who new there were two definitions)? Although here in the Pacific a lagoon is defined differently: ‘a stretch of water separated from the sea by a low sandbank or coral reel.’ (Wiki) In the case of Fakarava, this means the low, narrow strip of land loops around forming a partial oblong oval with two openings at the north and south end of the island. The large reef and those that dot the lagoon lend themselves to world class diving.
Did I mention Fakarava is small? A couple magasins (stores), a handful of snacks (little restaurants) and one or two nicer places. Well, the whole place shuts down during holidays and we happen to be here during Pentecost. Never a big, shut down all the things event in the states. But here, it is and all the things were closed or operating on unintelligible hours. We tried three spots for dinner the first night with no luck so we ended up a the Hirinaki Lounge. Definitely the fancy pants restaurant on the island and not budget friendly. Reservations are recommended most places. Also good to know in hindsight. No reservation and a full house.
My hungry self was starting to panic. Luckily, we sat in their lounge. Which is a comical description for the tiny area in the corner in which we were sitting that included a bench meant for two and small table surrounded by fake bamboo. We sipped on our wine as we waited to order. I was growing anxious that we were on a liquid diet and food was but a myth. None the less, two hours later, we were able to order. I had tuna teriyaki carpaccio which consisted of thinly sliced tuna covered in a thin layer of oil, vinegar, green peppers and onions. It was delicate and delicious. A wonderful surprise.
Since I am finally S.C.U.B.A certified (if you read my previous blog posts, you will understand it was a journey), we signed up for four dives in two days. Apparently two a day dives is pretty common. Although the thought of two dives in one day made me anxious. A natural I am not yet.
Day one, dive one with O2 Fakarava started off with a bang. Just as we started our journey along the reef wall, a huge sea turtle comes into view. Now I get why people are obsessed with sea turtles. It looked like it was flying through the water weightless and regal. And then, it dove straight down into the coral in search of food. No idea what he was eating but it was awesome to see it do its thing. The reef was breathtaking. My head was on a swivel taking in all the fish. Their varying colors, shapes, sizes, swimming patterns, all of it.
Some were stunningly beautiful while others, like the Napoleon, are not. It is huge compared to its petite and colorful friends with a hump on its head. It lumbers through the water. I couldn’t help but smile at the awkwardness of its being. I was immediately reminded of a clunky school bus as I watched it lumber along its path.
For a short time, Napolean and the sea turtle helped calm my nerves. I should mention I am not yet comfortable with the whole breathing underwater thing. I get stressed out, have trouble taking it all in and relaxing. On top of that, I was having horrible mask issues meaning my mask did not fit properly and continually filled with water. This is literally my number one panic inducing situation. Luckily, I stayed calm(ish) and remembered my training and simply cleared my mask a lot. Like a lot, a lot. While getting certified, they tell you to be tranquil and breath calmly. Don’t bite the respirator. I followed none of those rules. My jaw had a fierce grip on the respirator as I huffed and puffed my way to the red zone of caution, 50 psi. I.e you are running out of air. I signaled our guide who immediately made me use her octopus aka the spare respirator every diver carries with them. Definitely didn’t think she would make me do that right away. Eyes wide open and heart pounding I took in a deep breath, removed my respirator (aka air source) and took firm hold of her ‘octopus’. Okay.. I had learned this is class and it was #2 on the list of wtf things I had to accomplish before becoming certified. And thank goodness I had because I managed the whole exchange including swapping back to own equipment without an underwater panic attack or a gallon of water in my mouth. Super proud of myself! I didn’t realize the lock jaw grip I had on my respirator until we were back on the boat eating sandwiches. My jaw was sore.
Dive two was all about the sharks. So many black-tip sharks and a huge sleeping shark. I am glad we took the lagoon tour in Moorea and had already swam with some sharks. It eased a bit of the anxiety because they are sharks. Big ass teeth, real life sharks. Post dive we returned to O2 where we sat around with fish identification books, drank Tahitian ‘punch’, some type of rum and fruit juice concoction and talked about the fish we saw. Todd called it the birding of the sea which is hysterically accurate.
Night two, after attempting to find other open dinner locations, we were back at Hirinaki. We knew our best chance was to arrive early. Luckily, they remembered us from the night before. This time, we were offered a proper table. There was a band playing traditional music in the corner and a small child dancing whimsically and unabashed among the tables. We made friends with the girls father, drank too much and enjoyed it all. I also made a reservation for Sunday night as we had been warned it was the only place open.
We had some time before our dive on Sunday so we took a bike ride. Reminded me of Now and Then for some reason. Open flat road, cruising on old one speed bikes. Shifting from one side of the road to the next. It felt fun and free. I wish my bike had a bell. We stopped by O2 and grabbed some drone footage before returning to the Relais. I realized during my dive training that diving while fatigued amped my anxiety level. I was already a little tired and the nerves were starting to creep in. Twenty minutes decompressing at the lodge would be good. I am hoping more dives equals more comfort.
Day two, dive one, incredible! We saw Manta Rays. Huge bulging eyes, an incomprehensibly large wing span and daunting yet majestic presence. We gingerly gripped to the coral and watched in awe. At one point, the diver in front of me appeared to move toward the manta ray. It looked like she was being pulled into its vortex, called to it under some spell. Our instructor was not under the same spell and immediately grabbed her and motioned to her to grip the coral. The manta rays danced and danced. Gliding along the currant. They disappeared as quickly as they appeared. I knew immediately all other dive locations would pale in comparison to Fakarava. I had started at the top and was pumped.
Day two, dive two was a bust. My ears didn’t cooperate and refused to pop so my anxiety levels rose. I was forced to spend the dive on the boat. Super shitty. Turns out my delaying the group meant they were able to see a Tiger Shark. Todd and I were talking the day before about Tiger sharks and the enormity of them. Our dive instructor was less impressed as she mentioned the one they saw was a mere 3m long. Todd told me it was the size of a house.
Fakarava is beyond compare. As I sit here writing this, I am sitting on a bench in the water at The Snack Pequin, feet in the water, Hinano in hand and sun on my back. Is this what life as a digital nomad is like? Is this really the life we have created, chosen to make for ourselves? I knew places like this existed but seeing it first hand is different. Fakarava is the perfect size of just big enough for some development but small enough that it can’t sustain the mega hotel over water bungalows that dot so many of these islands. And then, along swims a nurse shark. Flipping over to reveal its stomach as it appears to scratch its back on the sand. Didn’t know that was a thing until now. That pretty much sums up our time in Fakarava. A continual journey in new and beautiful.