Sunday, September 21, 2014

Moorea: Underwater Adventures

Moorea is a beautiful island in the Society group of French Polynesia. Only 15 miles removed from Tahiti, its dramatic contour is visible (and luring) from there on clear days, and as a destination it is only a three-four hour sail or a one hour ferry ride away. Moorea is a “high” island surrounded by coral reefs. Its body consists of sharply outlined peaks, green hills and white sand beaches. Between shore and reef, the lagoon presents smooth clear waters of all shades of blue. Because of its close proximity to Tahiti and its plethora of things to see and do, Moorea attracts heaps of tourists. You see them being transported in vans, buses or pick-up trucks onshore and being ferried on tours with lagoon and whale watch boats, dive boats or jetskis. On busy days, Irie has to swallow a lot of wake and bounciness, but usually, the anchorage we are in right now is pretty quiet and we are the only boat around; a rare sight in Moorea! We enjoy privacy and comfort in a sublime setting.

Spiky sea cucumber
Big coral boulders
Colorful clam
Even though Moorea has many reefs and a myriad of coral patches, the snorkeling is only fair, since most of the coral is dead and therefore lightly populated with reef fish and other underwater creatures. Mark and I have been in the water with flippers and masks in different areas surrounding the north coast. At the reef anchorage NE of Cook’s Bay, only a rare patch of live coral was to be found and the fish population was very limited. The reef anchorage NW of Opunohu Bay offered a surprise during my first swim, when I snorkeled over dark rocks that appeared to be tikis. They were! Underwater tikis are strewn near the two white mooring balls in this area of the anchoring shelf. They are a nice addition to the coral reefs presenting an average amount of live coral and colorful fish. Sting rays and the occasional shark keep the underwater adventures interesting. Unfortunately, many of the reefs are presently overgrown with algae. We had heard about a good snorkeling spot in between the two motus (islands) NW of Moorea. We took our dinghy over there – a long ride away – but, once again, found not much of interest, except tour groups.

The underwater highlight of Moorea is called “Stingray City”, a dedicated area where stingrays – and now also an increasing amount of reef sharks – gather. The reason: tour operators feed the rays who, in return, love to be around people and even climb on them, offering tourists the opportunity to touch and stroke these gentle creatures and take amazing pictures. Some rays even climb all over the people standing and swimming in the shallow water, so we’ve heard. Not a fan of feeding wildlife (even though the stingray feeding has been an attraction on Moorea for over twenty years), Mark and I parked our dinghy amongst the tour boats, and I jumped in the water to see what all the fuzz was about. Mark remained dry above the water surface, because the circling sharks – outnumbering the sting rays – put him off from jumping in. The fact that a tourist had been bitten by a shark here a week prior supported his decision.

I saw some stingrays swimming about, but most must have been tired from all the commotion and feeding earlier in the morning, because they were resting on the bottom, covered with white sand. Since we didn’t have any food to give them, they went about their business after the initial curiosity and anticipation hearing our outboard engine upon our arrival. Even though I managed to stroke one of the bigger residents, I was a little disappointed that they didn’t “climb all over me”. Like in South Fakarava in the Tuamotus, many black tip reef sharks were present – in this tranquil climate I almost had to urge to pet them as well – but they just swam around and kept their distance. Maybe coming over earlier in the morning, before all the tourist hubbub starts, provides better interaction with the velvety and gracious stingrays?

Petting a Tahitian stingray

Coral patches between the two motus

Spotted Sandperch

Moorea houses a lot of dead coral, blooming algae and few fish

Tahitian stingray digging itself in

Picasso Triggerfish attacking my mask and chasing me off

One of the submerged tikis

Another underwater tiki

And a third underwater treasure

Tahitian stingray up-close

And a bunch of sharks... up-close

A couple of stingrays

Black tip reef shark with remora underneath

Stingray climbing a tour boat for more food - the fact that there are this many fish in one place, means that food was thrown in the water to attract the wildlife and enhance the tourists' snorkeling experience

Black tip and a stingray covered by sand

Swimming reef sharks and resting rays

Monday, September 15, 2014

Moorea: Hike from Cook’s Bay to Vaiare

From the moment Mark and I arrived in Moorea two weeks ago, it has been raining every day; the peaks of the island shrouded in clouds. Sometimes, it drizzles and gushes all day, sometimes there are breaks between the showers. Our dirty laundry was piling up for weeks, before one morning started out blue instead of grey. I seized the moment and washed everything by hand, hung the clothes on the lifelines and… the sun almost finished the job, before I had to rush out and save our garments from more wetness! At least, we didn’t have to feel guilty staying onboard for days on end and the weather was perfect to do computer work.

Another morning, we only noticed grey and white clouds, instead of a dooming black sky. We packed our backpack, donned our newish Teva sandals, jumped in the dinghy and went ashore. On the Moorea map in Lonely Planet’s “Pacific Islands”, I had seen a dotted line, a trail, running from the small village of Pao Pao on the north side of the island and where we were anchored, to Vaiare on the east side, where the ferries dunk passengers and tourists multiple times a day. Our goal was, first, to find this trail and second, to follow it to the other side, over one of the misty mountains.

It took a little while and some asking around, before we set off on the right foot. We made our way over rocks and dirt, through jungle, past gardens and between trees. After about half an hour, I had a massive blister on one of my feet, resulting in changing out the sandal for a flip flop (I was “prepared”, this had happened before) and Mark uttering words like “I am never going on a hike with you again when you wear these shoes!” (He would end up with two blisters by the time the day was over!) So, with one sandal and one flip flop on my feet, the hard part of our hike started: we were to climb the steep, muddy path (did I say it had been raining for over a week?) all the way to the top of this mountain, which size we were unaware of. But, we persisted. Luckily, there were some roots and rocks to keep us from sliding backwards. The higher we progressed, the wetter the ground became, and once we reached the top, the drizzle began. The viewpoint offered us a lot of greyness, what could have been greatness. On a clear day, the surroundings must look spectacular!
Then, the refreshing mist turned into steady rain. Do we wait it out under the small umbrella or do we continue? Wasting time to wait out rainstorms has never been part of our un-Zen-like characters. Realizing that the path would soon turn into a river and that the downhill part might be more challenging than the way up, we decided to continue. Once we came to terms with the fact that we (and our gear) would be soaking wet anyway, we found walking sticks, followed the slippery trail down the mountain, and quite enjoyed the foggy looking scenery and lush valley. When we entered well-tended gardens with plants and fruit trees, we knew the town of Vaiare would not be far.

This village on the east side of Moorea is nothing much: a ferry dock, a small marina and a few stores. At a grocery store, we asked to use an outside spigot to clean off our muddy legs and footwear. By then, the rain was coming down by the buckets, so we waited a little while and had our lunch in the covered ferry terminal. Not really what we had in mind – instead of exploring this new area a bit, we headed straight home - but, the weather is the weather, and at least we were clean and fed before we hitched two rides back to Cook’s Bay and Irie. Proud of ourselves for finally getting off the boat and having some exercise, we resumed our usual schedules, taking pictures of the beautiful surroundings of the bay, each time the sun dared to peak out.

Rocky hills surrounding Cook's Bay

Grocery store in Pao Pao at the head of Cook's Bay

Hiking in the valley towards Vaiare

Dooming clouds and rain storms - it looks pretty nasty "out there"!

One of Moorea's shrouded peaks

Irie in Cook's Bay

Cook's Bay - brown after all the rain

Pao Pao's waterfront with outrigger canoes stored on shore

Friday, September 12, 2014

Living on a Boat – The Way It Is

It was mid-April when Mark and I arrived in Tahiti with Irie, after many months of being in French Polynesia. Just like every cruising boat that stops in this developed island with the biggest city we had seen since Panama City more than a year prior, our list of boat projects was big and our online-to-do-agenda even bigger. Of course, our priority back then was getting Mark to a specialist with a long visit to the States – and break from the boat – as a result. But, before that decision was made and from the moment we arrived back on our floating home in Tahiti mid-August, life was super busy.

We checked in with customs and the harbor master, dealt with Mark’s “carte de séjour” (his residency card- usually Americans can only stay in the country for three months), bought  and installed new anchor chain, replaced some running rigging, fixed the raw water pump on one of the engines, acquired material to stuff our brand new cockpit cushion covers, re-attached a wood panel in one of the bunks, filtered bad fuel, and worked on personal projects. After a lot of walking and searching, we found and fixed the wooden board under the sliding door. We did an extensive “spring cleaning”, scrubbed the waterline every two weeks, and filled our boat back up with food and drinks. We ordered a new jib online (not an easy feat to get all the measurements right), bought miscellaneous parts in the local Ace hardware stores and chandleries, and made multiple trips to the hospital and several doctors.

In the meantime and since we have been back on Irie, the usual chores never end: laundry, grocery shopping, cleaning, cooking, dishes, maintenance… Though tasks like this take up about an hour or so when you live ashore, on a boat, every single one of them can add up to half a day if not more. Sometimes you have to work around the weather (rain, heavy wind, choppy anchorage), so tasks you planned on doing are postponed once again… We were immediately sucked into the boat life with engine and outboard maintenance, a stove top replacement, the installation of a new toilet seat and solenoid, cleaning the decks and the waterline (yet again and ongoing – the Pacific is rich with nutrients), getting gasoline, diesel and water, filling our fridge and cupboards while spending a lot of money, hoisting our new jib on a windlass morning, helping our friends with their rigging project, and so on.

Having decent WiFi is a must for us, and Tahiti offers it at a high price. Almost everything is expensive in French Polynesia: a load of laundry costs $5, plus $15 to use the facilities (Tahiti Yacht Club), or $9 with a chance that your mooring breaks loose (Taina Marina), a gallon of gasoline is $8, canned products cost about $2 a piece, fresh meat and alcohol – other than beer - are unaffordable, so we stick to vegetables and subsidized foods, like baguettes, chicken, rice and pasta, and are very selective about what we buy. We rarely go out for dinner, but we do spend about $80 a month on internet, however. Yes, our priorities are a bit different from others out here. :-)

After a three month break from the boat life, we have re-established our habits and customs of 7 years of cruising aboard Irie. The saltwater bucket is introduced again for dishes, we shower in the ocean and rinse with fresh water from our sun shower, we lower the dinghy and drive ashore for errands and lift it back up at night, we are very careful using water and electricity, we keep an eye on the position of our solar panels, listen to the buzzing of the wind generator and collect rainwater, we have a hard time finding things in our fridge, we watch movies on our laptop and each time we need some item out of a cupboard or the fridge, we have to move several other things first. And, there is the fact that we are long not retired and have to be able to survive, of course.

The “tradition” of spending days on end on our computers was started when we arrived in the US in May (well, we actually started this habit, commitment and “need” about 5 years ago!), and continues back on the boat here in the Society Islands. I have been writing a lot and articles are being published in well-respected and prominent sailing magazines, while Mark is extremely busy with computer and Wirie work. Yes, he is still running, and working on, the business (The Wirie) we started in 2009, and some days – as you can imagine – this is harder than others.

With so much stuff going on – and our lives being so different from other cruisers – I sometimes wonder why we choose to live on a boat. Add to that weeks of crappy weather (a lot of wind and rain did fill our boat batteries and fresh water tank, thank you, but now we are ready for some sun!) – it will take a while to get our tan back – and an easier and more comfortable lifestyle comes to mind. But, then there will be some pleasant weather, the misty and impressive view we have been staring at turns into the scene of a hiking adventure, or a marine animal will cross our path. And, we smile in admiration and appreciation at the life we have chosen. It is the path less taken, less lived, and less convenient, but it can be pretty rewarding!

Birgit on Pitufa restitches part of our bimini

Crappy weather out there!

Clouds and mist are part of the scenery

Another boat project day