Raroia- Our First Coral Atoll
Updated: Apr 23
The night’s cloudless sky is punctuated by bright stars and the horizon stretches uninterrupted except for the odd palm tree that rises only a few meters above the water. We are not at sea but at anchor inside a South Pacific coral atoll in the Tuamotus, one of French Polynesia’s five archipelagos. Most of these 78 atolls are very low-lying which can make them difficult to see on approach, even in the light of day from as close as a couple of miles out. To reach a destination with no visible land mass, mountains or buildings is an unusual experience for many sailors, not least of all us.
Entering Raroia's pass safely
Arrival outside one of these atolls, assuming it has a pass or inlet deep and wide enough to safely enter because many are impassable, must be timed carefully. We aim for slack tide when the least amount of water is moving in or out of the lagoon to avoid rough conditions. It’s at either high tide after the water has finished flooding back in or, low tide when it has drained back out. There are other important variables as well as the tide which influence the conditions we encounter at a pass: if it has been very windy then additional water can come in over the reef to the lagoon and so slack tide may not occur at all, where the pass is located in the atoll will affect the conditions too -if it faces east (and the prevailing wind direction in the Tuamotus is east) this may create a wind over tide situation, sometimes making the pass turbulent and more difficult to navigate through.
With all of this in mind, our approach to Raroia, was an apprehensive one as tried to arrive at the optimal time based on the information we had. We had come from Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas archipelago, about 400 nautical miles north, and we slowed the boat to a speed which would place us outside the pass around an hour before when we guessed slack tide to be. This allowed us to mill around for a while and observe the pass, its tumultuous, swirling currents and standing waves caused by wind over tide, before making a move. We waited until the water gradually flattened out before entering and were relieved that the sea state and current were fairly benign. The water as we went from the Pacific ocean into our first atoll was so clear we could see rays, sharks and tropical fish by glancing over the side.
Traversing the lagoon
Like many of the atolls here, Raroia is relatively uncharted. Once tall volcanos, most are now just coral rings which encircle pristine lagoons. Inside these atolls coral heads known to sailors as ‘bommies’ rise up from the sea-bed presenting a potential hazard to boats -some are visible and break the surface of the water while others lurk just a few feet below. Because of this, another consideration for arrival is timing after entering the pass to ensure good light at the right angle to spot these dangers while traversing the interior. When navigating through an atoll, ideally, we want the sun high in the sky to illuminate as much of what is under the water as possible and slightly behind us to avoid glaring sunlight blinding our view. Going from east to west, late morning, close to noon on a clear day is best. In the opposite direction, early afternoon when the sun has passed its highest point and again is behind us, is safest.
However, the stakes are high as a full-time liveaboards when you are taking your home across these atolls and so relying on eyeball navigation alone is not always adequate. Shipwrecks visible on reefs in these waters serve as reminders to us sailors of how things can go horribly wrong and you can imagine various scenarios that may have led to such a fate; a boat succumbs to a vicious storm, a lapse of attention from a tired single-hander, an engine fails, an innocent cloud passes hiding a deadly reef for just long enough. Nicknamed the dangerous archipelago and avoided by sailors for years, these days many do navigate these waters especially since the advent of better charts, GPS and most recently access to satellite images -we now have more ways to help us spot these obstacles in time. Onboard Polaris we use three different satellite images that overlay the two existing chart views available to us so, we can flick between and zoom in or out of five different detailed images of the areas we are traversing. We also alternate between standing on the coach roof and at the bows keeping a very close watch using the sunlight. These satellite images are passed from experienced cruisers to new arrivals and are further shared amongst the sailing community here. The more of us that use them the safer we’ll all be, as well as preserving the reef and avoiding the enormous ecological and financial cost which can result from a wrecked boat. We have seen numerous coral bommies thanks to these images which our naked eye did not make out at the time.
Once through the pass, we travelled east across the atoll to near where Norwegian explorer and author Thor Heyerdahl and his homemade raft ‘Kon Tiki’, made landfall on the reef in 1947. It was an expedition in which he was trying to prove the possibility that Polynesians may have originated from South America, having travelled by similar means in ancient times. We headed to an anchorage close to his landing point, tucked ourselves in behind palm trees and, were struck by the beauty and peacefulness of this untouched tropical South Pacific paradise. Anchoring where coral bommies are present adds two further possible issues; firstly, there is a risk of damaging the coral with our chain and secondly, if our chain does wrap around the coral we will be short-scoped and no longer necessarily safely anchored. Therefore, we very carefully select the best place to anchor to avoid bommies altogether but also where possible, sailors often float their chain using fenders or something similarly buoyant. These floats are spread along in intervals according to the depth and placement of the bommies to keep the chain from wrapping around them. It is by no means a perfect solution and in some areas there are just too many bommies to anchor at all.
Settled in paradise
The edge of the atoll’s ‘motus’ or palm-fringed islands provided shelter although we needed little because the wind was so light. Small inlets between them, alive with sharks, connected us directly to the ocean where the water is always replenishing the lagoon. For the first few days after we arrived, the lagoon was glassy-calm and translucent. Watching the sunset was dizzying, as the sky and the sea almost merged into one, their reflections seemed to have no beginning or end.
There was no internet in Raroia except in its tiny town and so most of the three weeks were spent without the compulsive phone-checking routine we have become accustomed to. This, we found, gave us back time we hadn’t realised we were wasting. We paid closer attention to nature. Flocks of sea birds spent hours corralling bait fish that had been disturbed by the many and various lagoon fish also hunting them from below. Bigger fish jumped, startling smaller fish as they dashed through the air, only to be swooped upon by these flying predators. And the desensitising, common presence of sharks around the boat accompanied by their symbiotic remora fish counterparts receiving free transport in exchange for parasite removal service. We went wading too, through the water in the shallows of the motus and then inland looking for fallen brown coconuts to de-husk and bring home their sweet water and crisp white meat.
Our second anchorage
When the wind returned, we made our way to the north-eastern most corner of the atoll in search of the perfect flat-water kiteboarding spot. We found it there and spent days kiting between the motus in knee to waist-high crystal clear water, with no chop and our only company, the skittish Black Tip and Lemon sharks who came by occasionally. In time though, the atoll had not two but three sailboats including Polaris, and we got together every few nights to hang out on a boat or at the beach watching the sunset.
When the more intense kiteboarding wind died down we sailed to the town, at the opposite end of the atoll, nineteen days after first arriving in Raroia. More boats had anchored there by then. Kids speaking Pa’umotu, the local language, dived or jumped repeatedly into the deep water off the dock practising different styles. We tied up our dingy and walked the main street in search of food or internet, preferably both, though neither was guaranteed. A large satellite dish was visible further along the road and we found a handful of sailors sitting around it trying to get just enough connectivity to send or receive important emails. There were various techniques on display with some seeming to think proximity was key. We copied them, stationing ourselves squarely under it but soon decided we didn’t need anything badly enough to stay for the length of time it might take. We continued to wander until we found the shop. The friendly proprietor pointed out what was available at that time: canned soft drinks, crisps, onions and potatoes. I think we bought three onions.
Diving our first pass
Back onboard there was just one more thing we wanted to do before moving on to Makemo, the next atoll on our itinerary, and that was to snorkel the pass. With two other groups, we had three dinghies, and waited for flood tide. The idea was to drive our dingy just outside the pass, both jump in wearing masks and snorkels, one of us holding onto the dinghy’s painter and then, let the force of the tide bring us safely back inside the atoll while whizzing past the abundance of rich marine life at a fairly high speed. Free diving down with the current, superman style, we witnessed many dozens of sharks, rays and other large pelagic fish species in their habitat. The water tends to be clearest at these passes just after flood tide when the water from the ocean outside has replenished the more stagnant lagoon water and the visibility can be twenty meters plus. We practised this thrilling activity five or six times and even spotted a large but disinterested Tiger shark before we became too cold. This was something we would do in future at every pass of every atoll we could.
Atomic Testing Aftermath
While life in the villages here may appear to be idyllic, for some local people things have been far from perfect. Between 1966 and 1996 France carried out 193 atomic tests in French Polynesia. Until 2010 France claimed the atomic tests in the Pacific had no negative impact on human life however since then this has been proved beyond doubt to be grotesquely incorrect. These atomic tests which at one point put 500 times the safe level of plutonium around Tahiti infected its crops, water and everything else and caused severe birth defects and serious cancers including Leukaemia in the populations of Tahiti, its surrounding islands and across the country. Qualifying for compensation and trying to prove the cause of the disease, can be extremely difficult even for some of the most seemingly clear-cut cases. The fight for the right to claim compensation is an uphill struggle and applicability is limited to certain geographies, ailments and is dependent on when a person was born. We met a local who helped explain why these criteria are too narrow to adequately address the complex and terrible damaged caused.
Our favourite archipelago
Starting our journey through the Tuamotus from Raroia in July was especially interesting because that’s when the annual month-long Heiva festival takes place across Polynesia with some of the inhabited atolls performing concerts and taking part in competitions displaying their traditional music and dance -a real treat for us outsiders to respectfully observe.
As we made our way through the archipelago from west to east, what we have found is that the atolls tend to be more developed the closer to Tahiti you go. Pearl farming is big business in some but unfortunately seems to also damage the marine ecosystem with the biggest pearl farming atolls appearing to have a noticeably diminished shark population and dead-looking coral. Sailors that spend months at a time in the Tuamotus are often based in the more developed atolls like Fakarava or Rangiroa, where there are regular, sometimes weekly, supply ships replenishing the stores with fresh produce and there is stronger internet connectivity. Although over Christmas there was no supply ship in Fakarava for five weeks and when it did come the choice was extremely limited. As is often the case though, it is these minor inconveniences and complicating factors that keep the Tuamotus relatively unspoilt.
For some the Tuamotus are just too isolated and the landscape of these coral atolls they say is bland due to the mostly flat terrain consisting only of palm trees. The lack of development can leave sailors at a loose end, having to invent their own fun. Others however like nothing better than to spend as much time as possible in these virtually untouched tropical lagoons knowing how few places are left like this in the world -exploring the water, its fascinating creatures and enjoying the many thrilling activities that living in this environment enables. In our twelve months in French Polynesia we will have spent almost half of that time in the Tuamotus and it honestly just hasn’t been enough.