The Tuamotus are an archipelago of more than seventy atolls. And, given that when we cast off to go sailing, we didn’t know they existed - it was a challenge to even decide which of the atolls to visit. Until one day, our sail mail delivery handed me a message: Manihi is for you.
Sail mail is our primary means of communication out here when there is no internet. It is a confluence between modern and ancient technology. To send a “sail mail,” It all starts with a Single Side Band (“SSB”) radio, the marine version of what is known as a HAM Radio on land. I flick on the SSB, tune it to a frequency known to reach other SSB Operators Sail Mail has recruited to its team. I add a modem that is exactly the same speed as 1990s AOL dial up, and then I connect the two using a computer program that translates my email text into the “beeps & boops” a World War II era technology can hear. The modem sings that email out through my SSB, and the SSB sends those signals across an arch to the receiver location of my choice. From there, the radio receiver translates my email back into a normal text and it is sent to my mother over the internet like a normal email. Out here, the closest receiver location happens to be on the small island atoll of Manihi.
One day, enclosed with the return email confirming the transmission of our communications, there is small paragraph from the radio operator on site inviting us to sail to his atoll. If we contact him directly, he will send us the coordinates for how to navigate the atoll pass (the opening in the ring of coral) and for suitable anchorages. This is tantalizing enough for me, so I shoot him a sail mail directed to stop at his front door. Unfortunately, he is away at the time we are scheduled to sail through. Instead, he suggests we sail in and get in touch with a local named Ferdinand.
Once we get ourselves dried off and anchored safely, I set my sights on locating this man, Ferdinand. But, on an island of only 400 inhabitants, it doesn’t take long. Our village tour hosted by June and Fatiaou ended up at the local sandwich shop. As luck would have it, Ferdinand owned the sandwich shop.
Ferdinand is 58, but his energy and joie-de-vie tell of a man much younger in spirit. He wants to take us spear fishing, scuba diving, snorkeling, to look at pearls and a pearl farm, tuna fishing, waterskiing, on a picnic where we can drag sharks up on the beach for photographs, on a lobster hunt, on a tour of the bakery, and to teach us to make manoi oil. He also wants Crystal and Leslie to help his wife Estella make jewelry. Somehow all of these projects seem to be scheduled for “Monday”. We arrange to start with snorkeling and he offers to pick us up from our boat. I assure you, this likely to be no ordinary “snorkel.”
The next morning, Ferdinand, his son, and a friend named Henry (pronounced “Onrie” in French) arrive in a colorfully painted panga at the side of Sonrisa’s hull. “AMERICA!” Knock, knock, knock. “AMERICA, TIME TO GO!” They whisk us off and out to the open ocean just outside the pass. We all jump over the side of the little panga and I stick my face in the water to see what is going on below. The scene is amazing. Thousands of little fish swim in the river of the pass, suspended over the sudden 5000 foot drop into the blue abyss. A flower garden of coral decorates the shallow shelf on the side of the pass. Eels, black tipped shark, and colorful reef fish of all variety alternately dart and float. Am I the wealthiest man in the world, swimming in my ever changing swimming pool and salt water aquarium?
The three Polynesians take their spear fishing guns. Ferdinand hands Crystal and me a spear gun each and says “shoot any fish”. Seems easy enough, but I watch the locals for a few moments to see how it is done.
Ferdinand relaxes on the surface, with his face in the water, breathing deeply and slowly through his snorkel. Soon, he sees a reasonably sized target and makes his move. He slowly shifts his weight and rolls his hips skyward. His head and gun are now pointed at the ocean floor, and his body starts to sink with 10 lbs of weight strapped to his waist. He slips below the surface, barely making a ripple. The last thing you see are his fins sliding from open air to open ocean without any discernible movement. I peek my eyes below the surface and see him sinking downward with just an occasional flutter of his feet. Down, down, down, he passes the cloud of small fish dancing in formation right and left with the movement of the surface waves.
When Ferdinand reaches 50 feet or so, he stops his dive and hovers. He floats and waits until the nice sized fish he was eyeing swims by. He points the spear tip in the direction of the fish and pulls the trigger. The spear shoots through the fish. The fish does not immediately die. Instead, it fights and flutters, spraying it’s guts into little clouds around Ferdinand in the water. Sharks swim below, eyeing their common food source. Ferdinand drops the gun which starts floating to the surface, and instead pulls the string between the gun and the spear toward himself until he can put his hand on the frantic fish. Ferdinand then turns his head toward the surface and sweeps his fins back and forth to rise. When he reaches the sunlight, he removes the fish from the spear, places it in a tupperware box tied to floats, then starts the process all over again.
Ok, my turn. I grab my gun and ready myself. I take a gulp of air, turn downward and kick furiously to sink below the surface. I make it to about 20 feet below, look up at the water obscured sky, then freak out. With my body already craving air, I turn around and kick furiously to the surface again. Needless to say, I do not have much luck. Crystal has turned over her gun to Kevin, who seems to be getting the hang of this. He has speared a handful of fish.
We move to a new location inside the atoll. Even though the visibility is not so great, everyone else is having better luck. Still no fish for me. We head back in and Ferdinand gives us a fish for our time. He instructs us to take it to the park where his wife Estella works in the evening at a little food stand. There, Ferdinand grills up our fish over a wood fire built in a 55 gallon drum. We order a couple plates of chow mein on the side. He brings a bottle of “American Juice” aka CoolAid to our table and voila: dinner! We all share the food, with Ferdinand taking “the best part of the fish.” He pulls meat from the fish’s skull with his teeth, then slurps out the eyeballs. His eyes twinkle. “When you eat the eyes, you see many, many more miles. Good for the eyes!”
As we wrap up dinner he says, “go back to your boat and rest for about 30 minutes. I will pick you up to go spear fishing.” Again? It is already eight at night and it is very dark. I don’t have a dive light. This sounds like the most terrifying thing I have ever done in my life and I have sailed 22 days across the Pacific! But, I am saying “yes” to everything that isn’t obviously fatal on this trip, so I go back to the boat to struggle into my cold wet suit, still damp from our snorkel earlier today. Ferdinand arrives a few minutes later. We zip out of the lagoon at full speed of the 100 Hp engine on the little fiberglass panga - in the dark - in a place with coral all over. Five souls aboard. We motor a mile or so around the outside reef.
“Here you go John Wayne, here is your Winchester,” Henry says, handing me a spear gun. Everyone jumps into the water and I am tasked with loading a spear gun I have never shot, underwater, in the dark while swimming to keep up with the local guy who does this everyday. Somehow, I manage to get my gun loaded, keep up with him, and not get myself washed up on the coral by the large ocean waves. As we swim along, Henry lights the way. Every once in a while we see a large fish 20’ down. He waves the light at the fish, indicating I should “go get it”. I take a big breath, dive down, shoot and swim back up with my fish. I swim over to the panga where Ferdinand’s son pulls the fish off my spear and hands me a tangle of spear and line. Repeat. We finish this section of reef after a couple hours, load back into the boat, and take off at full speed the other direction. I tell Kevin “I don’t think we are going in, yet.”
The sky is amazing, the Milky Way is extremely bright, the phosphorescence is pouring off the side of the boat as we motor along. This is another one of those moments that I need to burn into my mind, this is the good part, this is why I am sailing.
We get to the new section of reef, I grab “Winchester” and with a “come on John Wayne” we hop in the water. The fish here are bigger and I start to actually carry my weight. There will be three fish in a cove, Henry goes down, shoots one, I go down, shoot the next, then Ferdinand gets the last. Henry keeps pointing at fish that are deeper and deeper down; I swim down and get them. I notice there are a couple sharks circling about, but figure it must be all right if the locals are continuing their catch. I am holding a fish in my right hand, the spear in my left as Henry and I reach the surface. Henry shouts over the wind and waves: “get the fish to the boat quickly, before the shark gets it.” I look at the fish in my hand, blood running down my wrist as I hold the fish above the surface of the water. I’m going to get a move on!
I watch from above as Henry shoots a fish and a couple sharks rush in to steal it. With the sharks acting more aggressive, I feel a little lower on the food chain. My legs are tired from swimming; my arms are tired from loading the band on the spear gun. It is nearing midnight, and I am tired after ten hours of swimming today. These guys are doing this to make a living by selling the fish to the supply boat coming tomorrow morning, so I don’t want to wimp out and cost them money. I tell myself that I will get one more fish then I am going to crawl into the boat and quit. Just then Henry taps me on the shoulder and motions toward the boat. I survived, maybe even enjoyed one of the top ten scariest things I have done in my life.
Back at Sonrisa, I lie in my bunk so tired that I can’t even roll over. I am really loving this little island in the middle of nowhere.