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Holy Fakarava, that’s a shark!

M: If the Marquesas post was called “Paradise found”, what am I going to call this?

A: Paradise found… again. Paradise-er. Paradise 2.0.

Landfall in the Marquesas was obvious: there’s a monster mountain in front of your face. After a very mellow 3.5-day passage, land ho in the Tuamotus was harder to spot…. here you have to squint. Rocky cliffs and lush forests were replaced with coral reefs and flat white sand beaches lined with palm trees and turquoise waters. If it weren’t for our fuel cans and sun-bleached paddle-board bags I’m sure Bravo anchored in the Tuamotus would make a stunning backdrop for stock photography.

The Tuamotus archipelago includes 78 atolls extending almost 1,000 miles, but only a handful are commonly visited by sailors. A corner of the archipelago is off limits, having been the site of French nuclear weapons testing. The Tuomotus are unlike anything we have ever sailed. They are “essentially high sand bars built upon coral reefs”, a small break in the reef allows passage into it, and within it a lagoon is enclosed. Timing entry and exit through the passes is a science, requiring an understanding of the reef’s condition, swell, tides and currents. We chose Fakarava for its diving reputation, UNESCO recognition, and peer pressure from our sailor friends. We planned for a slack tide entry to the northern Fakarava pass and arrived 3 hours ahead of schedule. We slowed our pace to a crawl and waited patiently for the minuscule palm trees in the horizon to grow in view.

The Marquesas was all about beauty above the water line and the Tuamotus has been about beauty below it. We began snorkeling by range markers and shallow reefs and coral heads we had spotted next to the channel. What outside looked like a lonely red channel marker in deep clear blue, held a spiral of coral rising from 80 feet deep in the lagoon to the water surface, full of an entire ecosystem of its own. Snorkeling the south pass was absolutely epic. A “white highway” visible from above marks the sandy bottom of the pass, a mound of coral heads rising on each side to sea-level. As the incoming current builds through the shallows, the lazy river picks up speed, carrying you through a spectacular view. We took our time sailing towards the southern edge of the 40-mile long atoll, stopping in a few “paradise 2.0” anchorages, complete with isolated beaches, bonfires, crystal clear warm waters and friends.

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There’s no good way to ease my mother into this part of the story, so I’ll say it how it is: we snorkeled and dove with blacktip, whitetip, nurse and gray reef sharks. Lots of them. At first, we were timid. In the end, we were in love. What began with shock at an encounter with a single 2-foot black tip in a shallow reef ended with admiration and awe during a 55 minute 25-meter drift dive, holding on to a rock as over a hundred of them swam gently in place in the incoming current. There’s an article in May’s National Geographic about Fakarava, with a picture of 40 or so sharks swimming peacefully in the tidal current of the southern pass. At the edge of the shot there’s coral, and what’s missing are 4 divers and the dive master. That was us.

We have been conditioned by pop culture to immediately fear them. Certain species are harmless. They are indeed to be respected, and if you dive responsibly, they are something to be beloved. According to Oceana, “of the nearly 500 species of sharks, only about a dozen are potentially dangerous to humans”. Best said by a 9-year-old boat kid “they are just fish”. It would be a lie to say I still view them with the calmness in which I encounter a parrotfish. I recognize their presence, move gently and wish I knew shark-speak for “I come in peace”. We give them their space, and they give us ours, and there is an unmentioned recognition that I am a guest in their home.

For reasons that we are still grownups with responsibilities we fast tracked towards Tahiti, leaving behind our posse of boat friends. As I write this, we are sitting in the island of Moorea, the sound of French reggaeton, a whizzing motorcycle and car traffic in the background. We miss the Tuamotus. We found the epitome of paradise, your own secluded island, just for yourself and 3,000 sharks.

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Post brought to you complete with pictures on round 1 by $10 a day WiFi.

Interested in reading more about sharks? http://oceana.org/marine-life/sharks-rays

Sharks play a vital role in the ocean ecosystem. To learn more, check out these shark protection charities: https://scubadiverlife.com/five-top-shark-charities/