Thursday, August 6, 2015

Epic Snorkel
By Michael

Violet soldierfish--big eyed and frowning--are
everywhere, and difficult to photograph
because they're so timid.
Do you know what an atoll is? What it means to snorkel in a pass? Whoever you are, wherever you are, I sincerely wish I had the power to transport you to the south pass of the Fakarava atoll on a pretty day and set you loose. We’ve seen and experienced amazing things and events during the past four years cruising: watching glaciers calve in Alaska, relaxing in British Columbia hot springs, riding out the remnants of hurricane Odile in the Sea of Cortez, untangling a humpback whale off Mexico’s Pacific Coast, and much more. But snorkeling the south pass of the Fakarava atoll is way up there.

So an atoll is what you’ve probably seen aerial photos of: a fringing reef that forms a lagoon in the middle of the ocean. It’s actually what remains of an island long gone, eroded and subsumed back into the earth. The Tuamotus archipelago is a collection of dozens of these things. People live on some of the atolls, in communities built on the thin strips of crushed coral that are only a few feet above sea level and dotted with coconut palms. Now, a pass is just that: a natural, narrow cut in the fringing reef through which a boat can pass.

I caught this shark about 30 feet away,
swimming right for me. At about 10
feet, he saw or sensed me and darted
away. Sharks fear me.
But also transiting these passes is a huge volume of sea water, flooding in on a rising tide, rushing out on a falling tide. About every six hours it switches and the water flows the other way, driven by the moon.

These dynamic tidal-washed passes are the founts of colorful ecosystems filled with coral, reef fish, and sharks. Especially on a flooding tide, the water is exceptionally clear. The water temperature is exquisite.

So, snorkeling a pass should now make sense. At the start of a flooding tide, we dinghy out to the entrance, don our mask and snorkel and fins, Windy grabs the painter, and we all roll in for the ride of our lives.

For about a quarter-mile (this particular pass), we’re swept along in the current. We glide effortlessly over a dazzling underwater landscape. I’d use my fins only to dive down for closer looks or to move between deeper and shallower water. Sometimes I’d grab something on the bottom and hang on for a bit, trying to take everything in and prolong the experience. Other times, I’d rush over an area, my head darting from one interesting thing to another, wanting to slow the movie down.

It’s exhilarating. We did it over and over. I hope you enjoy a similar experience one day.

I took all the photos in this post during our South Pass Fakarava snorkels. Most were taken as I swept along with the current (click, click, click), the others were taken while holding myself steady against the current.


Eleanor diving down for a closer
look at something. Both girls have
logged so many hours snorkeling,
they've really become quite adept.
Both pull themselves down the
anchor chain to 25-30 feet to grab
a handful of sand to bring up and
show us.

Taking a look at whatever it is.

There is no village at the South Pass, but there is a tiny
dive resort with these huts for the guests. It's right on the
bank of the pass.

A school of bluestripe snapper. By the way, I wouldn't know
what any of these fish are without my friend Behan on Totem
who advised us to buy a copy of Reef Fish Identification, TropicalPacific
by Allen, Steene, Humann, and Deloach--it's the best.

Pacific double-saddle butterflyfish, foreground, and lined bristletooth.

This guy is pretty unique. It's called a Napolean wrasse and I've heard
they're rare as they're considered a delicacy. The picture doesn't
show it, but he's the size of Frances. Other wrasse we saw were
younger, so their foreheads didn't protrude as much. Like sharks,
these guys swim with remora on them.

In the super shallow fringes of the pass, I was surprised to confront
these large black-tipped reef sharks, about six of them.

This is the edge of the shallows. The deep water off to the left is about
75 feet and visibility was clear all the way to the bottom. That's a
parrotfish in the center.

They're so pretty.

Post snorkel, Windy and Eleanor dragging Pudgy over
the shallows on the way back to Del Viento.


  1. Lovely photos! We have a Go-Pro and really thought we'd like it, but half the time we get half the fish in the frame. Guess we need more practice!

  2. Thanks Meri! These are shot with a $110 Canon point and shoot camera that we stick in an underwater case, nothing fancy, and I'm always amazed at what a good job it does--it's not the photographer. I just click the shutter 1,000 times and usually come back with 10 photos I like. Also, most of these are cropped--I wasn't necessarily as close it is appears.

  3. You and several others have put this high up on my must do list! Thank you for explaining everything so clearly - even how you produce the amazing photos!

  4. Wow! Still in wonder of your great family adventure, Michael and Windy. I second the comment on the great photo's you manage to include.


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