Fakarava: A Tale of Currents, Sharks, and Cheese

Fakarava: A Tale of Currents, Sharks, and Cheese

If we told you our time on Fakarava involved diving in heavy currents with tons of sharks, a fall off a bike, hundreds of mosquito bites, and eating some cheese from the local grocery store, which would you guess was the most unpleasant experience? Keep on reading to find out.

Tropical Exhaustion

After arriving in Fakarava, we were shown to our accommodation at Relais Marama, an objectively nice beach bungalow. However, there was no fan or A/C, the beds had mosquito nets overtop of them, and as it was the afternoon, it was hot. We dumped our packs on the floor, crawled under our mosquito nets, and Lisa began to cry.

“I don’t want to be here anymore. I’m sick of always being hot. I’m sick of the bugs. I’m sick of gecko poop. I’m sick of the mosquito nets. I’m sick of having to wait in line for shared bathrooms. I’m sick of baguettes.”

Bryan tried to console her, although he was feeling the same exhaustion. It was hard to be very convincing. What was he to say – don’t worry, Lisa, we only have SEVEN nights here in Fakarava and then three nights in Tahiti before we head down to New Zealand! Yeah. Not so much. All he could really come up with was “hey, at least we’re not camping, like those crazy Europeans.” Indeed, there were two European couples camping on the grounds – that could not have been fun.

So we both lay there glumly on our beds, in what is close to most people’s definition of “paradise”, mentally preparing for the next 6 days of heavy diving in the hot sun. This may sound a bit like sour grapes, because surely we had nothing to complain about. But there is something to long-term travel which takes its toll, especially when you are sticking to a budget and staying in one place after another where you cannot ever fully escape the heat, the gecko poop, or the mosquitoes.

As we lay there, we tried to think about the positives as well. Our bungalow was set in a pretty stand of palm trees, with lots of windows and a lovely ocean breeze. And Fakarava was a beautiful island, with world-class diving.

View from the Relais Marama at sunset.

Unfortunately, the diving was also a big source of stress and worry for Lisa. Before coming to Fakarava, Lisa had done some reading online about the dive sites here. She had read all kinds of forum posts about the difficulty and scariness of the North Pass in particular, and now she was, in typical Lisa fashion, imagining all kinds of worst-case scenarios that involved her being separated from the group and swept out to sea by a strong current.   

Diving the North Pass

Diving the North Pass of Fakarava, the dive shops ran two options; a morning 2-tank dive, and an afternoon 1-tank dive. The morning 2-tank dive was recommended only for advanced divers, because after an easy reef dive, it consisted of a dive drifting in to the pass with the incoming current. And this current could be quite strong, and was often unpredictable. So, worst case scenario, divers needed to be ready to do a negative entry (dropping into the water with BCD deflated, meaning you will immediately start to sink without having time to check in with your group or make any adjustments on the surface, and then swimming directly down to the rocks to get out of the current). Then they needed to be comfortable drifting with the current, as well as fighting the current and holding on to the rocks to stay put when necessary.

Given that Lisa was still pretty new and inexperienced, she skipped the mornings but signed up for a couple of afternoon dives, which promised to be easier. Meanwhile, Bryan dove the North Pass every morning, which consisted of getting up very early, eating breakfast and prepping gear, and then meeting the dive shop truck any time between 6:30 and 7:30 (depending on the tides).

While Bryan was out diving, Lisa enjoyed sleeping in, lazing around the pension, and exploring the island by bike. However, she also started to feel left out when Bryan came back with stories and pictures of mantas, turtles, big schools of fish, and lots of sharks. The afternoon dives we did together were nice, with lots of fish and even a few tuna, but they just weren’t as good as the mornings.

So we talked to the owners of O2 Fakarava, the excellent dive shop Bryan did most of his diving with, to see if there might be any time that the conditions would allow a beginner to dive the North Pass. Luckily, it sounded like Thursday, our fourth day at the North, was supposed to have a weaker current, as well as some other beginner divers. So, it sounded doable!

Thursday morning, we got up early, prepped our gear and headed out on the boat. Lisa was of course nervous – after all, this was the dreaded North Pass which she had read so much about. Bryan was also nervous – some of the dives had been pretty tough current-wise, and he didn’t want Lisa’s first real current experience to be a bad one. With that said, none of them had been bad enough that she wouldn’t have been able to handle it. He knew that from a dive we did on Bora Bora, where we fought against very strong current to try to see eagle rays.

We were happy to find out on the morning of our dive that the other member of our dive group was Jeremie, a very nice diver we had gone out with in Bora Bora. The first dive was nice and easy, where we got to hang out on the reef and watch mantas playing below. The second dive, as the incoming current started to pick up, we dropped down onto the “Piste” or ski slope, the start to the North Pass drift dive. The best time for sharks was to dive the incoming tide; the outgoing tide was too dangerous because it could sweep you out to sea, while at slack tide not many sharks were to be seen in the pass.

As soon as we hit the bottom, we had to start kicking somewhat against the current as we made our way in to the pass. There were sharks around, but Bryan was mostly worried that it felt like the strongest current he had been diving in at Fakarava. (Although it was supposed to be the easiest current, everyone in Fakarava had been having issues with the current at this time, as it had been changing erratically and unpredictably).

So Bryan kept a close eye on Lisa, and she did very well making it across the Piste. The next part was the hard part – the drift in to Ali Baba. Ali Baba is a canyon sitting at a depth of about 15 m. Our excellent dive guide Marine stopped, making sure we were all OK, and then signalled it was time to let ‘er rip. We let go, lifting off into the current, and began drifting over the coral.

The current was ripping, and we picked up quite a bit of speed very quickly. Bryan looked over at Lisa, to make sure she was OK. She did not look particularly comfortable, and was flailing around a bit, but overall he figured she was doing really well. Most importantly, he was not able to detect any hints of homicidal urges in her face, for getting her into this. On Lisa’s part, she didn’t particularly like the out-of-control sensation of being swept along by the current. So she reached out for Bryan’s hand, and he caught up and grabbed on. Bryan knew all too well the mental challenge Lisa faced in dealing with her first heavy current dive – this was a real baptism by fire. As we drifted together, Lisa started to relax and realized it was actually kind of fun if you just let go and let the current carry you along.

Next, as we came up through a channel, and the current continued on into the pass, we all had to swim down against the current to enter Ali Baba. We let go of each other and kicked as hard as we could. Our dive guide checked we were OK, and then we caught our breath. We were out of the main current and in some shelter, but we still had to splay out on the sand to keep ourselves from being pushed away from the group.

Surrounded by fish in Ali Baba canyon.

As we looked around, we realized we were surrounded by a thick mass of fish, with sharks swimming overhead. It was spectacular. We slowly made our way through the canyon, holding on to rocks and dead coral when needed, and being buffeted and slid about in different directions by the myriad of currents. This was not diving, but rather “crawling doggedly along the bottom while breathing from a scuba tank.” Then, as our air pressure dropped and our no deco time ran down, we lifted off into the current to ascend. We floated in the blue as the reef whipped by, and then partially faded away below.

After completing our safety stop, we surfaced to find the ocean rocking and rolling. Along with our guide and Jeremie, we kept our regulators in, heads down, and held on to each other’s tanks, forming a small line of divers bouncing in the surf. Bryan again figured Lisa might kill him. Our boat was delayed picking up the other dive group, so after a number of minutes of bumping against each other, we finally were picked up and got back on the boat.

Lisa had proven herself and showed that she could handle big current, and even more importantly, she had fun! This meant that Bryan could now start planning to subject her to even more difficult conditions in the future. Komodo, here we come! Lisa will still read forums about scary incidents and work herself up into a worry, though (in the case of Komodo, it proved to be way too easy, as a quick Google search turned up this horrifying headline: “Rescued British divers ‘had to fight off Komodo dragons’ after drifting in Indonesian waters for two days”).

The Worst Meal of Our Lives?

One day, we needed to find something for lunch, but everything was closed. Although we had learned the restaurants on Fakarava had rather irregular hours, we had usually been able to find at least one place open for any given meal, until this time. So we decided to go to the grocery store and pick up whatever we could find. And when we say grocery store, we mean a convenience store which happened to have a few more groceries than your standard 7-11. But barely. For example, there was no bread and no produce. As we arrived in the parking lot and parked our bikes, Lisa bailed and fell onto her side, with the bike landing on top of her leg. Bryan immediately shouted “What did you do??” Just joking. Bryan actually managed to learn a bit from the Tahiti incident, and immediately asked if Lisa was OK. Even Bryan can learn sometimes, albeit a bit slowly. But it was not the best start to the grocery expedition.

In the absence of bread, we got some Lu brand “Cracotte” crackers, that sounded like they would be decently substantial. Then it was time to choose some cheese. Lisa found one that looked decent, maybe Swiss, Emmental or Gouda (but it wasn’t very clearly labelled, so we weren’t sure). However, Bryan was unconvinced, and warned Lisa that if it was stinky or tasted like goat cheese in any way, he would refuse to eat it. The other option was a package of processed cheese slices.

Lisa knew those would suck, but she said we should get them if Bryan wasn’t sure he would even be willing to eat the other cheese. But Bryan also didn’t want the processed cheese (Bryan is very difficult to please). Finally, he figured the other one would probably be OK, and was likely some form of Gouda. Gouda is on Bryan’s good list. But by this point, Lisa was annoyed, and insisted we just get the processed cheese since Bryan was being such a whiny baby about the other one.

During arguments, Lisa has a tendency to try and force Bryan to “eat his words” and make him follow through on his initial stubborn suggestions (processed cheese), just to show him how he was wrong. She continues with this even after he has come around to her viewpoint (yummy Gouda, in this case). So we commenced to have a classic backwards argument, with Bryan insisting on the Gouda-like cheese, and Lisa insisting on the processed cheese. Eventually, Bryan caved and we got the processed cheese. It may have seemed like a victory for Lisa, but she had miscalculated and underestimated this cheese. Little did she know that the suffering involved in eating it herself would far outweigh any satisfaction she would gain from watching Bryan do the same.

It turns out the processed cheese was even worse than we expected, with a soft and weirdly creamy texture – think gelatinized cheeze whiz, or melted rubber. Taste-wise, it was probably 40% cheeze whiz and 60% rubber. It was seriously terrible. Adding to the misery, the crackers were like cardboard, which sounds pretty dry, but they were probably even drier. We’re talking down to maybe 5 or 10 ppm of water content, tops. And that’s probably being generous (for reference, cardboard is around 5% water, according to some random source on the internet). The only good parts of the meal were some really soggy, cold leftover fries, some “SunBreaks” chips, and a couple of small yogurt containers. But after we plowed through that, we had no choice other than to valiantly attempt the cheese & cracker gauntlet. It did not go well. On the plus side, we were able to laugh about how ridiculous it was, and we even took a photo.

So, that is the story of probably our dumbest and most self-sabotaging argument ever, and how we ended up eating one of the worst meals either of us can recall in our entire lives.

Diving the South Pass

Originally, our plan had been to stay for the whole week on the north of the island and take a day trip with one of the shops up there to the South Pass. However, it quickly became clear that organizing such a trip was very difficult, with unpredictable weather and water conditions making it seemingly impossible to confirm anything in advance. So, we decided instead to make the journey down to the South Pass for a couple of nights to stay there and do a few dives, just to make sure it would actually happen.

We stayed at Tetamanu Village, which was a lovely resort right on the water. Wooden walkways from the bungalows to the dining area and the dive shop passed right over the lagoon, in which trigger fish, Napoleon wrasse and tons of black tip reef sharks could be found hanging out.

Tetamanu Village.

We arrived in the evening, just in time for dinner, and then enjoyed the relaxed and beautiful atmosphere before going to sleep under yet another mosquito net.

The next day, we had signed up for two dives, both of which would involve a short (less than 5 minute!) boat ride out into the pass, dropping in and drifting with the incoming current right back to the reef beside the resort. After a safety stop on the reef, you simply climbed out of the water right back at the dive shop! Pretty much the ideal set-up.

Hanging out under the jetty at the end of our dive.

Up until this point, all of the shops in French Polynesia had set up our dive gear for us and even switched over our tanks in between dives. So, although we’d been checking everything over on each dive, the last time Lisa had actually set up all the equipment herself was in 2011 during her open water course. Now she needed to do it again before this dive. Given that this equipment had the pretty important role of allowing Lisa to breathe 18m below the water’s surface, she wanted to make sure she did everything right. Naturally, she turned to her loving fiance, who also happens to be a Divemaster, for assistance to make sure she’d done it right and hadn’t missed anything (it’s not that hard, but as we’ve established, Lisa is a bit of a worrywart).

Unfortunately, Lisa didn’t have the best timing with her request, as Bryan was of course occupied with setting up his own gear, in addition to his camera. Lisa also may have asked in a manner that came across as slightly demanding. So Bryan told Lisa something that came across rather like, “why don’t you just figure it out yourself?”

As you can guess, Lisa did not take this too well, and some words were exchanged. When the instructor asked what was going on, Lisa said something along the lines of, “he won’t help me even though he’s a divemaster!” The instructor laughed, and checked over Lisa’s equipment, and it was indeed OK. Then, as we continued our verbal jousting, the instructor proclaimed in French to another diver that it was like watching a TV show, and then proceeded to spank Bryan for being “bad.” He was, indeed, quite the character.

Despite the rough start, our dives were very enjoyable, and we were able to take in the spectacle of the South Pass’s famous wall of sharks, hanging out in the current. After the North Pass, the current seemed rather mild, and it was actually quite fun just drifting along with it, occasionally grabbing on to some dead coral to hang out in one place and watch the sharks.

Bryan also signed up for a night dive, but Lisa figured she had pushed herself enough with all this diving in strong currents, and wasn’t really up for taking on her first night dive just yet.

The night dive was one of the best dives Bryan has ever done, with sharks swimming all around him and bumping into him as they went about their hunting.

At dinner that night, Lisa was talking to another guest who was going back to the North the next day, as we were, to catch our plane to Tahiti in the afternoon. He mentioned how he was leaving before 6am. Weird – we were under the impression that the boat left in the afternoon, as per the schedule posted on the wall! Nobody had told us otherwise, so we assumed that was the plan. We had planned to go on the morning excursion to a nearby pink sand beach, and then transfer back.

Lisa decided she’d better check with the hotel manager. Due to some staffing issues, it turned out that, yes, the transfer tomorrow had been rescheduled to 6am. We were pretty bummed out, because not only would we miss the pink sand beach, but now we were also going to get to the airport super early and have to sit there for hours waiting for our flight.

The other guest had the idea of heading back to the Relais Marama instead, and luckily the owner Jacques let us hang out there and then store our stuff while we biked to a lovely beachside cafe for lunch. So, it turned out to be a nice last day on Fakarava, but Lisa is still pretty sad that she never got to see that pink sand beach…

Here is a video with some highlights from Fakarava:

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