It’s raining today in Tonga so we’re having an internet day. We’re currently testing out a new feature which will (hopefully) allow us to post while we’re at sea 🙂
Niue was a bit of a hidden gem for us. We hadn’t heard much about this place during our travels – few of our friends had visited before and those that have did so many years ago when anchoring was difficult and the island catered very little to general tourism, let alone to cruisers. Now things are a little different. Anchoring at this small exposed island has been made much simpler by the availability of mooring buoys allowing up to 12 boats to safely moor in this less-than-sheltered bay. Having said that, any sea swell coming from anywhere west of south causes the boats here to roll violently. Bob was no exception. Trying to cook dinner on what is comparable to a child’s seesaw (whilst standing up) can get tiring very quickly! I wish I could say that was the worst of our problems but unfortunately the rolling made apparent yet another rigging failure which, under the wrong circumstances, could have lead to the collapse of the entire rig. Whilst having to deal with yet another broken piece of rigging in this remote place is less than ideal, we were grateful that the failure didn’t happen at sea and a simple solution was just round the corner.
Each year more cruisers and tourists visit this unique raised atoll to enjoy all that Niue has to offer. This is the highest atoll in the world and this has led to a rather unusual topography with vibrant coral reefs bordering the island, a network of caves on the coast to be explored and interesting landscapes to scramble around in.
The wildlife here is also very unique with a number of endemic skinks, birds and marine life. The flat-tailed sea snake (locally known as ‘Katuali’) is an endemic species of sea snake found only in Niue. They are locally abundant and their venom, as with all sea snakes, is the one of the most potent in the world and is capable of killing a fully grown adult human with as little as 1.5 milligrams! To make matters worse, I don’t believe there’s an antidote. Luckily, these sea snakes are very friendly and not in the least bit aggressive. Most people are happy to swim with them and I heard that some of the locals playfully ‘tickle’ them in the water – each to their own I suppose! Apparently you would have to stick your fingers right down their throat for them to bite you which is a lucky thing because these little beasts are very curious and would often swim within inches of us when we were snorkelling.
As Niue is the only land mass for hundreds of miles it is also a sanctuary for breeding humpbacks and many tourists visit Niue specifically to swim with the whales. Oma Tafua is a Niuean non-profit organisation dedicated to the protection of marine mammals and literally translated means ‘to treasure whales’. When we first arrived we noticed a sign at the local yacht club (which was run by the wonderful Alexa – a volunteer from New Zealand looking after the place until the commodore returned from vacation) which pleaded to private yacht owners to volunteer their boat to Oma Tafua for a day or two to help with the whale monitoring scheme. We jumped at the chance! Rather than paying lots of money to a tour operator to see the whales we decided to volunteer Bob to the conservation cause. What better way to see the whales than by doing it from your own boat with an organisation whose sole purpose is to protect and conserve these wonderful creatures. I’m surprised more boat owners aren’t jumping at the chance to help with this project – Oma Tafua reimburse fuel and mooring costs, they teach you all about the whales, how to approach them, how their research contributes to conservation and, personally, I can’t think of a more rewarding way to see these magnificent and awe-inspiring animals.
For the first time in my life I saw a whale breach fully out of the water. I was on deck and heard a very loud noise in the distance, almost like a bomb explosion. I quickly looked round to see lots of water ‘mist’ suspended in the air, slowly falling back down to earth about half a mile away from where we were moored. Whales often breach in unison and once the first one does it, others often follow. As I perplexedly looked at the suspended water wondering what had just happened, another enormous humpback leaped clear into the air, rotated its body and landed on its back in the water creating the most enormous splash. Just amazing!
As well as the most incredible wildlife, I was also taken in by how friendly everyone is on this island. Tourism is still new to the people here and perhaps as a result they still see tourists as ‘real people’ rather than having an ‘us and them’ attitude which is unfortunately the case in so many places nowadays. We made some really good friends with the locals in our short 10 day visit and their kindness and generosity is unparallel to anywhere we’ve visited so far. Fia and Alexa were wonderfully welcoming and we really enjoyed hanging out with them. Fia took us to a wildlife presentation she was giving and even offered us the use of her car and a room in her house to sleep in (although we politely declined as we didn’t want to put her out). Alexa was also fabulous, giving us lots of friendly advice, driving us round to get our scuba tanks filled and she even came on board to help out with the whale research. I hope that we’ll see her again soon as she expects to be in New Zealand when we arrive in a few months time.
Finally, we met a really fantastic woman called Nadia when visiting a local hardware store one day at the beginning of our stay. After explaining where we were trying to get to, she offered to take us to our destination when her shift finished in half an hour’s time. We had a great chat with her and even though we didn’t even buy anything from her shop she was more than happy to ferry us to our destination. But that wasn’t all, she insisted on showing us her village and introducing us to her large family. We ended up spending a lot of time with her and her husband (Francis) and their four children over the coming days. We were invited to a barbeque and a family feast and they even spent a day taking us round the island on our own private guided car tour. We were able to repay the favour a little bit by having Nadia and Francis over to Bob for evening drinks and once we fixed Bob’s broken rig, Nadia even helped us take her for a test sail. Despite the fact that Francis is a fisherman Nadia had never before set foot on a boat of any kind. When we had had them both over for an evening drink Nadia had promptly succumbed to sea sickness, so when we had her out again for a sail we made her stand on the dock and eat two ginger snaps and a seasickness pill before she was allowed into the dinghy. This time she was fine, and even proved herself a gifted helmswoman on her very first sailing trip.
We are so grateful to Nadia and her family for making our experience in Niue truly authentic and enjoyable. The people here are fantastic and I wish we could have stayed longer but unfortunately, even with the new moorings, the bay is not suitable for boats to stay for the long term and we were lucky to be able to stay a whole 10 days – most cruisers manage just two or three.
The next landfall for us after Palmerston is a small self-governing island called Niue, however, this was not the next place we set anchor! En route to Niue is a little submerged atoll with no land at all known as Beveridge Reef. This atoll is very similar to the Tuamotus in structure and formation – with an external reef, a lagoon in the centre and a pass to allow us to enter…………… just no land. At all. Not even a rock poking its head above the surface. This didn’t deter us in the slightest however, and as the inside of the atoll contained a convenient sandy shelf only 11 feet deep, we decided it was a perfect place to anchor. Alex was keen to see what it felt like to be anchored in the middle of the ocean and I was keen to do fish and coral surveys in a part of the world with minimal human interference. I had a little bit of trepidation about surveying this particular reef as the sharks have a reputation of being somewhat aggressive and dangerous. The atoll is home to an abundance of gray reef sharks and one of the recorded attacks in the ‘official world shark attack register’ is from this particular reef. In fact, one of our good friends (Josh from s/v Maistral) was anchored near us and had a close encounter one afternoon when he was out spear fishing. After catching a small jack an inquisitive shark came up to him, mouth wide open and attempted a number of times to steal his well earned fish. After seeing the sharks teeth more times than he cared for, Josh decided to forfeit his fish to the shark in the hope that it would then leave him alone. Big mistake! The shark instantly gobbled the fish up and in the process attracted two more even larger sharks. All three sharks then started to aggressively circle around Josh less than 30cm from him, touching their bodies against his. As if that wasn’t scary enough, he was all by himself and his boat was a good 50m swim away! Despite punching the shark’s faces a few times and jabbing them with his spear they still persisted next to him until he was only 10 feet from his boat. Luckily he made it with no loss of life or limbs! Note to self – no spear fishing in isolated reefs! The sharks don’t appear to have developed any fear of humans at all.
Since the very beginning of our voyage I’ve been trying my best to do species and abundance surveys for the fish that occupy the reefs in the islands of the Pacific and also do coral bleaching assessments to evaluate the health of the reefs. As an ecologist I wanted to use this voyage as a means of diversifying my knowledge and to learn more about marine ecology. Not only does it keep me active, but it’s a good way to develop my own skills and who knows, maybe those skills will come in handy one day when looking for work. The main thing is that it’s contributing to conservation and improving data about an area of the world that’s seldom surveyed – and, of course, I absolutely love doing it.
I didn’t want to let Josh’s experience put me off doing my survey at Beveridge. I had been looking forward to it for months and as I wasn’t planning on spear fishing I thought it probably wouldn’t be a problem. Besides, I took Alex with me as my own personal body guard. After two surveys, one in the shallows near the barrier reef and another in the 40 foot deep lagoon with scattered coral heads, it became clear that there were a lot of gray reef sharks and not a whole lot of large reef fish for them to eat. Many of the fish appeared to be juveniles and any fully grown adults were usually small by nature, so not a whole lot of prey available and perhaps this explains their desperation for Josh’s fish! I got my surveys done without any harm, although we counted over 10 grey reef sharks during our scuba dive and many were very inquisitive. Although they never acted aggressively towards us, many came much closer than I was comfortable with. Luckily Alex was always right next to me keeping a beady eye on them ready to jump to my defence if needed – my hero!
I don’t want to give the wrong impression about sharks. While the ones at Beveridge were unusually inquisitive and even aggressive towards our spear-fishing friend, we have swum with literally hundreds of sharks, perhaps a thousand, and have never once experienced overly aggressive behaviour ourselves. With very few exceptions every shark attack on record is a case of mistaken identity (eg. The propeller of our dinghy – see earlier post from Nuku Hiva, Marquesas) or are associated with humans putting large amounts of blood into the water through fishing activity. Sharks are a beautiful and exciting feature whenever they are encountered on a dive or snorkel, and their presence is an excellent indicator of a healthy reef ecosystem. The reefs of the tropical Pacific are some of the most healthy and diverse in the world. The fish and others creatures we encounter are numerous, colourful and diverse – the variety of life is just amazing and the species so unusual it’s like being on an alien planet. Snorkelling and diving around coral reefs is an absolutely fabulous experience that’s not to be missed.
I’ve added a few extra pages to the website which might be useful to other cruisers wanting to see what fish they are encountering as they explore their local coral reefs. I’ve collated my photo collection and created a small fish ID guide which I will continue to add to as we progress through our voyage which you can see here. I would highly recommend doing a structured survey of the reef when out snorkelling or scuba diving. They’re a lot of fun, very easy to do and you can learn a great deal about the reef habitat and the weird and wonderful species living within it. The data can then be submitted to conservation organisations where it can be used to benefit the environment. If you’re interested in learning how to do this, see here for instructions on how to do fish surveys and here for instructions on how to do coral bleaching assessments.
After a very rolly downwind sail from Rarotonga with my all too familiar sea-sickness making its usual appearance, Palmerston was an extremely welcomed sight. We had heard through the grapevine that mooring buoys were available for cruising yachts and we were happy to find that the rumours were indeed true. Although only 49 people live on this atoll, their reputation for being a friendly and welcoming community seems to have made its way to the cruising world and annual visits from yachts are on a steady increase. The moorings are owned by the locals and are charged out at a meagre NZ$10 per day. Having said that, if you get in touch with the locals beforehand and bring with you some pre-ordered supplies from more built-up islands in the Cooks then this fee is usually waived. What’s more is that the usual fees charged by the other Cook Islands seems to be vastly reduced here and contrary to many online sources, it is in fact possible to clear into the Cook Islands in Palmerston even though it’s not an official ‘port of entry’.
Whatever charges are made to cruisers visiting this atoll are more than made up for by the experience you get at this incredibly exceptional place. Each cruising boat is hosted by one of the three families who live on the atoll. A family member will come and collect you from the mooring each day and return you at a mutually agreed time (NB the locals are very laid back and ‘Palmerston time’ often ended up being an hour or two later than prior arrangement). The pass to get into the atoll can very treacherous. It’s not exactly a straight line and with strong currents and a shallow depth creating sizable chop, it was definitely best to leave our fate in the hands of the locals and their strong aluminium runabouts rather than our own dinghy of questionable stability.
The host families are just amazing. As well as giving us dinghy rides to and from our boats every day, they really made us feel like we were part of the family. Each day we were invited to eat with them and enjoy the local cuisine. They showed us around their island and seemed to take great pleasure in explaining their history and their way of life. We were introduced to the entire community and I’m pretty sure we had met every person living on Palmerston by the end of our visit, including the pets – although remembering all their names was another matter! We were invited to a continuous stream of activities and celebrations so that even in a place as small and isolated as this, there was always something fun to do. In the short time we were there we found ourselves involved with school parties, craft making, volleyball games, family reunions and even a funeral. We met some awesome people here. The locals are all wonderful characters and we thoroughly enjoyed their company. We also met a number of migrants from the US, New Zealand and South Africa who were staying long term on the island either to work or on an extended holiday. It was great to meet people from similar cultures and backgrounds to me who don’t have a sailing background. Not that I have anything against sailors of course (I am one after all) but it’s nice to be able to talk about things other than boats from time to time.
Anyway, back to Palmerston. The history of this place is very interesting and the locals are very proud to tell the story. The atoll had no human population until 1863, when a promiscuous Englishman called William Marsters arrived with his three Polynesian wives. He divided the island into three areas and gave each of his wives one of these areas to live and create a home. He produced 21 children during his time on Palmerston and lived to a ripe old age of 78, not quite seeing in the 20th century. In the present day, each of the three families on Palmerston is descended from one of the three wives and, of course, William himself – everyone living on this idyllic island is a Marsters. Each respective family will tell you that it is their family who are descended from the ‘main’ wife and that the other two families are descended from concubines. I guess William was very good at making each wife feel ‘special’.
Our visit happened to coincide with a visit from about 30 Marsters family members who live in New Zealand and other places outside of Palmerston. They had come together to visit Palmerston as a family and it was the first time they had all been together on the atoll in about 30 years, so it was a big honour for us to be part of this momentous reunion. Their visit was a bitter sweet event as although they were able to enjoy this paradise island as a family, they were also there to scatter the ashes of a deceased loved one who wanted to be laid to rest in his place of origin. In the usual fashion we were invited to attend all the events held by the family during their stay, including the funeral itself. Funerals are usually sad occasions but as the death of the elder was some years previously, the day was more about celebrating his life rather than to mourn. We learned that his name was Sunny and heard many wonderful stories about him throughout the day. We felt like we had a better insight into the person this day was dedicated to and we got to know even more of the family who, just like the residents of Palmeston, are just as friendly and welcoming as ever. Of course we also made new cruising friends and ran into old ones. Our friends from a gorgeous, modern and very shiny catamaran called Cheeky Monkey arrived with a freshly caught tuna and cold beers on our second night – we gladly helped to consume them. The boat is currently crewed by three very interesting men: an Israeli hipster who is an ex-second commander of a missile ship and has vowed to not shave his beard until he reaches the end of his Pacific crossing, an optimistic American extravert who also happens to be a very fine male specimen* and the owner – an astute, opinionated Englishman who also happens to be one of the most good natured and motivational people I’ve met on this trip. Part of his voyage is to film a documentary about all the interesting and remote islands he’s visited during his voyage. He apparently already has a very popular YouTube channel with blogs of his journey prior to his current crew which, unfortunately, we’ve not had the pleasure of viewing due to very slow internet – but given his reputation I’m sure he’ll produce a documentary well worth watching. Look up Cheek Monkey on YouTube and check it out if you’re interested.
After an amazing week in Palmerston we set sail once again for the most remote place we’ve visited yet – Beveridge Reef…
Here are a few more pics from this wonderful atoll
*As pointed out by Alex
I appear to have had a complete lack of discipline and motivation when it comes to keeping my blog posts up-to-date over the past few months, for this I apologise. Upon arriving in Tahiti back in May I spent most of my time totally overcome by all the development and I was very pre-occupied enjoying all the supermarkets, fast food joints, restaurants, shops and bars. It had been 14 months since I had been in a city and I think I went a little stir crazy from the metropolis.
As built-up as it was, Tahiti certainly had its own natural beauty and the island had wonderful snorkelling, trekking and points of interest to visit. If you’re a cruising sailor thinking of bypassing Tahiti because it’s ‘too developed’ I think you would be missing out.
After a few rigging problems we had to sort out in our final weeks in French Polynesia, we finally made it to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands and have been enjoying a fabulous week in this bustling, scenic, ENGLISH-speaking island! As communication is no longer a problem, we’ve managed to get more done in one week here than in one month in French Polynesia. We managed to get a temporary driving licence and rent a scooter; do a circuit of the island; play mini golf; do a cross-island trek; visit the whale & wildlife centre; find our favourite bars across the island and get a whole host of boat jobs done. We even helped with a mountain rescue!
I say a ‘mountain rescue’ but it wasn’t quite that dramatic, although it was close to being a very serious event for the lady involved. Towards the end of our hike across we caught up with a lady and her husband. They were obviously making slow progress and the lady was frequently falling over and said she felt very weak in her legs. They asked if we had any snacks we could give them in the hope that some sugar would give her some energy. Unfortunately we didn’t, but we knew there were a number of people also doing the trek who weren’t far behind them and who might be able to help. Despite their predicament they seemed in good spirits so we bid them farewell and moved on. Further down the path we came across some coconut trees, so being a Good Samaritan Alex decided to run back to the couple with some coconut in the hope that it might help. It turned out that other people had passed them and had also given various fruits and energy bars to the lady, but unfortunately it didn’t seem to be helping. Now, the lady had almost lost the use of her legs entirely and was going completely hysterical – it was starting to get dark, the track was very difficult in places and she was, understandably, very scared.
Alex offered to get help and immediately came running back to the car park where I was waiting with the scooter. The couple were only 20 minutes from the end of the trek, but in her condition it was just impossible for her to make any progress. Moreover, the car park itself was still some way up the mountain and there was no phone signal there and they didn’t have any transport waiting for them even if they could get back to the car park. So we sped down the road on our little scooter to an area with more people and found a lovely local gentleman who called the police and mountain rescue service for us. Alex and I waited at the entrance for the various teams to show up. It took a nail-biting 45 minutes before the police eventually showed up and we made our way back up to the car park and to the entrance of the trek, but we were still waiting for the extraction team. By now it was well over an hour since Alex had left the couple and it was almost dark. Just then, we heard voices coming from the darkness of the trail and the police went to investigate. Thankfully it turned out to be the lady and her husband reaching the end of the trek. She was covered in mud and seemed a little ‘off’ – almost like she was drunk and not thinking clearly, but at least she appeared to have regained the use of her legs. It turned out that 5 minutes after Alex had left them she started to go delirious, speaking incomprehensible German and Latin and foaming at the mouth before going completely unconscious for a further 50 minutes! Her husband must have been going out of his mind with worry. Then, out of nowhere, she suddenly regained consciousness and had an unexpected burst of energy and was able to finish the trek in not much time at all.
She was obviously feeling much better and it’s wonderful that she could make it down the mountain without help from an extraction team. Perhaps it was a mineral deficiency, or perhaps extreme exhaustion, but she was on the up and that’s what was important. Despite the extreme events that had just happened to her, despite the fact that she still didn’t seem completely coherent and despite everybody’s strong recommendations the couple refused to go to the hospital to get checked out. We waved them goodbye as the police drove them back to their hotel where I sincerely hope she was able to eat something, get a nice hot bath and a long restful sleep. Hopefully she is now happy and healthy and was back to her normal self the following day, although I would have felt much better if she had been checkout out by a medical professional at the hospital.
Alex was absolutely amazing throughout this whole ordeal. He was calm, efficient and very professional. He clearly still remembers all of his medical first responder training and it gives me a lot of confidence to know that I am in the best possible hands if we ever have an emergency (which fingers crossed we never will).
So, after an exciting week we are now ready to leave Rarotonga for Palmerston (a secluded atoll with only 50 or so inhabitants). We’ll be leaving today with the hope of arriving in 2 days time and will update you on our adventures as soon as we can.