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French Polynesia Tuamotus trip aboard the M/V Shokalskiy
Seb Bertaut and a feeding grey reef shark


French Polynesia Trip, March - April 2005

Diving with TOPdive:

Fakarava, Rangiroa

Diving with Akademik Shokalskiy: [deep ocean expeditions]

Tikehau, Rangiroa, Apataki, Fakarava, Tahanea, Toau, Moorea

Extension with Ron + Valerie Taylor, Douglas Seifert, and Krissy Gossman


Akademik Shokalskiy Passengers:

Barrett Anderson
Chuck Ott
Curtis Foster
Douglas Seifert
Ed Callan
Eric Cheng
Guy de la Valdene
Halvor Tweto
Jenny Cornish
Jerry Watanabe
Jonathan "J.P." Spane
Kathy Cunningham
Ken Howard
Kimberly McDowell
Kirstina Gossman
Lachlan "Locky" Bursle
Marilyn "Marti" Georgeff
Pam McNay
Pat Hamilton
Patrice Richard
Regis Anderson
Regula McDowell
Robert "Rocky" Spane II
Bob "Rocky" Spane Jr.
Roger Lewis
Scott Foster
Scottie Franklin
Suzanne Schauwecker
Timothy McDowell
Wes McNay

Shokalskiy Staff:

Belinda Sawyer
Brett Gerrard
Jutta Mueller
Mike McDowell
Phil Algar
Pierre Tricotet
Rob McCallum
Ron Taylor
Seb Bertaut
Steve Algar
Valerie Taylor


Marisa Molk
Noy Siravantha

Fakarava Dive Center Staff:

Serge and Carine Howald

Rangiroa, TOPdive Staff:

Stephane Revest
Natalie, from Montreal

Moorea Staff:

Guillaume Vilcot, Bathy's
Nico, UW video at Bathy's
Pef, Dive Instructor at Bathy's
Renaud Fayada

Trip Journal

April 07 , 2005 - Los Angeles International Airport

In the last three days, I've had two travel evenings involving only two hours of sleep each, followed by comatose periods on short flights (the kind where you fall asleep before the plane takes off and wake up as it lands). It's not the optimal path toward healthy living, but I suppose it goes with the territory. My phone rang two hours after I went to bed, and through tearing eyes I managed to decipher the clock next to my bed: 5:06am. Groggy confusion ensued. I could have sworn that I had booked the airport shuttle for 6:15am...

It took me a moment to realize that the one clock in my place I hadn't updated after the time change was, in fact, my alarm clock! I was in the shuttle by 6:19am, and had plenty of time to sit around feeling like crap before my 8am flight.

April 07 , 2005 - Sheraton, Papeete, Tahiti

During my layover, Rosa Yan picked me up from the airport in Los Angeles, and we drove out to Manhattan Beach to eat at a Cuban restaurant called Versailles. I always enjoy seeing Rosa; she seems to have lots of things going on, and has a great outlook on life.

Flying business class on an international flight is a real treat. The guys who checked me into the Air Tahiti Nui flight gave me a premiere lounge invitation, so I spent an hour in there before check-in eating fruit and working on my computer. I don't need this sort of luxury, but I can see how one might become accustomed to it! On the airplane, my seat had adjustments in dimensions that my brain struggled to comprehend, and after I figured out all of its features, I was able to watch movies and sleep comfortably during the 10 1/2 hour flight from Los Angeles. A beautiful, young Tahitian woman sat next to me during the flight. We only exchanged a few smiles and words (love that French accent!), but it made my flight more pleasant than it could have been (I was once hermetically sealed into my window seat by a "dimensionally challenged" passenger -- and his even-larger wife).

Lucien Schmidlin, my gracious host and the owner of TOPdive and Bora Bora Dive Resort, was at the airport in Papeete waiting for me with his business partner, John. Unfortunately, I missed meeting his girlfriend, Rita, by twenty minutes -- sad, because I have heard about her for years and wanted to meet her. Lucien has always been very supportive of me and was involved in my first forays into the world of underwater photography. I met him out in Palau in April of 2001 during my (and his) first liveaboard dive trip ever, which was also my first experience with an underwater camera. A few months later, I flew out to Bora Bora to see Lucien and to build the first website for TOPdive (which involved underwater photography as well).

Lucien and I plan to go to Fakarava tomorrow, which I hear is amazing.

April 08 , 2005 - Maitai Dream, Fakarava, Tuomotu Islands

I spent the morning at eTahiti Travel's offices with Lucien and team. Manu had managed to procure a few eclipse glasses, and just after 9am we walked out onto the balcony and looked up at the sky. In Tahiti, the eclipse had about 40% coverage. I hear that Pit Cairns was the best place to be this time around. Despite not being in the optimal location, it was still really neat to see. I even tried to take some pictures with my little Canon point & shoot. :) Out on the balcony was a guy by the name of Bernhard, a photographer who once assisted David Doubilet while he was out here on a project.

Fakarava is the second largest atoll in French Polynesia after Rangiroa, and only hosts a population of about 450 individuals (humans, I mean)s. We arrived too late to do any diving, but we're going out on a dive boat first thing tomorrow morning. I've heard a lot about the diving here, and am excited to get in the water!

I spent some time this afternoon with four travel agents from Los Angeles (from Tahiti Legends: Marisa, Allison, Noy, and... ?), and am enjoying my time here.

April 09, 2005 - Maitai Dream, Fakarava, Tuomotu Islands (Dives 1-2)

Lucien: "Someone asked me today, 'Is the Japanese guy diving today?'"

Yes. The Japanese guy is diving today. And tomorrow, too. The Japanese guy likes to dive.

We dove today with Serge and Carine, the couple who runs the Fakarava Dive Center (which you can book through TOPdive). Our first dive was on the reef just outside of the northern pass, on the right side. It was a typical hard coral garden of the area, and we saw -- as usual -- a bunch of grey reef sharks and schools of fish. As we approached the pass, it was easy to see the murky water of the lagoon shooting out in the outgoing tide. At this point, we turned around. :)

The second dive (afternoon) was a drift dive in the pass, which can be complicated because the currents here do strange things. Indeed, on the surface one can see areas of extreme chop, indicating strange swirly currents below. But by the time we dropped in, the current had died quite a bit. There were still large schools of fish around, but it wasn't quite what I would have expected from a high-current area (this was confirmed by Serg, afterward). Tomorrow, we're going to try to hit the pass when the current is stronger.

We dove today with a Canadian guy staying with his wife at some guest-houses down the road. After the second dive, he complained of headaches, and we found out later that he had been evacuated via private jet for treatment in a recompression chamber (!). This shows the extreme complexity of decompression sickness; we all did the same profile, including an extended, 10-minute safety stop on the way up from 90' on the second dive. I hope it was a false alarm! There's nothing like a visit to a recompression chamber to disrupt a vacation.

And speaking of discomfort, I lost my three scoops of ice cream (2 chocolate and 1 vanilla) over the edge of the boat after surfacing from the second dive. It wasn't motion sickness that coaxed the half-digested glace from my stomach, though. I think I probably shouldn't have had a plate full of oily fries at dinner...

April 10, 2005 - Maitai Dream, Fakarava, Tuomotu Islands (Dives 3-4)

Where do all of these tiny little ants come from? Whenever I'm out on a Pacific island, groups of tiny ants decide to hang out inside my notebook computer -- which scares me because I'm always expecting one of them to short out something important. Some of the little buggers creep out occasionally onto my keyboard, which perhaps is like the tiny ant version of Russian Roulette, except that instead of death by a bullet, they face death by large, fleshy hammers from above. More strangeness: there is a bottle in the bathroom that has written on it: "shampooing shampoo." It's a good thing, too, because that's what I used it for.

I spent some time reclined on a sculpted seat on the beach earlier today, watching a white seabird of some sort flit about above the flatness of the lagoon. Each flap of her wing was a flash of turqoise, her white underbelly taking on colors from the various hues of blue from below. I left the serenity of my shaded seat only because I had been called for the afternoon's dive.

We've also been blessed by daily rainbows. I continue to find myself at the most amazing honeymoon destinations -- alone.

Anyway, in the morning, we dove outside the left-hand side of the northern pass. A healthy hard-coral garden extends out virtually forever near the pass, and it was another typical dive here in French Polynesia, with schools of snapper, bannerfish, and dozens of grey reef sharks. In the afternoon, we drifted the incoming tide of the pass again, this time opting for an earlier departure for a stronger current. At 100', there was a slight thermocline, and there was a squadron of at least 100 grey reef sharks hanging in the current. Many of the sharks were fairly active, at times flipping completely vertical in order to move up or down. One small reef shark had a pilotfish on her nose. I love it when sharks have pilotfish accompanying them.

I had another "it's a small world" moment this morning (not the Disney version, but rather, the el mundo es un panuelo version); as we sped out to the northern pass, I saw the Akademik Shokalskiy anchored near the right-hand side of the pass! This is the ship I will be on from the 14th to 27th of April, and on the boat currently are at least four people I know. Unfortunately, everyone was still underwater when we stopped by to say hello.

I went outside past the reach of lights this evening. The night sky here is unbelievable.

April 11, 2005 - Maitai Dream, Fakarava, and Hotel Kia Ora, Rangiroa, Tuomotu Islands

There is something about French Polynesia that slows me down, in a good way. I notice that I breath more deeply, and that my heart beats more slowly, and that I take more time to enjoy the beauty around me. It must be some combination of the heat, ocean breeze, vibrant blue gradients banding up and down from the horizon, and, perhaps most importantly, lack of internet access...

Shoooot. It's many hours later (I'm in Rangiroa now!), and I seem to have internet access again via a dialup account Lucien has graciously offered to let me use. !!!! I *think* my bungalow was just hit by a falling coconut. Everything in here resonated with its boom, which sounded like a small detonation. Needless to say, it scared the shit out of me, and I'm glad that I am under a sturdy roof to protect my fragile, large head.

In the afternoon, I sat around on the lagoon's edge with Lucien (just outside of his bungalow), and as the sun set off in the lagoon's flatness, I saw, for the fourth time in my life, the green flash. This was different than the one I photographed in Galapagos two years ago; just before the top of the rounded upper curve of the sun dipped below the horizon, it turned into a pinprick of searing green so bright that I almost want to remember it as being white.

Stephane, the dive instructor here at TOPdive Rangiroa, and Natalie, a visiting dive instructor from Montreal, came to pick up Lucien and me for dinner this evening. We drove a few minutes down the road and ate at a small restaurant with a local feel to it. French Polynesia is a small place; Lucien seems to know people everywhere we go.

April 12, 2005 - Hotel Kia Ora, Rangiroa, Tuomotu Islands (Dives 5-7)

There was a huge, scary, eight-eyed spider in my room when I woke up. I caught it.

The tide here in Rangiroa has been doing strange things. We decided to get out on the water early to try to catch an incoming tide for a drift dive (people have died in outgoing pass currrents here in French Polynesia because there can be tremendous down currents), but the water for some reason was already going out, so we were limited to a "normal",s outside wall dive. Lucien and I were alone, and no other divers were in the water. The first thing we saw was a female hawksbill turtle eating sponges off of bits of coral and rock. She completely ignored us, so we were able to observe her from literally inches away. A manta ray buzzed by up in the shallows, and just up from the turtle, I found two large Napolean wrasses hanging vertically above a clump of rocks above what was clearly a cleaning station. When we first arrived, the Napoleans moved off warily, but after about five minutes of patience (clinging to rocks as the strong surge pushed us back and forth), they moved back in and allowed themselves to be cleaned right in front of me! It was very cool. A titan triggerfish moved in to dig around in the rocks for a bit. The larger of the two Napoleans made a loud whoomping noise and darted in, scaring off the titan, and then suddenly, all of the fish disappeared. Just as I started to look around, Lucien started screaming through his regulator. A large great hammerhead -- at least 4 meters long -- was cruising by on the wall just below us! She didn't give us a chance to get close, but it was exciting nonetheless.

During our second dive (at around 10am), we found a school of thousands of jacks whirling around in a tight ball. Also in the depths were four fairly large silvertip sharks -- a first sighting, for me. I like seeing new species of sharks for the first time. :)

Our third dive was less eventful. The currents were doing really bizarre things, pushing us around in seemingly random directions. Our bubbles swirled around us before heading out into the ocean when they reached the shallows above. We ended up in the murky water of the pass itself (during an outgoing tide at a time when it should have been incoming), where we tried to amuse ourselves for twenty minutes before finding our friend, the friendly female hawksbill. The surge was quite strong, and she frequently found herself pushed nearly upside-down -- a funny sight, for us. :)

In the evening, I ate surgeonfish, out of curiosity. It was a steaky fish -- very good, actually! I'm surprised we don't see it on menus more often.

April 13, 2005 - Sheraton Hotel, Tahiti

Lucien took Manu and me out to a restaurant called "Casablanca" last night, where we had a wonderful meal complete with French caviar, Bourdeaux wine, steaks, ice cream, and espresso. I've really enjoyed his hospitality while I've been out here, and diving with him has been great as well. He sort of acts like a photographer, except that he has no camera.

April 14, 2005 - Akademik Shokalskiy, French Polynesia

I had a nice surprise in the morning at the Sheraton: Susan and Chip Scarlett knocked on my door and asked if I wanted to grab an early lunch before leaving on the bus. Chip showed me a slideshow of their time aboard the Shokalskiy over the past two weeks, and the images look very exciting! Whereas Lucien and I dove the passes of Rangiroa and Fakarava to observe the scores of sharks hanging in the current (read: I didn't get any interesting photos), the Shokalskiy dd the same dives with tuna heads and fish carcasses (read: they got great photos). You know it's going to be exciting when you see a dense, squaline ball with only the faint glow of a certain person's tacky, yellow wetsuit showing through the cracks between sharks -- a tacky, bright-yellow wetsuit that could only belong to one person. Can you guess whom?

We're now aboard the Russian research vessel, Akademik Shokalskiy. I wonder if I can get a crew member to say, "nuclear wessel."

It's not a normal liveaboard, -- and the guests are *definitely* not the normal liveaboard participants I commonly see during my travels. The Shokalskiy is stationed for most of the year down in Antarctica, and escapes the harsh polar winter by cruising to Vladivostok for service. Every year, Deep Ocean Expeditions takes the wessel to a new location and runs a couple of dive charters for what is mostly repeat customers.

April 15, 2005 - Akademik Shokalskiy, Tikehau, French Polynesia

At dinner, Guy sat at the table with "the French." Apparently, there was much discussion about the depth at which a man could no longer finish his business due to pressure. By the end of dinner, it was concluded that the magic number was "below about 90 feet." When asked whether this sort of dinner-time topic was normal, Pierre shrugged and said, "we are French."

Dive 1 - Tikehau - "Shark Hole"
Seb descended into the depths with fish to coax several grey reef sharks up into shallow water. I hung in blue water just off of the reef and had several sharks investigate me very closely. I am less comfortable with greys than I am with other species; they move very quickly and spook easily.

April 16-17, 2005 - Akademik Shokalskiy, Rangiroa, French Polynesia

A few of us (Douglas, Krissy, Guy, Marty, Patrice, and Locky) went to the bar at the Kia Ora Resort, where we were served all sorts of foul-tasting, technicolor drinks at $15 USD each, arriving occasionally in proper, Polynesian time. On our way back to the wessel, we discovered that the bow was emitting vast amounts of wonderful-smelling smoke! An epic barbecue greeted our return, the chefs cooking up a magnificent feast of beef, chicken, prawn, corn, baked potato, and much more. There was much celebrating in the form of food, wine, and laughter, and after a few hours, we stumbled to our cabins one-by-one for some sleep before the morning's early activities.

There are two orthodontists in the group, and they keep admiring my teeth, which are apparently "very straight". :)

Dives 4,5 - Rangiroa - Avatura Pass Corner
Water taxi to a bus, which drove us 4 miles to the pass, where we were met by the zodiacs. It was a strange arrangement, but saved us what would have been an hour-long zodiac ride. Between dives, we went to a grocery store and shopped around in our wetsuits, which was quite strange. For some reason, Douglas bought up the local supply of mustard.

Dive 6 - Rangiroa - The Aquarium
Pierre, Douglas, Krissy, Guy and I went to the Aquarium (a shallow area near Tiputa Pass) to photograph Krissy on a rebreather. The butterflyfish there are plentiful and friendly, having been regularly fed by tourists for years.

Dive 7 - Tiputa Pass Corner
The friendly female hawksbill was there, and again, she completely ignored us in her quest for food...

Dive 8 - Tiputa Pass Drift
Gentle drift. Dropped down at 144' outside of the pass and saw five eagle rays, a few grey reef sharks, two large tuna, a curious Napolean, who came up from the depths to investigate me.

Dive 9 - Outer Reef
Murky! Relatively uneventful. No photos.

April 18, 2005 - Akademik Shokalskiy, Apataki, French Polynesia

A private jet (Mike says it's a Citation of some sort) buzzed us no fewer than five times on our way back in from our afternoon dive (which was beautiful!). French Polynesia seems like the ultimate place to go waste fuel at low altitude. Maybe he knew Mike.

Dive 10 - Apataki - Anchor Corner
For some reason, everyone decided to kick furiously against the current, so I ended up alone by the end of the dive. We dropped in during an outgoing tide, but by the end of the dive the tide has switched, and some folks ended up in the lagoon. There were a couple of large anchors in the reef here, and I photographed two schools of jack-like fish, which in fact, might have been jacks.

Dive 11 - Apataki - Tehera/Shark Plaza Drift
Wonderful shark dive! We dropped down at the pass into a roaring current (I'm told that it was only half of what it could have been) and immediately descended down to around 75'. As we drifted along the valley, I saw hundreds of cleaner wrasse hovering at the bottom. That was a good sign.

Seb, Valerie, Douglas and I reached the "plaza" first and ducked into a cave along the right-hand side to escape the current. Not 30 seconds later, I heard a delighted squeal from Valerie as she spotted scores of grey reef sharks rushing towards us from down current. Seb had a bit of bait, and the sharks circled around repeatedly, giving us ample opportunity for photographs. Seb swatted away overly curious sharks like he was brushing away flies. Large, muscular flies, with teeth. Twice, I saw a much larger school of densely-packed grey reef sharks (at least 100), but I was unable to swim into them because of the strength of the current. In fact, I could barely unhook my reef hook when I was at the bottom of the valley!

On our safety stop, Douglas and I watched as a small remora stalked a larger one. Large remoras try hard not to have smaller ones stick to them because it ruins their ability to then attach to anything else. Finally, the smaller remora triumphed, and the larger one swam slowly (and awkwardly) back down to the reef. Served him right.

Dive 12 - Apataki - Zoo Corner
Absolutely beautiful, and covered with friendly life! The visibility was spectacular despite the outgoing tide, and schools of racoon butterflyfish, barracuda, jacks, bannerfish, anthias, damsels, and many others presented themselves to us in the water column, barely moving when we approached. Near the corner there was a huge population of groupers chasing each other around the pristine reefscape. Only in the Bahamas have I seen such a dense population of groupers, but there, the groupers flee if you so much as make eye contact with them.

During the safety stop, everyone spun around, playing in the glorious late-afternoon sunlight. Bubbles sparkled and glistened, almost impossibly bright against the muted blue off in the distance, and bright smiles greeted me upon my return to the surface. This is what diving French Polynesia is all about.

After dinner, I gave a little slide show in the lecture room on deck 2. I started the show by saying that I was honored to be presenting the work of my past few years to an audience of individuals with so much experience in underwater imaging and recreation, but it didn't quite come out that way. I believe I said something like, "many of you have been scuba diving and taking photos underwater for longer than I have been alive." Uh... oops! While what I said is true, I meant it in the most positive of ways. Collectively, the group here is an amazing bunch, and everyone seems to be at the top of their respective fields -- and, Mike McDowell and Ron and Valerie Taylor were in the audience. It was certainly an honor to have them sit through a showing of my work!

A few folks stayed afterward to see the show again. I wish I had brought a projector along on the trip so I could have run the show with proper narration and interactivity (Chip brought one on the last charter). Doing a show via SVCD on the television makes interactivity more difficult than it is worth; instead, I chose a few songs from Vienna Teng to play along with the slideshow. Some things never change. :)

April 19, 2005 - Akademik Shokalskiy, Apataki, French Polynesia

For tonight's evening entertainment, Ron Taylor narrated over video footage he shot here in French Polynesia last year aboard the Tahiti Aggressor, which included footage of South Fakarava, which we will be diving over the next couple of days.

The grey reef sharks at Apataki school in a particularly interesting manner, moving around as one large pack, with individuals peeling off of the front of the school to join back in further back. Ron says that they are in a passive mode during the day, wandering around aimlessly in high current areas in order to easily pass water over their gills (perhaps). Reef sharks are known to be passive during the day because they actively feed at night. Pierre told us a few days ago that he didn't recommend doing night dives near passes in Tahiti because sharks have been so aggressive during prior attempts.

Dive 13 - Apataki- Deep Pass Drift
Our group of thirty-something divers was split into two groups in order to minimize the cluster-F effect of having so many divers in the water at one time. I was assigned to group 2, which meant that I was to do a deep drift for the first dive, followed by a drop directly into shark plaza for the second.

The deep drift was quite dangerous. The current was ripping throught the pass, and we descended to around 160' out in the blue. Large barracuda, tuna, and reef sharks milled about at depth, and we gradually migrated upward to around 80' over the course of the next ten minutes. Various people started to run out of air and lose control of buoyancy as we approached 40' in depth -- a recipe for disaster; one guy actually ran out of air and had to bolt to the surface. This is bad in any situation, but after doing a dive to 160', it's nearly suicidal. By the time we reached shark plaza, no one had any bottom time left.

So far, no one has had any symptoms of decompression sickness, but I think they were just lucky.

I don't mind doing decompression dives myself, because I usually have plenty of air at the end to hang out for as long as I need to. Not everyone went into deco for this dive, but many of us did. As far as planning the dive and diving the plan goes, this dive was a colossal failure.

Dive 14 - Apataki - Tehera/Shark Plaza Drift
Valerie advised the management that no one wanted to do the deep drift as a second dive, and instead, we staggered the groups so our group went in to shark plaza first, since the other group had gone in first during the first dive. The second group was to follow us about 15 minutes later. This plan worked out very well; because we had fewer divers, the sharks came close in far greater numbers. I was bumped repeatedly by sharks swimming by: my housing, strobes, tank, head, fins -- and virtually every other part of me -- made contact with curious grey reefs! Sebastien was in fine form, using a little bit of bait to get the sharks to come in repeatedly.

I noticed that the sharks seemed particularly curious (today) about my Ikelite strobes. They came in three or four at a time, gently bumping each strobe, but their nictitating membranes never went up, suggesting that they were not feeling any threat from me nor my camera. It was pretty cute, but even so I made it clear that bumping was not ok by hitting them (not hard) with my strobes and fist. Awesome dive, as expected. :)

Because I did two decompression dives, I elected to sit out of the third dive. Best not to take any chances.

In the evening, a group of passengers (including Ed, Admiral Rocky, Pat, Kathy, Hal, Chuck, Jenny, Wes, and others) has been playing hearts in the bar/library of the Shokalskiy. I joined in for a bit tonight, and had a great time. Despite a poor showing for most of the evening, Pat surprised us all by shooting the moon during the triple-or-nothing final round, winning the evening's game! It was the most dramatic ending of any evening of hearts I've seen.

April 20, 2005 - Akademik Shokalskiy, Fakarava South, French Polynesia

Since coming to French Polynesia, I have been told repeatedly about the wonders of the south pass of Fakarava, from both Lucien Schmidlin and Valerie Taylor. We arrived at the south pass early this morning. The conditions in the pass make it impossible for a wessel as large as the Shokalskiy to enter from the south. One option is to enter from the north and navigate down the lagoon until we reach the south pass, but the locals have strung pearl farm nets left and right in the lagoon, so navigation through the lagoon takes a long, long time. As a result, we are drifting around just outside of the lagoon. The Shokalskiy starts up and runs in a bit closer every time we need to launch zodiacs to reach the atoll.

Dive 15 - Fakarava - South Pass Drift
Ahhh, the famed Fakarava South Pass. We dropped in, and before we reached the bottom we were surrounded by grey reef sharks. The reef sharks at Fakarava do not school in formation like they do at Apataki; rather, they mill around seemingly at random -- and there were hundreds of them! Seb had a bit of fish, which made the sharks swarm all around us. Admiral Rocky told me later on that I had a shark biting the first stage of my regulator! "I was getting ready to save you, because then I would have been in the movies," he said. Sharks were everywhere, and it was good. South Fakarava is Valerie's favorite dive in French Polynesia.

After we sharked for twenty minutes or so, we drifted with the incoming tide toward the resort pier. The pass wall is a wonderfully healthy hard coral reef that goes up literally into 6 inches of water, where a local gang of black tip reef sharks hangs out. There are also a couple resident Napolean wrasses who will swim right up to you and check you out.

Dive 16 - Fakarava - South Pass Drift
The current was slack when we jumped in and had switched to outgoing by the time we finished playing with sharks.

People reported that there were more sharks around during the second pass dive, but I didn't think they were quite as active as they had been earlier. I didn't have many photographic opportunities because there were so many photographers crammed in around Sebastien. I didn't mind, because everyone here should have a turn at having a good view.

During the middle of the feeding portion of the dive, I heard Seb cry out through his regulator and then jump up from the reef. A large moray eel had bitten his ankle! It seems like quite a wound -- he was limping around for much of the rest of the day with a bandage on his ankle. Of course, it didn't stop him from doing more dives (and going after it with a knife) ...

Dive 17 - Fakarava - Rose Reef Corner
Beautiful light, nice coral formations, fantastic small fish life (damsels, green chromis, butterflies swimming into the water column out from the safety of their coral branches).

Just inside the pass is a lovely pensione with beach bungalows and a pier. The pier sits in a high-current area, and with each incoming and outgoing tide the water in front of the resort swirls visibly with unknown submarine eddies. A local school of black tip sharks cruises in the shallows, their white-and-black fins sticking out of the water. These little guys will swim around in less than a foot of water! They are very cute. I spent a lot of time snorkeling with them, trying to get that perfect, late-afternoon shot in the shallows. It was nearly dark before I was able to shoot anything interesting, and I still squatted there for more than twenty minutes, giving the other passengers ample time to heckle me from the pier.

For our evening's entertainment, we watched a movie called Deep Blue, which was horrible. Apparently it was the director's cut, which means that they prolong the misery as long as possible.

April 21, 2005 - Akademik Shokalskiy, Fakarava South, French Polynesia

The little resort here at South Fakarava is very cute, and the scenery is amazing. I highly recommend a visit, if you are comfortable in no-frills, beach bungalows.

Dive 18 - Fakarava - South Pass Drift
More sharks! Awesome, as usual. Had some problems during the zodiac pickup because the current by the resort pier is so strong. We all had to jump out of the zodiac (in a foot of water) to prevent it from hitting some rebar that was sticking out of the water. The driver was blase about the whole thing.

Dive 19 - Fakarava - South Pass Drift
The shark action on this dive was as good as it has been so far. I snagged a spot next to Seb for the feeding, and sharks were everywhere! At one point I watched a shark bite Seb's hair. A bit close for comfort, perhaps. I pointed this out to him, and he replied, "well, when you play with fire..."

Dive 20 - Fakarava - Resort Pier
Frolicked around in the water at the resort for a bit. The friendly Napolean came by after about half an hour, with remora in tow. He is very large, and stuck his fat lips out in front of my camera for a minute or so before moving off.

In the evening, Ron and Valerie presented a documentary about them that was shot in the early 80s. It's been an honor to share a boat with them; they were truly the pioneers of human-shark interaction.

April 22, 2005 - Akademik Shokalskiy, Tahanea Atoll, French Polynesia

Mike and Valerie somehow convinced the local tourism folk that we should be allowed to dive Tahanea Atoll, which is uninhabited and normally off limits. There is a pass dive there with strong current, and much of the coral at the bottom of the pass is broken up, in various stages of being ground down to sand. Unfortunately, it looks like much of the marine life has been fished out. Certainly, there no longer any real shark population here.

Dive 21 - Tahanea - Pass Drift
The coral at the corner is beautiful, but there was not much fish life. We saw some pretty individual fish, but the numbers were simply not there. There were about ten sharks -- mostly juvenile grey reefs -- but they didn't come anywhere near us even when tempted with bait. We were told that most of the sharks in the area had been finned recently.

Part of the group had a manta ray with them for a few minutes.

Dive 22 - Tahanea - Main Pass Drift
When we reached the dive site, we discovered a large dolphin swimming around at the surface. I back-rolled in, and he made two quick passes before swimming away quickly when two zodiac loads of divers splashed in.

April 23, 2005 - Akademik Shokalskiy, Fakarava North, French Polynesia

The evening card games have been heating up! Each night features stiff competition between Kathy "The CFO" Cunningham, Pat "Bottom Crawler" Hamilton, Bob "The Rockster" Spane, Ed "Old Man of the Sea" Callan, and others. Although, Admiral Bob says that he isn't going to play anymore unless he wins (which is perhaps why I see him playing Ed, one-on-one. But I haven't asked who is winning those matches...).

Dive 23 - Fakarava - North Pass Drift
I elected not to dive the first dive of the day because I knew that both pass dives would be deep. We dropped in to about 125' or so to watch the local gang of grey reef sharks. As usual, Seb had a bit of bait. The sharks here are fairly aggressive, and I saw more than one of the zipping around erratically, shooting in to check out the fins of virtually every diver in its path. Sharks are very good at coming in from behind you, and you will rarely see one approach head on. One shark ended up hooking its lower jaw into the front of Seb's BCD and thrashed around while Seb struggled to remove himself from its grasp. Once he managed to get the shark on is back, it stopped thrashing and he was able to get away. Unfortunately, his BC didn't survive, and had to be replaced for the next dive.

The "gutter" area further along in the drift is amazing; all sorts of fish schools take refuge from the current in the little canyon, and they just sit there, motionless as you approach -- especially the bigeyes.

Dive 24 - Fakarava - North Pass Drift
The current wasn't as strong on this dive, and as a result, we spent most of the dive kicking. Not the best dive...

April 24, 2005 - Akademik Shokalskiy, Fakarava North, French Polynesia

There are 4-meter swells coming in from the south, which may affect the strength of the incoming tide. The day's pass dives may be a bit variable.

Pierre, Marti, Hal, Jerry, Chuck and I went fishing this morning at 6am (we fish for food and bait). We did it "the French way," which apparently means that you use your hands instead of a rod and reel. Chuck got a strong bite, but when we hauled the thing in, we discovered that it was a cute little four-foot reef shark. We also discovered that we had no pliers, so we had to encourage the shark to break the line instead of trying to pry the hook out of its mouth. Sad -- but later on we found a lure during one of the dives. We think it was the lure that was attached to the shark, so at least she isn't swimming around with a flashing silvery thing spinning around next to her mouth.

Ed told the notorious "chicken joke" at lunch. He once told the same joke to George Bush Sr. at a Bohemian Club lunch, and said that no one laughed until the former president laughed. Later, Ed wrote Bush a letter about something unrelated, hoping that the chicken joke would be but a faded memory, but in the reply, Bush wrote, "heard any good jokes lately?"

Not long ago, Timothy knocked on my door and asked if I wanted to "jump off of the gangway." I asked if we were allowed to do that, to which he replied, "well, the Russians do it all the time." I suppose that if the Russians do it, then we can as well. And so we did. We also peer-pressured Krissy unto jumping a couple of times, because everything is more fun when a girl in a bikini is involved.

Dive 25 - Fakarava - North Pass Corner
Gentle, relaxing dive, with reef fish going about their business. Saw a large barracuda hunting, and the typical investigations by grey reef sharks, blue jacks, and large snapper.

Dive 26 - Fakarava - North Pass Drift
We only stayed on the step for about seven minutes before uprooting and drifting up the slope. Not far from the slope, we discovered a manta ray covered with cleaner wrasse, and absolutely motionless in the current with his mouth wide open. Douglas and I crept toward him very slowly, and stopped to observe well out of shootable range (so as not to spook him). Most people stayed away as well, but it only took the approach of one to make him abort his cleaning and move off. Luckily, he moved toward the line of divers and made a wonderfully close pass!

And, there were lots of sharks swimming around, which made the manta scene all the more picturesque. The gutter was amazing, as usual. Lots and lots of fish.

Dive 27 - Fakarava - North Pass Drift
The current was ripping, and our group was dropped off too close to the step to be able to descend fast enough. We missed the step and had to traverse sideways in the current until we reached the canyons. I was fortunate and drifted into a large Napolean wrasse at a cleaning station, who allowed me to observe him for a long time at very close range.

Did I mention that the current was ripping? They weren't kidding when they said there might be a 6-knot current.

I wore my devil hood on this dive, and when I surfaced I saw Carine aboard Fakarava Dive Center's zodiac making her way toward me. We said our hellos before I drifted off in the current. It's a good thing I was wearing the horns; the only reason she drove by was because she had seen photos of me wearing that hood!

April 25, 2005 - Akademik Shokalskiy, Toau Atoll, French Polynesia

I skipped the third dive of the day to work on my images. I've scheduled the presentation of my slide show for 9:30am tomorrow morning. There are still hours of work I must do before a slideshow of any kind is possible, so I'll likely hole up in my room and crank away at it.

I did, however, take a break with Locky and jump off of the roof of the bridge. I have bruises from landing in the water so hard.

Dive 28 - Toau - Scarface Corner
The corner here is named after a shark named "Scarface" who has bitten many feeders here, including Seb. We spent most of the dive in a circle around hidden bait with about six or seven grey reef sharks.

Dive 29 - Toau - Otugi Pass
Beautiful pass dive, with lots of grey reef sharks and a large hole with a big school of bigeyes in it. The current was quite strong.

In the evening, we celebrated Pierre's 40th birthday. Patrice sang him a song about a shark that gave up his teeth for love (or something like that). I asked to take a photo of friends and long-time dive partners Pierre and Sebastien, and Pierre gave me a trademark OOH-LAH-LAH!, complete with the requisite "hand on fire" shake.

April 26, 2005 - Akademik Shokalskiy, Moorea, French Polynesia

Well, I finished the slideshow, and it was very well received. :) I'm now being asked for copies of it, which is a bit problem on a boat with more than thirty passengers on it! After my presentation, Curt and Ron each showed a video, both of which were excellent.

Thanks to Valerie's organization and Chuck's satellite phone, my plans for staying in Moorea have now been finalized. Douglas, Krissy and I are scheduled to disembark here before the boat continues on to Papeete. Mike, Valerie, and Ron will join us in the next couple of days.

The Shokalskiy made great time overnight, arriving at Moorea in the early afternoon. The afternoon schedule included a dive with lemon sharks and a snorkel with stingrays, followed by a farewell BBQ.

Dive 30 - Moorea - Lemon Shark Dive
No lemon sharks. Douglas saw one at 80', but it didn't come close to the group. We had a nice group of grey reef sharks, and one huge titan trigger which was so big that it was able to chase off individual sharks. Eventually, the sharks managed to get to the hidden bait, and a small frenzy insued, which was very exciting. A huge cloud of green blood obscured visibility, and at one point the sharks frenzied right over my head. I flattened myself and pretended to be part of the reef. :)

At the BBQ were two Shokalskiy crew members: Costa, who is #2 on board and also drives the zodiacs (the crew were strange that way in their multiple roles. the Russian doctor on board also cleaned cabins for extra money), and Igor, who was our compressor guy. I saw Igor smile a few times, but his normal look is quite intense. Igor has been on the Shokalskiy for 22 years, and when asked about his time onboard, he pantomimed shooting himself in the head (!). 22 years puts him onboard during the cold war, during which I'm sure the Shokalskiy was busy doing "research."

There was quite a bit of confusion over whether the three of us were to disembark for good in the late afternoon, but eventually we figured out a way to stay onboard until after the evening's celebration. After dinner, we convinced a certain drunken dive master to drive us to shore with an insane amount of luggage. A taxi met us at shore, and after a quick return trip to the boat for my wetsuit, we successfully piled in with our luggage for the transfer. Frankly, I'm amazed that it worked, because the amount of luggage was simply insane (it included dive gear, camera cases, Krissy's bottomless suitcases, and luggage from Ron and Valerie).

April 27, 2005 - Hibiscus / Bathy's Dive Center, Moorea, French Polynesia

Attempting to book space in the Hibiscus has been an adventure. We learned that being told that there is "no room" means that there may be room if you ask again in a different way. Douglas and Krissy have been struggling to extend their tourist visas. In Papeete, the immigration folks at the airport told them that they could get it done in Moorea, so today we rented a car and drove around in a wild chase for someone with a clue; apparently, no one here has a clue, so the two of them have to go back to Papeete today to have the paperwork done. There is only one solution to problems like this, which is to shrug and say, "hey -- it's Polynesia."

At 1400, Valerie and I dove with Bathy's with an excellent guide named Guillaume Vilcot. We went just outside of the pass and dropped in to hang out with black-tip reef sharks and friendly moray eels. The lemon sharks are on strike, for some reason. Guillaume tells us that it's breeding season, and that is the reason they haven't been around.

Dive 31 - Moorea - Small Pass Corner - Bathy's Dive Center, with Guillaume
Valerie and I did this dive alone with a dive guide named Guillaume, who was very good with the sharks. It was quite novel to be in the water with so few people! A large moral eel was here -- very friendly. He came out nearly completely from his hole and allowed himself to be stroked and scratched.

Guillaume uses a perforated PVC tube filled with bait to attract sharks. One of them was sitting on the sandy bottom for awhile, until a large titan trigger picked the thing up and started swimming away with it! Guillaume went after him. He discovered that fish can swim very quickly. :)

Guillaume also had hit forehead slightly perforated by two black tip sharks. They swam up just out of view from his side, and almost literally touched his forehead with their snouts and teeth before he even knew they were there! Amazing things, they are. No real damage, but exciting. :)

We're back on land, and I'm being eaten alive by mosquitos and sand flies. I often wonder why they gravitate to me over others. Valerie said that when she was a girl she once asked a cannibal about the taste of various types of humans. He told her that people of Chinese descent taste sweeter. So there you go. Straight from the source.

Douglas and Krissy managed to get their visa issue taken care of in Papeete during the afternoon. At sunset, we all congregated at Ron and Valerie's lagoon-view bungalow for two bottles of wine. It was very pleasant there on their patio, and Douglas asked Ron to be his best man at his wedding, because Ron "is one of the best men [Douglas] knows." Valerie clarified that Ron was most probably the very best man Douglas knows. Douglas and I split a bottle of red wine, and Valerie graduated from a half a bottle of white to what was left of Douglas' very-sweet piña colada.

April 28, 2005 - Hibiscus / Bathy's Dive Center, Moorea, French Polynesia

Ron, Valerie, Douglas and I went out with Guillaume again this morning, and at the shop I met Randy, who used to be president of LAUPS. Small world!

As we were driving out to morning's dive sites, Ron pointed out the reef where he won the 1965 world spearfishing championship by shooting seven fish, one of which was a 57 kg maori wrasse.

Dives 32,33 - Moorea - Tiki Place - Bathy's Dive Center, with Guillaume
Sharks! Very good visibility during the second dive. Douglas, Valerie, Ron and I did this dive, and one of the Bathy's guys donated his home supply of tuna to use as bait. It was very nice of him, and we appreciated it greatly.

Afer the dives, Douglas, Krissy and I hopped into our little rental car and started driving. "Let's find out what's past our hotel," Douglas suggested after lunch (which was overpriced, but interesting. i tried parrotfish for the first time, and a pretty white eel swam by beneath us). We were looking for three things: a boat to rent for the afternoon, frozen calamari to feed to rays, and some tuna. Half way around the island, we finally found some local dudes selling whole tuna, of which we purchased four. When we returned a few hours later, Ron's eyes became very big with excitement, even though he and Valerie must return to Tahiti tomorrow morning to meet with the president and talk on television for half an hour about what shark finning will do to the local tourist economy. He and Valerie gave us suggestions on how to work the sharks tomorrow during their absence.

A bit about our tour around the island: Douglas drove like a maniac, and with my directions from a crappy tourist map we managed to find ourselves in the middle of the island on a muddy road, surrounded by disassembled mopeds and locals who looked surprised to see us. It was quite an adventure. After we acquired tuna, we drove back to Bathy's to stash it in their freezer; Douglas managed to find a way to drive all the way to the Bathy's Center at the Inter-Continental Resort by going past a few signs that clearly indicated that we were doing something wrong. :)

At 6:45pm, we met for wine in the Taylor bungalow, and then left the hotel to have dinner down the road at Hotel Les Timpaniers. We celebrated Douglas' early birthday with lots of tasty desserts, and then returned to the hotel to say goodbye to Ron and Valerie. I've only known them for 14 days, and already I know that I will miss them when we part. But such is the way it goes when you establish new friendships.

Mosquitos should all die horrible and itchy deaths.

April 29, 2005 - Hibiscus / Bathy's Dive Center, Moorea, French Polynesia

Do not go to Le Iguane Cafe (or whatever it's it called) in Moorea. The service is bad, the food is mediocre and expensive, and we had to attempt to eat while a swarm of gnats consumed our flesh. The best part of the meal were the chickens running around in the yard. I fed one of the chickens a wood-oven cooked version of one of his brothers -- a sick satisfaction satiated in place of a good meal, I suppose.

Dives 34,35 - Moorea - Tiki Place - Bathy's Dive Center, with Guillaume
Well, the tuna worked. We placed a bunch of it in a crate, and lashed some of it to the top using some wire Guillaume scrounged up from the shop (outside of the crate). A medium-sized lemon shark (10' maybe?) made a few passes, but stayed just on the edge of visibility for most of our time at Tiki place.

We worked black-tip sharks from the surface, which was very productive. I love shooting sharks in the top few feet of water; the light is wonderful.

In the afternoon, we snuck over to the Sheraton, ordered a few piña coladas, drank champagne, and wallowed in luxury in the pool at sunset. It's expecially fun to do something like that as a third wheel. Or, I should say more accurately that it was a lot of fun despite being a third wheel. :)

After the horrible lunch, we decided to go back to Les Timpaniers to have dinner. We've had enough of bad, expensive food.

April 30, 2005 - Hibiscus , Moorea, French Polynesia

I am stranded in Moorea. I tried to get to Tahiti today, but I couldn't find affordable accomodation. Our expedition group has a ridiculously low rate at the Sheraton Tahiti, but they were fully booked when I finally managed to speak to someone who knew about our special rate. Well, I suppose that Moorea isn't the worst place in the world to be stranded...

Douglas and Krissy left this morning, hauling their mountain-and-a-half of luggage (plus gaff and fishing rod) onto a bus that presumably was to take them to the airport for their flight to Bora Bora. I hope they make it there. :) After they left, I moved into their room, which is air-conditioned and more comfortable for working in front of a computer. I have started the laborious process of IDing and tagging all of the images I took during the last three and a half weeks, but it will take many more hours of work.

In the evening, Guillaume came and picked me up in his station wagon, and we drove to the Inter-Continental Resort with his good friends Sandi (sp?) and Pef. Pef also works at Bathy's, and Sandi is visiting from Tahiti. Their friends Guillaume (#2), Allette (sp?), and Chloe were performing as a jazz/latin trio at the resort, and it was really nice to hear live music again, especially from someone I was newly connected to. I also met Nico and Renaud (local underwater videographers), Renaud's mother, and Mahiti (sp?), a French-Tahitian graphic designer living in Papeete.

After a couple of drinks, we all adjourned to Guillaume's home, which he shares with Renaud and Pef. I was (as usual) struck by the incredible appreciation for life that the French have. There we were, sitting around a patio under fluorescent lighting, the table littered with pizza boxes, beer, vodka, juice, and cigarettes. A television flickered in the corner with footage of sharks and other marine life, and the three girls danced around to American music from decades past. On one end of the table, Guillaume, Nico, and Sandi chatted about their extensive experience in the Polynesian ocean while passing around old copies of Fathoms and a book from the 80s signed by Ron and Valerie Taylor. I had a discussion with Allette (nurse by day, singer by night) about photography, painting, music, dance, and their relationships to each other, and during the entire conversation she was animated, eyes sparkling, trying to find words in English to express her profound appreciation for each of the art forms. Mahiti was the same way when talking about her photographer friends and time spent in San Francisco and New York City.

Eventually, I had to go home and was sent off with handshakes, kisses on cheeks, and a "have a nice life!" from some that I will probably never see again. It was a short glimpse of one particular slice of young French life in Polynesia -- fleeting, perhaps, but something that I will always remember fondly. Thank you, Guillaume.

Dives with Fakarava Diving Center and TOPdive Rangiroa

Date Dive Atoll Location Description
4/9 1 Fakarava Northern Pass Corner RHS 92' 60 min 84°
  2 Fakarava Pass Drift 108' 56 min 83°
4/10 3 Fakarava Northen Pass Corner LHS 87' 61 min 83°
  4 Fakarava Pass Drift 103' 53 min 82°
4/12 5 Rangiroa Northern Pass Corner 98' 60 min 79° Nitrox 32%
  6 Rangiroa Northern Pass Corner 116' 60 min 84° Nitrox 32%
  7 Rangiroa Northern Pass Corner 95' 56 min 83° Nitrox 32%

Dives aboard the Akademik Shokalskiy, and with Bathy's Club at Moorea

Date Dive Time Atoll Location Description
4/15 1 1000 Tikehau Pass Corner 93' 60 min 85°F
  2 1400 Tikehau Tikehau - "Shark Hole" 110' 53 min 83°F
  3 1600 Tikehau Pass Corner 101' 55 min 82°F
4/16 4 0930 Rangiroa Avatura Pass Corner 96' 32 min 84°F
  5 1130 Rangiroa Avatura Pass Corner

81' 44 min 84°F

  6 1600 Rangiroa The Aquarium

14' 43 min 80°F

4/17 7 0815 Rangiroa Tiputa Pass Corner 88' 50 min 81°F
  8 1015 Rangiroa Tiputa Pass Drift

143' 41 min 83°F

  9 1315 Rangiroa Outer Reef 77' 54 min 84°F
4/18 10 0830 Apataki Anchor Corner 82' 54 min 84°F
  11 1030 Apataki Tehera/Shark Plaza Drift

85' 42 min 84°F

  12 1500 Apataki Zoo Corner

123' 48 min 84°F

4/19 13 1000 Apataki Deep Pass Drift

158' 41 min 83°F

  14 1200 Apataki Tehera/Shark Plaza Drift

85' 46 min 84°F

4/20 15 0930 Fakarava South Pass Drift

94' 55 min 83°F

  16 1130 Fakarava South Pass Drift

85' 46 min 82°F

  17 1430 Fakarava Rose Reef Corner 88' 51 min 81°F
  ** 1600 Fakarava Resort Pier 14' 10 min 79°F
4/21 18 0900 Fakarava South Pass Drift

84' 55 min 83°F

  19 1100 Fakarava South Pass Drift

79' 50 min 84°F

  20 1430 Fakarava Resort Pier 16' 37 min 80°F
4/22 21 0830 Tahanea Pass Drift

74' 47 min 83°F

  22 1030 Tahanea Main Pass Drift

75' 41 min 83°F

4/23 23 1000 Fakarava North Pass Drift

111' 43 min 83°F

  24 1315 Fakarava North Pass Drift

117' 36 min 82°F

4/24 25 0800 Fakarava North Pass Corner

59' 56 min 83°F

  26 1015 Fakarava North Pass Drift

119' 43 min 82°F

  27 1315 Fakarava North Pass Drift

85' 39 min 83°F

4/25 28 0800 Toau Scarface Corner

94' 62 min 84°F

  29 1015 Toau Otugi Pass

113' 49 min 83°F

4/26 30 1400 Moorea Lemon Shark Dive 55' 54 min 84°F
4/27 31 1430 Moorea Small Pass Corner

79' 50 min 84°F

4/28 32
Tiki Place

111' 44 min 84°F
80' 56 min 84°F

4/29 34
Tiki Place
Tiki Place

54' 68 min 83°F
56' 59 min 83°F

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