We all nodded our heads in agreement. It's true. All the dive shops and tour operators say there is an area of the reef or shoreline which is so amazing it's like swimming in an aquarium. Usually, the instructor with whom you are speaking at the moment knows The Best Aquarium in the area. It's their stock in trade. There was an "aquarium" at every stop we made when we were on a cruise ship in the Caribbean. We've read about "aquariums" in the Mediterranean, in Hawai'i, and obviously off every island and atoll in the South Pacific. DrC was really saying, "Don't get your hopes up."
It was late in the day in any case, so we toodled back to the boats and settled in for the night. Rangiroa is the second largest atoll in the world and the largest in the Tuamotu island chain. It is so large that you can't see the entire atoll from the anchorage. You bring your boat in through one of two passes on the northwest coast and then anchor in the lee of the hooks made by the passes themselves. At 35 NM across, the sheer size of the lagoon ensures that unless the wind is blowing from a north-ish quarter (which basically means just about never), wind waves can build up enough in the lagoon to make for a bit of a bouncy anchorage. On the other hand, you could be as lucky as Don Quixote and go in during a lull in the usual trades. With the classic southeasterly blowing at 5 to 15, the anchorage near Passe Tiputa is snug, stunningly beautiful, and good holding… a cruiser's delight.
We spent nearly a week tucked up near the pass in Rangiroa. While there are limited services available near Passe Tiputa, intrepid cruisers can trek down to the other pass about 4 NM west to a largish magazin complete with obscenely expensive veg and fruits stored in their cooler as well as beer and wine and bread products that are not the ubiquitous baguette. The tiny magazin near the anchorage has the standard tienda/magazin style basics. They also sell baguettes in the morning at 06:30. A little publicized fact of South Pacific cruising life is that if you want fresh bread, you have to be at the magazin by no later than 07:00 before the stock sells out. An even lesser publicized fact is that virtually every magazin in the islands will take a pre-order. Pay the shop keeper the day before to hold <i>n</n> baguettes for you. Then you can go in any time the next day that the shop is open to pick up your order. Okay, they are not as warm or as fresh, but you also do not have get into your dinghy before the dew evaporates. Also note that magazins routinely close their doors from noon to 13:00.
So why did we spend so long in Rangiroa? You could say that we were pinned down by the weather… first by no wind, then by too much wind. Sailors could teach Goldilocks lessons in pickiness. However, the real reason we spent so much time there and failed to blog or write home or do laundry or frankly get anything done was the aquarium.
The aquarium at Rangiroa is The Aquarium. Accept no substitute. The Aquarium is a shallows and coral reef just south of Passe Tiputa. As you enter the atoll, it's a hazard that requires that you head way south before rounding the tip of the reef and coming back into the anchorage. Once hook down, you thank The Aquarium for doing a rather fine job of dampening southeasterly wind waves and smoothing your sleep. But the real wonder of The Aquarium begins when you dinghy over and tie up to one of the small moorings conveniently provided for cruisers and tour operators alike. Pull on your fins, spit on the inside of your mask, lick the salt off your snorkel and then flip backwards off the edge of the dinghy into the largest tropical aquarium in the world. Literally under your boat you'll find a swarm of variegated damsels, colorful perch, trumpet fish, and angels. The fish swarm your dinghy and the mooring lines as the dive operators routinely drop bits of food into the mooring field. They cluster around your prop in colorful moving bouquets and swim up to your face mask as if as curious about you as you are about them.
Then strike out across the enormous coral reef with new vistas opening up at every slight kick of bright blue fins. The terrain ranges from 30 feet to less than a foot. The Aquarium lies in the lee of a tiny island so there is little swell even when the wind is blowing. There is also an odd current effect which results in fresh sea water blasting through the area just about 50 yards off the reef twice a day, but none of that current effects the actual aquarium itself. This results in water with such clarity that you can see as far as the light will travel, easily 75 feet in the pass. The water is effectively invisible in the shallower areas. Like sharks? Go to the shallows where the juvenile black-tipped reef sharks take shelter from the big greys in the pass. Like to dive? Pull on your gear and drop down to the edge where it drops off towards the pass and see the deeper, larger animals. Rays, moray eels, octopi, parrot fish, and every variety of reef fish imaginable are in ridiculous profusion. And this doesn't even begin to describe the coral which is vibrantly healthy, vigorously growing, and found in dozens of varieties.
This is one of those cruising finds which I almost don't want to publish. Too many people and The Aquarium will be no more. Hell, global climate change may kill the entire reef. But for now, The Aquarium ranks as one of the highlights of our South Pacific voyage. It's in the top three with the day we greeted the Te Moana canoes and our hike up to the waterfall in Daniel's Bay.
As DrC hauls himself back into the dinghy after our umpteenth snorkel, he asks me, "Did you see that yellow one feeding on the bottom of the dink?"
"$75. At least," I reply.
He grins, "$100. And there were at least a dozen." My husband, long time owner of salt water fish tanks, has found his aquarium at last.
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