June 4, 2020 ; 9:29 AM
16°06’S, 145°62’W – Fakarava
I WAS CHASED BY A SHARK. FOR REAL. SWAM THE FASTEST 150M OF MY LIFE, THOUGHT I WAS A GONER, PRAYED FOR MERCY- CHASED BY A SHARK.
After a few days just inside the north pass of Fakarava, we were ready to explore the south pass, which is more remote and has one of the most famous drift snorkels in the world. It was an easy, beautiful sail down the atoll. And WOW did it feel great to be back sailing the seas for a few hours without that pesky motor on.
But it was a HOT day, so as soon as we had an anchor hold, I splashed in. Someone had to swim through that beautiful, blue water to check the anchor, right? I floated out there in bliss, looking around for fish and coral. It was SO CLEAR I could see perfectly 50ft to the bottom. As I reached the anchor itself, I saw what looked like a little 3-4 foot sharkie swimming down there. I stopped and watched him for a bit as he puttered around. Then he took a sudden change of direction upward, and in just a few seconds it was clear that he was NOT a little guy. A 7-8 foot black tipped reef shark was DARTING AT ME. I turned sideways to show him how big I am and swam for my life. He followed me all the way back to the boat, darting quickly in my direction and then slowing and swimming a few meters away, repeatedly. I, Kristen Pankratz, who have calmly swam with hundreds of sharks in my lifetime and on this trip, was completely and utterly terrified for my life.
What’s WAY worse is that there are blacks in America who are terrified for their lives every day.
Although we are distanced physically, we are reading, watching, listening, learning, discussing, praying, and donating.
I vow to be a part of positive change, although it will start from afar.
BLACK LIVES MATTER.
My shark story ends with me gasping for breath on the swim platform of Amazing Grace, dramatically telling my tale to an eyerolling captain and admiral, and then anyone who would listen. In the following days, the admiral would avoid jumping in off Gracie Girl and the captain would only do so while hanging on to the latter, but they xontinue to CLAIM I’m making it up.
Now, I’m not delusional enough to think I out-swam a shark. I know if he was hungry and thought I was a seal or a fish, I would have been dinner. I’m sure he was just curious and misunderstood. But in the moment, panic set in. I was sure I was shark bait.
That evening I was at a dock watching more sharks swim underneath my feet. Then the next day I made myself get back in the ocean to swim alongside them.
I couldn’t be happier I did because I saw the most jaw-dropping things.
Fakarava’s south pass is STUNNING and full of sea life (including colorful, healthy coral). We were there for just two days full of snorkeling and exploring.
The big highlight was the drift snorkel (which we did 3x in 2 days). Current comes in and out of the atoll through the pass, which is lined with coral on either side and has a channel in the middle. Because of the current, the best way to snorkel is to drive your dinghy to the up current side of the pass, put on your snorkel gear, turn off the motor, and get in. Then you just hang on to your dinghy and drift through the pass, no kicking required.
On some of the drifts, the current was strong enough that we wished it would slow down. There was too much to see! On others, the current was softer and we kicked to position ourselves where we wanted to be in the channel.
On our last snorkel, we must have timed it just right. As we got to the inside of the channel, there was a highway of sharks swimming down the sandy lane in the middle. Although the water was 20m deep, we could see them clearly. After drifting along the highway for 50m, we came to a tornado of 40-50 grey sharks circling and feeding on a school of fish. It was the most remarkable thing I’ve witnessed in the underwater world. I seriously can’t stop thinking about it.
The rest of the snorkel was full of schools of colorful fish, 4-foot trumpet fish (green and yellow), spotted eagle rays, and black tipped reef sharks like my menacing friend from my anchor check. I unfortunately was not in the mood to take photos, but our friends on Influencer got some great underwater shots (@TravellingTheWildSide).
Back by the boats, the landscape changed to be mostly sand with large coral heads every 4-6m. We enjoyed our (quite different) snorkel there as well.
The other highlight of the south pass was the peach beach. According to TripAdvisor, the top thing to do in Fakarava is to explore the pink sand beach. We packed up our dinghy, rounded up Influencer, and went on a pink sand beach expedition. After navigating through the coral heads and making it to the specified point, there was still only white sand to speak of. So, Influencer launched their drone in search of pink sand. What we found was a little peach, maybe pink if you squinted at it right, but was also a stunning, remote, virtually untouched lagoon surrounded by healthy, varying heights of palm trees and protected from the surf. Apparently, the pink-ness of pink sand beaches varies by the season.
We relaunched the dinghies and headed over to relax and swim. Oh, and Influencer taught us how to make sea cucumbers pee. We find that there is never a shortage of laughter around sailors.
The only thing I would not recommend in south Fakarava is eating at the restaurant (sorry). It was an EXCELLENT place for drinks, the people could not have been nicer, and the sharks that surround it (I assume because they’re eating fish scraps) should not be missed. We enjoyed an evening of good company among Influencer, Sea Lover, Milanto, and Ariel. But the food? You’re better off with some cheese and crackers on the boat.
Then yesterday we headed back to the north pass where more Lost ARC friends had come to anchor. We’re in need of fuel and some provisions, plus this will be the best place to begin our voyage to Rangiroa.
Our first couple days in the north pass were delightful, although there isn’t as much to snorkel and explore without a guide. We did dive the reef outside the north pass and saw some great walls of sharks and an incredible amount of fish. In fact, it was the fishiest dive we’ve had. We swam through a bustling metropolis of reef fish, not sticking to their homes while you pass them like in many snorkel spots, but hurrying from spot to spot and going about their lives. Think Finding Nemo. It’s amazing how different the ocean is in just a matter of miles.
While on the north end we also walked around, visited the bakery and the grocery stores, swam, and ate at some local restaurants (which, to our delight, were less expensive than Tahiti and Moorea). Favorite spots are Rotoava Grill and a café at the resort (which has only 5, French Polynesian, tourists in it). The café had cabanas and tables in the water and reef sharks swim by at a regular interval. We are excited to be back here for just a couple days as we wait for a weather window and catch up with our Lost ARC friends (including Saorsa and Sapphire II who we haven’t seen since the Galapagos)!
But the motor up and first night were not our favorites. The motor had about 30 (gusting to 39) knots of wind against us, so we were crashing through waves the whole way and unable to sail. That’s 3-4X the wind that was on our forecasts. Thunderstorms meant Admiral Anne put her electronics in the microwave. The rain soaked us, but seas calmed for the last hour or so and we shivered through to anchor just before dark.
We connected with friends over the radio and made plans to rendezvous for dinner, but as soon as the dinghy was in the water the wind picked up again. 40 knot winds from the direction of the water while at anchorage is extremely uncomfortable. The anchor chain swings around violently, there’s a LOT of turbulence. We were seasick, cold, and wet. There were waves coming OVER THE BOW. Captain Dave and Admiral Anne were on high alert to make sure the anchor didn’t slip. Luckily, the first mate did such an excellent job dropping it, we held through the night.
Saorsa, who was anchored next to us, lost their anchor at the bitter end and had to leave the anchorage in emergency. We flipped on all our lights and were happy such qualified sailors were at the helm for both their safety and ours.
Eventually, the seas calmed down and we were able to get some sleep. On Amazing Grace, we’re just a few bumps and bruises worse for the wear. But this morning, damage was assessed on the radio. There was a collision and a couple boats are on the reef due to anchor hold problems. We’ve already heard stories of those out at sea who were turning in circles and making mayday calls. It was a big, scary storm and we’re happy to have blue skies this morning as we start to dry out and clean up. We seam to have fared better than everyone else we know, as boats are headed back to Tahiti for repairs.
Thankful for clear skies and calm seas today, and praying for the same looking forward.
First mate, Amazing Grace
TLDR: Sharks and I have reconciled after a near-death misunderstanding.