Each community lives for pearl fishing or copra ( for coconut oil). Tourism had not reached the four islands we have so far visited Manihi, Ahé, Apataki, and Tao, but even this one Fakarava, being the second largest, has only a little more in terms of services: most people come here to dive. We've found a lovely waterside cafe , four bikes to hire to cycle around a good part of the atoll 25 k . Every island "capital" has at least one church : sometimes 3 ( the villages are empty during services, with a really strong delivery through the open windows of hymns and music with drums and guitars ) They are simple but beautiful, and well kept in every case. Every village has shop with a very limited range of anything , and is only is "full" a couple of hours after the boat/ freighter delivery ! There is tremendous activity as these delivery vessels come in once a week : everyone joins in .
Each atoll has one or sometimes 2 "passes" which empty the water to and from the inside lagoon according to the various states of the tide . Because of the speed of the race , it is very tricky to navigate , but after the first, Paul's got increasingly confident though it can be very hairy. The passes are where fish of all sizes congregate and sharks, all for general feeding . Emily has dived in these doing "drift dives " that take you gently through the gorges and currents of the pass. Once inside the pass it is all eyes for coral, as very few channels are marked : again amazing navigation and guts from Paul and Justin jointly to find us the most idyllic anchorages with no one else in sight just off coral reefs for snorkelling . Entering these waters is really only possible in full sunlight otherwise you can't see the changes in colour to alert you to a collision with coral .The quality of the coral has varied in each atoll , but the abundance, range, size, behaviour, and colour of fish is astonishing . In some places the coral seems almost dead , in others live and vibrant. We can only assume a dramatic change of some kind , or that the parrotfish are succeeding in their work of munching it and turning it into a film of sand over everything . You can hear them munching under water , but I guess they can't cull them . They are the loveliest rainbow fish .
Some atolls are so huge, and like a big lake you can't see the other side or the ends : our smaller ones have even so been at least 5 miles radius . As well as the passes , the sea swells in over the coral bank in places along the edge creating a ring of little islands called "Motos". Some of the shacks on the Motos look like Robinson Crusoe's makeshift shelter , others seem more substantial . This applies to the range of houses in every village : some are barely more than sheds and some are well tended buildings and plots . The government (French) supplies everyone initially with materials , but each household has to fund the construction costs and presumably the maintenance thereafter : which explains the variation.
Each main community also has a central building like a "Bastide" built strikingly and strongly on concrete stilts , where everyone shelters for the duration of storms . The last devastating cyclone hit in 1983 , but there have been numerous other storms since .
Tourism has definitely not reached the smaller reefs / islands .Few people are indifferent , most often offer a cheery hello , and sometimes long conversations will ensue . This is how we find out the most , chatting to fisherman on the jetty thus leading us to our pearl farm visit . You can do these on a "tour " in the larger Islands.
There are no harbour dues, no landing fees, but when we've moored against a wharf , eventually a good many people rock up to chat ( for hours ) ! Always a good source of local information and gossip , using the ubiquitous tricycle as a platform for conversation. These wonderful vehicles ( imported from China and universal here ) provide a seat to chill on and chat , and with baskets on the back to carry produce , a friend , children , dog or simply as a way of getting around the limited lanes and streets of their community.
Many unpushy dogs lounge around , most clearly attached to someone (sacks of dog food available in the shop) . When at Apataki there were several waiting for their owners working at the pearl fisheries just off shore . Cat's not widespread ( we've seen 3 ) and chicken which are wild and endemic everywhere in polynesia . No rats though one hears horror stories of them getting into boats via the mooring ropes . Justin found one nibbling his toe in his bunk 42 years ago on Ahé , so we were not unconcerned especially there, and I've seen the harbour banks at Gosport teaming with them !
Not a lot of bird life , since the trees and vegetation is limited except in bigger Motos ( mostly just coconut palms ) occasional heard beautiful song across the water , diving birds , boobies and noddies. The life here us UNDER the water !
Our pearl fisherman Oro took us to his farm which is a shack on stilts in the middle. of the lagoon . They are all like this except some big enterprises. He showed us each process from start to finish : from seeding and grafting through the four years of an oyster's life : the thrill of extracting a pearl and re seeding the oyster. The pearl culture industry developed in the 1960's , and it was like the gold rush , with some farmers making a huge profit in a very short time . Oro's father earnt 25 times what he earns now , but it is still a good living despite the market dropping out in the 80's. Some employ scores of people , he has 5 . The concession for his plot is not cheap : he has 38 hectares . He explained that the problem was that although the "industry " is regulated , it is chaotic and like any commodity vulnerable to the whims of the international market .
Emily and I have just swum off an idyllic beach : white sand and every shade of blue and Palm fringed : still mindful of the pesky "Nonos"*.We have been reading the pilot guides and advice about sailing the Australian seas: we have all unanimously decided that there can be no greater hostile environment in the world in or out of the water , compared to here where there is nothing unpleasant except for the invisible sandfly* and he is bad enough, but no death ensues.
Tomorrow we sail towards Tahiti and the capital Papeete which promises to be very different as the city capital of Polynesia, but apparently the island itself and those associated in the Society Islands are stunning with the mixture of volcanic peaks surrounded by reefs : the best of both such different worlds put together . However we are braced for the difference between our voyage of exploration in deserted places to meeting a higher density of other boats and more developed communities . This will be the first the sailors have seen since February in Panama. One of Emily's dive group said he saw Obama last week on Moorea who is there writing his memoires, so it's back to "civilisation "!