Oct 06

Determined snorkeling

Tag: fun activity,routeJonathon Haradon @ 9:06 pm

(this post refers to events that happened on September 6th)

In between going to Swallows Cave and Mariners Cave, we went out to the coral gardens west of the reef between the islands of Vakaeitu and Nua Papu.    The founder of Moorings, a world wide sailboat chartering company, was quoted as saying the following upon snorkeling here:  “Any reef I look at after this one will appear dead to me.”  Apparently it was going to be colorful.  I figure she has done a fair bit of snorkeling in her day in exotic locations, what with setting up a world wide sail-chartering company and all.  So we were determined to see it.

And we needed to be determined, because it wasn’t easy.  As we approached, the tide was low and you could walk across drying reef from Vakaeitu and Nua Papu.  Waves were hitting the western side of the reef where we needed to enter the water.  Now, this wasn’t like walking down a gently sloping sandy beach through waves to enter the water, maybe a few obsticles around.   Water was surging back and forth across deep channels cut into the reef, creating a strong tidal motion back and forth.  Later, when in the water, the tidal surge would push you towards the reef edge sometimes upwards of 6 feet and you would zoom along with the fish who were also pulled by tidal surge, the coral below you skimming by showing your nearly uncontrollable progress, only to be tugged back away as the tidal surge drew away, and you and the fish would again go zipping along back out to where you started.

Matt was the first to attempt to enter, walking out a peninsula of reef as far as he could.  Waves pushed water all around his feet, and balance on the slippery wet reef was precarious.  Spray from larger waves would kick up around him occasionally.  The timing needed to be just right, and when a surge came in, raising the water level within the slots between the reef, Matt stepped off the peninsula of reef and into the water.  He immediately began swimming quickly away from the reef as the surge receded to avoid being unavoidably pushed back into the reef when it surged back inland again.

Karen and I followed repeating the process.  She and I had both worn our Chaco sandals, as opposed to Matt cavorting around in his bare feet, which I think made walking the reef slightly less painful.  Carrying the sandals while snorkeling was a small price to pay for less damage to the feet.  How his feet weren’t covered in cuts I don’t know.

The snorkeling was worth it, not just a spot of coral here and patch there as is typical of most places.  This was a huge continuous tract of coral unbroken the entire third of a mile between Vakaeitu and Nua Papu and which looked to go on longer in both directions.  From five feet in depth, as it slowly angled down to 75 feet in depth, there was beautiful coral the entire way.  It was unfortunately partly cloudy but when the sun cut through the clouds and shown onto the coral, it burst with color, a vibrancy we had not seen anywhere in the South Pacific.  It was a stunning display.  Coral fans stretched 12 feet wide, larger than I had ever seen.

We lazily swam the 1/3 of a mile from where we entered at the edge of Vakaeitu.  I had never enjoyed snorkeling for so long.  Then once reaching near the Nua Papu shore, we turned around and pushed back to our entrance/exit point, hoping that getting out of the water would prove easier and less scary than getting in.  It was not.

I initially tried taking off my flippers to put on my Chaco’s, reasoning that with footwear I would more easily be able to get my feet on the reef and walk out.  Walking with flippers is best done by clowns with experience in such things, and while I may be clownish, I have little experience in such things.  But once I took the flippers off, I had no mobility and propulsion in the water, and I needed both to judge the surge as it pushed you towards the reef and then pulled you away.  So back on went the flippers.  I edged closer and closer to the reef, and on a final surge put my feet up on the edge of one of the peninsulas of reef that jutted away and grabbed on with my hands.  Water was at my waist and was in the lull between the surge in and the draw out.  I tried to move my feet up higher, but the flippers tripped me up.  And then the water turned and drew out.  Water rushed out the slot in the reef of which I was on the edge of and moved with a terrific force so that all I could do was simply hold on.  At the lull at the bottom I again tried to move and the flippers again tripped me up.  A larger surge then the one I landed with came in; the higher water pushed me off balance knocking my hands off the reef causing me to reflexively grab at anything I could hold.  I moved up the side of the reef bit, half crawling, half climbing up a couple of feet.  Another surge drew out and then came back in, sucking at my legs trying to pull me away from the reef, then pushing me off balance towards the slot in the reef the tidal surge pushed into each time.  I was desperate to be able to effectively move my legs and so took one flipper off and then another tossing them to Matt who was on higher ground.  With flippers off, I endured another larger swell knocking me off balance and then pulling me hard.  At was on top of the peninsula of reef at this point, effectively horizontal ground, but the tide was higher and water easily washed over the peninsula point and so despite being on all fours, crawling, when the tide drew out, I was holding on like I might while rock-climbing, such was the force of the water sweeping out.

Once Karen was out as well, I assessed the damage.  A half a dozen coral cuts on my hands, a couple more on my ankles and knees.  A price to be sure for the best snorkeling we’ve done.

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