Black Pearls, Reef Sharks, & Ancient Ghosts
A cruise to Makemo atoll, in the Tuamotu Archipelago, delivers treasures, friendships, and discoveries.
Peter drove Seriea, our 36-foot Mariner ketch, while I perched on the bow pulpit, looking for watery hazards with my polarized sunglasses. We swerved through the coral, watching the coastline for tell-tale signs of an ancient village. I wasn’t really sure what to look for. After all, what materials could ancient Tuamotans have possibly used to build their homes? Palm fronds? Sand? Surely, not much of those materials could have survived for very long.
As we traveled away from town, houses grew scarce, until finally there were none. The coastline was pure, empty sand and forests of palm trees. The water passing beneath our keel was so transparent that I felt as though we were hovering in blue air. This is why people come to the Tuamotus. It feels like an untouched paradise, perched at the edge of the Earth.
Because of all the hidden hazards, we only averaged four knots, and by midafternoon we were both growing weary. “Wait a minute,” said Peter, pointing dead ahead. “What’s that?” I squinted into the glaring sunshine. There, not 500 yards away, a pale-blue line cut through the water, blocking our passage. It was a reef, jutting straight out from the beach.
“This has got to be it!” I squealed. “Quick! Drop the hook!”
Peter went forward to release the anchor, and on his signal, I threw the engine into reverse. So excited were we to have found our secret village, we hardly glanced at the quick, gray shapes darting around our boat. The anchorage was swarming with sharks.
By the time we cut the engine, secured the boat, and launched the dinghy, it was too late for an expedition to land. The ancient ruins would have to wait. I tossed impatiently in my berth that night, wondering what we’d find. Until well into the 19th century, after all, many Polynesians had been cannibals. Would we come across a cooking pot? The skulls of unwary adventurers? A lonely ghost perhaps, wondering what laptops and iPods were doing in his ancient island home?
The following day dawned gray and misty—perfect ghost-hunting weather. We packed our dinghy with a camera and lemonade and set off along the coast. Peter was careful to avoid the minefield of coral heads. Here, in depths of two to four feet, the water was as clear and still as a pane of glass. That’s when we noticed the sharks again. All around us, darting in and out of the coral and swooping right up to us like flocks of curious pigeons, were black-tipped reef sharks.
“They’re just little reef sharks,” Peter offered, trying to soothe me. “They won’t bother you.” Then his expression changed. “Wait a minute.” He turned off the engine. “What the hell is that?”
As a general rule, “What the hell is that?” isn’t something you want to hear coming out of your captain’s mouth. Following Peter’s gaze, I whipped around, just in time to glimpse a dark shadow, approximately the size of our dinghy, darting aggressively at our stern. That shark was definitely shopping for lunch. Before we had any time to react, the shadow changed course, finned off to port, and was gone.
“On the other hand,” said Peter musingly, “that was a gray shark. They can be very aggressive.”
I rubbed my rear end, grateful it was still in one piece. “Can we go to shore now?” I asked. “Please?”
Peter laughed, pointing the boat toward the beach. I squinted at the forest of palm trees, trying to discern shapes in the darkness between the trunks. And there, tucked in behind the trees, I saw a door. “The village of the ancients!” I called to Peter, who was concentrating on dodging sharks. “I think we’ve found it!”