Snorkeling the South Pass

The south pass of Fakarava proves to be one of the most memorable experiences of the voyage.

September 21, 2015
In the super shallow fringes of the pass, I was surprised to confront these large black-tipped reef sharks, about six of them. Michael Robertson

Do you know what an atoll is? What it means to snorkel in a pass? Whoever you are, wherever you are, I sincerely wish I had the power to transport you to the south pass of the Fakarava atoll on a pretty day and set you loose. We’ve seen and experienced amazing things and events during the past four years cruising: watching glaciers calve in Alaska, relaxing in British Columbia hot springs, riding out the remnants of hurricane Odile in the Sea of Cortez, untangling a humpback whale off Mexico’s Pacific Coast, and much more. But snorkeling the south pass of the Fakarava atoll is way up there.

They’re so pretty. Michael Robertson

So an atoll is what you’ve probably seen aerial photos of: a fringing reef that forms a lagoon in the middle of the ocean. It’s actually what remains of an island long gone, eroded and subsumed back into the earth. The Tuamotus archipelago is a collection of dozens of these things. People live on some of the atolls, in communities built on the thin strips of crushed coral that are only a few feet above sea level and dotted with coconut palms. Now, a pass is just that: a natural, narrow cut in the fringing reef through which a boat can pass.

This is the edge of the shallows. The deep water off to the left is about 75 feet and visibility was clear all the way to the bottom. That’s a parrotfish in the center. Michael Robertson

But also transiting these passes is a huge volume of seawater, flooding in on a rising tide, rushing out on a falling tide. About every six hours it switches and the water flows the other way, driven by the moon.


These dynamic tidal-washed passes are the founts of colorful ecosystems filled with coral, reef fish, and sharks. Especially on a flooding tide, the water is exceptionally clear. The water temperature is exquisite.

This guy is pretty unique. It’s called a Napolean wrasse and I’ve heard they’re rare as they’re considered a delicacy. The picture doesn’t show it, but he’s the size of Frances. Other wrasse we saw were younger, so their foreheads didn’t protrude as much. Like sharks, these guys swim with remora on them. Michael Robertson

So, snorkeling a pass should now make sense. At the start of a flooding tide, we dinghy out to the entrance, don our mask and snorkel and fins, Windy grabs the painter, and we all roll in for the ride of our lives.

Pacific double-saddle butterflyfish, foreground, and lined bristletooth. Michael Robertson

For about a quarter-mile (this particular pass), we’re swept along in the current. We glide effortlessly over a dazzling underwater landscape. I’d use my fins only to dive down for closer looks or to move between deeper and shallower water. Sometimes I’d grab something on the bottom and hang on for a bit, trying to take everything in and prolong the experience. Other times, I’d rush over an area, my head darting from one interesting thing to another, wanting to slow the movie down.

A school of bluestripe snapper. By the way, I wouldn’t know what any of these fish are without my friend Behan on Totem who advised us to buy a copy of *Reef Fish Identification, Tropical/Pacific * by Allen, Steene, Humann, and Deloach–it’s the best. Michael Robertson

It’s exhilarating. We did it over and over. I hope you enjoy a similar experience one day.

There is no village at the South Pass, but there is a tiny dive resort with these huts for the guests. It’s right on the bank of the pass. Michael Robertson

I took all the photos in this post during our South Pass Fakarava snorkels. Most were taken as I swept along with the current (click, click, click), the others were taken while holding myself steady against the current.

In our twenties, we traded our boat for a house and our freedom for careers. In our thirties, we lived the American dream. In our forties, we woke and traded our house for a boat and our careers for freedom. And here we are. Follow along with the Roberston’s onboard Del Viento on their blog at

Taking a look at whatever it is. Michael Robertson
Eleanor diving down for a closer look at something. Both girls have logged so many hours snorkeling, they’ve really become quite adept. Both pull themselves down the anchor chain to 25-30 feet to grab a handful of sand to bring up and show us. Michael Robertson
I caught this shark about 30 feet away, swimming right for me. At about 10 feet, he saw or sensed me and darted away. Sharks fear me. Michael Robertson
Violet soldierfish–big eyed and frowning–are everywhere, and difficult to photograph because they’re so timid. Michael Robertson

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