Stay calm and look them in the eye


There haven't been many days of plain sailing and indulging in travel brochure perfection since we started this Pacific adventure. Everyone we speak to, all the old timers who sail up here every year to escape the Kiwi dark winter, has said the same thing. This year has been weird. It was weird in Tonga (so cold the country sold out of hoodies) and it's been weird here. Some cruisers we've met have described the Trade Winds as "reinforced" this year, which is the sort of minimising nautical term every decent sailor aspires to (like the Beaufort scale describing a 22 to 27 knot wind as a "strong breeze").

Yesterday though was as close to perfection as I can imagine. Idyllic.

We woke up to absolute stillness. The huge hot sun, alone in a cloudless sky. Fortaleza's shadow cast through the oily, canary blue sea onto the ripples in the sand 15m below us. Absolute silence except the odd lap of water hitting the underside of our tethered paddleboard.

Peak cruising moment, tick. Made even better with my hammock-seat hanging over the minty-blue water from the boom. The "time out seat" as I like to call it. Time out being for the person left on the boat, because swinging the hammock out over the water and back in is their call. Elliot has yet to pull me back on board, leaving me to chance my luck jumping off when I've had enough, and swimming back to Fortaleza. I'm not sure what this says about our relationship.

Speaking of chancing our luck, we spend about 2 hours most days snorkeling - marveling in the colours and shapes and blueness. Some of the reef here is bleached, but not as badly as Tonga. Tonga is a devastated place above and below the water, that I will write about some time when I have gathered my thoughts. Fiji's reef is a mixed bag. Some of it is mindblowingly good - huge plate corals, turrets of wafty soft coral, Nemo guarded anenomes and millions of fish - whilst other parts are bleached and dying, or bleached and trying - looking like a newly planted shrubbery dotted with a bunch of diverse, garden-centre-perfect seedlings.

We always see something amazing though, even when the coral is rubbish.

Yesterday, off Waya Island in the Yasawas, we were snorkeling in slightly murky (we are getting spoilt - murky here still means 30m visibility, just not crystal clear) and about to give up. The coral was bleached and broken and we had a long swim home. Suddenly, at the exact moment I heard Elliot yelling something about looking left, where I was already looking, I saw the same thing as him. A massive looming shape, about the size of a black cab, very slowly emerging from the milky blueness and coming straight for us.

I've watched enough Instagram memes of nutters swimming with sharks who talk about "staying calm" and "looking them in the eye" and "gently pushing their noses away" to know that freaking out, shouting "what the **** is that?" and kicking my fins in an attempt to levitate out of the water is probably the wrong way to go in these circumstances. But that is exactly what I did.

And then I saw them. The biggest fish I have ever seen. Maybe six of them, gliding along together, in a lump, ever so slowly - a herd. They were enormous, dark, slow motion barrels with alien-strange lumpy foreheads and long, comical, kissable-lipped faces. 

As evidenced by my writing this, we weren't eaten. The behemoths sauntered nonchalently around us back into the haze, they didn't panic like I did, they just turned and smoothly drifted away.

A post-survival Google enquiry showed them to be Napolean Wrasse or Humpheads. Endangered, of course, and we learned that bumping into a herd of them is incredibly special. I am annoyed now that my self-preservation panic probably shooed them away and, next time, I will endeavour to stay calm and look them in the eye.                                                                                                                                                


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