Today we leave Suvarow. We've been here almost three weeks. Well,
three weeks to the day, except that we arrived in late afternoon. I'll
not forget that,- after anchoring for a second time, and after a seven
day passage restricted to the boat, Andy dove into the bath-warm sea to
explore a nearby patch of coral in the light of the setting sun. In less
than five minutes he was back on the boat, wide eyed and heaving
breaths, "you don't have to go far to be a long way from home". It
became our catchphrase. And that's how we learnt that shark populations
in the lagoon quadruple at sunset: feeding time.
As the days melted into each other I became less afraid of sharks. I
don't think I was particularly afraid to start with, having been such a
sop as a kid that no-one would dare watch Jaws with me (or ET, after my
mother famously drowned in my tears while we watched Dumbo en famille)
but equally, sharks weren't something I went out of my way to get close
to. I have now discovered that they are beautiful animals, sleek,
inquisitive, intelligent, and not very interested in eating people.
What they are interested in, is the smell of blood, the frenzy of an
underworld fight, and injured fish. Three things that occur almost by
definition when spearfishing.
On one occasion we went for a 'drift dive' in the pass with two
families. This involved taking two dinghies to the lagoon entrance,
jumping in the water with snorkels, and drifting with the dinghy as the
current carried us towards the open sea. Our youngest companion, Adelie-
age 12, wore a full length wetsuit and looked unfortunately seal-like.
She held tightly onto the dinghy rope and stayed close to her mum while
her elder brother and Andy ducked and dived all around, and usually
The pass to the lagoon is deep, several hundred feet in places, and a
perfect shark habitat. We saw black tips, white tips, and a couple of
grey sharks, about the same size as me. The greys come right up to you,
not looking for food, just inquisitive, checking out the new activity in
their territory. When they got close I waggled a wooden stick at them to
look ferocious and they turned around, but I don't think they were
really that bothered. It was breath-taking.
One great highlight of our time here has been Andy's discovery of
free-diving and spearfishing. Every day he stays down deeper, looks
calmer, and shoots faster. It has come to the stage that at the end of a
snorkeling trip he'll calmly say, "shall I catch us some dinner?" and
return with something delicious in far less time than it used to take me
to go to the local corner shop.
We returned to the pass with two brothers who, like Andy, have been
practicing their spearfishing skills here. (It's worth noting that
spearfishing only occurs under the strict guidance and authority of one
of the park wardens, and hunters only ever take what they can eat that
day.) The pass was new and scarier territory, due to the sharks. And
sharks there were.
The boys float on the surface, watching, preparing, loading their spear
guns. Stealth. It is very silent.
Smoothly and without fuss, one will duck dive downwards, kicking fast,
propelling himself to the deep where he stops. Sometimes he finds a
coral head and holds on, lying horizontally, motionless. Watching him, I
forget he is underwater. Sharks and fish swim all around as he waits for
the right moment. A couple of minutes later, that feels to me like half
an hour, he looks up, pushes off, and rapidly ascends before his lungful
of air is depleted entirely. That is Bret.
His brother Chad repeats a similar action. He swims down fast into a
cavernous area but orients himself vertically, head pointing up, doing
slow acrobatics as he turns circles for prey. Then returns upwards
again. I have James Bond music in my head.
Andy's method is different again. He swims downward at a shallower
angle, straight towards a fish or group of fish. He hunts in mid-swim.
Ka-thwang. The quiet but sharp noise of a spear gun being fired.
Violence has no noise underwater, so you have to look in it's direction
to see if the shot was successful. If so, you'll see the hunter swimming
to the surface fast, holding his gun, trailing a frantic flapping fish,
sometimes trying to hold the fish as well.
The other hunters are beside him in seconds. Pointing their guns in all
directions, protecting him. The sharks appear instantly, they must have
been close to us all this time. The chase is on. They're brave but not
stupid and when a spear gun is pointed at their head, sometimes with
contact, they try a different approach.
Spearfishing lore teaches the hunter to hug the fish: it reduces blood
and sends a clear message that this fish is not for sale. The owner is
keeping it. Easier said then done, both physically and psychologically.
Chad catches a huge red snapper. Andy catches a medium sized Jack and a
large Parrotfish. (I can't help but think it is an evolutionary flaw
that the Parrotfish is so beautiful, colourful, and distinctive, and
also delicious. The upside is that it's a reef fish so only accessible
by spearfishing, not trawling or lines.) Bret is brilliant at swimming
after sharks. A team effort. After any given catch, we move to a
different location. After the third catch we have enough to feed our
dinner party of six and the guns are left inside the boat. The boys just
go snorkeling now, enjoying how close they can get to fish, playing,
doing somersaults, and seeing how deep they can go. Andy sees a grouper
hiding under a rock and tries to tease him out with his knife. One of
the boys starts laughing, swallows the sea, and has to come up for air.
Spirits are high, but respectful. Life is good. Life is abundant. Life
is healthy. We visit Apii, one of the rangers out in a boat, and show
him the catch. He was going to come with us but has instead taken two
recent arrivals diving, with tanks. They are somewhere below us, showing
their location by a thin veil of bubbles on the surface. The boys can't
resist and instantly jump back in the water, free-diving to depths below
the tank divers and waving at them from beneath.
This is a good place to be. Refreshing. The land is beautiful, covered
in coconut palms; the reef is fascinating, home to lobsters and coconut
crabs; the ocean is full of fish. A place to enjoy nature, and
appreciate how it feels to be a part of it too.
As I write this Andy is strapping down and lashing up: we are preparing
to leave. Water jugs are full (thankyou to the rain at Suvarow!), the
engine has been checked, sails are being dried, boxes, books, bags,
mattresses, crockery, pans, computers, random stuff lying around the
cockpit… is all being put away. This anchorage has been safe and
still, the kind of place you forget that leaving a coffee cup out on the
counter was ever a problem.
It's 10am. I suspect we'll eat some breakfast (I baked bread in
preparation for the voyage), say goodbyes, and pull up the anchor
shortly after lunch. We'll have a few hours of bold sailing in the
afternoon and by sunset will have decided our course. We still don't
really know where we're going.
Niue was our first choice,- the smallest independent nation in the
world, rich in caves, caverns, whales, and amazing diving. But the winds
make it look very unlikely we'll get there: too strong and pushing too
far west. Another option is the Niua group of Tonga, right at the top.
An island called Niuatoputapu, about six days sailing away. But in that
direction the weather forecast suggests we might lose wind altogether.
The third option is the Vava'u group in Tonga, 700 miles away, and
somewhere we were always intending on visiting. Our last country before
In short, we'll go where the wind blows, arrive somewhere in about a
week, and be in exactly the right place.. if only we'd known that all