Tuesday, May 06, 2008

An island to ourselves

We've been straying a little from Nuance's annotated chart depending upon light conditions (for coral navigation) or as winds permit. We're slowly making our way to Ile des Pins, SE of New Caledonia. Firstly to Baie Uie, a very sheltered anchorage where we had a bath under some waterfalls after a dinghy trip up the river, followed by a trek through the forest, making it back to the boat just before dusk. Next we stayed off-shore and anchored in the lagoon off Ilot Ndo, in a narrow channel surrounded by coral. Very snug at low tide, but somewhat roly at high-tide as the surf breaks over the coral. Still it feels snug with bow and stern anchors and a line ashore, even though there's little swinging room. In such stunning surroundings, it seems amazing that we've had both anchorages to ourselves.

Ilot Ndo is a small wooded island (takes about 20 minutes to walk around) surrounded by a white sand beach and enclosed in coral. It's an easy dinghy ride or swim ashore at high-tide but at low tide the coral is exposed making the trip impassable for the dinghy and difficult on foot. We were enjoying having the island to ourselves having taken the dinghy in at high-tide. At around low-tide I decided to try some spear-fishing. When I've spear-fished before I've always had the dinghy close-by to take the speared fish, as a flailing dying fish attracts attention from the normally passive reef-sharks (remember Bruce 'fish are friends not food' - the shark from Finding Nemo). However the dinghy was marooned on the island until at least half-tide so we settled on a compromise to put the fish box, a large white plastic box, on the now dry edge of the reef and swim close to the box. After checking the box a few times, I settled into the hunting mode, only to discover a while later that the box had vanished.

Charlotta continues:
Nick and I were caught by the low tide on this small sandy island with a great supply of washed ashore coconuts. While waiting for high-tide we decided to walk across the most narrow part of the reef to get to water deep enough for snorkeling. Nick was spear-fishing and I was supposed to assist in case of a catch. Instead I found myself forced to rescue a big plastic box that rapidly drifted off the end of the reef where we had placed it (tide coming in, remember). The wind was pretty strong and the box was a fair bit out when I noticed it so there was no time for hesitation (or telling Nick who had wandered off in the opposite direction). To start off I was quite pleased with the situation, swimming I like and even better when it could be done for something useful. The plastic box moved quickly though, sometimes I lost track of it in the waves and bright sunshine. I swam further and further away from the island, realizing that Nick probably had started to wonder by then where I had gone. Ahead of me was the very outer reef sticking up with breaking waves, and even though I had started to consider the sense in chasing the nearly empty box, I figured that this was my chance to catch up with it. Little did I think of the reef as a tricky obstacle in my course as well as the box's, and when I finally had made it across (too shallow to swim, and lots of unfriendly corals not to be touched), the box had as well, and was now drifting off onto the open ocean. So far gone I couldn't give up, so I went on swimming, knowing that Nick had a troublesome time still stuck with the dinghy on the island and not knowing where I was. I don't know for how long or for how far I swam, but when I finally got hold of the box and turned around, the island looked quite small in the distance. I realized that the achievement wasn't comparable to the effort that was put into it, and I how stupid it was to take off swimming without telling Nick, but still there was the satisfaction of having won the race against the box, and anyway I was now on my way back.

Suddenly close underneath me I saw two big sharks passing. A thrilling sight, but when I realised a third one made a quick attack for me, it was frightening. Screaming and kicking I scared them off but the situation was very unpleasant. I was far from any protection, the sharks were about half my size and there were the three of them. Holding on to the box I was now a slow swimmer. Having all these thoughts in mind I got terrified when I noticed the sharks were back. This time they seemed more confident and again one attempted an attack. A serious one. It hit me on the leg or maybe I kicked it. The sharks took off, but for how long? I was left worrying for my life. Trying to speed up my swimming the only thing I could think of was what it would be like to be eaten by sharks. I didn't see them again, I swam most of the way back, and finally got rescued by Nick close to the island.

Nick continues:
I was focused on tracking some fishing, oblivious to Charlotta's epic quest, but was a little disconcerted when I surfaced and couldn't find the fish box. I swam back to where I thought it should be, but in vain, no box and no Charlotta. The last I'd seen of Charlotta was between me and boat and so I assumed she must have seen the box drifting off and swam with it back to boat. With just enough tide to float the dinghy across the reef I made it back to the boat, but still no sign of either. Mystified I scanned the horizon from the ratlines, and spied what I thought might be her. So set off in the dinghy, but all sightings proved to be exposed rocks, after half an hour of increasingly concerned searching I starting to think of what I'd tell her parents and how to raise the alarm with the French authorities. A final scan of the horizon revealed a rapidly moving box with a relieved Charlotta attached.

We think the sharks involved were grey reef sharks, our fish identification book states: "Grey reef shark....usually curious, but maybe aggressive and engage in threat display before attacking. Among the most likely of sharks to attack divers, but generally give a single non-fatal bite."

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