Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Maewo, Ambae and Espiritu Santo


Flying Foxes-Ambae

Blue Rodeo at anchor-Ambae

Curious Anenome Fish

Colorful Sea Scallop

Crown of Thorns




Anne with anchor Aese Island

White Tip Reef Shark

Gobi & Shrimp

Nudibranch Lathu Island


Banana Dorid
Since the island of Epi we had been on the lookout for the illusive dugongs.  During our brief visit to the island of Maewo, we were finally treated to an encounter with one.  While snorkeling with Jon and Heather, one swam slowly near to us seemingly curious about what these black, rubber-covered creatures were in his neighborhood.  It came within shooting distance of our cameras and then swam off.  What a treat!  It looked like  the manatees found in Florida with a tail more like that of a dolphin.

With weather once again determining when we sailed and where we anchored, we departed Maewo’s Asanvari Bay and headed for the big island of Espiritu Santo making just a quick overnight stop on the island of Ambae.  The memorable thing about Ambae, was the nice black sand anchorage in the lee of a tall, tree-covered cliff face.  We were able to anchor in shallow water right next to the cliff and got a great view of flying foxes (fruit bats) hanging upside down in the nearby trees.  They sleep during the day and, at sunset, become active flying about in search of an evening meal.

Rotua Island, just south of Santo was a favorite spot of ours last year and this year was no exception.  The snorkeling off the charming resort is some of the best we have ever experienced.  This is because of the variety of coral and reef life that reside in such a small area, all within swimming distance of the anchorages.  This year we found cuttle fish, shrimp, and schools of mackerel to mention just a few.  New friends Eric and Anne, on the yacht “Reflections”, are avid divers and have been coming to Vanautu for years.  They are helping to spearhead an effort to remove the Crown of Thorns Starfish (Cots) that feed on healthy coral by turning their stomachs inside out through their mouths and emitting an enzyme that dissolves coral.  The females produce 100 million eggs each season and scientists believe that they have been around for over 10,000 years.  They are the largest of the starfish and can grow up to 2’ in diameter.  They are covered in sharp thorns with up to 2” spines that have poison sacks in them.  Most sea stars have 5 arms, these have up to 23.  Yikes!  Anyway, during our diving here in Vanuatu this year, we have noticed an abnormal amount of them chowing down on the reefs and felt that we should do our part to help control them.  Eradication involves carefully picking them up with a metal probe and placing them in a bag to be brought ashore for disposal.  Between “Evergreen” and ourselves we took about one hundred off the small reef at Ratua alone.  Amazing!

North, around Ratua Island is Luganville, the biggest town on the island of Santo.  It is hot, dusty and lacking in any real charm.  While anchored nearby, we did manage to go ashore for a meal or two out, have laundry done, buy groceries and fuel and treat ourselves to hard-to-find Magnum ice cream bars.  We often find that discussions of food cravings with our friends turn to how much we miss a few familiar items like broccoli, asparagus and, of course, ice cream.  While in remote areas, shopping lists are made but we are usually disappointed and few items get checked-off when we get to a town.  Life in the States has sure spoiled us!

We have since made several stops along the east coast of Espiritu Santo.  At uninhabited Aese Island, we got lost in the jungle while ashore in search of fresh limes. At Oyster Bay, we squeaked into the inner bay crossing a shallow patch with just one foot of water under our keel.  Stops at Hog Harbor and Port Orly provided opportunities for more scuba dives and Crown of Thorns removal.

Decisions, decisions, decisions!  Earlier in the season, our plans had been to visit the more northerly Banks and Torres island groups.  Doing so would have meant more miles bashing to windward when the time came to head for New Caledonia.  So, after a lengthy pow wow while enjoying drinks and hor d’ouvres with the Evergreen and Gypsea Heart crews, we decided to turn back to the southeast and head for Port Vila where we can wait for a good weather window and officially clear-out of Vanuatu.  The next week or so will be spent sailing upwind, “paying the piper” so to speak, for all of the pleasant downwind sails we’ve enjoyed over the last two months.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Land Diving (Nagol) on the Island of Pentecost

It was a short, rough and windy sail across the channel to the island of Pentecost.  We planned our arrival to be there in time to see the last of the land diving ceremonies for this year.  Upon arriving we met Bill and Sue on a boat called Lady Nada, they gave us what information they had about the event and we all planned to meet the next morning on the beach.  We dinghied ashore with “Evergreen” and met Luc Fargo, who was in charge of the event, and his daughter Ellen.  Ellen graciously walked with us along the single road on the island pointing out the land diving tower and sharing lots of interesting facts about life there.  We learned that Pentecost was one of the wettest islands in the chain.  This was evidenced by the beautiful rivers with clean, clear water that crossed the road in many places.  One of the most interesting things we saw was a hot spring, so hot, that you couldn’t even put a finger in it without losing it.  Yikes!  The locals use it to clean and cook the pigs and chickens they kill and to boil eggs.  We ended up walking and talking for several miles before returning to our boats for the evening.  The next morning we were all eager for the ceremonies to begin.  We had all seen land diving, or as the locals refer to it Nagol, on television documentaries but to get to see it first hand was exciting and surreal.  Reaching the beach in our dinghies, we were greeted by Luc who led us into the ceremonial hut where we were initially seated until a group of locals came in a presented us with leis.  We were then given refreshments before continuing on to the jump site.

For centuries residents of this island used the ceremony of land diving to commemorate  a young man’s rite of passage and in the belief that it would insure a productive season’s yam harvest.  Months are spent erecting wooden towers from trees cut in the nearby forest and lashed together with vines.  Brave young men climb the tower and cling to small perches while an assistant carefully lashes long vines to one of their ankles.  After what appeared to be praying and gesturing to a higher power accompanied by chanting and dancing from costumed villagers, the men leap from the tower and are hopefully saved from certain death by the strength of the vine and the trajectory of their dives.  If done correctly, their head, chest and forearms just graze the sandy surface of the land below the tower. We watched with fascination as seven men jumped from varying heights.  We took photos and video as fast as we could in hopes of capturing the amazing spectacle.  Afterward, while acknowledging that this ritual has become a bit of a show for tourists, we all felt that it had been in incredibly special thing to see and a glimpse into the once primitive culture of these islanders.

Before sailing away from the island of Pentecost we traveled to another anchorage where we were pleased to find a large school and a complement of friendly students.  Once ashore for a visit we were surrounded by bright-eyed young girls eager to walk with us, tell us their stories and practice their English.  Chance, the village chief, spoke with us at length and gave us a tour of the area.  We were also pleased to find a pretty reef nearby where we did a scuba dive and several snorkeling trips.  The high point of one of our snorkels was finding an especially friendly octopus that seemed happy to interact with us and allow dozens of up close and personal photos to be taken.  He was so friendly in fact that we all took turns mugging for the camera with our face masks just inches away from him.

With the familiar and lovely Asanvari Bay on the island of Maewo beckoning, we soon headed north in search of yet another adventure.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Epi and Ambrym

Anne fighting Mahi Mahi

The catch

Moray eel

Giant Scallop



Dugout canoe

Lamen Bay beach

Mark fighting Walu

The catch

Ambrym's Mt. Marum volcano

Limited view of cauldron

Volcano hike guide

Children of Ambrym

We were sad to leave Tongoa after just one night and wished we could have stayed to do more diving.  But, after a rolly night at anchor and the forecast for winds to pick up from an unfavorable direction, we departed for the island of Epi.  Once underway, we were soon experiencing some rather boisterous sailing conditions.   I had decided to start fishing before the winds picked up and, as often happens, wasn’t really paying attention when I got a hook-up. We were sailing at over 8kts, going mostly downwind so, as usual, it was an inconvenient time to fight a fish.  While I struggled, Mark did his best to slow the boat down quickly.  He had to wrestle the jib in which was loaded up and hard to do by himself plus turn the boat either into the wind or downwind to unload the mainsail ...no small feat.  Meanwhile, I struggled to hold on to the fishing pole due to our high speed and drag of the fish. The fish was a real fighter but, after what seemed like an eternity, we finally managed to get the darn thing aboard. It was a 4’ Mahi Mahi.  Yay... my first fish of the season!  We have been traveling with 2 other boats so if someone catches something we all share in the booty. It would be fresh fish for everyone tonight  As we approached our destination, Lamen Bay, on the island of Epi, we noticed 5 or 6 boats already at anchor and felt it was a bit crowded for our 3 boats to squeeze in.  There also was quite a swell running through the anchorage and all the boats were rolling from side to side.  Not wanting a repeat of our last uncomfortable night at anchor, we elected to backtrack about a mile or so and anchor between shore and a small reef that was deflecting the swells.  Over the next few days we explored the reef both snorkeling and scuba diving and thoroughly enjoyed it.  One morning, Sandy and I made our way into the little market onshore and were pleasantly surprised by the variety of fruits and veggies available. The friendly local women, with their colorful native dresses pointed and giggled at us as we made our way around the various tables.  We spent 3 enjoyable days there but endured a few rolly periods which were especially bad at night.  On a positive not though, each evening, we were treated to the sight of the red glow from the two Ambrym island volcanos, Mt. Marum and Mt. Benbow, lighting up the sky in the distance.   After a couple of days we moved to Lamen Bay, our original destination. The other boats had departed by the time we got there and we had it all to ourselves.  We again snorkeled around the anchorage, took a long walk on the island retracing our steps from last year.  This time we acquired a furry companion along way in the form of a small dog with a hurt paw.  Jon named him Jack.  The day before, he had been the recipient of a ham bone that Jon and Heather had given him so, of course, they had become his best friends.  He was a lovely little companion for the day and I was left wishing we could take him home with us to live a good doggie life.

When we left Lamen Bay for the island of Ambrym, Rankin on “Gypsy Heart” caught a big Mahi Mahi.  So, in the spirit of competition, I was compelled to put my lines in the water to see what I could catch.  Since we would passing over a shallow reef area along the way, and since seas were calm, I thought... what the heck, let’s try for a Wahoo.  I really didn’t expect to get anything but, sometimes when you least expect it, that’s when it happens.  Mark and I happened to be down below, and had passed well beyond the reef, when I heard line screaming out of my reel.  Since I’ve been nursing a sore shoulder since my last fish fighting episode, Mark had to reel in the fish, gaff it and bring it aboard for me to clean. It was a beautiful Walu, over 4’ long.  These are very similar to  Wahoo but even meatier.  This was our first time catching one, and we weren’t sure what we had, so a quick VHF radio call to Jon on “Evergreen” helped us identify our catch. Upon bringing it aboard we noticed that the lower half of its tail fin was missing.  It looked like it had a previous encounter with something that had bitten it off as it was scarred over.  Approaching the anchorage just off Ranvetlan village, friends Mike and Barbara on “Astarte” radioed to let us know that Joseph, the village’s chief was onboard their boat.  We radioed back and offered our fish carcass to him.  He was happy to except which was good news as it meant we didn’t have to go ashore and find someone to give it to.   

After anchoring, we quickly put our dinghy in the water but Chief Joseph paddled his beautifully carved canoe over to meet us.  Before we knew it, he clambered aboard and promptly made himself at home in our cockpit.  We hadn’t yet cleaned things up after the passage and we weren’t really in the mood for visitors but we did our best to be good hosts. We offered him a glass of water but he asked for juice instead.  As we chatted, he peered into the bag with the fish carcass and asked where the meat was.  Generally, the islanders are happy with anything and nothing in the way of meat goes to waste.  Even the fish heads are picked apart and boiled for soup.

 The chief stayed onboard for a good 45 minutes telling us what a masterful carver he was and about tourist activities in the area.  We were particularly interested in doing the volcano hike and were told to go into the village the next morning to find out more information.  That evening, we gathered onboard “Gypsy Heart” enjoying a fresh fish BBQ and a wonderful reunion with Mike and Barbara who had crossed the Pacific with us in 2012 and had spent the last cyclone near the equator in the Marshal Islands.

The following morning we all went to shore, met with Chief Joseph, and arranged for a guide to take Heather, Jon, Mark and me up the volcano.  We were instructed to come to the village at 6:30 the next morning.  Waking up that morning, we were disappointed to see that the weather was looking less than perfect.  The 4000’ mountain was in shrouded in clouds.  We discussed this as we walked to the village and hoped that it would burn off later in the day.  Arriving at Chief Joseph’s home, he seemed surprised to see us and promptly confessed that he had forgotten to arrange a guide for us.  Hmmm!  He told us to stay put and he would find someone to take us.  A few minutes later, he was back with a fellow whom he had literally just dragged out of bed.  He didn’t appear to be too happy.  His name was Tomate.  We exchanged a few words and were on our way.  The hike up Mt. Marum can be done one of two ways, either as a day hike, which takes 7 hours roundtrip or as a two day hike with an overnight stay at what could loosely be called a hut.  If you choose the latter, it would mean bringing a sleeping bag, food and water for the trip.  We chose to do it in a day, not wanting to leave our boats unattended overnight.  As the hike began, we wound our way through coconut palms and vegetable gardens passing a shed where they store and dry copra and on up a rather steep, hilly path.  After several hours of climbing, the trail descended to an ash plain where we hiked for awhile on level terrain. Up until this point, it had been very hot and humid and we had been sweating profusely.  Now however, we had reached the base of the clouds and were cooled off dramatically by the falling drizzle. Unfortunately, the visibility got much worse.  Along the way, we followed the dark-colored, compacted, gravel-like pumice winding our way through patches of greenery growing up from the volcanic flood plain. The area wasn’t as barren as expected and we were surprised to see quite a few wild flowers.  We walked for what seemed like miles on the crushed lava passing the small hut and accompanying cooking shelter for overnight stays before making our way up lava rock to the cinder cone itself.  We ascended a steep, narrow ridge to the summit, which was shrouded in mist, and peered over the sides in hopes that the clouds would miraculously part and we would be treated to the sight of the boiling lava 1300’ down into the cauldron.  We could clearly hear the gurgling and rumbling of the molten rock but managed to get just a quick glimpse of it when the clouds momentarily parted.  Despite our optimism, the sun never appeared and we were grew cold and wet from the strong winds and rain.  At one point, a cloud of sulfur enveloped us and we all started coughing expediting the decision to make tracks back down the mountain.  We quickly descended to the overnight hut and stopped for lunch.  We had carried all of our own food and water but ended up also providing our guide with some as he hadn’t brought any for himself.  It was a rather soggy affair, but it was nice to take a break.  We arrived back at our starting point back in the village about 2pm tired but happy having had a great hike even though we hadn’t seen as much of the volcano as we had hoped. 

Efate, Lelepa and Tongoa

Pacific Anenome fish
Flowers at Port Vila market

Water lilies

Tube worms

Warty star fish

Mystery coral?

Soft coral

Anenome fish

Lion fish

Fan corals

Coral hiding place

Dragon Margin Glossodoris

Aeolid nudibranch

Anenome fish

Banana Dorid nudibranchs

Colorful giant clam
We arrived in Efate Island’s Port Vila at dawn after a fairly uncomfortable overnight sail from the island of Tanna.  Confused seas caused lots of rolling and left me on the verge of being seasick with Mark up most of the night minding the store.  As we entered the channel leading into the inner harbor, we had to adjust our course and speed to give way to an outbound, 500 foot-long, Chinese freighter.  After dropping the sails, we motored into the mooring area and we were pleased to find a number of vacant moorings making it easy to tie up “Blue Rodeo” near the Yachting World Marina.  As the sun rose in the sky and we scurried about the boat tidying up after the passage, we noticed the lack of breeze in the harbor and found the tropical heat and humidity a bit stifling.  Even though it was Sunday, and we knew that many businesses would be closed, we headed ashore for a walkabout to see what had changed since last year and to see if we could add data to our computer modem in order to have internet access onboard.  Our other goal was to seek out a doctor who could look at a wound on Mark’s leg that was showing signs of infection. A week earlier, while hiking through the bush on the island of Anatom, Mark had gotten either a small puncture or an insect bite on his calf.  Despite application of antibiotic cream, consulting with nurse friend Heather on “Evergreen” and the beginning a course of oral antibiotics, the wound seemed to be getting worse.  Since we’ve heard too many horror stories about the serious consequences of these things in the tropical islands, Mark was unwilling to take any chances and thought he’d better see a doctor.  Amazingly, we managed to find the clinic I had remembered seeing last year and, despite it being a weekend, actually found the doctor there.  He was waiting for an emergency patient to show up and kindly offered to look at Mark’s leg in the meantime.  He prescribed more powerful antibiotics and ointment and sent us to a pharmacy.  Unfortunately for Mark, he had to stay out of the water until the wound healed but, by the end of the 6 days we spent in Port Vila, he was good to go.

While in Port Vila, we accomplished our necessary re-provisioning.  This required numerous trips on foot to the huge, open-air vegetable market and several more conventional grocery stores not far from the marina.  As is typical in the islands, one can never find everything needed at one place and requires numerous reconnaissance runs and shopping trips to various venues.  Mark spent half a day making trips by dinghy with our four, five-gallon jerry cans and lugging diesel fuel back to “Blue Rodeo” in order to fill our tanks.  I also took advantage of the laundry service offered by the marina.  I took several huge bags ashore and heaved a sigh of relief knowing that I wouldn’t have to do bucket laundry for a few days. 

While in town, we also indulged ourselves with a couple of Thai meals out with the “Evergreen” and “Gypsy Heart” crews at a cute little restaurant perched on top of a hill with a dining area overlooking the bay.  It was so nice to have a break from cooking!  We also squeezed in an outdoor movie at the Nambawan (Number One) bar on the waterfront.  The movie was so so but the real excitement for the evening came when friend Sandy and I went to the restroom and surprised a large rat lurking in the dark.  Sandy screamed and we both started cracking up.  On our last evening before moving on, we took a taxi to a beachside resort outside of town for dinner and to view their weekly fire dancing show.  It was nicely choreographed, quite the athletic spectacle and, best of all...FREE.

Leaving Port Vila in the company of “Evergreen” and “Gypsea Heart”, we set a course for one of our favorite dive spots from last season located on the west side of Efate.  Paul’s Rock is a pinnacle about a quarter of a mile offshore and rises from the sea floor to just a few meters below the surface.  The tour companies that frequent this site feed the fish there so they are rather friendly and used to sharing their habitat with us land dwellers.  There is one grouper in particular who likes to swim with you and mugs for the camera.  The area has interesting topography, lots of beautiful soft corals and sea fans as well as an abundance of fish life.  We enjoyed it so much that we dived it again the next morning before leaving for Lelepa Island.

A two-hour sail took us to a point outside the reef on Lelepa Island, another spot we thoroughly enjoyed last year.  The entrance to the area inside the reef can be quite challenging and it is imperative that you have good light to see the navigational hazards (coral heads).  We anchored in almost the same spot as last season.  As soon as the anchor splashed down, we were off snorkeling and swimming.  I could have spent a week there, tucked in behind the reefs with beautiful views in every direction.  White sand beaches and the amazing aquamarine color of the water make this island anchorage a paradise in settled weather. The next morning, we dived another favorite spot from last year.  Not far away is a splendid, undersea chasm in the rock that has large soft corals, sea fans, beautiful fish and small creatures.  We reconnected with Chief Rubin and his wife Nary, whom we met last year, later that day on the beach before taking a walk to the other side of the island and then to a huge cave.  Unfortunately, we had to leave the next day due to a forecast of unfavorable winds for that location.  We were really bummed.  Chief Rubin and Nary paddled out to say their goodbyes dropping off bags of pamplemouse and oranges at each of the boats.

While cruising, we are always at the mercy of the weather so we had to hustle on to the island of Tongoa in hopes of doing a quick dive at the island’s north reef before moving to an island further north offering better protection from the forecast winds. This dive site was our absolute favorite of last season and one not to be missed.  We alway try to be respectful of local customs and follow the standard protocol of seeking-out the island or village chief or land owner (including the offshore reefs) and asking permission before swimming, snorkeling or scuba diving.   Locating the owner, or person responsible, is often a problem.  At Tongoa, this problem is complicated by the fact that the village closest to the reef is quite a ways away from the anchorage.  In a effort to do the right thing, we picked up Jon and Heather, who had anchored nearby, and headed for shore only to be thwarted by breaking waves on the steep, rocky beach.  Jon volunteered to swim in to find the chief and, after a first trip ashore, was told by the folks that greeted him that we needed to go to another spot up the coast.  There, he swam ashore once again and disappeared into the bush returning almost an hour later with the news that, after walking a mile or more, he found only the chief’s son who said he would send a text message to his father.  After getting no response, he gave our group the go-ahead to dive on the reef.  We all returned to our boats and readied our gear but were interrupted by a sharp, insistent whistling from someone on shore.  A man on the beach was definitely trying to get our attention.  It turns out that it was the chief.  Jon took his dinghy toward the beach but, as he approached the surf line, the man swam out to the dinghy and climbed aboard.  The chief asked that we each pay the equivalent of $25 USD to dive on HIS reef which started a negotiation resulting in a fair and reasonable $5 USD per person charge.  This whole process took several hours but, in the end, turned out to be worth the effort.  The wall dive on Tongoa’s North Reef is truly spectacular featuring incredible sea life clinging to it as well as an occasional pelagic fish cruising by.  As we hovered and drifted along the wall at depths of 60 to 90 feet, we were treated to amazing sights of cowries and nudibranchs including several bright yellow and black Banana Dorids.  The dive was as wonderful as we remembered and we were so thrilled to have been able to do it, if only once before having to move on.