Latest Update (Part 1)

August 6, 2017 - November 14, 2017

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HIGHLIGHTS

* A Cuttlefish Light Show

* Colonialism In The 21st Century

* Flying Kiteboarders

* An Octopus Encounter

* The Dog Who Manages An Island

* A Very Scary Scuba Experience

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August 22, 2017 - September 23, 2018

Back in Vanuatu

We left Fiji and made the easy down-wind run back to Port Vila in Vanuatu.

We made our first stop Port Vila's amazing 24-hour farmers market. The market ladies basically live here with their kids -- sitting, eating, and sleeping on the hard tile floors. And then once a week their husbands come in and replenish the produce. This seems nuts to us, but they think this is perfectly reasonable.

 

The produce is great, the people are friendly and the prices are good. And there is no haggling in Vanuatu –– you just pay the marked prices. People get insulted if you try to bargain them down.

 

We spotted this great-looking tall ship –– the Alvei –– anchored outside Port Vila, and decided to go over for a closer look.

 

The minute we came over, we got an invite on board.

 

Alvei's crew are all volunteers –– adventurers young and old who chip in with money and labor to help keep the boat going.

The Alvei is a real sailing vessel –– she can only afford to run her engine to get in and out of harbors. So her crew needs a lot of seamanship to handle the boat.

 

Here's their windlass. Hoisting the anchor takes at least two strong people hauling on the wheels, and a third person down below stacking the chain.

 

We only had a short time to spend in Vanuatu this year –– about a month –– so we got right down to diving. Here are a few of our best pictures.

 

This beautiful guy is one of the most common types of nudibranch that we have seen out here (Willian's Chromodoris). Nudibranchs don't usually have common names -- and sometimes not even scientific names.

 

 

Tunicates -- filter feeding relatives of sponges. Tunicates come in thousands of species.

 

Bigeye Barracuda

 

Variable Thorny Oyster

 

Those little tubes poking out from under his shell are exactly what they look like –– eyes. Fully formed with lenses, and retinas –– the whole deal.

 

Redfin Anthias

 

Soft coral, sponges, tunicates, and a nudibranch.

 

We think these creatures are probably sponges.

 

Green Turtle

 

Pinktail Triggerfish

 

A Flame Angelfish. If you blow the picture up and look at the bottom of his gill plate, an inch or so below his eye, you will see a curving horizontal spike or barb. That's the characteristic which identifies him as an angelfish -– all anglefish species have this.

 

A Bignose Unicornfish. No need to explain his name.

 

Clown Triggerfish

 

This is a Broadclub Cuttlefish –– a relative of squid and octopus. This guy is about the size of a football.

 

That's his waterjet outlet under his chin. He could use that to blast away like an F-18 if he wanted to.

 

Cuttlefish are strange, intelligent, complex creatures. Their skins are a bit like the screen of a plasma TV –– they can change their appearance instantaneously, putting on quite a light show. They can also change their texture.

 

Here's the same cuttlefish an instant after the previous picture.

 

And again, about five seconds later.

 

These are tiny, Highfin Blennies, each an inch long.

 

Here is a small clam, embedded in some coral. Clams, tubeworms, and other critters often secrete acids which allow them to burrow into the solid coral limestone.

 

A Dwarf Hawkfish –– maybe 3 inches long. Hawkfish get their name by perching on exposed bits of coral, waiting for something tasty to swim along. That habit makes them easy to photograph.

 

This is the head of a Trumpetfish. Despite his gaudy appearance, he relies on stealth to hunt, drifting slowly along, usually hanging almost vertically with his head down, waiting for some small shrimp or fish to make a mistake.

 

This bit of seafood salad is actually an animal –- a Feather Starfish.

 

Here's what they look like with their feathers unfurled. They use the feathers as fishing nets to capture small bits of plankton.

 

Despite their plantlike appearance, feather stars can swim –– using their feathers as a whole bunch of badly coordinated wings. And they have feet, which they use to grab onto the coral.

 

Here's another unlikely-looking animal –– a Christmas Tree Worm. If you disturb the water near these critters, they will vanish instantly into their tubes, closing their little yellow hatches over the opening. Some of the (land) creatures in the movie "Avatar" are modeled after tubeworms.

 

Here's another one. These guys come in every color you can imagine.The squarish, yellow- rimmed object in front of them is the hatch cover, garnished with a bit of white sponge for camouflage.

This is actually one animal with two tentacles.

 

Another Christmas Tree Worm. Notice the hatch cover on the right-hand side.

 

Here's a detail.

 

A baby Leopard Wrasse. He's less than an inch long at this stage, although he will ultimately grow to about a foot.

 

Two arms or tentacles from a Brittle Star. The star hides his body in a crevice and sends the tentacles out looking for food.

 

Squarespot Anthias

 

We are a long way from having fully explored Vanuatu, but there's always next year. This year we wanted to end the season in New Caledonia. (Partly we wanted to see if we could find an easier sailing angle back to New Zealand –– leaving from Vanuatu puts you head on into the Southeast trades.)

 

First, we had to fuel up. We have found that it is often easier to jerry-jug fuel than to maneuver Eagles Wings into some sketchy shallow-draft fuel dock.

 

We have this down to a science –– take the dinghy to the fuel dock, fill six jerrys while they are sitting in the dinghy (no lifting), motor back to Eagles Wings, hoist the first jerry up using the block and tackle and the power winch, start the siphon going (by putting a rag around the hose and blowing into the vent –– no sucking of diesel!), And then get the next jerry hauled up using the second block and tackle. We can offload 120 liters of diesel this way in about 15 minutes. Then back for another run. Our all time record is about 600 liters! (That's more than 250 gallons.)

 

And look at what came up with the anchor -- a Peanut Worm!

 

This worm is over a foot long, and maybe 3 inches in circumference. With all of our time underwater, we had never seen anything like this -– because he lives under the mud.

 

September 23, 2017 - November 1, 2017

On To New Caledonia

Another easy downwind run put us in Noumea, in New Caledonia.

Noumea provides an excellent big ship anchorage, but it's not a great place for visitors. The legal anchoring areas are jammed with local moorings (it's legal to put a mooring pretty much anywhere in the anchorage, so people do). Most visiting boats end up anchoring illegally and hoping no one will say anything.

 

And the whole thing is kind of exposed for sailboats. Noumea gets cyclones, and we are afraid that sooner or later a big one will put a lot of boats on these rocks. We checked in at Port du Sud, rather than Port Moselle.

 

New Cal is French –– and that means FOOD. Here we are looking at great pate by the loaf.

 

And that's not to mention the dessert situation.

 

Which can induce shock and awe.

 

And cheese, of course. Poor Kraft looks a bit out of its league here.

 

Actually there are plenty of iconic American products that find a market in New Cal.

 

Fortunately, including many of our favorites.

 

Even McDonald's! The slogan translates as "A UNIQUE PLEASURE".

And at the bottom it adds "For your health, practice a sporting activity regularly". We suspect that the government may have something to do with that footnote.

 

Noumea has a thriving tourist industry, with mostly English-speaking visitors from Australia and New Zealand.

So you get touristy things like this little "train". We took a ride (hoping that none of our cruising friends would see us).

 

We were glad for the experience. Where else are you going to find a tour guide like this?

 

Under the Surface

New Caledonia is a bit of a weird place. Certainly in Noumea it's very much a first world country –– kind of like a warmer version of France.

First of all, there's a lot of wealth. New Cal has a (historically) profitable export economy based on nickel mining. Lots of people in Noumea drive cars this. And so many people own pleasure boats that it's hard to find a place to anchor in the giant harbor.

 

Second, you could spend lots of time in Noumea without realizing that the place has any Melanesian inhabitants. We actually did meet islanders working in the shops, but they were usually from other places, like Vanuatu or Tahiti.

 

During our time in Noumea we had little interaction with the native people, who are called Kanaks. They are around, but many aren't friendly or happy.

 

And we saw plenty of evidence of discontent.

 

 

New Cal occupies a unique position in the history of colonialism. Pretty much everywhere else the European colonists either won the demographic race decisively, or else they lost decisively.

So for, example, the Europeans won the demographic race in North America and New Zealand and Australia. In most other places in the world they lost -– India, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, China, Africa.

New Cal, on the other hand, still hangs in the balance, with about equal numbers of French people and Kanaks. So the fight is a bit raw here.

New Caledonia will vote in 2018 about whether to remain with France. Oddly enough the balance of the votes will probably lie with people who moved here from other Pacific Islands –– and they are expected to vote with the French.

 

The French have a pretty big army presence in New Caledonia to keep a lid on things. Here a French military unit practices water-based commando tactics.

 

If you blow up the picture you can see these guys are holding rifles.

 

Anyway, the whole thing seemed a little weird. It's the first time we've visited a Pacific Island without meeting many of the islanders. There are intact villages in some parts of the country and in some of the outer islands, and we hope to visit there on our next trip so that we can report both sides of the story.

Reputedly, it helps with the Kanaks if you can fly an American flag. The US had a huge presence in New Caledonia during WWII, with over 1 million GI's passing through the island. (For perspective there were probably only about 80,000 French and Kanak inhabitants at the time.)

And the Americans treated the Kanaks better than the French, and paid them much better. Which they remember.

 

A Shadow Of The Past

Speaking of the war, we visited the World War II Museum in Noumea.

The war made a big impression here, as the Japanese almost got to New Cal. Guadalcanal is just up the road a bit.

 

For a boy in New Cal in 1943, nothing could be cooler than American military equipment.

 

The GI's evidently made an impression on the girls as well. Here's the museum's take on basic equipment for an American soldier in Noumea.

 

The Noumea Aquarium

We also paid a visit to the Noumea Aquarium (Aquarium des Lagons), which was surprisingly fun.

 

This is a Humphead Wrasse (aka Napoleon Wrasse) -- he's almost 2 meters long. We've seen a lot of these guys in the wild, but it's hard to get a good picture of them, and we may never have seen an individual as mature as this one.

 

And here is a critter we have definitely never seen in the wild –– the Chambered Nautilus.

These are ancient animals –– members of the same family as squid and octopus and cuttlefish, except that the nautilus kept their shells. These guys live in the really deep ocean, so we never get to see them.

 

The Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center

In our quest for some contact with Kanak culture, we visited the Tjibaou Center, named for Kanak nationalist leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou, who was assassinated by another Kanak after negotiating an interim treaty with the French. That treaty has now become the basis for French administration here, and the French paid for this center to honor Tjibaou.

Needless to say, the Kanaks have some mixed feelings.

The center seemed a bit sad –– an expensive facility, but not much visited by either side, at least when we were there.

 

Beth stands in the entrance to a traditional Kanak lodge, built for the museum.

 

Here's the interior.

 

And here are the only inhabitants.

 

Felt a bit haunted, actually.

 

Here's a motif we've seen before. That tongue hanging out –– the Maoris in New Zealand use that imagery also. It's a taunt –– having to do with the traditional diet... people…

 

The museum came to life little bit in the contemporary art section.

The following two paintings form a paired work created by a Kanak artist.

This one depicts a traditional society, with the faces representing gods or spirits.

 

And the second painting depicts the modern world.

Yeah, we have to admit, a trip to the big city kind of has that effect on us too...

 

The Kanak art all had a bit of an edgy quality, at least for us. These next three pictures are samples.

 

 

 

Whereas the carvings from other places –– like the Solomon Islands -– just seemed more… serene. Even though the Solomons are actually a pretty warlike place. The next four pictures all show Solomon Islands carvings.

 

 

 

 

And then there's Papua New Guinea (next three pictures) –– always guaranteed to be pretty weird.

 

 

An Mbis pole -- a type of traditional sculpture from Papua New Guinea -- which played a key symbolic role in blood feuds. Nelson Rockefeller's son Michael was trying to purchase Mbis poles when he disappeared in 1961 in the Asmat region of PNG, quite probably killed and eaten.

 

We made a nice connection in the music section at the Tjibaou Center, which features a huge collection of island music. The curator was overjoyed to get some interest.

 

Finally, we had to laugh at this piece of island art.

 

It's made from that most sacred of island materials -– the corned beef can.

We always carry corned beef with us when we visit villages, where it is a highly prized delicacy.

(Honestly, when it's used as a garnish on island food -- which can otherwise be a bit bland -- Ken can understand the attraction. Then again, Ken likes McDonald's.)

 

He Flies Through The Air With The Greatest Of Ease...

But we mostly came to New Cal to explore the (rather cold) water. So we headed out to Mato Island, one of the many small anchorages inside the huge reef structure south of Noumea.

Immediately we saw these two young French dudes playing on their foiling kiteboards.

 

At first they were content to buzz close behind us, giving us a good look.

 

 

But then one of them decided to show his stuff.

 

 

And the following sequence speaks for itself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We've had this experience before -- where you feel like you're doing something adventurous, until you notice what the next guy is doing.

Like the time we climbed up the back of Half Dome in Yosemite, carrying backpacks so that we could camp on top. And then at the top we met people who had just climbed up the sheer face! Meanwhile people were hang gliding off the cliff on the other side of the valley...

Anyway, color us impressed with foiling kiteboards.

 

Back in the Water

But we were eager to see what was under the surface.

Going to a new place is always a lot of fun for us, because we see new species. Here's a kind of nudibranch that we had never seen before.

 

We've seen plenty of these fellows around. But hermit crabs are always cute.

 

And, speaking of cute, here's a juvenile Yellow Boxfish –– about 3 inches long.

 

This poisonous Black Banded Sea Krait (sea snake) swam right through Ken's scuba hoses. But no worry –– these guys are hunting for tiny little critters. They aren't aggressive, and their mouths are too small to easily bite humans. At least, so we are told…

 

Here's another species we've never seen before –– a Harlequin Tuskfish.

 

Over all, we thought that the reefs seemed healthy. And we were very happy to see lots of large "Beche de Mer" or sea cucumbers.

Here you can see why this guy is valuable to the environment –– that's a pile of nicely cleaned up sand coming out of his rear end. These guys crawl around cleaning up organic debris.

But while we were out diving, we saw boat pull up with four guys in it, and it sure looked like they were hunting sea cucumbers. And when we got to that part of the reef later in the day, all of these bottom feeders were gone.

They are just too valuable –– the one in this picture could easily be worth $50 US.

 

This is a type of bubble coral –– but we had never seen the red-orange color before.

 

Here's a spectacular branching coral. This thing looks like it's made out of plastic.

 

Unfortunately, we also saw Crown of Thorns Starfish (COTS). These guys are terrible predators of coral –– sucking the life out of the coral polyps. The one in the picture here is several feet across.

 

For the first time we were able to get down and photograph their tentacles as these guys moved across the reef. They look like something out of a nightmare.

 

 

Here's a close-up of a tentacle tip. That reddish patch is actually a very crude visual organ. Scientific research proved just recently that COTS use that "eye" to find the looming outline of the reef.

So if you put these guys on the sand, they are able to move toward the reef. Great…

 

An Octopus Encounter

We also had a really magical experience –– we found an octopus (Big Blue Octopus) who was willing to hang around with us.

When we first saw him (her?), he was trying to look inconspicuous.

 

And when we startled him, for example by firing our strobes to take his picture, he flinched and turned white.

 

But he didn't run away, and he gradually got more confident when we didn't immediately eat him.

 

He kept changing his texture and color.

 

He stayed with us, even though we didn't have any trade goods. We resolved to carry a bit of canned crab in the future.

 

He could change his shape, flowing into holes in the coral almost like he was a fluid. Octopus can squeeze through tiny cracks –– the only hard part on their body is a beak -- maybe the size of a golf ball.

 

After Ken had interacted with him for about 15 minutes, Beth swam up and put out her hand.

 

And we got this amazing moment.

But then the octopus spooked, maybe because he didn't like the texture of Beth's glove –– we aren't sure. And instead of running away, he ran toward Ken, and kind of hid underneath him.

It was a totally unforgettable experience. We are never going to eat octopus again!

 

Moose: The Dog That Manages An Island

From Mato we sailed over to dive in the Bay of Prony.

We anchored behind uninhabited Casy Island.

Actually it turns out that Casy island has one inhabitant –– a dog named Moose.

 

Moose had lived on the island with his owner who ran a small resort there. But when the resort closed, and the owner packed up to leave the island, Moose refused to go. When the owner bundled him onto the boat, Moose jumped off and swam back to the island. Twice.

And when the owner returned a few days later, assuming that Moose would reconsider out of loneliness (not to mention the food and water situation), Moose still refused to go.

That was in 2013, and Moose was still there... on an uninhabited island with little food and almost no fresh water.

So how does Moose make a living? Basically he offers tour guide services to visiting boats! We had heard that he would take us on a tour of the island.

 

But honestly, when we got there, we had our doubts. Moose was obviously old, tired, and arthritic –– and we really doubted that he had the energy to do any hiking.

 

Well, we got that wrong. As soon as we started down the trail, Moose jumped up and got out in front of us. And that's where he stayed, all the way around the island.

 

At one point Moose stopped to demonstrate how he hunts for crabs. He sniffed intently at a bare patch of ground.

 

And then dug up and ate this hermit crab.

 

He kept a pretty good pace, and if we fell behind he would look back at us a bit impatiently.

 

Moose took us down to a bay, where he evidently expected us to do some swimming.

 

But since we weren't interested, he obligingly took us back up the hill and onto the trail.

 

And through some abandoned strip mines where French engineers had extracted nickel.

 

Kind of a desolate scene.

 

And then, after about an hour of hiking, Moose brought us back to the bay where we were moored.

 

Obviously, we had to repay this extraordinary service. Since we didn't have any proper dog food, we fell back on our old standby –– canned corned beef.

Ken gave Moose about one third of the can, figuring that the whole thing might make him sick.

 

Moose really seem to appreciate the payment.

 

In fact we thought he was going to eat his plastic dish.

 

And then we finished the meal off with some nice fresh water from our bottles.

Visitors had rigged up a crude water catchment system for Moose, but it doesn't rain very much on Casy Island, and we can see where water would be a big problem.

 

Moose was an unusual dog. He was friendly and courteous to visitors, but he radiated a sense of internal self-assurance and self-reliance that most dogs lack. He seemed happy to see visitors, and just as happy to be on his own.

 

Moose became quite a celebrity in New Caledonia. In 2016 he developed a case of heart worm, and his fans sponsored an online crowdfunding effort to fly in a vet.

We visited him several more times –– giving him the rest of that can over two more days.

Here's how he looked as we sailed away for the last time. Sadly, we were among the last people to see Moose, as he died later in the season.

Moose really epitomized Frank Sinatra's old line "I did it my way."

 

Diving The Prony Needle

We came to Bay of Prony in order to dive a feature called the "Prony Needle" –– a weird volcanic formation which rises up like a huge spike from about 30 meters depth, almost to the surface. At the surface the thing is only a few meters across.

It sounded interesting to us because the needle serves as a home for all kinds of coral and other creatures.

We have to admit, however, that the bay wasn't really very inviting for diving, as the water was very murky –– no more than maybe a few meters of visibility.

It turned out to be quite an experience. Starting with a big school of these Longfin Spadefish, who hovered around us as we went down the cable to the bottom of the needle.

 

And sure enough, the needle was covered with life.

 

A vividly colored Cock's Comb Oyster, with a small gobi perched on top.

 

An exotic nudibranch (Willey's Halgerda).

 

 

Lots of coral. Here the coral polyps are retracted.

 

And here is a different coral with the polyps extended. This is one of Beth's favorite pictures of all time –– somehow Ken's strobes picked up a reflection from a yellow sponge behind the coral.

Looks like a painting from outer space.

 

A tiny Striped Pygmygoby hanging out in some extraordinary coral.

 

And another one in yet another beautiful coral.

 

A Brilliant Headshield Slug –– a relative of the nudibranchs.

 

Here's a close-up. Notice the delicate yellow outline.

 

A school of Whitemargin Unicornfish.

 

Floral Wrasse

 

A close-up of a sea cucumber.

 

Honestly, we're not sure what this is –– maybe some kind of sponge. Or maybe it's a troll's ear.

 

We think this is a Corallimorph, which looks similar to an anemone, except with much shorter tentacles.

 

An Urchin Clingfish.

 

The clingfish in his favorite environment -– hovering around a big sea urchin.

 

A better look at the spectacular Black Longspine Sea Urchin..

 

A Scary Dive

We had one of our three or four worst dives ever at the Prony Needle.

After we had dived it a couple of times, we decided to take a shortcut. Rather than following the buoy cable all the way to the bottom of the Needle at 30 meters, we would leave the cable at about 24 meters and swim across to save ourselves some bottom time. (The cable is maybe 25 meters from the top of the Needle.)

Unfortunately, the water was so murky that we couldn't see anything, so we had to take a compass bearing to head toward the Needle. (If you go all the way to the bottom you can simply follow the bottom contour as it rises up to the Needle.) And then Ken screwed up the compass bearing, by not quite holding the compass horizontal. So the needle got stuck, and we swam off in the wrong direction.

Once we realized we were lost, Ken decided that we should descend all the way to the bottom to pick up the contour and get back to the Needle. So we did that and found the contour, followed it and ended up on a little muddy hill –– the wrong contour.

So we swam around for a few minutes and then decided to ascend. But it takes a long time to come up from 30 meters –– it probably took us a good 10 minutes at least. And all this time the outgoing tide was sweeping us out of the bay. (If we had come up on the Needle we could've stayed sheltered and oriented by that and wouldn't have been swept by the tide. As it was, we had no reference and didn't even realize we were moving.)

When we came to the surface we could see our dinghy –– barely. It was a long way up current and upwind. So we started to swim.

And then it turned out that Beth couldn't keep up at all.

So we implemented Plan B, which we talked about in the past, where Ken would leave his camera, BC, and dive tank with Beth so that he could swim quickly up current to the dinghy. Beth would use a yellow inflatable "sausage" that sticks up out of the water so Ken could find her after he got the dinghy.

Ken left his camera with Beth, but for some reason decided that leaving his tank and BC would give her too much to keep track of. So he made the swim in his BC and tank –– which adds a huge amount of resistance.

Anyway, long story short, Ken made it without having a heart attack. But he says it was like running a wind sprint for about 15 minutes. We aren't in that kind of shape anymore! Fortunately the sausage performed just fine, so Ken had no trouble finding Beth.

And when Beth climbed into the dinghy, we discovered why she couldn't keep up.

Here's what her fin (Seawing Nova) looked like.

These fins have a flexible joint in the middle, making them highly efficient, but Beth's fin had broken right at the joint. So she lost her propulsion.

 

When we compared it to a newer version of the same fin, we discovered that the manufacturer (Scubapro) had redesigned the joint to prevent this from happening. Obviously we weren't the first people to have this problem. We love those fins so we were glad they have fixed the design.

Fortunately Global Dive in Auckland, where we bought the fins, replaced the broken one for free when we returned to NZ.

And of course, we had spare fins on the boat (though not as nice as the Seawings) so we could continue to dive.

We made a point of repeating our dive again the next day –– just to prove that we could do it. This time we went all the way down the cable and didn't get lost.

 

Time To Head Out

By now it was getting late in the season, and it was time to think about getting out of New Cal and back to New Zealand.

So we made a run back to Noumea to clear out. And stock up on essential provisions…

 

And then we headed out to the Ile des Pines (Isle of Pines) at the southeast tip of New Caledonia, to wait for a weather window.

Isle of Pines offers some spectacular diving, but we only got to do a little bit, as we found a weather window pretty quickly, and we didn't want to test the patience of the French authorities too far. (We had cleared out, after all...)

 

Here are a few of our pictures from our brief diving at Gadji in the Isle of Pines.

 

 

November 1 - November 14, 2017

Back To New Zealand

We reluctantly bid farewell to underwater adventures for 2017.

Sailing to New Zealand from New Caledonia was a bit easier than leaving from Vanuatu, but we still ended up motoring over half of the trip. At this point, we're okay with that. On the run between New Zealand and the islands, any passage where you don't get beat up is a good one.

Coming into New Zealand we caught a yellowfin tuna –– although this was just a little guy. But tuna are solid meat, so even this fellow would give us at least two meals, plus several sushi meals.

 

After almost a week of slow sailing and motoring, we finally got some nice wind as we approached New Zealand.

The second line on the instruments shows our speed –– 10.4 knots, and the fourth line shows the true wind speed –– 16.4 knots. Not bad for a heavily loaded cruising boat!

 

After checking in at Opua, we sailed down the coast to Whangarei, with an overnight stop in Tutukaka.

We got a friendly escort out of Tutukaka.

 

And we were greeted by massive flocks of seabirds as we approached Whangarei Heads. Pretty nice homecoming!