June 5, 2018 - November 11, 2018
* To Dance Beneath The Diamond Sky
* Will We Ever Have A Passage Where Nothing Breaks?
* Misdiagnosing Problems At Sea
* How To Pay $1100 For A $100 Part
* A Walk On The Wild Side
* Flying Into A Hurricane
* Killing Monsters
* We Join A .... Rally!
* Death In The Loyalties
* Finding Hidden Creatures Under Water
June 12, 2018 - June 21, 2018
Motor Vessel Eagle's Wings
And so it was time to leave New Zealand again.
It's always encouraging when Neptune sends an escort.
And a red sky at night.
Truthfully, this wasn't the best weather window that we've ever had.
Here we have the "grib files" from two different weather models. Grib files are raw model output –– typically projecting out about 10 days –– which we can download over our Iridium phone. It's sure a huge step up from the way things used to be done. Where you would squint up at the sky and say "hmmm, looks like a change coming in."
Unfortunately, these grib files both show us sailing right into the middle of the giant high pressure area –– where there is no wind. They also forecasted that the high pressure system was going to stick around and even move north with us. Meaning that we would barely have enough air to breathe for most of the trip.
We only took this window because our visa was running out in New Zealand. Fortunately, Eagle's Wings carries enough fuel to motor (slowly) for around 1200 miles –– enough to get us all the way to Vanuatu if necessary.
To Dance Beneath The Diamond Sky
So we motored happily along, with a light following breeze.
The problem with a following breeze when you're motoring is that you breathe diesel exhaust.
One night on his watch, Ken decided to go up on the bow for a while to get away from the fumes. So he clipped in his harness and moved up there.
There's no light pollution in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. It was clear, dark, and moonless -- the sky filled with the brightest stars you will ever see.
Ken likes to listen to music, and –– this may be more information than you need -– dance, on his night watches. It's fun, and it offsets some of the effect of sitting too much. If you've ever seen the movie "Dead Calm" Ken looks kind of like the psycho killer dancing on deck in the movie. Only weirder, because Ken is wearing headphones so no one else can hear the music.
Anyway Ken was dancing up on the bow when Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" came up on his iPod.
The song ends with some of the greatest lines in rock:
Then take me disappearing
through the smoke rings of my mind
down the foggy ruins of time
far past the frozen leaves
the haunted, frightened trees
out to the windy beach
far from the twisted reach
of crazy sorrow
Yes to dance beneath the diamond sky
with one hand waving free
silhouetted by the sea
circled by the circus sand
with all memory and fate
driven deep beneath the waves
let me forget about today
And suddenly Ken realized that he was, in fact, dancing beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free (the other was holding on to a stay), silhouetted by the sea. It was pretty weird and wonderful. (Ok, there wasn't any sand, but still...)
And here's the thing –– the song is really about escaping from reality, possibly with the help of pharmaceuticals. But on Eagle's Wings that night, no escape was necessary -- this was reality...
The only thing that could have made it better would have been having Beth up there too.
Our Autopilot Packs Up
Here's another problem with being a motorboat. Our trusty Monitor wind vane, which has done probably 75% of the steering on our ocean passages, won't work if there's no wind. This means that we have to depend entirely on our hydraulic autopilot.
And on the third night of our passage, the autopilot suddenly stopped working…
We were reduced to locking the wheel in place, and then going out and adjusting the wind vane every few minutes to get back on course.
Needless to say this didn't exactly steer a straight line, but it was better than hand steering, which we absolutely hate.
The next morning, Ken got right on the problem. We quickly traced the issue to the electric motor which drives our hydraulic pump. Sometimes it would respond to a signal from the autopilot brain, and sometimes it wouldn't.
Ken pulled it out and installed one of our two spare motors. We were back in business again with the autopilot.
But we have learned from long experience that you can't just replace the failed part. You have to figure out why it failed.
And now things are going to get a little nerdy, so if you're not interested in technical problems on boats, you can skip the rest of this section.
But really, what could be more interesting than technical problems on boats?
When Ken opened the motor up -– expecting to find that, maybe the brushes were worn –– he found instead that some of the wiring on the commutator had been soldered, and that the solder joints had overheated and let go. In fact Ken had previously noticed that the motor seemed hot.
We quickly got out our little infrared thermometer and measured the temperature on the new autopilot motor. Sure enough, it was really hot.
Ken pulled the new motor off and checked it. This one didn't have any solder repairs inside, so even though it was hot, it was still working.
But a motor shouldn't get hot enough to melt solder. Something wasn't right…
The answer falls in the category of "no good deed goes unpunished!"
We had just installed a whole new motor/hydraulic pump/hydraulic ram on Eagle's Wings. And we had done this just purely so that we could have a complete spare system on board. (Regrettably we don't have room to install both systems at the same time, so the back-up system lives in a lazarette.)
Unfortunately, the new hydraulic pump was set up for a fast response time –– and it was making the motor work too hard, causing it to overheat.That's the short explanation. We had sea trialed the new system in NZ, but not long enough to uncover the problem.
Misdiagnosing The Problem
Ken checked the voltage going to the motor, and saw fluctuating voltages ranging anywhere from 7 V up to maybe 11 V. This seemed really low –– a 12 V motor should always operate at 12 V or above. Low voltage will make the motor overheat.
So then we looked at the wire sizes that powered our autopilot, and did some calculations –– and determined that the wiring was seriously undersized for the amount of power that the autopilot needed. This installation had worked fine for 20 years, possibly because the power draw was intermittent, but evidently the new autopilot system needed more power.
Seemed like a good theory, any way...
We could have reinstalled the old hydraulic pump and RAM –– that would've solved the problem. But we really wanted to make the new system work, and if the problem was undersized wiring –– well, we could fix that.
So we decided to bite the bullet and run some new wires. After all, we were motoring along in calm conditions –– what better way to pass the time?
We had a good supply of heavy gauge wire. Okay, so it's green instead of red and black. It'll do in a pinch. We intend to redo the installation with even heavier gauge wire once we get back to New Zealand.
And Ken was able to come up with an appropriate heavy duty breaker from our extensive collection of breakers and switches.
Stringing the wires. Ken's wearing ear protectors because the engine is hammering away in the background.
And… It didn't work…
The voltages going INTO the brain improved, but the voltage coming out of the brain and going to the motor stayed low and the motor stayed hot, even in very light conditions where it shouldn't have been working hard.
We decided that Ken was going to have to adjust the internal settings on hydraulic pump, but that was difficult to do at sea.
Fortunately we finally got a little bit of wind –– not much, but enough to sail and enough to use the Monitor wind vane. So we were able to let our poor autopilot motor off the hook for a while.
Again, we could have installed the old autopilot, but by now we were almost to Port Vila, and we decided to limp along. Reinstalling the old system would be a big job, and we wanted to have the new system in place so that we could test it in Vila.
Here's the final explanation.
Our new hydraulic pump was set for maximum flow rate. This meant that every turn of the motor pushed a lot of hydraulic fluid into the piston, causing the rudder to move quickly.
Ken had been a little skeptical of this setting -- afraid it would overwork the motor -- but the guy who sold us the system (and who did a wonderful job overall) had been sure it was right, so we went with it.
But the Robertson autopilot brain has a quirk which none of us understood, and which we only figured out after we got to Port Vila.
The autopilot brain targets a certain turn rate on the rudder. And in light air and flat seas, it throttles down the turn rate to a nice slow speed for smooth steering. In order to do this, it needs to make the motor turn slowly. And, on our Robertson system, it does that by DROPPING THE VOLTAGE to the motor!
So the brain was offsetting the fast response setting of the hydraulic pump by dropping the voltage on the motor really low. Our beefed up wires were a good thing, and we'll keep them, but they couldn't help if the brain was deliberately sending a low voltage.
And that meant that our poor little 12 V motor was trying to operate on 7 or 8 V. Which made it overheat. Especially in light conditions, where the brain targeted a slow rudder speed.
The solution was to open up the hydraulic pump and adjust an internal setting which slowed the response rate. So each turn of the motor now moves less hydraulic fluid. Which means the brain can supply higher voltages to the motor. Which makes the motor happy.
Which makes us happy.
Anyway, this is a sort of thing that you sign up for when you go cruising…
Along with this kind of thing :-) And now we were snug in Port Vila, ready to start our new season.
June 21, 2018 - August 1, 2018
Waiting For Parts In Paradise
It was great to be back in Vila's well protected harbor.
Even if the docks are a bit rickety.
We put our long underwear away for the season.
And said hi to Simon, the very friendly Port Vila Customs officer.
Unfortunately, our stay got off to a bit of a rocky start. As Beth was saying goodbye to Simon and preparing to step off the dock and into our dinghy, Simon asked if she needed help.
To which Ken replied helpfully "oh no thanks, we've been doing this for years."
Beth then promptly did a face plant into the bottom of the dinghy. Ken thought this was hilarious until he realized that Beth had actually hurt herself.
It didn't take Karma long to extract its revenge.
The next day Ken missed his footing on the boat and went down hard on his knee. Here's what it looked like.
And now, five months later, Ken's knee is working fine, but still has a pretty noticeable lumpiness that will probably never go away.
Also, inconveniently, our little Kubota diesel developed a problem. That innocuous looking little streak on the blue paint shows where the coolant is leaking out of this fresh water pump. (In engine-speak, "fresh water" means fresh water mixed with coolant.)
A shaft seal had failed inside the pump, and the coolant would no longer stay inside the engine. Which made it unusable.
Since Vanuatu can be pretty cloudy, and since it was midwinter in the Southern Hemisphere, we couldn't get by just on solar power. So with the Kubota out of action we had to run our main engine in order to make electricity.
Diesels like to run fully loaded up. If you don't load them up, the cylinders will glaze. Needless to say, running a 110 horse power engine to do the work of a little 10 hp engine just isn't a great thing. We needed to fix the Kubota.
Cruisers have a famous expression: "cruising consists of fixing your boat in exotic locations."
To which we would add "and waiting for parts in exotic locations."
We pride ourselves on carrying a huge inventory of spare parts. But it's hard to think of everything. This little Kubota fresh water pump only costs about $100 in the States, and would've taken up practically no room in our stores. But we didn't have one.
Good news: our mechanic in New Zealand was able to put his hands on the right part in a diesel supply shop. We got it about a week later. With shipping and exorbitant New Zealand prices, the pump cost us about $550. Ken is looking very happy here.
Bad news: it didn't fit. The footprint was perfect, but the metal impeller was slightly too large to fit on our Kubota. The Kubota part number just didn't distinguish between the different size impellers. Bummer!
So we ordered another pump, and again Tim was able to find it –– and this time we had measured the actual dimensions of the impeller so it was definitely the right pump. Chalk up another $550.
And now DHL lost the pump in their system. It sat in Auckland for two weeks without going anywhere, while we bugged them practically every day to find it. It finally showed up three weeks after we ordered it.
In the meantime we tried another approach -- we found a mechanic in Vila who could cut the impeller off the old pump and press it onto the new pump. (We don't happen to have a machine shop on board, so we can't do this ourselves.)
Here's the old pump after the operation.
It took the mechanic a few days to get to it. And then, just as he was about to finish the job, a big, expensive boat had an emergency about 200 miles away, and flew our mechanic out to fix it... That was the end of him for a week.
So we finally got the modified pump back about five days before the second pump arrived. The whole affair took a month and cost about $1100. If we'd had the part on board it would have taken one day and cost $100.
Needless to say, we now have spare fresh water pumps for both the Kubota and the Yanmar. And Eagle's Wings sinks a little lower in the water...
Amazingly, when Ken finally got the new pump installed, and started the engine to test it, he found that our radiator cap leaked –– a completely unrelated, show-stopping problem.
But this time our system worked. Ken just went to our inventory and pulled out one of several spare radiator caps!
Ken also grabbed the chance to clean the carbon (from worn brushes) out of the watermaker pump motor. Nothing like graphite dust for making a mess.
We got to go for a sail on "Sahula" with Lin Pardey and her friend, David. They were also stuck in Port Vila waiting for parts. Lin is one of the most famous cruising sailors of all time.
Bob Bitchin of Latitudes and Attitudes once pointed out that Lin and her husband Larry had done something that no one ever did before, and that no one will ever do again. They sailed twice around the world, in opposite directions, in two different wooden boats, both of which they built with their own hands, and neither of which had an engine, a toilet or any electrical systems -- using only celestial navigation.
Chilling in Port Vila
We had planned to visit some of the remote islands of Vanuatu, where people still live in pretty primitive conditions.
But our problems with the Kubota forced us to remain among the restaurants and supermarkets of Port Vila.
Life is tough.
We visited Vila's fantastic farmers market.
Where we could buy grapefruit the size of bowling balls –– and so sweet that you eat them without sugar.
We arrived in the middle of the World Cup. Vanuatu is just crazy about soccer, and many vehicles flew the flags of their favorite teams. Brazil was a big favorite.
There were also plenty of German and French flags.
And the flags weren't the weirdest part. The weirdest thing was that the Ni-Vans (as the people here are known) would flock in thousands to the Port Vila soccer stadium in order to watch the World Cup on giant TV screens –– AT 2 O'CLOCK IN THE MORNING!
And the cheering when a favorite team scored a goal was loud enough to wake us up on our sailboat in the harbor several miles away. It would be hard to get any business done the day after a big match, because everybody was half-asleep.
All this, and Vanuatu didn't even have its own team in the World Cup.
We enjoyed Vila's many charms -- the brightly dressed women.
The entertaining Bislama language -- a creole language which has become the official language of the country. "Blong" comes from "belong" and really means belonging to or pertaining to. So what does this sign say?
We also appreciated the planning efficiency here -- putting the donut shop right next to the police station.
Of course Vila has its drawbacks -- like the giant flying cockroaches.
Back To The Museum
We had lots of free time to kill, so we paid a visit to Port Vila's cultural museum. We wanted to see Edgar again.
Edgar runs the museum, and also teaches classes in traditional Vanuatu sand drawing.
The artist must draw a complicated picture, which tells a traditional story, without ever lifting their finger off the sand from start to finish.
Edgar just makes it look easy.
A work of art, which will immediately be erased to make way for new one.
We also like the museum's collection of traditional carvings.
Weird stuff. Its meant to be a little scary.
Getting Our Heads Out Of The Boat
Fortunately, we had some friends, David and Cindy on the catamaran "Full Circle," who are very good at organizing expeditions with other cruisers.
"Full Circle" was "med-moored" to the dock –– and it was a bit of a tight rope walk to get on and off the boat.
It didn't help that the end of the board sits on a soft fender on the boat end. That makes it the right height, but just a little tippy. The "Full Circles" probably lose the occasional guest this way…
David and Cindy talked us into going to Ekasup, a local village that puts on shows for tourists.
Ken was dubious about this, but he ended up admitting that the villagers did a nice job.
The villagers turned out in costumes and hosted a big meal, lots of kava drinking, and lots of singing and dancing.
Maybe it was a little corny -- listening to Ni-Van villagers play "Johnny B. Goode " on homemade instruments -- but it was really fun.
Here's a video that shows what these people can do with musical instruments made out of bamboo pipes and bottles...
Ekasup Village Musicians
David and Cindy also talked us into visiting a local chocolate factory. This took less convincing...
Since there was such a clear payoff.
The chocolate from beans grown on one island could taste surprisingly different than chocolate from a neighboring island.
And we stopped at an animal refuge, which helps endangered turtles get a headstart of life. Steve, Kate, and Hannah of "Blue Summit" also joined us for this trip.
The refuge takes in injured fruit bats. These guys are called flying foxes, for obvious reason.
Ken was really taken with this guy -- he never expected to see a cute bat.
Beth asked if she should be jealous, but Ken assured her that he wouldn't throw her over for a fruit bat...
We also went with Dave and Cindy to take a tour dedicated to "Roi Mata," a Vanuatu leader revered for making peace among many of the warring tribes on Efate, (where Port Vila is located), and some of the neighboring islands. Roi Mata ("Roi" means king in French) lived about 400 years ago.
Our guide, Richard, explained how Roi Mata brought peace -- not so much by conquest as by persuasion. Prior to the peace, the tribes had fought wars, practiced blood feuds and engaged in cannibalism.
Richard took us to Fels Cave -- a stronghold of Roi Mata's tribe.
It's a lot bigger than it looked from the outside.
The walls are covered with drawings from Roi Mata's time, depicting animals like whales.
And some of the details of Roi Mata's funeral.
Richard explains how the Ni-Vans also used the cave for celestial and solar calculations, to determine the seasons, by standing in a particular spot and observing where the sun set relative to neighboring islands.
Finally we visited Roi Mata's grave site, on Eretoka Island. The site was identified and explored by a French Archeologist in 1967, confirming what had previously been only an oral tradition. Roi Mata was buried with about 25 other people -- who chose (or were chosen) to follow the king in death.
The whole island of Eretoka is tabu -- meaning no one can visit without explicit permission.
Ok, it's not the pyramids.
But the importance that the people of Efate place on Roi Mata's legacy was kind of touching. It really shows the importance of peace -- he got people to stop fighting, and they are still talking about it 400 years later.
Diving In Villa
But the best thing about being stuck in Vlla was that we could find good scuba diving only a 15 minute dinghy ride outside of the harbor. Here are a few pictures.
Gooseneck Barnacles. As sailors, we see these things all the time –– usually growing on the boat.
But how many sailors really take a close look at Goosenecks? Up close, they look like something out of a science fiction horror movie.
A juvenile Spotted Parrotfish. Don't ask us how this color scheme contributes to his survival.
Close-up of a Scribbled Pipefish –– a close relative of the seahorse.
Ken can never resist taking pictures of Christmas Tree Worms.
This year, we started to get more interested in "bivalves" -- meaning clams, oysters, and that sort of thing.
Probably doesn't sound very interesting, right?
Here's a close-up of a clam. These clams create little crevices in the coral by secreting acid that dissolves limestone. And close-up, they look like something from another planet. Those things that look like eyes –– they are eyes. But we don't know what the horns are all about.
Here's a close relative with a different color scheme.
A Redtoothed Triggerfish. Looks like he needs a trip to the dentist, but actually that's the normal look for these guys.
Here's a look at the whole animal.
An anemonefish launches an attack on Beth, trying to drive her away from his home.
Anemone fish can't thrive without anemones. And there don't seem to be enough to go around –– we pretty much never see one that doesn't have resident fish. It's kind of like musical chairs, except if you can't find a chair when the music stops, you die.
So these little fish have to be incredibly fierce about protecting their homes. Even to the extent of taking on giant monsters like us.
Here's a video of one of these fish going after Ken...
Ken Attacked By Anemonefish
Four Purple Anthias.
Comparing this Purple Anthias to the closely related Purple Queen shown below, you can really see evolution at work –– subtle differences that eventually turn into different species.
A Redmouth Lizardfish, looking ornery.
A Spotfin Lionfish.
Lionfish have invaded the Caribbean and become a pest species –– they were probably introduced by aquarium hobbyists who set them free when they got too large for their tanks.
Apparently nothing in the Caribbean eats them –– deterred by their poisonous spines.
We see them frequently in the Pacific, but something must eat them out here, because they haven't taken over.
A Bennett's Feather Star.
The long arms of a type of Brittle Star, embracing a tunicate (a relative of a sponge.)
A detail from a piece of coral -- looking like an aerial view of the Grand Canyon.
And another coral close-up.
And we made a video of a close enounter with a really large sea snake. These things are very poisonous, but they just don't care about people.
Sea Snake Encounter
An Important Piece Of Gear Fails
And then, at the start of one dive, Ken's buoyancy control device (BCD) sprung a huge leak.
Turns out one of the valves had cracked. And with this style of BC, you can't just replace that valve - – it's glued right into the fabric of the buoyancy vest.
But we could be proud of ourselves this time, as we had a spare BC on board. We had just purchased it this last summer, since ours were over 10 years old now.
We spent the rest of the season waiting nervously for Beth's BC to develop the same kind of leak. As soon as we get to New Zealand we will buy two more new ones, and put Beth's old one out to pasture.
We really liked the new Scuba Pro BC, since it doesn't have any foam padding. Turns out that the foam padding in our old BCs required us to carry at least 4 pounds of extra lead to offset the buoyancy. The new BC is comfortable even without the padding, and the whole affair is now much lighter.
We always marvel that we get to dive at all –– given all the moving parts that have to keep working for us to do this -- boat systems, camera systems, scuba systems, bodies...
A Walk On The Wild Side
While we were stuck in Port Vila waiting for parts, we decided to take a field trip to the Michoutouchkine & Pilioko Foundation Art Gallery. This is an art museum owned by a local artist (Pilioko), and we had heard good things about it from other cruisers.
We could've taken a bus, but we needed some exercise, so we decided to walk.
A walk in Vanuatu is always a bit of a challenge. There are the light poles in the middle of the sidewalks.
And then there are the tourist traps …
There are probably a few skeletons down there, but we decided not to get our dive gear and go looking.
But here's our favorite trap for the unwary. Looks normal enough, right?
And nothing seems wrong as you approach it.
And then all of a sudden you realize that the left half of the sidewalk just became a 30 foot drop off. That's Beth down there, if you can recognize her without binoculars…
Plus there are fierce dogs.
The fierce dog comes out for a look at us. (Notice his sign in the background.)
Speaking of dogs, here's how you protect your garbage from scavengers in a land where garbage bins are a luxury.
We kept going for miles, past the Chinese Embassy…
The Chinese are becoming very powerful in Vanuatu -- buying up land and water rights, and funding (or bribing) the government, and they inspire some paranoia.
Apparently they don't hire any locals, so nobody knows what's going on inside this compound. We had to admit, this place looked kind of sinister.
Vanuatu really illustrates the shifting balance of power in the world, as the US turns inward and China expands.
Of course, some western influences are still expanding.
We kept going past the "Witness Belong Jehova" compound.
And past the bay where some of the villagers were building a fish trap.
We stopped briefly at another local art gallery, where an artist had created this playful garbage sculpture. This side is entirely made up of old flip-flops that washed up on the beach.
While the other side's scales are crushed beer cans.
After a very long walk, we finally got to our destination.
The entrance road seemed inviting enough.
And then things got a little weird.
The place seemed completely deserted, except for one person who was sleeping in a bed -- outside -- off to the edge of the yard.
We weren't quite sure what to do – we decided not to bother the guy, and to just look around. We'd walked a long way, and the sign did say "OPEN DAILY."
The artist seem to like yellow women.
And yellow cats…
Actually, just yellow generally.
This place was sort of a cross between a museum and somebody's front porch.
We pressed on into the building.
Where things stayed weird.
We found room after dimly lit room just filled with the artist's work.
Finally, as we climbed up to the third story, (and encountered the third or fourth bed) it began to dawn on us that we were actually in the artist's house.
So we made our way back downstairs and left. And as we crept quietly out the front door we heard somebody cough up on the second story, and noticed that the outside bed was empty. So evidently he had come back inside. We don't know if he knew we were in his house or not…
Anyway the whole thing left us feeling pretty strange. Probably we should have gone back up and introduced ourselves, but honestly we were just as happy to walk home...
Tiger sharks we know how to deal with. But artists…
August 2, 2018 - September 23, 2018
We Finally Go Somewhere
Finally, with our Kubota fixed, we were able to get out of Port Vila. Unfortunately we no longer had time for a long exploration up the island chain. But we did get about 100 miles north, to a place called Dixon Reef off the island of Malakula.
The village at Dixon Reef is named Tavendrua, which means "two in one place." The legend is that the village founders discovered a hole there with a turtle egg and a bird's egg together.
The villagers speak their indigenous language (shared by only a few villages), Bislama, and French. So for the first time, we really had to rely on Ken's French. (In Port Vila most of the French people speak at least some English, because of the tourist trade from New Zealand and Australia.)
Just 100 miles from the big city, and everything changes.
These ladies were trying to raise funds to pay school fees –– they were selling these skewers of really tasty nuts for 20 cents a skewer. We bought a whole bunch, and it still cost us less than five dollars. So we made an additional contribution to the school fund.
These villages enjoy a very pleasant lifestyle –– no real stress, and food is easy to come by. But they face some problems that we see throughout the islands.
First, they now need cash to educate their children. And although the fees don't sound like much to us, the villagers have no good way to raise the money. And then, when the kids get educated, they can't really make a living in the villages and they end up going to the big city. So the villages are shrinking and losing their vitality.
Oddly enough, these are problems that they share with much of rural America.
Beth, with our friend Joachim, who welcomed us to the village.
This is the village's meetinghouse –– seemed kind of like a little men's club, where the guys would sit around and drink kava.
Here's a picture of Joachim in traditional dress.
The clubhouse walls were decorated with posters supplied by the government. Here is a health warning about smoking.
And a warning about practices that damage coral. Note the first panel about dynamite fishing. That's something that the US introduced back in World War II, when US soldiers threw hand grenades into the water and then gathered the stunned fish that floated up. Bad ideas can stick around a long time.
Not exactly what the overstressed, beat up coral reefs need right now.
And an anti-drug poster. The bottom line translates as "Tell'em No to Marijuana." ("Long" is a general preposition.)
One of the villagers, Jean Michelle, poses with his new son, Gino.
Beth was very taken, but Gino isn't so sure.
Beth shows off an incredibly large yam that we were given as a present. We gave Joachim a small rechargeable headlamp that we hope will be very useful. (The villagers have cell phones, so they actually have a way to re-charge lithium-ion batteries, using solar panels.)
We got right down to diving.
A Pink Anemonefish.
But we should mention that it was absolutely necessary to reassure the villagers that we were not going to take their fish –– by spearfishing or using hooks and lines. Maybe they would've let us dive and fish, but they would surely have wanted to be paid.
When we stepped ashore, about the first thing we said after hello was "nous ne pechons pas, nous prenons des photos sous l'eau" -- we don't fish, we take pictures under water.
Once they got their heads around that, they were fine with us being there.
Unfortunately the area around Dixon reef seems pretty beat up -- battered by storms, warming conditions and Crown of Thorns Starfish..
We did find one very nice isolated coral head in the Anchorage near our boat that was worth a couple of dives.
With some very big clams.
And of course, even sand and rubble is always full of small critters. Here you can get a good look at the partnership between a shrimp goby and his pet shrimp. The shrimp, on the left, (looks like a crayfish to us) digs a burrow that they both share. The goby, with its much better eyesight, keeps a watch.
But here was the high point of our diving at Dixon Reef –– a pair of Bumphead Parrotfish. (There were two, although we only got pictures of one. And, unfortunately we couldn't get close enough for great pictures.)
You have to realize that these fish are absolutely huge. Probably about 4 feet and about as heavy as Beth. And they are now rare in most places, almost wiped out by spearfishing. These were the first we had ever seen.
Our friends Matt and Elizabeth on Rubicon call them "buffalo," which seems appropriate in several respects.
Flying into a Hurricane
We had to cut short our stay at Dixon Reef, because we were due to fly out of Port Vila to Hawaii to attend the wedding of our godson, Daniel.
And guess what we discovered as soon as we started checking our flights.
Pretty ironic, that after 14 years of successfully dodging cyclones on a sailboat, we were about to voluntarily fly into the middle of one.
But we figured –– if the airline was willing to fly, we were willing to go. We might be risking our butts, but at least the boat was safe...
So we flew to Hawaii, to our room in the hotel on Waikiki Beach where our friends (Daniel's parents) were staying. Everything seemed benign.
To put it mildly, this whole scene was a bit of a culture shock for us. Here Ken tries to get his head around the concept of a drink with an umbrella in it.
But it was great to see our friends, David and Debbie.
And to catch up with our godson, Daniel and his fiancée, Natalia.
But there was still this hurricane thing to think about. Poor Daniel and Natalia had planned an outdoor wedding!
Lots of businesses closed on Oahu, as everyone hunkered down.
And all the ritzy stores on the main drag prepared to get flooded.
And staff in the hotel worked feverishly to get ready for the storm.
Daniel and Natalia's venue cancelled on them, along with some of their other wedding services.
But they landed on their feet, with Daniel using his business skills to negotiate a new venue, and to get all the necessary arrangements and coordination done.
Daniel is one of the founders and key business guys behind the very successful game "Cards Against Humanity," and he really rose to the occasion. We think he goes into married life with a big brownie point surplus… Always a useful thing for a guy.
And, in the end, although the storm created massive flooding on the big Island of Hawaii, the storm fizzled in Oahu –– mostly turning into a surfing opportunity.
The city officially closed Waikiki Beach, which did absolutely nothing to discourage the surfing crowd.
Surfing is a bit of a religion in Hawaii. Here's the Waikiki equivalent of a parking garage.
The storm did have one bad effect -- the hotel sent most of its staff home, meaning that it was hard for us to get anything to eat. And then the grocery stores all closed down.
We ended up subsisting on bottled water and macadamia nuts for a day or so. Life is tough…
As it became clear that the storm wasn't going to do much, we decided to climb Diamond Head to get some exercise.
Here's the view looking out over the ocean from this iconic landmark.
And here's the view showing a bit of the observation platform. Boy, was this a crowded tourist scene.
There was barely enough mountain to hold all of the tourists.
Here's the scene on the way up, climbing through the old World War II fortifications.
This was less like a hike in the wilderness than a trip to the subway in New York City!
But never mind all that – – because the important stuff went the way it should.
Daniel and Natalia proved that love is more powerful than cyclones.
And we got to meet Natalia's mother Sharon. Born in India, raised in Trinidad, and now living in Canada, she is a bit of a hurricane herself. A hurricane with a Caribbean accent.
But the day belonged to Natalia and Daniel.
Here Daniel get some instructions regarding the rest of his life…
He was okay with that, evidently.
Schedules, Schedules, Schedules
For the first time in our lives, we had signed up for a "rally". Cruising rallies are organized groups of boats –– led by a fleet Commodore –– which travel from place to place together. So having just returned from a scheduled flight to Hawaii, we found ourselves on another schedule.
Lots of cruising sailors love rallies, as they can smooth out a lot of the bureaucratic paperwork hassles of entering and leaving countries. They also provide advice, companionship, and a sense of comfort and group solidarity.
We've never wanted any part of all of that –– we're just fiercely independent, and the idea of being on somebody else's schedule seems appalling. Plus, rally sailors travel in a kind of bubble which we think makes it harder to really understand the places you go.
And anyway, our diving and photography program just doesn't mesh with rally timetables.
But on our next trip to New Caledonia, we wanted to visit some islands that still have intact communities of the native "Kanak" people. These islands –– called the Loyalties -- are upwind of Noumea. So if we if we did the normal clearance in Noumea, we would sail right by the Loyalties, and then turn around and have to sail all the way back.
The rally had a special deal which allowed us to check in at the Loyalties.
So anyway, that put us on a schedule, which meant that we only had a couple of weeks left in Port Vila before we had to leave with the rally.
Of course we got right back in the water.
Here's a gadget that has really changed our lives under water.
These are called "Buddy Watchers." You wear one of these on your wrist, while your buddy wears the other. And if you push the big button, your buddy gets a vibrating signal –– telling them that you want their attention.
This helps us a lot. Ken gets really focused on his subject when he is taking pictures, while Beth does most of our scouting. So Beth will find something interesting, and then get frustrated waiting for Ken to look up. From Ken's point of view, he's never sure whether he can afford to take one more picture or whether he needs to look around for Beth.
And of course there is a safety issue here too – what if your partner needs help?
These things work great.
Here's something that got Ken's attention –– a coral trout with a crab in his mouth.
And a juvenile Red Lionfish. Lionfish may be spiky, poisonous creatures, but they sure are photogenic.
As are those tubeworms.
A type of nudibranch.
And here is something really different –– a Peacock-Tail Anemone Shrimp, which hides in sea anemones.
This guy was hard to see even when we were staring right at him.
His back goes all the way up to the white spot toward the center top -- all the white (and black) spots in this picture are part of his coloration. You are seeing the anemone right through the shrimp.
Here he is on the white and orange underside of the anemone.
We have learned to look for certain types of critters –– like this one –– in particular kinds of habitat. If you know what you are looking for, it's much easier to find well camouflaged creatures.
Ken just liked this picture.
A squid. He was hanging out under our dinghy when we returned from a dive.
A blenny, hiding in a hole in the coral.
And a Flat Rock Crab.
Generally speaking, the coral near Port Vila looks surprisingly good.
But then we started seeing Crown of Thorns Starfish.
Crown of Thorns Starfish are monsters.
As big as a turkey platter, covered with poisonous spines, almost indestructible, with a voracious appetite for coral -- what's not to like about COTS? And a major "outbreak" can destroy the coral along a whole coastline in less than a year. The coral may recover with time –– but we' re talking decades –– or it may just remain as rubble, a sad reminder of something beautiful.
COTS outbreaks have become much more frequent recently, for reasons that no one completely understands, but are probably related to the additional nutrients and warmer water conditions created by humans.
Here's a close-up that we took last year, as a Crown of Thorns climbs up onto a bit of living coral. Truly a monster out of Dante's Inferno.
The glowing red spot is a primitive eye, which allows the COTS to see the loom of the reef silhouetted against the sky.
You have to admire perfect evolution...
You can't kill a COTS by stabbing it or spearing it –- it just shrugs off the damage, repairs itself, and keeps going. If you chop off the leg, it will grow a new one. If you cut a COTS in half, you can end up with two.
These creatures have only a few natural enemies, most of which are endangered. For example, conch shellfish will apparently eat them, but conchs have been mostly wiped out for their shells.
There are certain fish that can eat COTS when they are small, but nothing much seems to trouble them once they get large enough.
So we decided to step up.
Divers in places like Vanuatu try to control COTS by using metal hooks to pull them out from under the coral, (where they hide), and then putting them in bags. Some people take the bags ashore to bury the COTS, while in other places the divers leave the bags underwater for a week or two, which seems to kill the animals.
But this is hard, time-consuming, dangerous work. It takes 30 seconds to a minute to get each crown of thorns out from its hiding place and into a bag. And if you get spiked, you can have a serious problem. A friend of ours in Vanuatu had his hand swell up for days after he got spiked while bagging a COTS.
Fortunately, Australia has invented a more efficient way to kill these things.
They use a custom-made injection spear, which you can load with either vinegar or "ox bile salts."
Beth discovered these things online, and managed to negotiate the byzantine Australian bureaucracy in order to buy one. We had to get a permit –– just as if we were going to use it in Australia. And at one point, they were asking for $10 million of insurance!
But Beth talked them down.
We also bought a half kilo of bile salts -- enough to kill 5000 COTS.
Bile salts are a digestive enzyme -- they basically dissolve the COTS from the inside out. Way more effective than vinegar, but not cheap -- the salts cost us about $150 USD, plus a trip to Australia, since Aussie regulations apparently prevent them from exporting the stuff.
You haven't lived until you've tried to get a half kilo of white powder in plastic baggies through Customs at an airport...
We also improved on the Australian design. They sent us the bottle on the left -- A 5 L semi-rigid plastic container.
This container has three problems. First, if you filled it with fluid and then emptied it underwater, the water pressure would try to crush it. This would either destroy the bottle, or if the bottle were strong enough to withstand the pressure, would force you to pump against a vacuum. Second, 5 Liters of bile salt mix is a massive amount – – enough to kill 500 COTS. Since the mixture goes bad after a few days, this would be a waste. Third, if we mixed a more reasonable amount –– like one liter -– we would then be trying to drag 4 L of air under water with us. That's an awful lot of buoyancy, and would require us to carry a lot more lead.
In fact, the literature that comes with the equipment talks about the need to "adjust" your weights, and also the need to lubricate your gun very carefully since the cylinder spring tends to stick. No kidding, since it's trying to draw fluid out against 2 or 3 Atm of pressure!
So, with the help of our good friend Steve Eichler in New Zealand, we adapted a 1 L hot water bottle. Just put as much solution as you want into it, screw on the nozzle, purge the air, and it's neutrally buoyant. And the sea water pressure helps you pump the stuff out underwater. Works beautifully, if we say so ourselves.
It took us several months before we tried out our gear. But when we started seeing COTS at some of our favorite dive sites near Port Vila, we got down to it.
Ken goes after several COTS hiding under a plate coral. You find COTS by looking for the white "scars" where they have sucked out the living polyps. After a few days the scars turn yellow and then brown and algae-covered. But a white scar means the starfish is still around. Often hiding in some nearby hole.
Here you can see healthy coral (green), some fresh white scars, some older yellowish scars, and a whole plate coral that was probably killed a couple of days ago and has turned yellowish-brown.
Beth does the scouting and Ken does the dirty work. And our Buddy Watchers let us communicate.
It's loads of fun, actually. Like a treasure hunt. Or like hunting.
But better. Ken used to bow hunt for deer -- but there was always just a little remorse -- what did the deer ever do to him? These guys, on the other hand...
Here's a video that shows how these guys hide.
Ken Finds Hidden COTS
A close-up of fresh COTS damage (on left), next to some healthy coral. The starfish leave the calcium structure intact –– but they remove all the living tissue, leaving a beautiful white skeleton.
COTS killing made for some dramatic video. Below, Ken shows how rapidly he can use the gun on a breeding aggregation of COTS that Beth uncovered...
Killing Multiple COTS
And here are a couple of videos that show the results, as the COTS become agitated, crawl out of their holes and stagger around like they've been bar hopping. And then they keel over –- damn that's satisfying!
These guys bring out the worst in us, we admit it...
COTS Falls Over
A close-up of a fallen COTS.
Our COTS-hunting attracted some fish that would normally not approach us. Here a young Napoleon wrasse comes over to see if he can get a piece of the action.
We would've been delighted to see him eat the COTS, but as you can see in the video below, they are still too prickly for him. Maybe he'll come back in a day or so when this COTS has softened up a bit.
Napoleon Wrasse with COTS
Doing something useful for the reefs -– where we were uniquely positioned to help out –– we felt like heroes. Ken wanted to wear a superhero cape, but it kept getting tangled in his regulator. :-)
Realistically though, we know that the only way to make a real impact is to help other people carry on the fight.
Our friends at the "Big Blue" dive shop in Port Vila have been dedicating four divers every day to bagging COTS. They estimate that they've killed 40,000 COTS in the last year. They have the injection guns, but couldn't pay for the bile salts. They tried vinegar but didn't think that it worked.
So we recently arranged to ship them 11 kg of bile salts, as our donation to the fight. That's theoretically enough to kill 110,000 COTS, and should keep them in business for a year or two. Hopefully, with the bile salts, two divers will be able to do the work of four.
September 24, 2018 - October 11, 2018
We Do The Rally Thing
And then it was off to New Caledonia with the Loyalty Rally. We were rather uncomfortable about not picking our own weather window, but fortunately we had good conditions for the passage.
And so we descended on the small island of Lifou, with more than 25 boats.
And a whale… Actually, she wasn't signed up for the rally.
And then the benefits of being with a rally started to kick in. The organizers, John and Leanne on "Songlines," had organized a feast for us.
Here the local people prepare a traditional underground oven.
We thought it was a little cruel that the baking pit was right in front of the pigsties, which were full of pigs being fattened up for… guess what.
The pigs were very interested in the proceedings, but they needn't have worried. Pigs are usually reserved for is very special occasions like marriages. All we rated were chickens.
But hey, we weren't complaining.
And before dinner, John gave us a talk on the subtleties of staying out of trouble in New Caledonia.
New Cal faces a very difficult political situation. Virtually everywhere else in the world, European colonials either won the demographic race –– for example in North America, New Zealand, and Australia –– or else they lost, as in India, Indonesia, Africa and Asia.
But in New Cal, the struggle still hangs in the balance between the French and the local Kanak people.
And there was an election scheduled for November 4, which would determine whether New Cal stayed with France or broke off to become independent.
The French and Kanak populations are pretty evenly divided, but there are also a large number of islanders brought in from places like Vanuatu or Polynesia to work in the local economy. These people were expected to vote with the French, since their livelihoods depended on the continued French presence.
So feelings were running very high, and we were warned to be careful.
Back to the Water
Of course, we promptly got down to exploring the Bay.
There was a really nice coral head out in the middle of the Bay –– so nice, in fact, that we could not drop a dinghy anchor on top of it without damaging the coral. Normally that wouldn't be a problem, as we would just anchor in the sand next to it.
But this coral head was surrounded by water that was 30 m deep. Most cruisers won't anchor their sailboats that deep –– we've only done it a few times.
And nobody that we know of has ever anchored their dinghy in 30 m of water. We decided to do it.
It actually turned out to be pretty easy. We already have a heavy anchor and chain for the dinghy, with a two to one rode that helps us pull it up. So we basically just lengthened the anchor line, and everything worked fine. It was a breakthrough for us, which will open up other difficult diving sites.
But we really need a new windlass for our dinghy. The old one is getting pretty wimpy...
We only made one dive, but it was very nice. A lot of interesting bivalves.
Here's a detail from the picture above.
More beautiful coral.
Here's another big clam.
And a close-up.
And some sponges.
We also saw a dogtooth tuna, who seemed as big as our dinghy. It was very exciting, but we weren't close enough to get a picture.
Ouvea -- The Eye Of The Storm
From Lifou, we moved on to Ouvea.
Lifou has mountains, but Ouvea is a low atoll. And the difference in climate was stunning. Nothing but blue skies in Ouvea, at least while we were there.
It's a beautiful place, with endless white beaches.
Inhabited mostly by burrowing crabs. This guy must've been in a real hurry to get under cover, given how far he was throwing the sand.
But Ouvea has a dark history. Back in 1988, a band of Kanak rebels seized this gendarmerie.
They took hostage 27 French gendarmes, and killed four who resisted.
The rebels moved the hostages to a remote cave.
And the French government responded forcefully, by sending special forces troops to the island -- some, ironically, from the same unit which had sunk the Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand. (An act which caused a serious diplomatic crisis between France and New Zealand.) In the ensuing assault on Ouvea, another 21 people died -– two French and 19 Kanaks.
The Kanaks allege that many of the rebels were executed by the French after they surrendered -- and the French commanding officer, Phillipe Legorjus, later stated that "Some acts of barbarity have been committed by the French military in contradiction of their military duty." Legorjus was relieved of command, and the French have denied any wrongdoing.
The "events," as they are known out here, have certainly not been forgotten on Ouvea.
This is a monument erected by the Kanaks to honor the slain rebels. The inscription on the bullet reads "For our liberty".
The Kanak flag flies in the background.
There are 19 totem poles here, one for each of the rebels.
We notice that the women are here also -- at the bottom of the totem pole, literally.
There are also pictures and memorials to each man.
"To our brothers of Ouvea / Thanks for the blood spilled for the Kanak people".
And this one ends with "And may the fight continue".
Some 81 percent of eligible voters turned out on November 4th, and the Kanaks lost, 56 percent to 44 percent, as expected. We're not sure what will happen next.
But there's a lot to be said for peace.
Talking to the Kanaks
There are three Kanak Chiefs on Ouvea, each of whom has authority over part of the island and part of the surrounding reefs. We wanted to dive in some of the southern reefs and also around some of the northern islands, so we needed permission from the chief of the North and the chief of the South.
Here is the Southern chiefly compound. This is a traditional Kanak structure, and it kind of says something about their mind set.
We did not actually get to meet the southern chief, as he was away, but instead dealt with his representative, John.
Here Beth presents John with the "cutoume" (pronounced "kutum"), a small gift of cloth fabric, some rice, and a $10 bill.
Once again, we found it necessary to make assurances that we were not fishing, but only taking pictures. We also talked a little about the state of the coral –– John said it was "malade," meaning sick. We commiserated, and asked about Crown of Thorns, and John said yes, they had problems.
We talked about our COTS killing equipment, and to our surprise, John had seen videos about it and was interested. We promised that we would do our best to kill any that we encountered.
All this took place in French, and Ken felt that by the end of it we had kind of made him feel like we were on his side.
We also left John with an 8 x 10 picture of Eagle's Wings, which seemed to make a good impression. Cruisers who visited later said that they saw our picture hanging up, which was nice.
In the north, the old chief has died, and his widow, Madame Underwood, has claimed the position. This apparently caused a dispute, with other members of the family trying to take the position away from her because of her sex.
We didn't mention the dispute, of course, but at one point Ken referred to Madame Underwood as "la reine" -- the queen. She kind of smiled at that. She was a bit standoffish at first, but shook our hands very warmly at the end, so we felt like we won her over a little.
We spent almost an hour talking (in broken French) with Madame Underwood and her advisers. We started off talking about diving, and again had to absolutely assure them that we would not be fishing. And we talked a little about COTS.
But these guys really wanted to talk about politics – – and especially the situation between the French and the Kanaks. They asked us if we knew about what had happened on Ouvea, and we said yes. You could tell this was still very raw –– probably this family had lost relatives in the fighting, although we didn't ask. Seemed like we had discovered the heart of the resistance.
It was clear that these people had not given up hope, (but there was no talk of violence). We didn't say too much –– it seems like the door to independence would slam shut with the election on Dec 4.
And it's pretty hard to fight a guerrilla war on a small coral atoll -- there just isn't any place to hide. Ken thought about saying that we had had our own revolution against "les Anglais," but that we had a whole continent to hide in -- but he wisely kept his mouth shut. War is just bad... and it's not our place to say anything here.
They also complained about all the tourists coming to Ouvea –– there are cruise ships that come here now. They talked about women running around in bikinis.
Ken said that the key thing for visitors was to have respect for local customs. They glommed right onto the word "respect" –– it was exactly what they were getting at.
Once again, this conversation could have gone badly, but we left on good terms, as friends. Our picture was a hit.
We had come to the Loyalties this year mostly because we felt that Noumea was completely cut off from the local culture. We aren't as focused as a lot of other cruisers on meeting and interacting with local people. But somehow it would have felt empty and disrespectful to have visited New Caledonia without meeting any of the Kanaks.
We had rented a car to visit the Chiefs, and so we made a little tour of the island afterward.
We saw at least three or four Catholic churches scattered around the island. While the church pictured here (St. Joseph's) seemed well tended, many of the others seemed kind of run down and almost abandoned. We get the feeling that a lot of the Kanaks have fallen away from Catholicism –– it's pretty strongly associated with the French.
We stopped for lunch at a local school fundraiser, where Ken got this nice portrait.
Hiking on Razors
Our friends David and Cindy from "Full Circle" also showed up in Ouvea, and once again they talked us into having some adventures on land. Kevin and Mei from "Whisper HR" also joined us, along with some other cruisers and tourists.
We decided to take a guided hike through the Lekiny Cliffs, a raised coral formation.
Once again, this felt a bit touristy. But the rules were very clear -– you can't do this hike on your own.
We ended up wading through chest deep water to reach the formation.
And it was a bit of a scramble up the cliff.
We had felt a bit overdressed crossing the lagoon in our hiking boots, but we had guessed correctly that flip-flops weren't going to work very well on the razor-sharp coral.
All of this was once a coral reef, which is now been heaved up above sea level by volcanic forces.
The hike went on for about three quarters of an hour. And at the end we came to a cave with this Catholic shrine -– where the local people come to pray for help against hurricanes.
We appreciated the sentiment!
Here's the view out onto the ocean from the end of the hike.
You can see why this stuff would be hard to walk on.
And then we started back.
But our guides had us climb back down into the lagoon, to hike back through the shallow water –– much easier walking down there.
A pretty spectacular landscape.
Here's the scene back at the bay where our boats were anchored. But those are resort guests in this picture, not cruisers. We don't have time for this sort of thing…
We still had to get our dinghies into the water.
Home sweet boat.
Diving In The Loyalties
So with our hard-won permission to dive, we got started exploring the Loyalty Islands. We began at the southern end, near Gece Island.
Here Ken maneuvers for a close-up of a Giant Moray Eel. (Notice how healthy the coral looks in this spot.)
Here's the resulting picture.
More astonishing clams.
Here's a detail.
Ken checks out a passing Whitetip Reef shark.
When we started our voyage, these guys freaked us out (particularly Ken, who had a bit of a shark phobia). These days we view the Whitetips kind of like puppy dogs.
We also got a bit of cool video as this guy went past..
White Tip Reef Shark Cruising By
A beautiful Semicircle Angelfish.
And more clams. Notice the little eyes checking us out around the edges of the shell. Many clams can see, and will snap shut if you approach too rapidly.
We can't get over how their coloration looks like liquid waterfalls, melting into pools below.
Ken is so busy getting pictures that he hasn't noticed the feather star that latched onto him.
And another type of anemone shrimp, a Sarasvati Anemone Shrimp.
We had also obtained permission to visit Beautemps-Beaupre, a remote island atoll belonging to the northern chiefdom.
It's a bird sanctuary, and there were thousands of nesting terns.
Amazingly, we stayed there for days without getting much bird poop on the deck.
And no, Eagle's Wings hasn't suddenly sprouted a second mast. That's another boat anchored behind us. Beautemps is remote enough from Ouvea that a few French boats visit and even spearfish without getting permission. The Kanaks can't really stop them, as nobody lives on the island.
Here's an extremely strange creature –– a Blue Dragon, which is a type of nudibranch.
Notice how he has a bird insignia on his forehead. And horns.
We found these things very frustrating to photograph –- they're incredibly weird looking, but it's very difficult to make them stand out from their background. They are just designed to blend in.
This guy, on the other hand... He's a type of sapsucking sea slug. And if you look just below him, inside that shell, do you see the small crab?
We have to admit we didn't see the crab until we looked at the picture.
And here is a tiny, infant Leopard Wrasse.
This guy doesn't swim, exactly, he kind of floats around trying to look like a piece of debris.
And those two circles on his tail are intended to look like eyes. So if a predator does see him, chances are it will attack the wrong end, allowing the little guy to dart in the opposite direction.
We can't stop with these clams.
These "Large Whipgobies" are actually pretty tiny. They hide out on whip corals –– which are long, thin, flexible coral branches. You would never see these fish if you didn't know where to look.
Did we mention that we like clams?
While we were in the Loyalties, our little Buddy Watcher communication system developed a problem.
This is a charging bracket that clamps on to the unit so that you can recharge the batteries. Notice the little tiny copper pin in the middle of the thing. There should be two of those, but if you look closely you can see that one of them has retracted.
So we couldn't recharge our units.
Beth took the thing apart and discovered the problem. Those two little holes should have the two pins soldered into them. But the factory soldering job was so bad that the pins broke loose.
So she got out her soldering gear and went to work.
Here's the finished result. (The pins stick out on the other side –– this shows how the bases are soldered in.)
Ken was awestruck. Beth had to do this without allowing any solder to bleed over from one pin to the other. If that had happened, the two pins would've shorted out. And the factory installation put the pins so close together that you practically have to use a microscope to see the gap between them.
But Beth made it work, and we were back in business.
The manufacturer is sending us some new charging units, since these things are obviously problematic. Turns out they've redesigned the clamps and improved the soldering.
This isn't the first time that we have found ourselves unintentionally beta testing somebody's product.
But don't get us wrong, we love the Buddy Watchers and would recommend them to any divers, especially now that they've fixed the charging mount. And the company was very responsive.
October 12, 2018 - November 11, 2018
Onward To New Caledonia Mainland
The season was winding down, and it was time for us to start heading to the mainland of New Caledonia. We had several more places we wanted to explore and we needed to start working our way back to the capital city of Noumea, where we could check out when the time came to leave for New Zealand.
And we caught this nice mahi-mahi. Because of our autopilot problems, we had not been able to fish at all on the passage up. So this was the first fish that we had caught the whole season!
Notice Ken is wearing his butcher's apron, along with his butcher's gloves.
The Prony Needle
We stopped to pay another visit to the Prony Needle.
The needle is a strange geologic formation which rises up from about 35 m and almost reaches the surface in the middle of the Bay of Prony, on the southern coast of the New Caledonia mainland.
It's made up of soft mineral deposits which grow in candelabra like shapes.
And if you touch them, they crumble away.
The needle provides habitat for a huge ecosystem –– bivalves, nudibranchs, sponges, corals and fish -- among other creatures.
This nudibranch (Willey's Halgerda) was huge –– at least four or 5 inches long. That tree on his back is his gill.
But we were appalled to find at least a dozen large Crown of Thorns crawling around on this iconic landmark.
So we made a special trip back with our injection gun.
And just hammered them.
Here's a COTS that we killed near our boat –– this is what it looked like after a couple of days. It still wasn't soft enough for the fish to start eating it.
On our final visit to the Bay of Prony, we made a horrifying discovery. We had been using the moorings in a small bay called "Anse Magic," which means Magic Cove.
And the place really is magic -- the entire bottom of the extensive bay is covered with coral, mostly staghorn. Obviously, you don't want to anchor in that stuff, as you will tear it to pieces.
So the government thoughtfully provides moorings. And they look great from the surface –– all brand-new tackle, and very nice thick lines. Lots of big boats come in and use these things.
But when we finally made a dive under our boat, using the mooring line to descend, we discovered that the thing only had a small concrete block as an anchor, and that the block had been dragged through the coral like a bulldozer.
We couldn't tell if we had done this, or if the damage had been done previously –– but we packed up and moved right away.
This is a bad situation –– these blocks should at least be doubled up.
After staying in Bay of Prony for a week or so, we moved on to Kouare island, out in the huge (55 mile long) Southern Lagoon.
This island has an extensive reef structure, along with a pass to the open ocean, which generates lots of habitat, and lots of current.
And great diving!
A Sapphire Flatworm.
Nudibranch's have little horns on their heads, which are called rhinophores. Flatworms don't have anything like that –– their heads are actually perfectly smooth. But, for whatever reason, they often bend themselves to make folds which look like horns.
Don't ask us why, as we don't think there are any special sensory organs there. Maybe they just think it looks cool.
A Weird Turtle Encounter
We had a really strange turtle encounter while we were near Kouare Island. This big ole male Loggerhead Turtle -- he must have been 5 feet long if you count his head and tail -- came swimming straight toward us.
This is weird behavior for turtles –- they are usually wary of humans. But this guy acted like he wanted a close-up look. Ken wasn't sure what the heck he was up to, and wondered if we had discovered the world's first man-eating turtle.
Of course, he grabbed a picture.
Here's what Ken saw through the viewfinder. This isn't cropped.
Male Loggerheads are distinguishable by their very long tail. We were thrilled to see this huge male.
Anyway, the turtle got close enough to eyeball us face-to-face, and then turned around and swam away just as quickly as he had come.
Ken looks a bit wide-eyed here.
This season, we have really upped our game at finding small, camouflaged critters hiding in plain sight.
The trick to this is knowing where to look. Basically, these small creatures search out very specific habitats. So if you see one of those habitats, and you look hard enough, you may find something.
Here are a few examples. In each case, will show you the big picture –– with the creature in view -- and then you show you a close-up so that you can actually find the animal.
Here's a detail of a fan coral. Can you find the small fish hiding here?
Hint -- look in the upper right-hand corner.
Here's a close-up of a High-hat Triplefin fish.
Here's another test. Can you find the small fish hiding here?
Hint, look a few inches in from the left edge, about in the middle.
Here's the close-up of a Common Ghostgoby.
Last example. Can you find the small shrimp in this picture?
Hint –– he's almost in the middle of the picture, and not all that well hidden. He needs to line up with the feathers of his feather star.
A close-up of the shrimp (which we haven't identified yet).
And now we'll close out this update with a few more interesting and/or beautiful creatures from the area around Kouare island.
An Orange-spotted Pipefish.
A Broadclub Cuttlefish, making what is probably a threat display. We aren't really sure what set this guy off –– he was already doing this when we first noticed him, even though he was quite a distance away from us. Normally cuttlefish don't get too excited about humans.
A bit of branching coral, with the polyps fully extended.
Detail from a whip coral.
A pair of Hinged Shrimpfish. Doing their best to look like weeds.
Here's another look at them.
A Headband Headshield Slug.
The arm of a brittle star –– looking like something from outer space.
Another look at the same guy. This is just one of his tentacles. The stars hide their central disc in a hole, and send out their long spiky arms to look for food.
And, finally, another clam.
And now it was time to go back to Noumea for check out.
Noumea is kind of a difficult venue. There are plenty of legal anchorages, but they are absolutely, completely stuffed with local boats on moorings. So there is generally no way to anchor legally. . Fortunately, the authorities are pretty relaxed.
Here the chart shows one of the legal anchorages (marked out by the dotted line toward the right of the picture). And all of those little spots show our various attempts at anchoring without ending up hanging out in the ship channel too much or being right on top of another boat. (Since even the illegal spots are crowded.) It took us seven tries to finally get settled in. (The "Man overboard" indicator at the upper left of this cluster is just another anchoring attempt –– nobody fell overboard.)
You would think that we might be good at this anchoring business by now –– we've only been doing it for 14 years.
Ken had to dive to clean the bottom of the boat for passage.
We always do this, but this year New Zealand has adopted really strict rules –– they want absolutely every barnacle off the boat. Including in all of the obscure nooks and crannies, like on top of the rudder right against the hull, and inside the water intakes and the propeller shaft log, and around the dynaplate. Little spots that don't matter for boat speed, so we normally ignore them.
And they want dated pictures showing that you have done this, or otherwise they make you haul right away. Satisfying these requirements turned into a major pain, and Ken was underwater for one of the longest dives of his life –– over two hours. Even though the hull was basically clean to begin with.
It's amazing how far you can stretch one tank of air, when you aren't going deeper than about 2 m.
The hardest thing was removing our water intake cover so that we could clean inside the water inlet. This required removing (and later re-installing) six tiny little screws. All while the boat was horsing around in over 20 kn of wind, generating a fierce sideways current. Ken had to hang upside down, with his legs wrapped around the propeller shaft. He says he's never done anything more difficult under water.
Ken got the cover off and on again without losing any screws, but he says never again –– we are going to have to find some different kind of sea strainer cover that's easier to open up.
Like the hinged cover on our Kubota inlet.
We're also going to revisit using a riding sail to reduce horsing around.
Anyway, we're all set now –– sitting in Noumea waiting to leave. All told, it was a great season. We got in more than 40 dives –– and we feel like we've learned a lot.
Goodbye for now.