Sunday, March 02, 2014

Bull Shark close encounter, clam quest update and endless beach combing for Japa

March 3, 2014
Likiep Atoll
Marshall Islands
Central Pacific Ocean

Bull Shark close encounter, clam quest update and endless beach combing for Japanese glass floats.

We've spent the last few days exploring islands on the northeast side of Likiep atoll. Snorkeling on the pristine coral gardens and walking the beaches searching for the elusive and prized Japanese glass fishing floats. We'll anchor the boat and either swim into an island or drop in our dinghy and quickly head for the beach. The best time is mid-tide or lower as some shores are inundated and impassible at higher tides. Like most coral atolls worldwide the Marshall Islands are only a few meters above sea level, so a high tide and bigger surf will send water well past the high tide mark. Once ashore Dave usually explores the upper edge of the beach looking at all the flotsam hoping to find a shiny green glass ball amongst the piles of plastic trash alternating to the lower beach where Kathy can be found contemplating the perfect sea shell or investigating the tiny creatures found flirting the tide pools. Tan colored eels seem to be very common and when encountered they'll slither out of small pools and over dry ground escaping to the deeper waters.

The amount of plastic trash on an atoll ocean side beach is a pretty constant level of disgusting. Plastic water bottles and broken flip flops seem to be the most prolific, but it includes everything that floats. Broom heads, tooth brushes, bottle caps, lighters, Clorox bottles, soft drink bottles, whiskey bottles from Japan and Rum bottles from Central America, soap bottles, deodorant dispensers, hair spray containers, beer bottles from Japan, tennis rackets, racket balls, fishing nets, plastic bins, tires, coke bottles, styrofoam, fishing line spools, aluminum airplane parts, a WWII canteen, huge ropes, small ropes, yellow foam tuna seine net floats, fishing net, round fishing floats from 3" to 30" in diameter and many many many shoes and today an 8' diameter green navigation aid buoy. We're talking thousand upon thousand of items per mile and in many cases hundreds in a single wave formed pile.

One walk I photograph each unique type of fishing float on a 2 mile walk. My camera memory filled up with 200+ photos before we were 1/2 way around the island. Another time I photograph flip flops that I didn't have to go out of my way to pickup. Flip flops tend to blow deep into the underbrush, so maybe I was catching one right in my path for every twenty in the bush. Again, I filled the memory card well before half way! And another time I photographed a few hundred water bottles for which I've planned an expose' on the ugly legacy of bottled water. Something along the lines of: bottled water is so cool, what's your brand? I look forward to sharing the flip side of deserted tropical island paradise. Fortunately, the lagoon side of the many small islands that form an atoll rarely have any visible trash.

Luckily, anchored on the lagoon side, we can enjoy our palm trees in paradise without the constant reminder of a 'Made in China' disposable, buy another one at Walmart mentality that seems to have reached endemic proportions worldwide. Growing up an American I'm all the more guilty of 'consuming' far more than my fair share of the worlds resources. For the past 8 years, living off the grid I can claim a minimal carbon footprint and only footprints in the sand, so I guess I'm a little less bad, but still in debt for all my past consumerism. If everyone who drinks bottled water were to walk the beaches we've walked the last few weeks I think they'd swear off buying cases of the stuff at Costco, Walmart and Whole Foods.

Fiji Water in particular as it's NOT owned by Fijians, but an American multinational and how ridiculous to ship water from Fiji all the way to your local mini-mart!

Back to the quest to view a giant clam in the wild we tracked down a guy named Lisson on the NW end of Likiep. We anchored LightSpeed in a sandy patch on the lee shore of Liklal island and went ashore to find Lisson. We found a few guys working copra and confirmed that Lisson was on one of the three islands that make up Liklal. The problem was Lisson was said to be on a small island that would require a several mile walk and then a swim to his island. With LightSpeed dangling in building winds on a lee shore we retreated to the boat to follow up on another lead that there might be a mooring buoy on the ocean side of the reef. We decided to give the ocean mooring ball a look and sailed a few miles down the lagoon to a pass just north of Rongik island. The tide was flooding hard and current in the 20' deep pass was 3+ knots creating some standing waves, but no issue powering through to the ocean. Outside we deployed some fishing lures and within minutes had a double hookup of Mahi Mahi. Reeling in the fish we had a school of 30 Mahi Mahi following our boat and their unlucky school mates whom we enjoyed BBQ'd for dinner.

We found the buoy in the reef of Lotooke Island (southerly of the Liklal group) and tied on. I donned my mask and fins and jumped in to inspect the mooring system to see if it would be suitable to leave the boat while we tried to find Lisson and the location of the giant clam. The mooring line was older 1/2" poly and didn't inspire confidence, but the anchor chain and anchor looked decent. It was a tenuous spot for a mooring located on a steep coral abutment with a shallow wave pounded reef inshore and several hundred foot deep blue drop-off just 50 feet away. It's no surprise that moorings on the ocean side of barrier reefs are rare as the reef is so steep a solid anchor is hard to place. With the mooring so close to shore a small windshift and a boat could simply swing onto the shallow coral reef and be destroyed. We discussed wind strength and direction and decided we'd pursue securing LightSpeed to the mooring... maybe even overnight.

I dove down and tied on a piece of 5/8" yacht braid (stong rope) to the mooring chain and was feeling pretty secure about the mooring when an extra big swell surged LightSpeed and the massive steel anchor moved about 3 feet and then wedged itself between a few blocks of coral. Pretty sketchy, but at least the anchor looked wedged in fairly well. The under water noise of the moving anchor was an all call for every big fish on the reef to swim over and check things out. A big wrasse, huge grouper, snapper and several sharks. The first to arrive was a medium size white tip who gave me a fly by, then a slightly more dangerous grey reef shark came at me a few times making me wish for a spear to ward off future visits. I swam back to the boat and Kathy passed me my pole spear. About this time a float suspending the moorings anchor broke loose and I was busy with more breath hold dives to tie the float back to the chain to protect the chain from damaging fragile corals and numerous clams.

Occupied with the task of swimming the buoyant float down about 30' and tying the line back on the chain I got stung by some unseen jelly fish. Then exhausted by the multiple dives to secure the float I let out a little yell when a big bull shark gave me a close fly by. Luckily I'd left my pole spear dangling on another buoy and once rearmed I jabbed at the bull shark as he came within prodding range and then he'd turned away and repeated the charge from a different direction. I'm very comfortable with reef sharks, but a big bull shark had me scared for real. The shark circled and charged in multiple times and I poked my spear at his face and he'd turn away at the last moment. Sensing that the situation was escalating I was trying to get back to the boat which was only 20 feet to the bows and another 42 feet to the stern steps. Those were the longest 62 feet I've ever swum. Kathy heard my initial yelp and was on the bow observing the fray. I spit out my snorkel to let her know it was a big bull shark giving me trouble and somehow hoped she could help, knowing in reality I was on my own. Between the ever closer charges I made a break for it, swimming on my back, looking toward my fins, trying to not act panicked and hoping the agitated predator with lots of teeth would sample my plastic flippers first. With about twenty feet to go I glanced at the shark and then made a mad dash using newfound strength to whip myself out of the water in one fluid motion. In reality I probably looked like a white whale trying to swim up the stern steps. Kathy said the shark was as big around as me and at least as long. Considering my fins are 2' long that would make the shark 8 feet and I can honestly say I was legitimately scared. Once onboard the searing burn of multiple jelly stings on my arms and chest were a happy reminder that I wasn't missing some real flesh. Kathy poured some vinegar on the stings and I used a sharp knife to scrape away the venomous nematocysts and then more vinegar. Fresh water should be avoided as it can trigger the release of more venom. I usually wear a swim shirt, but it's getting worn out and baggy so I omitted it for what I thought would be a quick swim to inspect the mooring.

With LightSpeed secured we ran the dinghy over the high-tide covered reef, navigated between Lotooke islands and Maat island to an unnamed island where we saw a shack and a few guys ashore. As a side note, we'd never have known where to look without using Google earth images as they clearly show the organized rows of palm trees that indicate a copra harvesting operation. Finally, we had found Lisson enjoying his Sunday afternoon in the company of a big glass of bush beer and apparently a good buzz. We asked about the giant clam and at least one minute passed with no response, we then asked if he understood our question of which he said he did. So, we asked again and he asked if we wanted to go today. We said no as clearly he was in no condition to swim, but asked if he could show us the general location of the clam on our map. He did and we determined that with the wind and seas running it would be impossible to see the clam on this visit, so we agreed to return when the weather would be calm. Probably won't happen, but we gave the clam quest a solid effort.

Heading back to the boat the channels between the islands were running with several knots of current and ocean waves surging over the reefs making more like river rafting. Back at LightSpeed it was getting bouncy out on the ocean mooring and with no clam excursion planned it was not worth the risk of spending the night, so we decided to retreat to Jeltoneej island. I wanted my mooring line back, so I tentatively slid into the water and with a minimum of looking around in the now cloudy water I quickly dove down and untied our line from the moorings anchor chain. I was still a little spooked about the shark and was happy to be back on the boat unscathed less my still painful jelly stings, we quickly got underway as dark squalls let loose a torrent of rain and wind as we made our way back through the reef pass and across the lagoon to Jeltoneej Island for the night. Jeltoneej island offers great NE wind and wave protection but few sandy patches in which to anchor. We retraced our GPS track and found a spot in 15' of water and deployed a modest 75 feet of buoyed chain to avoid damaging the numerous coral heads around our small patch of sand. It was late in the day and the water was murky, but Kathy volunteered to take a swim, check on the anchor and survey the depth of the various small heads we'd swing across at low water. We calculated the tide height and Kathy used a 9 foot boat hook pole to measure the depth.

Back on the boat we enjoyed our Mahi Mahi with some coconut rice for dinner. Around 6AM there was a big ca-clunk-chunk sound that had us on deck in the pre-dawn twilight wondering if we'd just bounced our keels off a coral head. Kathy jumped up on the pilot house roof with a flashlight and I started the engines. A few seconds later we noticed a big log had floated up to our bow and was the obvious source of the large ca-chunk sound. We pushed off the log and fired up the coffee pot to enjoy the awakening of a new day.

With strong winds forecast we raised anchor and a reefed main for the 14nm sail down the lagoon to a better more protected anchorage. We stopped after 5nm to walk around yet another island searching for treasures. Half way around a dark squall loomed on the horizon and we hustled up our walk to get back to the boat before the rain and strong winds arrived. Perfect timing to have a quick saltwater shower and then get a free rinse from the deluge of rain. With the squall passed we raised sail and were flying down the lagoon as more squalls passed through. We were sailing very close to the wind at about 40 degrees apparent with apparent winds up to 33 knots. Despite feathering the sails to dump most of the wind in the gusts we were still hitting 11-12 knots and wishing for another reef in the main as we dodged the numerous coral heads in the lagoon. At 10+ knots in driving rain we were again using Google earth images to give us an idea of what reefs were ahead, but mostly using our squinted eyes as the wind driven rain pelted our cheeks with a sting. It was a quick ride the last 9nm to Loto island or what we call the 'Clam Farm Anchorage' as it's just off MIMRA (Junior DeBrum's) clam farm. The anchorage is very well protected and the anchor bites solidly in hard pack sand at 30'.

Tomorrow, we'll head to Likiep Island to see if we can help out at the school or perhaps offer a hand to Red Cross Anna who is overseeing the install of the rain catchment tanks.

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