Rotoava, Fakarava: Snorkeling & Black Pearls


Last Updated on May 14, 2021 by Amy

Fakarava is a fabled and idyllic location in the South Pacific. it’s well-known for its abundant underwater life, clear water, and excellent diving conditions. Fortunately, Rotoava, the village on Fakarava, provides a good base for travelers.

Getting to Rotoava

There are flights from Tahiti to Rotoava three times a week on Air Tahiti. Or, you can fly from Rangiroa, which offers four flights a week to Rotoava, to get two stops into the Tuamotus.

Where to Stay

There are some small guest houses or pensions in Fakarava. Check out Havaiki Lodge.

Hinano Pearl Tour

We met Gunther from Hinano Pearls in Rotoava for a pearl farm tour.

The pearl farm was a small building out over the water. On the workbench, Gunther showed us how the pearls are made. The oysters are cracked open just a bit, and a nucleus, a small round ball made from the shell of an oyster, is placed in the reproductive tissue (much to Brian’s consternation). Also placed is a graft of the mantle of an oyster, which (if I understand correctly) is the part that produces the pearl material. The pearls are checked and harvested at 18 months. The oysters that produce high-quality pearls are then implanted with a new nucleus the size of the pearl that was just removed. These oysters can live years making pearls….it’s pretty amazing. There used to be 50 pearl farms in Fakarava, but now there are only four.

Next Gunther took us to the retail shop that is set up on-site. We browsed the pearls, and I had NO IDEA how expensive black pearls can be. I held a pearl that cost $700! Fortunately, there were a variety of pearl qualities available, including pearls with minor imperfections, already drilled for jewelry, available for $20 each. I bought three, and hopefully, they will inspire me to put the jewelry making kit I have aboard to good use.

Lunch at Paillotte

After being dropped back off at FYS, Blue Raven came with us to Paillotte, a cute café overlooking the water. We picked a table for six under a large tree. The view was stunning. Our waitress (possibly the owner?) said the restaurant had been open for only 4 months, and she had moved down from Paris. The menu was ice cream, crepes, and paninis. David and I split two paninis, a liter of water, and a Nutella crepe, which was all very good (and a total of $22.50). The café also had wifi.

Rotoava’s Church

On my way back to the wharf, I stopped to hide from the rain in a local church. I think it was Catholic, but a beautiful blend with Polynesian. The ceiling was painted a soft blue. The chandeliers were ornate shell patterns, and ropes of shells were strung connecting all the alcoves and the nave. Every statue was wearing a shell necklace. Pictures are on our facebook page!

Snorkeling in Fakarava

I’ve snorkeled all over the world, and Fakarava’s south pass is still the best place I’ve ever been to. The coral was absolutely packed. We swam with plenty of black-tipped reef sharks and big groupers.

I really wish we’d gone diving with Top Dive. They sell a package of dives that would have been great for us since we ended up diving with them in Bora Bora.

Sailing from Kauehi to Fakarava

We weren’t the only boats leaving Kauehi. We agreed to be up with Blue Raven at sunrise and head out of the pass. We didn’t realize our clocks were wrong! It’s tough to know when you don’t have internet, but Kauehi is in the same time zone as Tahiti….so we were up a half-hour earlier than necessary. David and I sat on the lounge deck and watched the sunrise. Two other boats were leaving Kauehi from the village, and one of them, Belviene, also from New Zealand, was headed to Fakarava as well.

The three boats (us, Blue Raven, and Belviene) had a great time making the passage over. It’s only 30 NM, and conditions were good for sailing. It was nice to team up and talk our way through the pass and the current.

While going through the pass, we sent Phoenix up to get some video footage. Brian on Blue Raven climbed up into his rigging and got some additional video. On the VHF I joked with Nichole that the men were being demoted to cameramen and we were getting promoted to captains!

Anchoring in Rotoava

Unfortunately, the Kiwis all beat us to the anchorage. Anchoring in the village of Rotoava was nothing like expected. There were many moorings with boats tied up, but our SOP is to come between the moorings and the land (where it’s shallower), find a sandy patch and drop anchor. None of our guide books were very helpful with information, because we soon learned through radio chat with the local dive shop that there is no anchoring between the moorings and land, but the moorings are free.

There were two lines of moorings, one was in front of the dive shop to the south of the wharf, and the other was north of the wharf. Unfortunately, all the mooring balls were full, so we (SH and BR) went to the north section and dropped anchor outside the mooring balls in 60 feet of water.

Dinghy Access

Once settled in we headed to town. It hadn’t escaped our notice that aside from a walk on the beach in Kauehi we hadn’t stepped foot ashore. NONE of the boats in the mooring field had dinghies attached – that means everyone was ashore. However, the obvious tie-up spot, the wharf, only had one dinghy. We tied up with it and went ashore.

It also became apparent where all the dinghies were. Sometimes there would be a gap between the buildings with a little beach, and a handful of dinghies pulled up to shore or anchored. There’s no swell, so leaving your dinghy there is easy, but you do need to keep an eye out for bommies (coral heads) on your way in. A popular spot is where the paved road curves to the left and the dirt road continues straight. It’s only a few blocks from the Fakarava Yacht Services office.

Provisioning in Rotoava

Rotoava actually has a nice paved road! We followed the road along the waterside and poked our head into the two grocery stores. Guidebooks warn; if you see something you want, especially in the produce or baked goods department, buy it right away because it may not be there when you circle back. I was pleased to find Gala apples in the main grocery store. Apples are a staple in my diet – an apple with peanut butter is the breakfast of champions in my opinion. We only bought two (at roughly 75 cents each). The other grocery store is called a bakery, but it is well stocked with dry goods too. As with the other towns we’ve been to in French Polynesia, the stores are better stocked than we expected, with a nice Asian section.

Fakarava Yacht Services

On our wandering, we found the FYS office. Jose and Gina from Carthago were there taking advantage of the internet. The internet is free for customers, and buying a $2.50 glass of juice qualifies you – and the juice is good! Jose and Gina were working to buy tickets back to the states next month, and in comparing notes, we quickly discovered I got a great deal on our flights. I booked back in February to fly us from Tahiti to LAX for Liz’s wedding and paid $750 each for a round trip. Jose and Gina were looking at flights in the several thousand dollar range, so I’m glad we booked early.

Apparently, there is an airline strike here. There are technically two Air Tahiti airlines, one is international and one is local. The local one is on strike, and that is supposedly hampering the outlying islands supply shipments, although we haven’t noticed any shortages.

FYS shuts their wifi down at 5 pm.

Fakarava Anchorage No 2

From the village of Rotoava, we started to head south. Fakarava is a long atoll – 30 miles long. There is a channel that runs from the village to the south pass. The compendium has three areas listed where you can anchor on your way down. The first is about 15 miles from the village. We actually didn’t make it that far. About a mile from the intended anchorage we found Carthago, so we pulled up and anchored next to them at 16° 13.871 S and 145° 33.505 W. There was free wifi for a little while, but it disappeared after a few hours.

My big goal was to snorkel, and in the early afternoon we picked Jose and Gina up in LD and took off. Just to the south of us was a point of the beach, with lots of coral around it. We anchored LD in the sand and took off. There was a ton of coral to check out, and we saw an eel (great spot by Jose), a barracuda, and some sharks…but not as many sharks as we’ve seen elsewhere. The coral was great, lots of medium-sized coral heads.

That night Carthago invited us over for a movie night. They have a projector and screen in their boat – a pretty sweet set up! We watched Steve Jobs and ate birthday cake (Jose’s birthday was the 28th).

The next morning Blue Raven came up an anchored, and Carthago took off. We had a quick chat with Blue Raven, as we don’t think we will see them again for a little while. Then we took off.

South Pass of Fakarava

We stuck to the channel and kept going toward the south pass. We were planning to anchor somewhere but decided to pick up one of the free moorings instead. As we approached, our friends S/V Swiftsure (Lanny & Ginger) popped up on AIS. We met Swiftsure back in Panama at Shelter Bay Marina and saw them go through the canal. Swiftsure spent longer in Panama then we did and then sailed immediately to the Marquesas. Like most cruisers around here, they are members of the Pacific Puddle Jump.

Once we settled into our mooring, David and I popped in the water for a snorkel. The water was clear and there are lots of bommies around. The beach looks to be rock and shell though instead of sand. We did see sharks again…mostly black-tipped reef shark, but also one gray reef shark. We also saw HUGE groupers….maybe not goliath grouper size, but pretty dang big.

We invited Ginger and Lanny over for sundowners and enjoyed a long chat. We had our underwater lights on, and after they left, we spotted some sharks circling us. It’s always entertaining to watch, especially when I throw some bloody meat scraps in the water!

Wednesday Lanny and Ginger picked us up at 11:15 to head out for a snorkel. We were trying something new for us – drift swimming (or diving). Fortunately Lanny and Ginger have done this before, so we got to bask in their expertise. We took their dinghy out to the outside of the pass (there was a mooring ball). We all jumped into the water and started to drift. We timed our excursion so that the current was at slack, so we didn’t just float along….we swam. We took turns holding on to the dinghy to keep it with us. We swam back into the atoll, keeping over a ravine in the sea bed. Up the side of the ravine was a wall of coral. We did see a few sharks, wrasse (please google it so you can see these bizarre creatures), grouper, parrotfish, unicornfish, and other reef fish. The water was very deep…50 feet? The sharks were hard to spot, but we could see them swimming way below us, or even resting on the seabed.

However, the fun for me really hit once we arrived on a coral plateau. The water was about 20 feet deep and crystal clear. The plateau is just to the north of the ravine, and where they meet is a drop-off. We swam back and forth between the drop-off and the plateau. The plateau was amazing….the bottom was jam-packed full of coral as far as the eye can see. Due to the shallow depth, it was much easier to see the coral and fish. And the sharks! We had up to 20 sharks swimming above the coral. They didn’t have any interest in us and kept to the bottom of the water. I did get to see about 10 of them congregate and then chase after a grouper! Fortunately for the grouper, he got away.

I think the plateau was the best snorkel I’ve ever had. When we have reasonable internet I’ll try to update and post a map of this location.

Afterward, we stopped by SH to toss our gear aboard and grab ourselves some drinks which we took over to Swiftsure. Ginger had made banana bread, which she cut up for us to snack on and then sent some home with us!

The afternoon (or what was left of it) was devoted to reading and boat projects….David re-bedded a stanchion that was leaking into our guest cabin, and I helped!

We had talked about leaving Thursday for Tahiti, but overnight and into the morning the weather was nasty…very squally. We decided to sit it out and have a movie day. Also, our friends on S/V Beachouse, Scott and Nikki, who we met back in Shelter Bay arrived. We dinghied over to chat and also got to meet S/V Blowing Bubbles, whom we have seen off and on since the Perlas Islands in Panama.

This morning, it’s still windy with a few squalls blowing through, but it’s much better. We are now off for Tahiti! Should be arriving on Sunday into Taina Marina.

Watch the Video:  The Race is on to Fakarava


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