Notes On Diving At Nuku Hiva Island, Marquesas And Moorea Island, French Polynesia
By Charlotte Lloyd

Conus bullatus

Conus bullatus (Charlotte Lloyd Photograph)

     This was my first visit to the tropical islands of French Polynesia and I really looked forward to the trip. My traveling companions were Wayne Harland and Gene Everson. They are well-known collectors and shell experts with lots of experience in traveling to exotic locations. Gene made the arrangements for the boat, transportation and the other details. Finally October 25th arrived, and I was on my way.

     My flight to Los Angles to meet up with the famous duo was comfortable and uneventful. Wayne found me at the A.O.M. French Airlines counter in Los Angeles trying to find out if my luggage from the Delta flight had made it across the U.S. with me. After 30 uneasy minutes a young ticket agent assured me he had seen my two bags with his own eyes and that they would indeed arrive with me in Papeete. We found Gene, waited another hour (delayed flight) and boarded the plane for the 8-hour overnight flight. I figured I could sleep on the way there. Wrong! First the seats were designed for the girth and heighth challenged - and we certainly did not fall into that category. Second, the young boy in the seat behind me kicked the back of my seat and coughed all night. Oh well - I've done without sleep before. The 4-hour flight from Papeete to Nuku Hiva Island was great and provided wonderful views of the rocky peaks and tranquil bays as we approached the island. A cab driver was waiting to collect our gear and us and to transport us to the boat. The 8-10 mile ride took us 40 minutes over a dirt road laden with potholes and rocks to a bay where our boat Captain Alain Relmy awaited us. The Captain welcomed us; we loaded our gear on to his 30-foot boat and headed out to sea. The outside passage to Anaho Bay gave us a glimpse of what to expect in the coming days. Seas sometimes 6-8 feet, no beaches, the island a rugged, jagged abutment of volcanic peaks and valleys with virtually no roads connecting the few tranquil bays. The only mode of transportation on this island was by boat. This is definitely not the picture I had conjured up in my mind when I had imagined French Polynesia. Where were the coral atolls with low islands covered by coconut palms? Actually French Polynesia has two entirely different types of islands: high volcanic and low coral islands. While we might find some coral present on the Marquesan coastlines, there are no real coral reefs surrounding the island.

     A 60-foot sailing sloop anchored in Anaho Bay was to be out home for the next 10 days. We would dive from the smaller boat, which had a compressor. The sloop was very basic (as were our meals) but adequate. The owner Jean Michele and his wife Elizabeth laid down the rules: no salt water below, rinse off with a bucket of fresh water on the deck - change clothes and dry off before going below. After dinner we couldn't wait and went into the water with nightfall to see what shells might be lurking under the sloop. (Dive #1) The bottom was very silty, about 45 feet deep with visibility about 8 feet. I immediately spotted a Conus vautieri so I was hooked, and knew I would be down as long as possible. I managed to find Gene and we kept in sight of each other and spotted Conus tessulatus, Neocancilla papilio, Nassarius papillosus, N. candens, and Natica zonalis on the silty mud. Eventually we found rocks and located Murex steeriae and wonderful Latirus nodatus with their beautiful lavender/purple mouths.

     Imagine our surprise the next morning to find that sunrise was at 4:30 AM! After a hearty breakfast of coffee, sliced bananas and French bread, we were off for a dive at the mouth of Anaho Bay (Dive #2). The bottom at 90 feet was sand and scattered rocks. I saw Conus moreleti, C. unicolor, Strombus dentatus, battered-looking Chicoreus ramosus and large dead Cryptopecten pallium; the Royal Cloak Scallop scattered everywhere. At the base of the cliff the seas create quite a surge that can toss around shells, small rocks - not to mention a diver. This area had an abundance of large spiny sea urchins and it took a lot of energy not to be slammed onto the urchins.

     Back in the boat Wayne proudly displayed his two Lambis crocata pilsbryi an endemic subspecies that he had found in the sand - one a magnificently large specimen.

     After lunch we went snorkeling along the rocks in the protected bay. (Dive #3) Saw many tropical fish and the following shells: Heliacus variegatus, Cypraea moneta, Cyp. isabella, Cyp. caputserpentis, Cyp. maculifera, Cerithium echinatus, Maculotriton serriale, Engina incarnata, Clypeomorus brevis and several species of Drupa and Cerithium. Perhaps the nicest shell from this area was the endemic Peristernia lirata that was found nestled in crevices on dead mossy coral. I also collected some grunge in about 2 feet of water to later search for micros.

     For our night dive (Dive #4) we had decided to go back to the area of our 2nd dive because it looked so good and Wayne had found two Lambis there. It was a good decision - and thus we descended to a 115 feet deep and somewhat eerie dive. Once oriented we then worked back up to around 90 feet. The wall was deeply undercut and it was easy to suddenly find yourself 30 feet back under the ledge with an unexpected ceiling overhead. Visibility of 15-20 feet did not help matters any. We all spotted wonderful shells. I observed a gorgeous Conus bullatus as did Wayne and Gene. What a thrill to shine my light on the red/pink/cream colored beauty crawling across the bottom. I also found a very large dead Conus marchionatus that had my teammates pretty excited. (Once home I found the C. marchionatus measured 58 mm. and did clean up nicely for a dead shell.) My two dead-taken Cyrtulus serotinus were a thrill to find, and I'm sure it's just a matter of time until we see live ones. What a strange looking shell, and the only living species in the genus Crytulus.

     Next morning after the same breakfast we dove at 8:30 AM on a rocky wall with a cave (Dive #5). Wayne found a nice Cypraea maculifera in a cave, Gene observed a Cymatium intermedium, but we didn't see much else. We all agreed this could be a good area at night.

     For our evening dive (Dive #6) we endured a rough and bouncy trip to get to Hakaea Bay. We dove at 90 feet on sand and immediately saw live Cyrtulus serotinus on the sand along with dead ones. I found a dead Murex thomasi to examine later. Also saw a wonderful Murex ramosus with long delicate spines. When we returned from our night dive at 10:45 PM, the sloop owners were irate and shouting about our getting back at 10:45 PM instead of 9:00 PM. I had caught a cold, felt rotten, and was not willing to enter the fracas - I went to bed.

Conus marchionatus

Conus marchionatus (Charlotte Lloyd Photograph)

     In the morning after a breakfast of - you guessed it - Jean Michelle said, "we could stay on his boat if we agreed to no more night diving" - we had come to dive at night so we "packed up". We were invited to stay with the Captain and his girlfriend/partner Odile. Thank goodness, as we really didn't have other options. Odile is the doctor in charge of the local hospital; and she has one of the finest collections of shells from that area. So we were happy to know we would get to see her wonderful collection. On the way back to the village we would get in a days diving and one night dive. We snorkeled in a bay (Dive #7) and found thousands of little Nassarius vittatus right in the surf line. Each wave would pick them up and toss them in circles in the water column with the animals using their mantles to swim/dive back to the bottom until the next wave and then they were off again. That night we dove at Takaea Point (Dive #8) in 90 ft. of water on fine sand/gravel. The bottom was literally alive with Nassarius tabescens. It was a very productive area and we saw Harpa amouretta, Malea pomum, Conus marchionatus, and other cones. Still no Conus gauguini. I sure would like to find and photograph one of those beauties. This cone is named after the famous French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), who captured the beauty, charm and culture of Tahiti and its people on his canvases.

     Thanks to Alain and his friend Gee (pronounced Guy), we were able to move on to a 38-foot sailboat owned by Gee's girlfriend with Gee as our new Captain. It is much nicer; we can use the lights, sit in the salon and talk to each other and have tasty meals. We are again anchored close to the diving areas (no more long runs). On this boat I can finally do some of the photography of live animals that I enjoy so much.

     That night (Dive #9) we dove in 105 feet of water. The bottom was very silty and even the rocks and coral heads at 85 feet were covered with silt. The Cyrtulus must like this condition because they were fairly common. I also found a Bursa rhodostoma on a rocky outcropping. What a wonderful experience when each and every shell you see is new to you.

     Monday Nov.1st. Woke up and my cold is much worse. We have moved the boat to an anchorage that is calmer. I don't think I will be able to clear my ears to dive tonight. I miss the best dive of the trip - both Gene and Wayne find a Conus marielae - but at least I get to photograph it.

     The next day - I'm sick, and so is Captain Alain with an infected ankle. We both visit the hospital so that Odile can give me decongestants, antibiotics and nose spray, and Alain receives medical treatment for his foot. We go back to the sailboat and I decide to dive that night. I can't be much worse off. I finally get to the bottom in 80 feet expecting my left eardrum to rupture but surprisingly I complete the dive and find a beautiful fresh dead Cypraecassis rufa and many other nice shells. Ascending was interesting with my ears squeaking and venting.

     The next morning Alain's foot is much worse. After returning to town (long rough boat ride) surgery is scheduled for him at 2:00 PM. Our diving is over. We find rooms at the local hotel and I read and try to recuperate for the next three days. The Conus gauguini has eluded us; however, Odile gives us each one from her collection.

     The trip to the Airport from Alain and Odile's house was a two and a half-hour journey on dirt roads over the 4,000-ft. high mountain peak. The temperature is 15 degrees cooler as we journey through the rain forest of umbrella ferns, bromeliads, orchids, and other tropical foliage. From this lush, damp environment we descended to the other side of the island to the rocky, arid wind-swept terrain of the airport. Simply amazing!

     It seemed a shame to come all this way and not see Tahiti. So Wayne and I got off the plane in Papeete and took a ferry to Moorea Island for three days. This was the tropical paradise that I had expected. We stayed at a beautiful resort that had cabanas right on the beach. We were just steps away from corals, tropical fish, giant sea anemones with clown fish, and Tridacna maxima clams. It was such a delight to see the animals I had only viewed before in films and books. The night snorkeling was all I had hoped for. Giant Conus litteratus, C. virgo, and C. quercinus, making trails in the sand by the coral. The sandy areas between coral heads produced Terebra maculata, T. guttata and T. areolata plus Mitra mitra and M. stictica. In the shallow water Conus arenatus, C. vautieri, and C. flavidus were common. We would get in the water at night and float along with the current enjoying the sights. One sight I'll never forget was the nudibranchs on the sand in 1-3 feet of water right off the swimmers beach. Brightly colored orange and white and they were everywhere! In depressions by the dozens, mating, crawling, laying strings of eggs on everything. There must have been thousands of them. I was worried about stepping on one in the dark.

     Looking back on the trip in general, I can finally say I enjoyed it. There were problems beyond our control, but we still managed to see some of the rare and endemic mollusks that inhabit the waters of the Marquesas. For me part of the delight was to be able to compare the tranquil coral fringing reef of Moorea Island to the rugged natural beauty of Nuku Hiva Island.

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