Although perhaps not as geographically remote as the Tuamotu Archipelago in French Polynesia, this place is about as wild as you can get. Huon Reef is part of D’Entrecasteaux Reefs to the north-west of New Caledonia and is a dedicated marine reserve. We asked permission from the French Department of Environment (email firstname.lastname@example.org) to visit both here and Chesterfield Reef, and all they require in return is for us to fill out some survey forms after our visit – how easy is that!
Our two-day passage here was one of the most pleasant we’ve had for a while – beautiful beam reaching in 15-18kts of wind, no more than 1.5m of swell and gorgeous nights under the milky way and a half-moon.
The main problem was slowing the boat down enough to arrive in daylight. Despite our best efforts, we were still approaching the top of the huge reef system an hour or two before dawn. It was my watch, and I admit I was a little anxious about whether our electronic charts would be accurate here, so I made sure to give it a wide berth. When dawn broke it was a great relief (and very strange) to see isolated pinnacles of rock emerging out of the ocean, marking the northern end of the reef.
Although it’s a huge reef system, there’s only one long tree-less sand cay here that we’re anchored off – just us and hundreds of nesting seabirds and green turtles. We passed one French catamaran coming out as we were coming in, but now we’re the only humans here, feeling very privileged to be able to have this ecological wonderland all to ourselves. And what a marvel it is. As we came into the anchorage we almost had to push the turtles out of the way in order to drop our anchor. And within half an hour of arriving, the boobies came to test out Motel Toucan. Luckily for us the clientele were obviously too picky and since then they’ve mostly left us alone, except for a visitor on the back step yesterday morning who left the traditional booby ‘calling card’. Thanks pal.
The weather has been incredibly settled so it’s almost as if we’re anchored in the biggest, cleanest swimming pool in the world. The water is bombay sapphire gin-clear, we can see our anchor chain snaking away in the sand and watch the turtles gliding past beneath our hulls. And the water temperature is an astonishing 27 degrees Celsius – going for a dip (a regular occurrence) feels like swimming in turquoise silk.
The only sounds we hear are the booming of the surf on the reef, the plop and splash of the turtles as they surface, breathing like asthmatic old men, and the cries and chatter of the terns and boobies on the shore. Occasionally the tranquility is broken by the antics of mating turtles – it’s a cumbersome, tricky and arduous business, with much splashing and thrashing. The poor female surfaces every few minutes gasping for air while her mate tenaciously hangs on. And then there’s the process of nesting. Every evening at dusk a handful of female turtles make their way to the beach and begin the long, agonisingly slow haul up the beach to lay their eggs, returning exhausted to the sea at dawn the next morning. I’ve made a note to myself that if I ever start complaining about how tough life is, I should just be thankful I’m not a female turtle!
Ashore, the sand cay is pitted with turtle nests as far as you can see and the seabirds take up the rest of the space. They nest on the grass or in the sand, in their thousands – the comical white fluffy juvenile boobies waiting patiently for Mum and Dad to return home from their day of work fishing, the other adults guarding their eggs or babies. They’ve had so little contact with humans they have no fear and it’s possible to get very close to them.
Underneath the water, the environment is just as spectacular. So far we’ve only snorkeled and dived the bommies around the anchorage and whilst the coral isn’t particularly stunning, the amount and variety of fish life definitely is. I’ve never seen so many huge trevally, snapper and sweetlips before – they must know they’re protected because they tease you by swimming right up to you! The turtles are also completely unfazed by our presence in the water. Often they’ll swim by to check us out, only turning away in disappointment at the last moment when they discover we’re not new turtle playmates.
The evenings have been glorious too – no bugs or mosquitos here, so after dinner we enjoy a quiet glass of wine on the trampoline, marveling at the night sky and the tranquility of this piece of paradise on earth, grateful for the opportunity to be a part of it for a brief moment in time.
They do say all good things must come to an end, and sadly the beauty and tranquility we’d been enjoying was shattered on our second night here – but that’s a story for the next blog….