Bluestripe seaperch, seen while snorkeling at Taha'a Island, in the South Pacific. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Coral Garden Drift Snorkel

The weather was perfect, warm, and sunny with a little breeze. I was on the island of Taha’a and ready to spend a day snorkeling in the South Pacific. Back home, I had prepared myself by swimming a mile five mornings a week for many years. I had snorkeled in different places in the world, yet I had never done a Coral Garden Drift. I signed up with a local outfitter for a partial day excursion. Our group of 10 adults, a French-born guide, and a Taha’a assistant went off in a motorized boat for a wet landing on an uninhabited islet on the west coast of Taha’a.

We were given a quick briefing of what to do on this drift. We walked along a rough shoreline path to a causeway separating the sea from the lagoon. There we took off our footwear and put on our fins. Our guide took a hibiscus leaf from a tree and wet it in the water, then rubbed it in her hands, making a soapy mixture. We each did the same thing: we washed our googles with this soapy leaf mixture and then rinsed them in the seawater. This was a local method used to keep goggles from fogging up.

Several times, our guide emphasized that we were to wait on the rocky shore and then proceed in single file to the area of the drift. One older woman was determined to do it her way and went out and both the guide and the assistant had to grab her and bring her back to shore!

One by one, we slowly walked out into the channel of this under water river while grabbing hold of the big rocks, so as not to lose our balance, and hung on as the current tried to pull us along the drift. The idea was to follow this current or drift between the coral into the lagoon, perhaps a mile in distance.

Acantaster, seen while snorkeling at Taha'a Island, in the South Pacific. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Acantaster, seen while snorkeling at Taha’a Island, in the South Pacific. Photo by Madelyn Given.

I prepared myself by watching a couple of people ahead of me. I aimed for where the guide pointed and tried as I might: no amount of swimming seemed to matter. The current there was that strong! I was thrust into this fast flowing path and all I saw was what was below the water. Coral and fish passed me as I moved quicker than I could manage. Some coral was so close I tried not to smash into it as I went by; finally, the flow was slower and I could swim enough to direct myself between the large beds of coral reaching almost to the surface. I swam to shore.

The guide pointed to the older woman who earlier had disregarded her directions and then needed assistance. She told her to wait here. The older woman wanted to go again, but that didn’t happen. A few others elected to stay and wait.

Our small group put on our footwear that had been carried back by the assistant, and off we went on the path back to the causeway by the sea. On the way, I wondered if I was making a mistake to go the second time. This time, I wanted to enjoy this beautiful underwater spectacle of fish and many types of coral, and now I knew what to expect. I put on my fins and goggles and carefully worked my way to the channel. I let go of the rocks and zoomed off again at the same speed as the first time, but I took in more of the underwater scenery which was breathtaking at every turn of the drift. One by one, our small group came to shore. I was more relaxed and a bit more confident the second time. I shared what I saw and learned to identify a bird wassaia fish with a long green snout and green stripe.

This adventure was not without its dangers. There was no way of avoiding the coral if you accidentally got too close, as the force of the current was strong at the very beginning. On days when the water is rough, people can not even attempt this type of snorkeling.

I had had good luck so far, so I decided to go again when the guide offered us another chance. I believed this time I would absorb more pleasure from the beauty, with less fear of the thrust of the current, which was by no means a gentle drift.

Our small group walked back on the same rough path, took off our shoes, and put on our gear. One by one, we entered the channel, as carefully and slowly as before. On my turn I faced towards the lagoon, dove into the fast flowing water, and off I went. Once snorkeling, I was oblivious to all sights and sounds except what was underwater. I was careful not to touch any coral—some was almost up to the surface level. Once the current flowed out into the lagoon, it slowed down and I took time to swim about the lagoon, looking to identify more types of beautiful tropical fish.

As I came to shore without mishap, I had a big smile on my face. Once we were on board the little motorboat, I thought of the experience as a wild ride at an amusement park—only in nature, more colorful, underwater, and each time different. The water was warm and clear and the lagoon was not terribly deep. We were the only people there, so it was a memorable experience. It was a different type of snorkeling adventure and one to remember.

(posted March 22, 2016)