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Rapa Expedition: Diving the Marotiri Maelstrom

As the Pristine Seas team explores the waters around the southern French Polynesian islands of Rapa and Marotiri, this subtropical ocean ecosystem is posing important questions and challenging our understanding of life in these environments. We love these challenges, though, as they are great opportunities to communicate ocean science and the importance of protecting these last truly wild places....

As the Pristine Seas team explores the waters around the southern French Polynesian islands of Rapa and Marotiri, this subtropical ocean ecosystem is posing important questions and challenging our understanding of life in these environments. We love these challenges, though, as they are great opportunities to communicate ocean science and the importance of protecting these last truly wild places. Kike Ballesteros and Alan Friedlander are two expedition members who dove into the chaos around the Marotiri Shoals, and here they share their experiences.

The Raw Below by Alan Friedlander

Pic 2
A Galapagos shark watching us quite curiously. (Photo by Kike Ballesteros)

After a few days of diving at Marotiri Shoals, the only way to describe it is “extreme.” It is little more than a few rocks sticking up out in the middle of the open ocean in the south Pacific, exposed to the full force of large oceanic swells. There is nothing between us and Antarctica and all the sea life is adapted to this harsh environment. The water temperature is just at the lower limit where corals can grow. Most of the corals are very robust or encrusting and designed to withstand the constant pounding of the surf.

Unfortunately, we are not as well-adapted to these conditions. Our dives consisted of fighting strong currents and getting tossed around like corks. We could hear huge booming noises as the waves smashed against the cliffs and the backwash and froth made it go dark underwater. Everything at Marotiri seems very raw. The bottom is covered with sea urchins and their sharp spines make it seem even more foreboding as we try and lay out survey tapes while getting knocked around underwater.

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Huge amberjacks surrounded us almost continuously during our trials. (Image by Kike Ballesteros)

While we struggled, we noticed that the Galapagos sharks were actively stalking their prey in the maelstrom above. Several sharks had cuts and abrasions and it appears that even they have difficulties negotiating the sea conditions at times. Sharks and large amberjacks, nearly three feet long, were the kings of the reef and reinforce our theory that remote locations with limited fishing pressure are dominated by large apex predators. However, despite its remoteness and harsh environment, distant-water fishing fleets have undoubtedly been here, as we have seen a number of sharks with hooks in their mouths. Now is a critical time to preserve Marotiri because small and unique places like this are very fragile.

The Marotiri Dance by Kike Ballesteros

Marotiri Shoals, 2:30 p.m. We, the science diving team, are heading out to two small rocks in the center of this group of islets to make our last dive here. Gunnar, our skipper, is driving the boat in a two-and-half-meter swell and a wind of 15 knots—nothing we are not used to on this expedition. The other teams have already finished their jobs and are back at the Hanse Explorer, our expedition ship, compiling pictures, video shots and scientific data. We are planning to leave Marotiri by 4:00 p.m. since the weather forecast predicts a sudden change in conditions later this afternoon.

Once we arrive at the place, we check the depth and get into the water. As usual, Alan and Gilles will be counting fish, Eric will be identifying coral colonies and measuring their coverage and I will measure algal cover along with sea urchin sizes and densities. As soon as we get into the water, we are welcomed by a group of amberjacks and two sharks that will stay with us during the whole dive. Eric and I want to stay clear of the “fish guys” so we don’t influence their counts. Therefore, we lay out our transect in the opposite direction at each depth.

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Eric Brown, identifying corals and measuring their cover along the tape line. (Photo by Kike Ballesteros)

I deploy a 50-meter tape over the bottom, followed by Eric, who counts in one direction while I measure in the opposite direction back to the beginning. We conduct the first survey at a 20-meter depth. Today, the current is making the going tough. But trained as we are, we finish our work in 20 minutes. We swim up to 10 meters and repeat the same operation. At the shallower depth, however, the big swell together with the current makes the survey work even more challenging. The tape moves around constantly while we swing with the swell and battle the strong current, sometimes in harmony with the moving tape and sometimes not. But again, we succeed in getting our work done, although it takes us ten minutes more than usual.

As Eric begins to recover the transect tape a huge swell comes in and sends him flying. He has to get rid of the reel so he doesn’t break the tape. He and the reel dance with the swell and in ten seconds Eric is entangled in the tape. I join Eric to help get the reel, but it is moving fast and in an unpredictable way just like the two of us. It takes me a minute to get the reel in my hands, but as soon as I try to get Eric away from the tape, I get him even more entangled, and I start laughing underwater. Eric does not know what to do to escape the tape, which is trapping him like a spider web. I imagine the amberjacks and the sharks that have been close to us during the whole dive watch this ridiculous dance and begin to laugh themselves. And then I laugh even harder!

Floating around during the safety stop. (Photo by Gilles Sui)

Gilles is at his safety stop and he comes to rescue us. With his help, Eric finally gets disentangled and we succeed in recovering all the tape. We join Alan at the safety stop, and he is also fighting with the strong current. All of us are still surrounded by amberjacks and sharks that are probably asking themselves “What are these guys doing?” We landed in their territory, deployed all our stuff, did a crazy dance in the swell and now we are barely maintaining our position while they are swimming smoothly around us. We are probably the first humans they have ever seen and thankfully they do not know that we are currently dominating the planet. However, after watching us perform underwater today, our dominance would probably seem slightly less impressive!

We surface and huge waves and strong winds welcome us. Gunnar is doing his best to face our boat into the wind as he approaches us. We get into the boat with his help and head back to the Hanse Explorer, dancing again, but this time in a little boat among huge swells. Dark clouds hover over us as I feel the wind and spray on my face. The dark blue water beneath us is anything but comfortable. I look back at the Marotiri rocks. They are stormy, wild and harsh, not a place for human beings to stay. Fortunately, we have had a two-day weather break that has allowed us to get a glimpse of their underwater secrets. But that is enough. No more. The Marotiris want us out of here!

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Coming back to the Hanse Explorer after the dive, through seas just as rough above the water as below. (Photo by David Tickler)

Now, back safely at the Hanse Explorer, I am writing this report as we return to Rapa again. I am happy to have been able to study the marine environment of this amazing place, the last piece of land in the central Pacific before Antarctica, some five-thousand miles to the south! The southernmost place for corals and subtropical sharks in the central Pacific has revealed its best kept secrets to us. Our Pristine Seas team has obtained loads of relevant data on its marine life that, I am sure, will be crucial to push for its conservation.


Kike’s Strange and Beautiful Algae Photos

Read All Posts From the Rapa 2014 Expedition

Learn More About Pristine Seas


The Pristine Seas expedition to Rapa is sponsored by Blancpain and Davidoff Cool Water.

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Meet the Author

Paul Rose
Paul Rose is an ardent explorer, television presenter, journalist, author, and Vice President of the Royal Geographical Society, and an Expedition Leader on the Pristine Seas team.