Ile Gambier ~ A Beautiful Area Devoid of Modern Communication

On January 1st we departed from Tahanea, Tuamotus and sailed to Ile Gambier. We had an excellent passage of nearly 685nm which we completed in just over three days. Frank and I had waited a few weeks for a good weather window and as a result we were able to sail the whole trip comfortably, using engines only while inside each atoll. Lovely.

A pretty quick trip from Tahanea to Ile Gambier.

The Gambier Islands are on the southeast edge of the Tuamotu archipelago and consist of two areas; Mangareva Islands and the uninhabited atoll of Temoe. Mangareva Islands includes a group of small, elevated islands formed inside a large volcanic crater. These islands are within a partial fringing reef. We did not visit the Temoe atoll.

An overview of the places we visited.

After six months in the Tuamotus with the interesting but very flat landscape, arriving in the Gambiers and seeing the eruption of tall islands was a gorgeous contrast. The elevation is not as high as the Marquesas nor as dramatic as the spires we saw in the Marquesas but it was great to see the land rising from the sea. Mount Duff, on the main island of Mangareva, is the tallest point in the Gambiers and rises to 1,447 feet (441 meters) compared to most of the atolls in the Tuamotus which are only about 12 feet above sea level.

Arriving in the Gambiers.

The main town of Rikitea is very picturesque and the people we met were simply delightful. Our first day we went to the gendarmerie (police) to notify them of our arrival and to the mayor’s office to pay for trash services. In most of the islands, cruisers are asked to pay a weekly fee to help with the disposal of trash. We think these fees are very fair since trash is a challenge and should be dealt with wisely.

Looking toward the town of Rikitea from one of our bike rides.

We had a nice conversation with the gendarmerie in a mix of French and English. Two of the officers had trips planned to the U.S. and were interested in exchanging their currency for US dollars. We were invited to return for tea and coffee that afternoon to exchange currency with them.

Officers Ryan and Arthur, Mary Grace and Frank.

We enjoyed chatting with officers Arthur and Ryan, and learning a bit about life in the Gambiers, their families and careers. Maybe we have seen too many “cop shows” because it felt strange to meet with the police to exchange currency. We were very glad it wasn’t some kind of a sting operation! Hahahaha.

We were expecting our friends on board s/v Tanai III and s/v Jamala to arrive soon after us, so we waited in the town anchorage for them.  Together we celebrated our safe arrivals and good passages with dinner on board TTR.

Good food and good friends celebrating a good passage!

The dominant wind in the Rikitea anchorage is such that boats are on a lee shore, meaning that if the anchor were to drag, the boat would move directly toward the shallow, rocky shoreline. We did not want to remain anchored there in heavy winds so we only stayed two nights, then went in search of a calmer bay.

We chose to anchor in Baie Onemea on Ile Taravai. It is a small bay with visible coral formations along the sides and a small but pretty beach in the center. We dropped anchor and were happy to be in calm waters after the passage and a bumpy town anchorage. We could hear goats bleating on the hillside and often spotted them easily navigating the steep hills.

We explored the reefs and were impressed by the size and complexity of the corals, but were surprised the coral weren’t as vibrant and alive as we expected. We saw large parrot fish and the biggest unicorn fish we have seen, but the numbers of fish were few and the visibility while snorkeling was only fair. But this was only our first snorkeling spot and we hoped to find better areas.

Next we anchored behind a reef that connected the two islands of Taravai and Agakauitai. It was a beautiful spot with wave protection from the reef but plenty of breeze funneled between the islands. We explored by dinghy and dropped into the water for some more snorkeling. This time the water clarity was better and we saw healthier corral.

The coral looks better here.

Once again the wind dictated a change of anchorage so we decided to head toward the airport which is on the fringing reef near a false pass on the east side of the atoll. A false pass is one that is a break in the reef but is not large enough for a big boat to actually enter the atoll. Frank and I had read that this pass was good for snorkeling if we could catch the tide at the right time. When we arrived, we found six other boats anchored in the area including s/v Tanai. We spent some time exploring the pass by dinghy and Frank used his excellent Louisiana bayou experience to navigate the shallow areas that were peppered with small corals.

I always enjoy dinghy forays with Frank at the tiller. He spent a lot of his youth driving aluminum flat boats in the back areas of Louisiana and he can maneuver Day Tripper into water much more shallow than I expect. We have had some crazy adventures in the dinghy and, while this one wasn’t crazy, I appreciate Frank’s ability to read the water and find routes the dinghy can use without damaging the sea or the dinghy.

We scoped out our path to through the false pass and looked around a bit while we waited for the tide to turn so that we could snorkel just outside of the entry to the pass. Laura and Wolfgang of s/v Tanai were going to meet us in the pass and soon we saw them heading our way. The pass at the airport provided good snorkeling but the current was a bit loopy as it seemed to switch to incoming but then reverse back to an outgoing current. Because we were pulling the dinghy while snorkeling and the current was pretty strong, I left the camera in the boat so my hands would be free.

We found the pass interesting but saw fewer fish than we expected…. I think we have been extremely spoiled by the amazing sea life in the Tuamotus. Probably the most interesting thing we saw on that snorkel was white tip sharks and gray sharks. The coral was in good shape and it was delightful to be in the water and cool off since the days are getting warm.

Laura and Wolfgang invited us to dinner which we happily accepted. We have had the pleasure of joining them several times and in addition to good company and lively conversation, Corinna is an excellent cook who makes traditional Italian meals which Frank and I “eat up!”

Sunset from the cockpit of s/v Tanai III

Our next stop was my favorite one; Ile Akamaru which has a smaller island, Mekiro, right next to it. We went there with Tanai and spent a couple of days anchored between the two islands. Akamaru has a population of only six!

Based on the size of the church alone, we know it must have had a larger population at one time, but today only one family lives there. The area is lush and well manicured. We met Lucy and Jacques who live there part time and they agreed to trade with us for some of their fruit. In exchange for a solar light, some paracord and a hat, we received limes, papaya, pomplemousse and avocado. Laura and Wolfgang traded a hat, some topical medicine and fish hooks and received the same fruits. We were all happy with the trade!

The best snorkeling we had in the Gambiers was near Akamaru. Frank and I anchored the dinghy and spent a few hours exploring the coral during our stay. We saw many varieties of coral and more fish than we saw elsewhere. This was by far our favorite area for snorkeling in the Gambiers. Being in the water is a good way to spend hot afternoons and see what is lurking in the coral.

This video shows some of the healthiest and most variety of coral we saw. Isn’t it beautiful?

One afternoon Laura, Wolfgang, Corinna, Matteo, Frank and I hiked to the top of Mekiro to watch the sunset. The path was not well defined and Tanai and TTR chose different routes to the summit. Tanai had to work a bit harder to climb a steep slope, but we walked a bit further and found an easier ascent.

As we climbed the hill, we watched the goats scamper down the opposite hillside as if it was a flat surface. They jumped and ran along the narrow, rocky outcroppings with perfect grace and traction. Fun to watch.

Lone goat running to catch the others.

Once again the wind was changing and this time it was favorable to spend time in the main town of Rikitea. Frank and I were excited to go back to town and hoped to hike Mount Duff and bike around Mangareva. Plus it would be nice to stop at JoJo’s café and hopefully have a touch of WiFi.

Anchored in Rikitea looking toward town.

We had heard from several people that it is best to avoid the hikes if it has rained on Mangareva because the hikes are steep and the trails become slippery mud.  We had a touch of bad luck as it rained every evening we were in the town anchorage so we didn’t hike Mt. Duff. However, we rode our bikes three times and explored the island that way. We even “circumnavigated” the island one day getting in a 13 mile ride with 1000 feet of climbing. 

Frank and I laughed about “how hard” this bike ride was because these days it was a significant distance and elevation, but when we lived in Dallas it would be such an “easy” ride. Perspective is a funny thing.

The Gambiers is well known for its pearls and in particular its black pearls. I had learned from a few friends about a pearl farm tour in the Gambiers that I was very excited to take. I had skipped the pearl farm tours in the Tuamotus because I was waiting to take one in the Gambiers. Unfortunately the woman who gives the tour in the Gambiers was not offering them while we were there as she had just given birth to a healthy little boy. 

I tried several other times to find a pearl farm tour and, to my disappointment, I was unsuccessful. I thought my limited French was letting me down, but I found a young lady who spoke perfect English and she confirmed that only one woman offered a tour. 

All in all we found the Gambiers to be quite pretty and a wonderful change of scenery. However after a few weeks, we decided we were ready to head back to the Tuamotus. Our friends on s/v Tanai III had already left and s/v Jamala and s/v Antinea were looking for a weather window to depart. All of us had decided to shorten our intended stay in the Gambiers.

A sliver of a moon rising over a creamy sunset.

Before I write this next paragraph, PLEASE understand that Frank and I are very focused on the ocean while we are in French Polynesia. We get in the water every day if possible, whether that is to scuba dive, snorkel, swim for exercise, paddleboard, float or just cool off.  SO, knowing the Tuamotus was an easy return sail and that the water there is much more appealing to us, our desire to stay in the Gambiers was lower than it might be for people focused on land activities.

Here are our thoughts on the Gambiers:

The views above the water are gorgeous! The soil is obviously rich as the flora is abundant and extensive. Growing your own food and having a garden would be easy here and we loved seeing the beauty and variety of the plants as we biked or hiked. The Gambiers is one of the prettiest places I have seen. We found the people very welcoming and kind here and appreciated the opportunity to exchange items for fruit fresh from their trees.

We expected the water to be pristine and teeming with life, but we found the visibility to be somewhat lacking and the coral was not in great condition. Because the ciguatera toxin is prominent in the fish here, we thought the marine life would populate with little disturbance from fishing. But we found significantly fewer fish here than we saw in the Tuamotus. I am not sure why that was true. In addition, we encountered jellyfish in the water in several places. The number of jellyfish may be affected by the time of year, but getting stung is no fun, so we are pretty careful to avoid them.

Pearl farming is the economic mainstay here. Ile Gambier is known for its beautiful pearls and the pearl floats are everywhere. The whole leeward side of the main island is covered in pearl farm floats, so it is not possible to go there by boat. We completely understand that the islanders and their livelihood is much more important than our having access to areas of the archipelago, but the pervasive accumulation of floats combined with the natural coral heads, significantly limits the options for anchoring and exploring the area.

This map shows the orange, pink and red areas of the pearl farms.

We wondered if the large number of pearl farms was negatively affecting the health of coral and fish population but we were unable to have a tour to learn about the process. I did observe that the pearl farms use power washers; I assume to clean the oysters. I wonder if the amount of dirt and debris washed into the lagoon has a negative affect on the marine life. I have heard the excess particles in the water (mud/sludge) can suffocate the coral, but I have not found the research to support this. In fact, the few articles I saw implied that oysters are helpful for the marine environment. Like most things, I would guess balance is imperative and that the large increase in oysters and oyster cleaning might be out of balance in the Gambier. BUT this is only guesswork on my part and should not be taken as condemnation of the pearl farmers.

Pearl floats near the channel by Rikitea.

We were unlucky in that we had a significant issue with flies in most of the anchorages. We were not alone as our three friend boats also experienced the fly invasion. Perhaps the flies are more prevalent at certain times of the year because friends who visited during a different season of the year did not have any issue with flies. By the way, I am not speaking of five or ten flies, I am speaking of closer to 75 or 100 at a time. Luckily they would leave at sundown, but they returned at sun-up.  Actually, most mornings at around 5 am, Frank and I would be awakened by a fly or two buzzing around our heads. Apparently we had “flying alarm clocks” while in the Gambiers!

Prior to sailing to the Gambiers, we knew the only cell service available was 2G which we assumed would allow us to at least send and receive emails or text messages, however we found this to be a false assumption. Neither our T-Mobile service nor our Vini service worked in the Gambiers, even with a booster antenna. If we wanted service, we had to go to a local magazin and use their WiFi…. if it was turned on and if it was working. Then we were able to check messages but that was the extent of our communication in the Gambier. (We always have use of our IridiumGo satellite which allows us to download weather.)

In conclusion, we are very glad we sailed to the Gambiers. It is a truly pretty area of the world and we are lucky we had the opportunity to explore it. However, after three or four weeks, we were ready to return to the Tuamotus.  We had a delightful sail to the Gambiers and back to the Tuamotus. We very much enjoyed the people we encountered and spoke with. We enjoyed the company of friends before we all sailed different directions. We were able to see some stunningly beautiful places, enjoy some good hiking and have very fun bike rides. However, we were ready to return to the Tuamotus where we can resume our daily water activities and where we can be in contact with our family more easily.

Based on this quick overview, would you want to return to the Tuamotus where we focus on water or does the Gambiers with its land activities sound better to you?

Thank you for stopping by to read this very long blog post. We wish you good health, many blessings and fun adventures.

8 thoughts on “Ile Gambier ~ A Beautiful Area Devoid of Modern Communication

      1. Thank you for taking us along to the Gambiers with you! What an amazing adventure. Particularly enjoyed hearing about the trading for produce (a real luxury).

        Liked by 1 person

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