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The Tuamotus, a chain of atolls 1,300 miles long in the South Pacific, are called the Dangerous Archipelago because of unpredictable currents, uncharted reefs and a low profile. But the hazards are not only for ships. Off the island of Takaroa the danger comes unexpectedly to a diver, and at the moment of greatest exhilaration.
Takaroa is about 13 miles long and four or five wide, its perimeter outlined by a series of long, palm-covered islands with shallow passes between them. There is only one major entry into the lagoon. Thus, although the rise and fall of the tide at Takaroa is not more than two feet, the flow of water in and out of the lagoon is so restricted that at times the water falls almost two feet in 500 yards. This rush of tons of water 150 feet wide and at least 10 feet deep does not debouch directly from lagoon to sea. Coral thrives in moving water, so it tends to grow right up to the surface along the edge of the rushing stream, forming a kind of channel about half a mile long from the deep water in the interior of the lagoon through the reef to the deep water of the ocean. The pass is at its shallowest and the flow of water fastest inside the lagoon, where the long coral channel begins.
The first time local pearl fishermen took us into the lagoon we saw the whirlpools and rapids. At the extreme end of the coral channel the water flowed through so fast we could hardly gain against it with our inflatable Avon and the 20-hp engine wide open. Standing waves buffeted the boat. We began talking then of the fun it would be to swim through the pass when the tide was running full force. We asked the fishermen if they ever swam it. "Never," they said. "Too dangerous." They spoke of an undertow and said one man was killed swimming in the pass.
Still, it did not look all that dangerous, and the four members of the teenage sailing crew on our schooner Four Winds were looking for action, so they decided to dive it anyway. At 47 I was not all that eager for a rite of passage. I had come along on the voyage to film the sailing crew doing that kind of thing, but the only way to film divers is to dive. I would assist Chuck Bangert, the underwater cameraman.
The boys decided that one of them would operate the Avon and follow the swimmers through the pass. If there were trouble, he would be there to assist. The natives' idea of an undertow did not make much sense, but Trev and Steve, who it was decided would be the first to try, agreed to wear inflatable life vests.
On the first ride through, the boys swam on the surface, were caught in the whirlpool, but had no trouble in swimming out. The undertow seemed a myth.
Johnny, in the Avon, picked them up and took us all upstream again. Dan, Chuck and I joined Trev and Steve for the second dive. We dropped in 100 yards above the neck of the channel. At that point the channel was only 20 feet deep. Schools of fish, attracted by the rush of food in the water, whirled around us. As we neared the neck of the channel the coral bottom rushed toward us, covered now almost uniformly with a low, yellow coral that thrives in the maelstrom. The sense of speed was overwhelming. Although the water was rushing us past the coral, we had the sensation of flying. Coral heads appeared, then swept by like phantoms as we flew with arms outstretched. The waters rushed faster, and the feeling of being in space became stronger. It mattered not in what position we found ourselves—frontward, backward, spread-eagled—above the coral bottom. There was no sense of the water moving; rather it was more the awareness of being a tiny speck in space as a revolving planet approached out of the dark of the stars.
Then, suddenly, the bottom dropped away, completely out of sight. Three sharks rushed out of the hole to check us; a manta ray, holding his own against the current, appeared and roared by like a spaceship. Clear water, but much too deep for us to see the bottom.
Now we were near the channel side where fingers of coral reached into the current and fragments showed how the rush of waters could decimate the growths. Myriad fish darted among the branches. "I wanted to stop and watch, to look for hours," Dan would say later, "only I couldn't stop. You'd go tearing by a coral outcropping and latch on, and usually it broke. I saw Steve grab a rock and Trev grabbed onto the bangstick trailing behind him, flapping and waving like wash hung out to dry. With the gentlest touch of a flipper you could weave and glide across the rock face and down the wall, peeking here and there and staying down forever as the current did all the work." As the flow reached the ocean John came in the Avon to pick us up. All of us wanted to do it again. This time Dan, at 17 the youngest and smallest of the crew, and I agreed to dive deeper—the "buddy system" giving us both confidence and leading us to push farther than we would have gone by ourselves.
Again the rush over the coral reef, but now, just as we saw the black hole ahead, we both surfaced and grabbed a last big breath. Then down to the bottom. We went side by side just over the coral. I checked Dan with a glance and got back a dizzy, happy smile. We saw the hole coming. As the bottom dropped away, we went down with it, like skiers floating from a shallow incline over a lip and down a precipice. We were out of our minds, happy idiots. We were plunging down, down with the current, at maybe six knots, as though we would never think of breathing again. A manta appeared in the dark, then two small sharks. A large, 30-pound fish called a wrasse plunged down the slopes before us; it seemed to beckon. Down!