An Artist Afloat
Sailing and sketching
Rangiroa. The world's second largest coral atoll. Home to sharks, dolphins, ripping currents and a placid lagoon in every shade of blue you can imagine. You can eat lunch of tuna carpaccio, fresh from the sea, whilst watching reef sharks, stingrays and moray eels foraging round the reef beneath you. Diving frigate birds carry away fish, and after you can walk to the pass to see if the dolphins have come out to play. There's even the occassional patch of white sandy beach if you look hard enough. The sunsets are amazing and it's pretty much paradise- who cares if the coconet is slow to upload the blog?
Time does strange things here, and I'm losing track of when we got here- island time has set in. We've been filling our days with diving and snorkeling, as well as exploring the motu. We've been in French Polynesia for two months, in some ways it doesn't feel that long. In others it feels endless. I understand why some cruisers do their best to never leave, and I'm not sure what I did to deserve being here for so long.
It isn't really a beach destination, and the shoreline tends to be rocky. The main draw here is the Tiputa Pass, which is French Polynesia's iconic dive spot. Not as sharky as Fakarava, and with less coral, but possessing a drana and magic all of its own. The pass has strong currents, making it a challenge to get through in a boat when the tide is outgoing and wind versus water flow pushes up huge waves. Sailors need to take care and judge the tides well, but dolphins love it, and there's a resident pod who can often be seen playing in the pass. Unusually, they seem to like divers, ignoring our noisy bubbles and coming to play if they're in the mood. If we're really lucky they’ll come so close they almost touch us, though touching is a big no-no. Other times they power by, busy with dolphin matters and keeping their distance, but watching them glide off into the blue has a magic all of its own.
Dolphins aren't the only reason to dive here. There are sharks, in less numbers than Fakarava, but surpassing anywhere else I've dived. We've also seen spotted eagle rays, silvery tuna, schools of barracuda, enormous Napoleon wrasse and gangs of trevally. Most of our dives take place on the outer wall. The pass itself makes a challenging dice that can only be done in the right currents. Speeding through vertical walled canyons 20 metres under the sea is a huge adrenalin rush, especially when we come face to face with a grey reef shark or watch a school of barracuda flying above us. Zooming with the current, we have to descend precisely as we hop between canyons so we don't miss the narrow entrances- if we overshoot, there's no way back against the immense flow of water. It's like being in a movie, with dramatic scenery, high speed races and incredible wildlife.
We've done our diving with Rangiroa Dive Centre. They're a small company who insist on small groups, and try to time dives so we're not in the water with a bunch of other boats. The centre has become a bit of a social hub for us. We've made friends with some of the other divers- Erica and Louis from Brazil- and owner Arnauld. Arnauld also offers facilities for cruisers- we've had the use of his twin tub washing machine and he's happy to pick up fuel and containers of water. He's even offered to host a barbecue for my birthday on Sunday. Louis and Erica have joined us dolphin watching on Prism, fighting our way against the less-fearsome incoming current to watch them leap and flirt with our bow waves. We've also snorkeled at the Aquarium, a lovely patch of reef inside the lagoon where black tip reef sharks patrol amongst schools of snapper and unicornfish.
It's all been beautiful, but the dolphins have been the most inspirational. I started off sketching them, using video I took on our dives and sitting at lookouts next to the pass to create hasty observation drawings as they play. The sketches make great references for painting. The tricky part is catching their energy and movement, plus the flow of the water. A loose style seems to work well, building up the dolphins with bright colours and flicking, dripping and dry brushing watercolour paint to create the water. It's a bit different to my usual way of working. The biggest challenge is thinking ahead- where should stay white? Where do I need to keep the values light and where should be darkened? How should i best use colour? When is it finished? Quite often a final pass to deepen the dark areas has made a huge difference to how the pieces pop, as well as using negative spaces to imply water and dolphin through the spray rather than etching in every detail. A4 has been a good size to work in for this approach, and 300gsm rough Arches paper handles heavy washes and gives a great texture to dry brushing- perfect for the water. Most of the colours I've used are unrealistic, but I feel like they capture the tropics and are much more fun than page upon page of grey. I do like how my most realistic attempt worked out though!
Our time here is winding down and we'll leave on Monday for the atoll of Tikehau. I'm hoping I'll manage another day of painting before then- and it's vety tempting to arrange one more dolphin dive in this wonderful and unique spot. I'd also appreciate any feedback and advice on the dolphin collection so far! Some of them will be finding their way onto Etsy when I reopen again in two weeks!
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.