The Log Book
Tales of an Artist Afloat
Sketching with sharks
It was a four day passage from Raivavae to Fakarava. We started off rocking about in a rolling swell, and ended up motoring on glassy seas. We arrived at night- not a good time to attempt to go through a pass, especially one fringed with coral. Prism was put to sleep until the sun came up and we could safely make our way in.
The journey through Tumakahua pass was straightforward. The current was with us, and the route was well marked. We entered the anchorage with five other boats and grabbed a mooring buoy as our welcoming committee approached. A host of surgeonfish and a grey reef shark were on meet and greet duty (probably hoping that we’d have a few scraps of breakfast left to toss overboard). A white-tipped reef shark soon joined the party, then Jim and I jumped in with our snorkel gear. The fish swam up to investigate and the sharks cruised beneath us. It was a great arrival.
Most of our visit to Tumakahua was spent in the water. The currents are strong, sweeping nutrients through the pass and attracting lots of life. There are plenty of brightly hued reef fish living amongst the corals, large schools of snapper, mullet and barracuda, graceful eagle rays and imposing Napoleon wrasse. But the biggest draw here is the huge population of sharks. We saw them every time we entered the water. They generally seemed to ignore us, going about their sharky business. Most of the denizens here are reef sharks, whose philosophy towards humans is ‘we’ll respect you if you respect us’. The more fearsome residents, hammerheads and lemon sharks, live outside the reef at greater depths- beyond my dive certification level. But I’m very happy hanging out with the reef sharks.
The torpedo-shaped white tips tend to cruise around by themselves, or lie on sandy gullies on the seabed during the day. The stocky cream-coloured black tips seem to like shallow water, swimming through the coral gardens and cruising around the resort, hoping to pick up scraps thrown into the water by the cook. They’re small but have a more traditionally ‘shark’ shape than the long skinny white tips. The greys grow largest, although a lot of the animals we saw were young, and we often saw them in the pass and deep channels. They’re impressive, especially when dozens of them congregate and they’re close enough to see the dot of their pupil staring back at you. It makes me wonder what they’re thinking.
We saw sharks on every snorkel, but the best way to see the greys was to dive. The site is known as the ‘Wall of Sharks’, with good reason- though if the naming were up to me, I’d pluralise the ‘wall’. I made five dives altogether, all on the incoming tide. We’d enter the water either at a buoy within the pass or, for a longer and deeper dive, outside at the mouth of the pass by the drop-off.
The reef around the drop-off was beautiful, full of incredibly healthy coral and teeming with fish. A large group of grey reef sharks cruise just over the drop-off, occasionally joined by the odd white tip. We’d then follow the reef into the pass, looking for marbled grouper lurking amongst the coral heads. As we’d ascend, we’d reach the second wall of grey reef sharks, and see more white tips snoozing on the sand gullies at the bottom. There would be huge schools of big eyes, their red scales appearing black as the depth filtered out their colouring, and we’d often find large groups of silvery snapper. Looking up, we’d often spot an eagle ray flying above us, or a mass of brass striped barracuda. Once I saw a great barracuda, fearsome and intimidating with its large teeth on permanent display.
The third group of sharks could be viewed from above the reef, or by dropping down to a cavern. They were often the closest, coming within feet of us. Occasionally we’d see one rear up, ferocious maw gaping, as it invited a cleaner fish to give it a wash and brush up. Others would stay almost stationary, barely moving as they kept their position against the current, whilst the more energetic and awake would swim up to the head of the group, then turn and run with the current until they merged with the school again.
We usually took our safety stop just outside the dive centre, with a resident group of bright yellow striped snapper to keep us company, and a good chance of seeing Napoleon wrasse or black tip reef sharks. Once, we ran with the current which swept us around the corner, through the coral gardens near the anchorage. We were almost at the first boat before we had to surface and wait for the dive centre’s own vessel to come and retrieve us.
Despite spending so much of my time in the water, I still found time to draw. We used the dive centre at Tetamanu Village- the largest of the three accommodations around Tumakahua- and would often stop in for a pre-dive coffee or pre-sunset beverage. The café was on stilts above the reef and was a great place for fish spotting and sketching. Schooling fish used the shade of the resort’s boats and the piles of the café as a refuge, and butterflyfish, damsels and tangs were drawn to the pretty reef. Sketching moving creatures who were underwater wasn’t easy, but it was good practice- and a rare opportunity for drawing sea creatures from observation. The staff were interested and very positive- good motivation to keep up sketching in public!
The boardwalk to reach the café provided the perfect position for watching- and drawing- black tip reef sharks. There would always be a few cruising through, and the whole local population of about twenty would pay a visit before meal times. The kitchen threw fish scraps and chicken bones into the water, and I’d sit on the boardwalk and try to draw the elegant shapes that slid through the shallow water beneath me. Once, I put my camera in the water and got some video of the feeding frenzy- sharks darting around and making the water froth as they sped towards the bones. Most surprising of all was the huge Napoleon wrasse, which muscled its way across shallow coral to get into the middle of the action. It was not afraid to get into the thick of the sharky mass- and with a huge mouth just made for hoovering up tasty morsels, it quite often won the spoils.
The underwater scenery isn’t the only draw here; there are some gorgeous beaches too. We took the dinghy on the long ride round to les Sables Roses- the Pink Sands. This is a series of motu (islands) over in the UNESCO area. We’re not allowed to take Prism over there, but tenders are fine. We threaded our way through the reef as the tide fell, and chose a likely looking island trimmed in white and pale pink. Jim selected a spot under a shady palm tree, where he remained for the rest of our visit, and I set off exploring. The island was small, but it was easy to wade through the channels between motu, keeping my jandals on to protect my feet. I was rewarded by having islands all to myself, filled with lush greenery, surrounded by powedery white sand and fringed with pink sandbars, which were revealed as the tide retreated further. The contrast with the turquoise water was gorgeous, and I felt like we’d found a bit of paradise. Our only companions were dozens of hermit crabs and a baby black tip reef shark, which was entertaining itself by catching waves and surfing into the shallows, turning outwards and repeating the process.
That afternoon was a treat. We enjoyed sundowners with Afif, a lovely gentleman from Lebanon who we’d met diving. Then April and Harley from El Karma were planning a beach fire with a few of the other cruisers from our anchorage. As the sun set, we motored ashore for a picnic around a roaring fire, with more good company and surrounded by huge hermit crabs, who lumbered around the motu and seemed intrigued by the bright lights of the invading humans. The moon was a perfect crescent and the Milky Way was strung out across the sky. It doesn’t get much better than this.
A few more dives and a couple more snorkels, then we heard that the wind was due to change. Lovely in a south easterly breeze, Tumakahua becomes very uncomfortable in a northerly wind, which fetches up water from right across the long lagoon leading to a very uncomfortable swell. Midway through our visit, we’d experienced one night of northerlies, leading to a smashed jar of sundried tomatoes and very little sleep, and we were not keen to repeat the experience. We cast off the mooring buoy and headed north through the lagoon. Prism was ready to go, zipping along at six knots through the channel. We stopped at Tahao, a lovely anchorage which we had to ourselves. Today we called at Pakakota, where Micheal, an ex-cruiser, has set up a restaurant, mooring buoys and strong wifi (comparatively anyway).
A few days after reaching Fakarava, I finished the sketchbook I’d started in Raivavae. Unusually for me, I’d stuck with the same media- watercolour and brush pen- for the whole of the book, which does give it a nice continuity. I was struggling with the brush pen for the sinuous shapes of the sharks- in theory it should be perfect, but I found it hard to get the speed necessary to draw the fast-moving fish. For the new book, I decided to start off with my Derwent Inktense pencils. I’ve often used these for colour washes, but haven’t used them much to actually draw with. They let me be a bit ’sketchier’ than the brush pen, building up lines as sharks came past and repeated poses. I liked the effect of going over the coloured lines with a waterbrush- it gives the slightly blurry impression that the fish are actually under water. Wetting the page before I used the pencil let me get an interesting variation in line and a good depth of colour. The pencils can’t be erased once wet, so this method was permanent and gave a spontaneous feeling. They did bleed through a bit in my Hahnemuhle cartridge sketchbook when I used them on top of a wash- I think I’m overloading this book beyond its capacity. .
Back on the boat on a rainy day, I pulled out my Noodlers ink bottles, and used dip pen and water brush to draw sharks from a photo. The brush blurred the ink lines, creating interesting blurs and shading, especially when the inks were made from mixed colours which separated when the water was added. I followed up with a drawing of the reef, experimenting with using ink wet-in-wet and adding salt, creating wonderful textures which were perfect for coral. The colours were very vivid, leading to highly saturated images. Much too bright, but fun to do! My poor paper struggled with the amount of ink, and suffered from bleed-through in places. This wasn’t helped by the salty spots. I had to resort to blotting a few places with kitchen paper when they were still wet the next morning. When it had finally dried out, I pulled out my Posca pens and added details and patterns to suggest polyps, and drew in a few reef residents too. The poscas did add to the bobbliness of the paper- was it still damp or just overworked? Again, the cartridge paper is struggling.
Drying things in the tropics can be harder than you’d think. Watercolour washes dry in a flash in full sun- it’s causing a problem with my sketchbook as I have to use more water and the cartridge paper goes bobbly. Time to switch to my pricier but sturdier watercolour books, I think. Some of the paints themselves seem reluctant to ever dry. I knew this could be a problem with my Senneliers, which have honey as a binder. I was given my Senneliers in pannier form a few years ago, and they’ve been fine through New Zealand summers, but now the viridian and helios purple are just one step short of being liquid, whilst the other pans I have remaining are all slightly on the squishy side. It’s not just the Senneliers, however. Most of my pans now hold tube paint from Windsor and Newton or Daniel Smith- honey free and therefore, I thought, tropic-safe. I filled them all before we left NZ in the increasingly chilly Autumn, but many of the colours have returned to a rather soft state- they just don’t seem to totally dry out. It means that getting juicy colour is never a problem, but also means that colours sometimes ooze out of their pans. My Daniel Smith cobalt turquoise is a particular offender, closely followed by the W&N indigo- although maybe they’re just trying to tell me to paint another sea scene.
Beautiful sea scenes are easy to come by here and my inner critic keeps telling me I should be painting more (although it might be the paints talking). They’re probably right, and rethinking my ‘make every drawing a double spread’ approach might help me with this- a series of small sketches each day would be more manageable, and would fit in with adventures more effectively, plus encourage me to draw the little things which I feel like I’m starting to overlook (local drinks, fruit, flowers, hermit crabs etc). I’m taking lots of photos too, and although I prefer to draw from life, reference photos don’t hurt (especially when I’m tackling subjects under the sea!). Good fodder for rainy days! Perhaps I need to consider how I use my travellers notebook, as it can hold multiple sketchbooks inside- is it time to start using two sketchbooks- a ‘best’ book with good paper for when I have lots of time to sit and observe, so I can keep the cohesive look I enjoyed in my last sketchbook, plus a ‘scrappy’ one for experiments, quick doodles, journaling? This might also be a way to get me drawing people more…
I will mull on this as I finish the second half of this cartridge book- do you use one sketchbook or multiple books?
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.