Mighty claws and pointy teeth: Getting acquainted with Suwarrow’s wildlife

August 2016

Prowling for behemoth crustaceans
Torches in hand, half a dozen of us followed Harry and Pae through the palm trees. The moon shone fondly over the sea, but the paths beneath the canopy were a web of shadows and tripping hazards. Neil and I were sharing a flashlight, and I stuck close behind him. I’d imbibed more than one of our dwindling stash of Hinanos, and I felt tipsy as I chose the placement of my tatty flipflops on the uneven earth. We were on a quest to find the world’s largest land-dwelling crustacean: the coconut crab.I tend to be rather inquisitive about what things taste like, a curiosity rarely constrained by the beauty nor the bizarreness of a creature (remember that time I ate parrotfish?). My first question about the coconut crab, also called the “palm thief” or “robber crab”, was whether I could eat one. The answer was a firm “no.” Coconut crabs have long been a part of the Cook Islander diet; however, their numbers have sadly declined and tourists are no longer allowed to consume them. Cook Islanders are still permitted to harvest them, and my curiosity was satiated by Harry and Pae’s description of their flavor: sweet, coconut chicken, of course!Coconut crabs are beastly creatures, weighing up to 9 pounds (4 kilograms) and measuring 3 feet (1 meter) across. They make their homes in undergrown burrows and cannot breathe underwater or even swim. Their cutesy name comes from their favorite food, the coconut, which they retrieve by climbing trees and then methodologically shredding them with their formidable claws. Unscrupulous omnivores that emerge only at night, their diet also consists of rotting leaves; small rodents; birds, including larger varieties, such as boobies; their own discarded exoskeletons; and other coconut crabs, if they get hungry enough. And then there is their pinch…

A 2016 study published in PloS One revealed that the pinch of a coconut crab is among the strongest of any terrestrial creature. In fact, their mighty claws outperform the jaws of lions, tigers, and hyenas, and are only surpassed by crocodiles! EEK!

Alas, it was probably for the best that we were naïve to their merciless pinch until after Harry showed us how to hold them and then allowed us to take turns! Holding a 5- to 9-pound creature isn’t particularly demanding in and of itself; however, when that creature is radically muscular for its size, all bets are off. A wave of shock flooded though by body when Harry handed me a coconut crab. I clutched its legs, realizing immediately that it was far stronger than me. In addition to demonstrating how to handle them, he also taught us how to identify their sex and discussed their long lives. He estimated that the coconut crabs we found were upwards of 40 years old! Giant tree-climbing, bird-eating, prehistoric shelled spider cannibals that come out at night and can crush your bones with their pinchers sounds like the stuff of nightmares. But there is something beautiful about them. Their shells are a rich, rusty orange covered in electric blue and violet dash-shaped polka dots. Although they are prone to attack if threatened, they were certainly more concerned about getting away from us than about attacking us.

As soon as our coconut crab lesson concluded—annoyed but unharmed—the animals scurried into the night, scuttling up the trunks of nearby palms and disappearing into the darkness.

Bending the rules
Our greatest disappointment in Suwarrow occurred the moment we arrived, having just sailed five days from Maupiti, when we were told we were forbidden from scuba diving. After a few days of getting to know us, it seemed the rangers had learned enough about us to feel confident that we would treat the reef with respect.

A six-pack of beer was passed between hands in thanks, and we loaded our gear into Miss Sassy and set off for a 4-nm mile dinghy trek from Anchorage Island to Perfect Reef. Perfect Reef is one of a number of smaller reefs situated within the atoll of Suwarrow. We raced alongside Richard and Jude from s/v Sarita, eager to see what wonders awaited. Brian and Carol from s/v Prince Diamond tootled up a few minutes after we had dropped our dinghy anchors in the shallow waters. Their small outboard didn’t have the juice to put their dinghy on a plane, so their jaunt across the lagoon was more like a Sunday stroll.

There was hardly a sniff of breeze on the water as we tugged on our scuba gear, and Neil lifted my tank onto by back. The only terrestrial element in view was a tuft of palm fronds in the distance, Anchorage Island. The landscape here was all beneath the surface. As I cinched the straps on my BC, familiar knots tangled in my stomach. No matter how many dives I seem to get under my belt, I cannot shake the nervousness that accompanies the sport. I was thankful that our dive was to be a shallow one.Neil, Richard, Jude, and I descended into a labyrinth of bommies that sprawled across pristine white sand, while Brian and Carol snorkeled overhead. Parrotfish nibbled on coral. A stingray soared effortlessly on its way to somewhere. Giant clams the size of our palms puckered their indigo and crimson lips, as if blowing kisses in response to the bubbles we expelled as we swam by.Coral bommies come in all shapes and sizes, and given the shallowness of the dive—only 18 feet (6 meters)—the scene almost felt miniature. Many bommies were rotund misshapen boulders; others had a narrow base that gave them a dainty quality. The latter stood narrowly on the sand, some rising only a few feet from the sea bottom and others towering above us. They were pedestals crowned with villages of table, staghorn, brain and other corals, garlanded in fans and sea grasses—ornate living cities teeming with hundreds of blue, pearl, and black-and-white striped fish the size of coins. Larger black and yellow fish circled the larger bommies, poking their round faces through windows in the structures and darting as we neared. Every surface was coated in sea life. It was a lovely, simple dive in a very healthy corner of the ocean.

Beyond the wall
Despite 45 minutes of bottom time, the shallowness meant that we surfaced with enough air to go for another shorter dive. Neil, Richard, and I decided to take advantage of the opportunity. They, because no amount of diving satiates them; me, because my fear of missing out is insufferable. We knew we would not be dinghying all the way across the lagoon again before we set sail from Suwarrow.

The three of us swam through bommie paradise until we discovered a recess to the outside of the wall. The shallow water that made Perfect Reef feel like a safe haven in the vast ocean plunged on the other side of the wall to more than 200 feet (60 meters). Iridescent blues deepened to sapphire then navy, and the wall sloped until it was gobbled up by the abyss. The fish were larger beyond the wall. We descended to around 10 meters and began our exploration, keeping the wall on our right side.

Nowhere else we traveled in the South Pacific were we urged to be wary of sharks. Here in Suwarrow, their reputation preceded them. The renowned French sailor, Bernard Moitessier wrote about them in his book Tamata and the Alliance, “This year, for some reason, the place was full of sharks; there were as many as six black-tips around me at once. Sharks of that species are normally fairly timid, but only if you can keep an eye on them. Six at once was at least four too many…” (p. 299).

Blacktips had never tickled the hairs on the back of our necks, until Suwarrow. We had seen blacktips and whitetips marauding with grey reef sharks when we walked the perimeter of Anchorage Island, which are known to be a more aggressive species but still generally attack only when provoked. Given the reputation of Suwarrow’s sharks, however, Neil had preemptively brought along his pole spear, a piece of spearfishing equipment that had gone almost untouched during our voyage. We had no intention to fish, but in the event that any of sharks might become a little too curious about us, it would serve as a deterrent.

We didn’t expect to have to use it…

Small schools of rainbow runners, jacks, and trevally swam by, and although there were plenty of pretty corals to see, the structure was lackluster after the magic inside the reef. As we swam along, I could sense Neil’s uneasiness as I watched him from above, my default position when I feel apprehensive (being able to see the other divers helps to calm my nerves). He was spending more time swimming backwards and canvassing the vastness of the water than looking for life along the wall. Not long into our dive, Neil tapped his hand vertically atop his head, signaling the presence of a shark. A grey reef shark about 3 feet (1 meter) in length swam a few meters below us and then disappeared, indifferent to our presence, it seemed.

We swam on.

Not a minute later, I rotated around with GoPro in hand just in time to film another meter-long grey reef shark darting rapidly toward us, well, toward Neil, really. Its pectoral fins were pinned downward and it moved with an exaggerated, side-to-side swim, cues known to signify aggression in the species. Neil raised the pole spear just in time to give the animal a nudge with the spear, which then darted away from him before turning to circle the three of us. My heart was pounding into my ears as I screamed into my regulator and waved the GoPro on his retractable pole around like a sword.

This was not behavior we had experienced anywhere else we had ever dived. I was scared.

We immediately tightened our formation, made an about-face, and began to make our way back from whence we had come. Moments later, the shark appeared again, darting to-and-fro and circling our group.

We quickened our pace.

I tried not to shit my wetsuit.

Then another grey appeared. And then two more, all larger than the first one. I never stopped the GoPro from recording, and the jerking footage documents my distress more than anything else. I swam rapidly in my panic—trying not to flail like a wounded animal—as I twisted and turned continuously to look around me, above me, below me. Every few seconds, a grey reef shark appears in the frame, clearly seesawing toward us, then away.

Some sharks hunt in packs, like wolves, and an aggregation of greys was making this “bonus” dive increasingly unnerving. Even as we passed through the wall and into the shallower water, they continued their intimidating interest in us, swimming within a few meters before retreating. Neil swam backwards behind Richard and I, ready to respond with the pole spear, should the need arise. Fortunately, it didn’t.We will never vilify sharks. We are in their domain after all and, quite frankly, they have every right to be curious about humans and to investigate our viability as a food source. That said, we had never been nervous that a shark might have been on the verge of making a meal out of us!

The message we had received via word-of-mouth that sharks have a different attitude in Suwarrow proved accurate. We also found it documented in the world of sailing bloggers (read the experiences Alyssa and Lewis from Ride the Trades and Tim and Clare on s/v Ghost as examples) and a 20-year-old story from Cruising World. The rangers, Harry would later tell us stories of a tiger shark that had attacked their outboard (literally bit their outboard motor!!) the prior season while they were fishing and of a prior ranger whose leg was bitten by a shark while he was swimming! Yikes!

All that said, whether there was really cause to be as fearful as we were is probably something only the likes of Ocean Ramsey could confirm. In any case, we were made more than a little uneasy by the encounter and were very relieved to climb into the safety of our dinghies and conclude our diving in Suwarrow.

3 thoughts on “Mighty claws and pointy teeth: Getting acquainted with Suwarrow’s wildlife

  1. Pingback: Small atoll, big community | s/v The Red Thread

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