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Paddles With Sharks
By Willie Williams, NOLS Instructor

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Of all the dive memories, my favorite was when the giant manta rays appeared. These gentle, filter-feeding members of the shark family are pure grace in the water. And they’re huge. One had a 12-foot wingspan and looked like a starship gliding under the boat. A manta would charge vertically toward my kayak, flipping over at the last minute and flashing its white belly. The manta’s wings extended out on either side of my cockpit, inches from the kayak’s hull. Each time I felt a rush of adrenaline, not knowing if it might hit the boat.

At the Fakarava atoll, strong winds from the southeast blew all night. We woke in the dark at 4 a.m. after a fitful sleep and decided to start out on our 13-nautical-mile lagoon crossing to the tiny island of Kiria. Sliding our kayaks into the black water, we decided on a heading. We chose a star directly on our bearing and, in the spirit of the renowned Polynesian navigators, the group silently paddled into the dark, following our guide star religiously.

Pete shot some photos in the dawn light. Our star faded into the purple-blue sky and I switched to deck compass and GPS. Whitecaps appeared and grew the further our heading took us west from the sheltering palms. Halfway across we came to a tiny “motu,” a local word for island. A vibrant double rainbow broke out behind the motu and, with tight maneuvering, we landed.

The crew took footage of us launching and paddling in the choppy waves, then we continued on to Kiria. A pleasant passage through small surf brought us into a light blue lagoon and an idyllic camp of white coral sand, coconut palms, and interesting terrain to explore on the outer reef. John Armstrong filmed our arrival, and we clambered out of our kayaks, happy to have accomplished the crossing. All of us felt that we were in the wilder side of the Tuamotus.

Of all my varied memories of the expedition, what stands out most is the clear blue water and encounters with the wild animals of the South Pacific. A favorite quote by Tom Bender says it well: “To move among other great forms of life existing free of us is to be able to sense a wisdom different from and perhaps greater than our own.” The atolls of the Tuamotus are out there, literally. They gave me a sense of the sea and its creatures that no other marine experience I’ve had compares to. This was more than the experience of a lifetime for the five of us on the expedition—I now see why people told us we might not return from French Polynesia. Anyone want to go paddle with sharks!?

NOLS Instructor Willie Williams, a 2002 recipient of an “Instructor of the Year” award, has worked for NOLS since 1984. He instructs NOLS sea kayaking courses in Mexico, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. An article based on this expedition appeared in the August 2003 issue of National Geographic Adventure Magazine.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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