Anaa Atoll

The plane banks, orange sunlight filtering through the small windows, and I reach a hand to the ceiling, balancing a camera and trying to peer over the pilot’s shoulder at the endless expanse of blue beneath us. We’re somewhere east of Tahiti, I know that much. Somewhere, out there in the orange-blue world is Anaa, our destination.

If nothing else, we are an eclectic group. Anglers, scientists, travel experts — a small group carefully assembled to assess the potential of this small French Polynesian atoll for development into a sustainable sport fishery. Anaa, an atoll in the Tuamotu archipelago, stretches 29.5 kilometres long by 6.5 kilometres wide, with a large, shallow lagoon taking up the centre. On bright days the large expanse of shallow water turns the bottoms of drifting clouds a vivid green; legend has it mariners of old would see the green-tinged puffs and know they were nearing the atoll.

Most bonefish were measured, with data collected to produce a report on the fishery,  Photo: McGlothlin

Bohar, or two-spot red snapper, proved plentiful along the atoll’s reef edge,  Photo: McGlothlin

Today, my sign we were drawing near comes as a grin and a wave forward from the pilot. Peering through the cockpit windows, it takes a moment to be able to discern something on the horizon breaking up the expanse of water. Land. Anaa. As we draw nearer I can make out the oval shape of the atoll — palm trees and sand and acres of azure water. The sun drops as we land, casting orange and pink shadows so vibrant I wonder if I’d forgotten to remove my sunglasses. A head shake shows that’s not the case. Anaa is merely extending her warm welcome.

On a small outpost with fewer than 500 occupants — all native — the arrival of a bunch of strangers is a momentous occasion. We are met with leis, kisses, and smiles. Wary village children and hawkish stray dogs, uncertain of the strangers come to visit, watch curiously as the multitude of luggage is unloaded into small trucks.

We later learn that many of the younger children on the island had never seen Americans, which make up the majority of our group. Our team is working with a non-profit foundation called IndiFly, created to spur sport fishing tourism programs in indigenous areas as a way to generate sustainable economic development. IndiFly headed a successful project in Guyana several years ago, and we’re hopeful the efforts can be replicated here.

Raphael and his daughter Terangi lead Maddie into shots at a bluefin trevally,  Photo: McGlothlin

Mathew McHugh battles a bluefin trevally at a reef outlet,  Photo: McGlothlin

Over the next eight days until the next flight our mission is simple: explore. Explore the island. Assess the fishing. Get to know the locals. Experience the culture. Learn. Days are to be spent on the water — we divide into three boats, fishing new locations each day, a different mix of anglers in different water as much as possible. Nights, however, we assume will be down time. A few meetings with the local village council to discuss the possibilities of bringing foreign anglers onto the island, but otherwise evenings will, ostensibly, be spent prepping gear and relaxing.

That changes quickly. A few smiles, some laughter, and a football — that is all it takes to make friends with Anaa’s children. And once the children decide we are okay, many of the adults soon follow.

Oliver White joins a spear-throwing competition,  Photo: McGlothlin

So while evenings are forthwith dedicated to any variety of sporting events with the locals, days are spent tirelessly fishing. For the residents of Anaa the idea of fishing with anything other than a spear seems a little bizarre. The concept of letting the fish go, even more so. Much of Anaa survives off the atoll itself. Copra is the primary business, and sheets brimming with coconut halves can readily be found throughout the little villages. Fish is another important factor, especially for the local diet. Bonefish and bluefin trevally, the two most prolific species, are favourite fish number one and two for Anaa residents. Coconut and bread — the simplicity of an island life.

The fishing is a world unto itself. Each day at least one boat plies different flats locations, wading miles through turquoise water on the hunt for silvery bonefish and the tell-tale bright blue flash of trevally. Blacktip sharks are constant companions in the calm waters, and we quickly learn how to adeptly stomp them off, sometimes tossing footwear at the more persistent predators.

The bonefish, more silvery than their Caribbean counterparts I’ve fished for before, prove to be healthy and full of spirit. A reasonable cast and strip incites a follow, and once hooked up the bones often run four to six times, taking anglers into the backing. Once in hand, they are healthy fish, bright-eyed and clean. One remarkable fish, hooked by Al, the expedition leader, is estimated at just over 65 centimetres. These are not small schoolies. The rest of our time is occupied chasing sapphire-toned bluefin trevally. These members of the jack family prove to be a crowd favourite, their less-than-picky ways and bright colours fueling long hours in the water.

Other groups split off, taking a boat to the inside edge of a motu, the reef islets surrounding the lagoon, hiking and then wading to the edge of the reef. Balancing precariously against the pound of the surf and the sweep of the undercurrent, we cast off the edge of the reef. Cruising sharks and reef fish are revealed in each incoming wave, and the tactic proves to be productive for bohar (two-spot red snapper, roi (peacock grouper), and even needlefish. While we all strain hopefully to see cruising giant trevally in the picture frame presented by the waves, the species proves to be harder to find than we’d hoped. Savvy fisherman Raphael heads up the local’s side of the equation, boat captains Reuben and Jack ensuring the other two groups have new locations to explore each day. Fishing on Anaa is truly a family affair — Raphael’s daughter Martine and her friend Terangi come along each day, as does his son Raphael Jr, to help in the boats and chase away sharks. Rautea, a head taller than the other locals and Terangi’s boyfriend, often spear-fishes while we ply the reef edge, returning with dinner for his family and looking curiously at the crazy visitors who release their fish.

Maddie poses with her first bonefish,  Photo: McGlothlin

The youngsters trail us on the flats, often engaged with each other in spirited, gesticulating conversation, either in the rapid-fire Paumotu, the local Polynesian dialect, or French. As the days progress I stay back and chat, my pigeon French and Rautea’s limited English somehow working into a mishmash of workable conversation. It turns out he is leaving the atoll on our flight. With no jobs to be had on Anaa, he has enlisted into the French Navy, leaving his home for the strangeness of the ‘real world’.

I don’t wear a watch on Anaa. Somehow rising before the sun and falling asleep long after dusk, falls into a natural rhythm, and days spent wading the flats and navigating the reef seem to deserve the respect a loss of hours brings. It’s all too easy to fall into the rhythm of island life, and when the final night comes around and the villagers join us for beers, dancing, and an impromptu musical jam session, it’s easy to envision living on Anaa, letting the hustle and bustle of the world fall away.

That simplicity is a constant theme of the trip. Coconuts and fish and sunshine. Laughing children as they attend school in the yard of the church, random roosters that crow unrepentantly throughout the night, long hours dedicated to stringing the shell necklaces that seem ubiquitous. Sunday afternoons are spent throwing spears at a coconut impaled high up on a pole; a ritual which we are invited to participate in. We hang in throughout the heats; the women throwing first, the men following, laughing and playing with children in the shadows of palms. Family is important, laughter is important; time spent in the simple goodness of the sunshine crucial.

And when we board the weekly plane for our own return to civilization, Terangi joins Rautea on the trip. Raphael has taken his week’s pay from guiding and purchased his daughter a ticket to Pape’ete. The young couple will have a week before he ships out to a new life in France. Departures at the little open-air airport are bittersweet; we watch as family leaves family, with no date of reunion set.

I exchange hats with a young woman my own age; my ball cap for her woven palm sun hat. Takihau, a tiny rascal of a little boy who’d found the camera irresistible over the course of the week, gives me a shy hug and presents me with a crown of flowers. Final hugs given, I walk out to the waiting place, desperately feeling the heat of the sun on my face, the sea breeze in my hair, ruffling the fronds of my new hat. A glance over my shoulder generates a volley of waves from new friends.

We came for the fishing, for miles of endless flats and strong bonefish and reef edges teeming with fish. But maybe what we’ll remember most viscerally is the people: hugs from bouncy children, eating mystery meat by the light of a fire before a sports match, the helpful aid of a visiting nurse when things go wrong. And maybe that’s the beauty of fishing… the places it leads us and the people we meet.

Rautea, an Anaa local, hunts for his next meal near the reef’s edge,  Photo: McGlothlin

Bonefish is prepared for drying,  Photo: McGlothlin

The neon colours of bluefin trevally never failed to bring smiles to the group,  Photo: McGlothlin