Top 10 Photos of the South Pacific

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As we leave the Pacific for Southeast Asia, it seems like a good time to reflect upon what we’ve seen this past year.  Here are a few of our favorite photos, which give a taste of sailing, swimming and living across the South Pacific islands.  Note: This Top 10 album is also available on our Facebook page.

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Kids fishing on the shore

Our Desert Oceans – South Pacific Fish Part 3

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This is Part Three in a multi-part series on my observations of the state of the South Pacific fishery. Click here to read Part One. Click here to read Part Two.

Kids fishing on the shore

You remember those 3D pictures where an image pops out of the static if you look at it just so? That’s what the ocean is like for me in Vava’u now. At first, I was disappointed that I didn’t see giant fish each time I swam, and that there weren’t any megafauna jumping out at me the minute I put on my mask. But then I realized that if you just adjust your eyes a bit, a whole new dimension appears.

Now every time I go swimming, I see something magical. Something that makes me laugh or scream or hold my breath until my lungs burst just to get a closer look. It’s only a desert if you can’t see the urchins through the sand.

I snorkel around the tiny 3-acre Fetoko Island nearly every day. It’s a ritual now, after five months living in Tonga. And also a challenge to try and see something new each time in this small area. It’s fairly unremarkable, as far as underwater seascapes go: there’s no pass, no drop-offs, no caves or reefs or shark breeding gounds. It’s just a flat sandy area dotted with echinoderms like sea stars and urchins, interspersed with the occassional coral-head and sea grass patch. Yet I’ve noticed more new creatures here than I did in some of the premier diving spots we visited while sailing across the South Pacific — all because I know it so well.

The best part about staying put is truly getting to know a place. That’s what we loved about living in Missoula, that intimacy with the land, the water, the air, the trees, and the knowledge of how those parts of your home change with each season. It’s the same here in Vava’u: I can feel the water get warmer or cooler, notice more of less grass, exclaim over the new fan that appears, mourn the loss of the beautiful lionfish that moved to a new territory. It’s home.

Here’s what I’ve learned while underwater in Tonga: if you can imagine a creature — no matter how bizarre — it probably lives in the sea. Long snakes with 20 antennas that fold up inside their bodies Slugs that turn into flamenco dancers as they float on ruffled red skirts across the sand. Pencil-thin flounder with eyes that migrate from top to bottom and wave like little aliens from a camoflauged body. Gobies that look like they’re ready to walk ashore. Coral that looks like a brain, and fans that look like mermaid’s hair. Moray eels, bizzare clams, unicorn fish, box fish, stone fish.

Even during my delight in the small stuff near Fetoko, I still feel overwhelmed at the scale of human consumption from the sea. But I no longer feel quite as hopeless about the state of the sea. I’ve seen baby coral gardens blossoming. I’ve seen sea grass patches growing. I’ve seen thousands of tiny newborn baby fish huddled in sea urchin spines.

I’ve found hope sprouting at the bottom of the sea.

I have faith in the resiliency of our oceans. I believe at my very core that the oceans and all their wondrous creatures will be around long after humans have vanished from the planet. And I have this hunch that humans are smart enough, creative enough, motivated enough to find a way to more sustainably balance what we take from the sea.

It’s all give and take, in the end. The algae gives energy to the coral, the shells give grit to make sand, the small fish feeds the bigger one. Humans just have to learn how to give as much as we take. It doesn’t seem so impossible, when I think about it like that.

Turning into Tinker Bell

Turning Into Tinkerbell

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Mamalode, Ocean Tales

I jumped in beside my sister, gasping as the sparkly green-white lights encircled my legs and torso. “I feel like Tinker Bell,” I exclaimed.

We shrieked our excitement, our voices as high-pitched as school girls. We reveled in making our breasts glow in the dark, and in the feel of the jet-black water. We were as bright and shiny as the diamond-sharp stars overhead, and as light as the bubbles of plankton that tickled our tummies.

“Your butt is glowing,” Cass informed me, as she followed me up the ladder out of the sea.

Click here to read the rest of this at

Read more of Brianna’s Mamalode articles here.

Turning into Tinker Bell

Satellite photo of Cyclone Ian approaching Tonga.

Nature’s Engine – A ripple that spins.

Posted on 1 CommentPosted in Ocean Tales, Outdoor Adventures

A cyclone looks remarkably similar to a single ripple spreading slowly over calm water.  Except that the ripple spins and grows, a wild engine powered by wind and water.  We saw that natural engine spin a little too close for comfort here in Vava’u, Tonga, this past weekend.

Cyclone Ian came and went like a spinning top, the brunt of it’s force narrowly missing us here in Vava’u.  We saw sustained winds of 50-60 knots for 24 hours, and gusts from 80-100 knots (up to 120 mph).  It was a big storm, but the eye stayed about 30 miles off the coast of Vava’u.

Unfortunately, the island group to the south, Ha’apai, was not so lucky.  These flat volcanic atolls took a serious pounding, and it’s estimated that 75% of all home were destroyed as the eye of the storm came directly over the islands.  Click here to see photos of Ian’s devastation south of us.

Here on Fetoko, we were spared much damage, and the sailboat and island we call home with our friends, Ben and Lisa, fared well, thanks to intensive cyclone preparations for the two days before Ian arrived.  The biggest injury was a few sea urchin spines that lodged in Rob’s butt while he was anchoring one of the motor boats (yup, it was low tide!).  The most adventurous part was a mid-storm rescue of a German couple camped on a nearby island — Rob and Ben took the boat right before dark to investigate the flashlight signals we saw from across the water, returning with two very wet passengers.  They stayed with us on Fetoko for the brunt of the cyclone.

Rob and I are writing a longer post now detailing the steps we took on the sailboat and on the island, so we can share with fellow sailors and travelers what worked and what didn’t.  Stay tuned for the details, along with a full before/after picture slideshow of our preparations.

Satellite photo of Cyclone Ian approaching Tonga.


Bri on Waking Dream before cyclone preparations began.

Here comes our first cyclone…

Posted on 3 CommentsPosted in Ocean Tales

I never thought hurricanes would feel so hot.  The air outside is steaming, dripping, still, stagnant.  The water vapor in the air makes the horizon hazy grey.

The world feels like it’s waiting.  Holding it’s breath.

After living outside for the past nine months, we can feel the weather change in our bodies.  Light, dry air signals a high pressure and happy times ahead, while slick, heavy air signals a low barometric pressure shift that means rain and storms. My skin is slick as an eel.

Cyclone Ian is bearing own on us.  He arrives in less than 24 hours, after taunting Tonga for the past three weeks.  It started as a low over Wallis and Fortuna to our north, and just sat there.  Menacingly.  Eventually, it started spinning clockwise and turned into a tropical depression, the forebearer to cyclones (otherwise known as hurricanes).

About 5 days ago, Ian turned into a named cyclone and was predicted to hit Tonga on Tuesday.  But it veered away, circling south of us. Whew! we said, complacently. Dodged that one!

Ha! said Ian. Watch this, suckers.

Since cyclones go wherever the hell they want, he turned north again, sucking more power from the warmer equatorial waters in preparation to REALLY wallop Tonga on his second pass.  Ian is about to hook south again, and appears on a direct warpath for Vava’u, the middle island group of Tonga where Rob and I currently live.

It appears to be a Category IV right now, which means we should see gusts up to 125 knots (140 mph) by tomorrow afternoon, along with enough rain to drown chickens.

We spent yesterday evening and this morning securing Waking Dream, the sailboat we’ve been living on for 3 months.  She’s lashed to concrete blocks with extra chain and anchors on the bottom.  And she’s totally stripped on deck, with sails, dodgers, and any potential flying debris stowed away.  We brought our favorite possessions (and passports!) to shore on Fetoko Island, where we’ll weather the storm with Ben and Lisa in their concrete bunker (built specifically for cyclones like this).

Now, while the water vapor accumulates and the winds start to pick up, we’re tying down the roof, beaching the motorboats, and trying to secure anything that might break, float or fly away.   By tonight, we’ll be hanging out in the bunker with cards, musical instruments, and plenty of food, prepared to wait out Ian’s wrath for the next day or two.

While we’re under cover, you can track Cyclone Ian here, at the U.S. Navy’s handy weather mapping site.  Also, check out this awesome Earth Map image of the cyclone spinning in action.

Bri on Waking Dream before cyclone preparations began. rob securing sails on waking dream


Click here to see sunset picture of a beach in Tonga.

2013 – One Incredible Year in Review

Posted on 2 CommentsPosted in Family and Friends, Fishing, Ocean Tales, Outdoor Adventures, Reflections on Life, Sailing, Traveling

Click here to see sunset picture of a beach in Tonga.

6,000 nautical miles
26 tropical islands
8 countries
7 sailboats
6 months living on the sea
3 months living in Tonga
2 careers put on hold
2 big backpacks
1 incredible year

In some ways, it feels like 2013 was the longest year in ages. Probably because a lot happened. We quit our jobs, packed up our house, kissed friends and family goodbye. We sailed one-quarter of the way around the planet, and met countless new people living a range of different lifestyles. Here are some highlights from our journey this year:

Favorite Places:

Palmerston Atoll, an island in the Cooks with only 60 people divided into three governing families, no roads, and abundant fish. Fakarava, for its unspoiled wildlife where we dove with 200­+ sharks. Bora Bora for its sheer beauty and sandy anchorages. Niue, the smallest country on earth, where Rob saved a woman’s life (stay tuned for that story!) and every resident waves as you pass by. The Kingdom of Tonga, where we have taken up temporary residence, for the sense of community, the accessible water sports, and the local culture.

Favorite Wildlife Moments:
We’ve spent hundreds of hours underwater and thousands of hours floating on top of it. The most memorable sightings include: a lone Orca whale breaching alongside our boat; floating next to 7 sea turtles in the Galapagos; snorkeling with sea lions in Baja; diving with manta rays in Bora Bora; jumping into the deep blue and seeing dozens of curious sharks; listening to the humpback whales sing underwater and watching a mama and her baby play; cheering as dolphins ride the bow wave of our sailboat; and swimming at night through bioluminescent plankton that glow and sparkle.

Biggest Challenges:

  • Nothing is ever still while sailing from place to place, which means dealing with seasickness, a rocking stove while you cook, and always having to brace yourself as you sit or walk or sleep.
  • Tight quarters and communal living arrangements can be tough at times.
  • Wind, waves and currents control when and where you go, testing your patience and flexibility.
  • Bringing the right stuff with you and anticipating what you need during long passages at sea.
  • Reconciling the illusion of paradise with the reality of bugs, heat, storms, and the inevitable list of chores and repairs that come with living on a boat.
  • Meeting like-minded people and finding friendships as close as those we left behind.

Best Parts of Living At Sea:

  • Nights where the stars are endless and bright.
  • Shades of infinite blues.
  • Syncing your daily life with the rhythm of the sun, the wind, the moon.
  • Watching birds and fish and dolphins and whales from the bow.
  • Visiting remote and spectacular places that are inaccessible by plane or car.
  • Spending time with yourself and each other.

Click here to see photo of Bri and Rob in the South Pacific.

desert ocean - fishing in the south pacific ocean - tropical reefs and fisheries

Our Desert Ocean – South Pacific Fish Part One

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desert ocean - fishing in the south pacific ocean - tropical reefs and fisheries

Part One in a series on the state of the South Pacific fisheries.

The first time I got in the water in Vava’u, Tonga, I sighed in disappointment. No blacktip sharks came up instantly to check me out. I didn’t see any giant snapper, or manta rays, or flocks of parrotfish. All I saw were some urchins, dead coral, sea cucumbers and a few random wrasses. Boring.

“Do you think we’re going to be jaded about snorkeling and diving for the next 20 years of our life?” I asked Rob, as I heaved myself up on the wharf I’d just jumped off.

He laughed. “Yeah, it’ll probably be tough for a while, if we’re comparing everything to the Tuamotus and Beveridge Reef.”

This past year, we’ve been lucky enough to swim in spectacular places, with a whole host of crazy-cool underwater critters. Guess why those places were so spectacular? Because nobody lives there. Take Beveridge Reef, for example, the spot we stayed with the most diversity and the biggest fish. It was also the most remote place we sailed to, a submerged atoll in the center of the deep blue, 150 nautical miles from the nearest land.

And that sums up the main take-away from our hundreds of hours spent underwater in the Pacific — the farther you get from humans, the healthier the underwater ecosystem. Whenever we get in the water near civilization, it’s depressing. Fish are sparse and small, coral is damaged, visibility is impaired, algae increases.

It’s not just the near-shore habitat, either. We’ve seen barren reefs that are quite far from any town. We even had a week-long stretch sailing in the middle of the ocean with no sign of anything but flying fish. Some days, it feels like a desert out here in the Pacific.

So, where did all the fish go? Why are many reefs deserted? Hungry humans are certainly part of the answer. But I find it hard to blame hungry locals who have been fishing a certain reef for thousands of years. If you were hungry, didn’t have much money, and had a free source of good protein on your doorstep, wouldn’t you slurp up all those yummy fish, too?

But multiply those hungry humans by billions. And add in the fact that many of those fish-dinner-loving humans live 10,000 miles from that particular reef. Suddenly, the desert ocean makes a bit more sense. Rob and I have seen first-hand many of the pressures facing the ocean and fisheries this past year: international trawlers that sweep up all living things in their path; gill nets the size of football fields strung out daily along the same reef; $900-per-day charter fishing trips whose participants bring in 500-pound wahoo or marlin just to mount the head on a wall.

The memory of those trawlers and nets and trophy fish flashed through my mind the first day I snorkeled in Tonga amidst the scanty underwater life. It left me feeling sad about the state of the sea, and helpless for how to heal it. It left me wondering what will happen to our desert oceans, and the the billions of humans who depend upon them.


deserted island paradise tonga vava'u brianna randall rob roberts travel blog

Bird Nerds on a Deserted Island

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deserted island paradise tonga vava'u brianna randall rob roberts travel blogImagine a place where hundreds of birds fly overhead.  Where baby birds squeak from every branch you can see.  Where eggs litter the ground you walk on.

Imagine a place ringed by white sand and coral reef, a place you can circumnavigate in under ten minutes.

deserted island paradise tonga vava'u brianna randall rob roberts travel blogImagine a place where the wind can push the waves and the moon can push the tide as easily as a man knocks over a cup of water.

Imagine putting your tent too close to those waves and tides.

Imagine a deserted island where 6 friends arrive with tents, a cooler, ukeleles, some water toys, and a lot of papayas.

deserted island paradise tonga vava'u brianna randall rob roberts travel blogImagine hermit crab race courses, twirling flaming poi balls, reading books beneath hatching seabirds, cooking over a fire, collecting colorful shells, swimming in against a stiff outgoing tide.

Imagine camping for a weekend on an outer island in the south of Vava’u in Tonga, and you might just see the vignettes described above.  We did.

deserted island paradise tonga vava'u brianna randall rob roberts travel blog

Fonua Fu’o and Fonua Unga are spectacular places, almost untouched by humans.  Brown noddys and fairy terns use these islands as rookeries, and blacktip sharks as nurseries.  Boobies and frigate birds dive for needlefish.  The ground all around moves and wriggles, since almost every available shell is filled with an industrious hermit crab.  The waves push and pull more strongly on the outer islands, evidenced by our wet campfire the first night.  And the sun seems to shine more brightly, evidenced by our burnished skin when we returned home.

deserted island paradise tonga vava'u brianna randall rob roberts travel blog

Special places, for sure…especially for bird-nerds like Rob and me.  Well worth the very hard ground we battled with very thin mats, the mildewy water bottles, the sunburned lips, the crab pinches, and the inevitable bird poop bombs from above.

deserted island paradise tonga vava'u brianna randall rob roberts travel blog

tonga pacific travel island brianna randall rob roberts sailing boat

Vava’u islands = Rocky Mountain peaks

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tonga pacific travel island brianna randall rob roberts sailing boat

One of the reasons we feel comfortable in Tonga is because the topography is so similar to the Rocky Mountain landscape we came from. Did you just do a double-take after reading that sentence? Good, that means you’re paying attention. But the statement is true, geographically speaking: Vava’u is a series of high mountain peaks, bordered by sprawling meadows nestled above deep canyons.

Sure, those meadows and canyons are covered by miles of ocean, instead of Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs. Yet the energy feels the same. I can easily picture this landscape as mountains and valleys through all the coral and sand.

boats in neiafu harbor tonga

Where I’m sitting in Vava’u right this moment is only a couple miles away from the second deepest oceanic trench on the planet. The Tongan Trench is 35,702 feet deep and 50 miles wide. That means the island I’m sitting on is taller than Mount Everest, if you were looking up at it from the bottom of the trench.

All of the dozens of islands in Vava’u are mountaintops, and the flat seabed between them are the gently sloped meadows. This is one of the world’s best cruising grounds partly because of the uniformity of the sea floor here. It’s all mellow sandy bottoms between 10 and 30 meters deep — a high mountain plateau, if you will. Compared to the jagged cliffs of the Marquesas, the steep drop-offs in Bora Bora, or the flat volcanic rings of the Tuamotus, these islands feel downright friendly.

MT-rob and josh on flathead lake

We sailed on Flathead Lake in Montana each summer before heading west across the Pacific. Flathead is the largest natural freshwater lake in the western U.S. It’s the remnants of a giant inland glacial lake, and sits below the tall peaks of Glacier National Park. All of the islands in the lake are actually mountains and hills that emerged as the lake receded over the millennia. Tonga looks a lot like sailing on Flathead, if you replace the pines with palms.

Not only is the Tongan Trench one of the steepest features on the globe’s surface, it’s also the fastest-moving plate ever recorded. The convergent plates that formed this deep chasm are moving at 6 to 9 inches per year, which means Tonga is basically undergoing a constant earthquake. Not the rattle-and-roll earthquakes I grew up with in Southern California, but rather a consistent tremor rippling just beneath the surface.

The Trench gives Vava’u a sense of height and breadth often lost on tiny tropical islands in the middle of the world’s largest ocean. Though the slopes are gentle, you can sense the buzz of movement, shifting ground, and the power of the Earth beneath the sea. Bottom line? It feels good here, geographically, energetically, and aesthetically.

tonga pacific travel island brianna randall rob roberts sailing boat