Bon Voyage on the Paul Gauguin

Saturday we headed to the Paul Gauguin, docked 40km up the road in Lautoka. We were on this ship in 2005 for the eclipse near Pitcairn Island. This time four of Ray’s college buddies and their spouses were with us. We settled in, and the ship started a slow cruise westward as we finished dinner. Sunday and Monday we were at sea, and there were many lectures onboard. Many were about eclipses: what to expect, how to take pictures. Some were about the sun. Some were about fish, and some about birds. We were happy that Mark Eddowes, who had been on the 2005 trip, was on this one as well. He has spent the last 30 years as a cultural anthropologist in the South Pacific studying the history and migration patterns of the entire area. He talked about how the areas we were visiting had been settled, and had another lecture a few days later about the occasionally gruesome history of Fiji.

Tuesday we visited Ile des Pins, a small island at the southern end of New Caledonia. We were there for only a short time in the morning, and went to a very cute little pool for snorkeling. It was completely protected from ocean waves, and was very still, though it was distinctly cooler than the water off Port Douglas. There were little bits of coral, and plenty of interesting fish to see. My favorite were pipefish, which are related to sea horses. They look like seahorses which have been stretched to be completely linear. There were many small giant clams and urchins.

Wednesday was Eclipse Day. The eclipse was early in the morning, with first contact at 7am and second contact just after 8am. Everyone was up on decks 8 and 9 watching it, including much of the crew. A bank of clouds awaited to the south, so the boat turned around shortly after 7am and pointed north so it could avoid them. The eclipse was quite beautiful. Since the sun is headed toward its maximum activity in its 11-year cycle, the corona was quite symmetrical, with streamers out in all directions. There were very noticeable prominences at the bottom. We could only see Venus with our naked eyes, but I picked out Saturn and Mercury with the binoculars. Ray saw faint but unmistakable shadow bands — I was looking for the sweeping shadow, but as usual I didn’t actually see it. There were a couple of people next to us on the deck with a very elaborate setup of cameras and telescopes mounted on gimbels with coke bottles full of water as counterweights. Shortly after third contact, there was an announcement on the PA that this eclipse had not two but three diamond rings — this couple ended up getting engaged with an imaginative black ring of some nano-anodized metal with a diamond set at one edge, the third diamond ring. It was incredibly cute.

Thursday we visited Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia located on the main island, Grande-Terre. We had been there in 2010, so we didn’t need to go back to the Tjibaou Cultural Center (amazing architecture, very interesting historical and artistic exhibits). But we did go back to Le Chaumière (for lunch) and we intended to go back to Chez Toto for dinner, where we’d been then. The dinner reservation got confused: they couldn’t seat us until 7:30 yet we had to return to the boat at 9. We threatened to return to Le Chaumière but they insisted we went to another restaurant in the neighborhood which while not quite as good was still “adventurous” and a good time for eight of us. (Apparently there is some talk in the travel industry of Low, Medium, and High adventure travel, the last being where you might get killed. You could probably google them for the technical definitions but the internet connections are few and far between and I’m not working on finding them.)

There was another enormous cruise ship at the maritime terminal in Noumea, part of the P&O line. We supposed that meant “Pecking Order” because we had to tie up a little further from downtown around the corner. Some of the folks on our ship talked to some of the folks on that ship and found out that it, too, intended to see the eclipse, but only got a 99% eclipse because the travel day before the eclipse was based on the assumption that by going at full speed from one place to another you’d get there on time. As it actually turned out, they didn’t arrive in the zone of totality in time. (We arrived there five hours before the eclipse began.)  There’s an enormous difference between a 99% eclipse and a 100% one — only in the latter do you see the corona, shadow bands, prominences, Baily’s beads, diamond rings, and the incredibly weird lighting conditions that come with totality. They probably got a nice temperature drop, some less weird lighting conditions, and a view of Venus. Plus they never got to set down their eclipse viewers. So perhaps a better interpretation of the acronym is “Pissed Off”. Maybe someone will sue.

Friday we visited Maré Island, in the Loyalty Islands east of the main island of New Caledonia. I’m not sure if we were the first cruise ship to visit, or if it was merely our ship’s first time. In any case, everyone got bussed down from the landing village of Tadine to the nearby village of Wadao, where there was some kind of welcoming ceremony. The captain gave a life preserver to the chief of the village. There was a fabulous spread of local food, including a pig, the best variety of cooked bananas I’ve ever had, and several other large collections of root vegetables and chicken cooked in banana leaves. Another purple yam was cooked in coconut or pig fat or something and was very tasty as well. My favorite dessert was passion fruit juice. Many of the tours’ buses didn’t show up: some people blame it on our captain mentioning the beautiful island and water but not mentioning the beautiful people during the welcoming ceremony. Whatever. In the afternoon we eventually found a ride to a beach and did some decent snorkeling — Ray saw a turtle.

Saturday we visited Lifou Island, another Loyalty Island just north of Maré. We hadn’t signed up for any tours, and were hoping to rent a car, though there didn’t seem to be anyone at the landing actually offering that service. We ended up walking about 2 miles to the next village which had a post office where we could mail all of our New Caledonia-stamped postcards, and we hitched back. That afternoon I felt too lazy to go back snorkeling, though Ray returned to the island to see a cute church on a cliff.

Sunday we stopped at Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, a small archipelago north of New Caledonia. We were there in 2010 as well. We had signed up for a trip on a “sailboat” which said it would see some turtles and go to a snorkeling beach. In fact, it did that, but the sails never got raised — the whole thing was on the motor and it had the appointments of a tramp steamer. You sat on a platform on the deck. I would have enjoyed the feeling of being propelled by the wind, but at least the snorkeling was nice. There were lots of “tabletop” coral, and a few very cute triggerfish, Picasso, white striped, and some I didn’t recognize with chevrons.

Monday we sailed back towards Fiji, the whole day spent at sea. We went speedily, covering the same distance in 36 hours that was covered in 60 hours on the way out. Mark Eddowes had another presentation about Melanesian and Polynesian art, the fish lecturer had a lecture about biogeography, and there was a slide show of the best pictures taken by people on the ship. My favorite picture was of the eclipse pretty much as it actually appeared, which cannot be taken directly by a camera but which must be made up of several different exposures, artfully combined into a single image. There are people who will be working on this Photoshop problem in the next few weeks, so that by next year it should be possible to see an image that roughly approximates what we remember. Until very recently the only good representation of a solar eclipse was a mural at the Boston Science Museum. There are still no cameras that can record the range of light that your eyes perceive unconsciously when they sense the detail of the streamers from the surface of the sun all the way out three or four solar diameters. There are expensive analog filters made to try to correct for this, but the best solution always turns out to be software.

All of the dinners on the ship were spent as a party of at least eight, usually ten. We were quite a clique, keeping pretty much to ourselves, except for the two smoker/drinkers in the group who did a good job meeting all of the other smoker/drinkers on the ship. It’s always nice having PR people. These two had one of the most deluxe cabins on the ship, and they graciously hosted happy hour in their room about half of the nights, where we could get pre-snockered before the bottomless wine glasses that come with dinner. Most cruises that one goes on one is paying for every sip of alchohol. On this cruise, there are several wines and beers which are “included”, plus the cocktail of the day, so you can get pickled and primed without getting nickeled and dimed. It’s pretty nice. With the constant motion of the boat, we concluded that “it’s socially acceptable to stagger down the hallway on a cruise ship”, without considering whether the staggering is caused by waves or drink.

The beds in the staterooms have a cover which says “Welcome” on one side, and “Bon Voyage” on the other. I suppose they fold it so that neither message shows on all days other than the first or last. But it seems like “Bon Voyage” would have worked for both the first and the last, right? We were unceremoniously booted from our rooms at 9:30 Tuesday morning.