Dr. No yacht submersible launch | photo by Francesca Truter
There are not many places in the world where you can eat a truly authentic pain au chocolat against a vista of pine trees, turquoise seas and endless white, palm-fringed beaches, but New Caledonia is one of these heavens. This island, and particularly its capital, Nouméa, is a true outpost of France, while its position in the South Pacific Ocean possibly makes it the most far-flung of all the pays d’outre-mer.
The coastlines are washed by the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean, and its shores are lined with vivid coral reefs and sandy islets. Its amazing scenery and safe anchorages make it a great place to cruise – if you can reach its remote location. In this respect we were fortunate, as Tom Perkins invited us to cruise aboard his new submarine-carrying yacht, Dr. No.
Our arrival in Nouméa was greeted by Dr. No’s captain, Christian Truter, and we set off for the Port du Sud Marina. The plan for the first day was to head towards the southern edge of Nouméa’s huge lagoon to test dive Dr. No’s Super Falcon submersible, which the yacht was converted to carry by the HYS Shipyard in Subic Bay, Philippines.
An hour’s motoring south through the calm turquoise water brought us to Amédée Island, where we dropped anchor in the shadow of a tall lighthouse that marks the main passe through the fringing reef. The immediate task was for the crew, along with Graham Hawkes, the submarine’s designer, to prepare the Super Falcon for a dive. The craft is unusual – not just for its ultra-cool looks, but also for the operating depth of 300 metres, together with positive buoyancy and wings that enable it to ‘fly’ through the water at up to six knots. ‘I wanted the underwater equivalent of a fighter jet, not a hot air balloon,’ says Tom Perkins, and this machine surely fits his vision.
The two-man crew embarked and the sub was lowered into the water, where it became apparent that conditions were less than ideal. After recent heavy rains, the normally pristine lagoon waters were clouded by mud washed off the island, but this was a good opportunity to try the sub’s ‘blind flying’ capabilities, guided only by the depth sounder and its pitch-and-roll instrument, similar to that on a light aircraft.
Two guests had a much more fruitful afternoon in the clearer water surrounding Amédée. They logged close encounters with green turtles, giant trevally, spawning sea cucumbers that reared up from the bottom and, more intriguingly, with the banded sea krait, a venomous sea snake. Local dive guides provide excellent insights into sensitive and safe interaction with potentially dangerous marine species such as this, as well as advising on the best places to dive.
That evening we took a tender ride to the sand-fringed Amédée Island to have a closer look at the lighthouse. A model of this beautiful edifice had been exhibited in London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, while the actual cast iron structure was erected in Paris for two years to show off its new technology, before it was disassembled, shipped to New Caledonia and reassembled as a lasting monument to France’s achievements. From the moment we approached we could see it was special, particularly for its extreme height, decorative construction with star-headed bolts, and an onion-shaped base. Inside, rather than being starkly functional, its interior was trimmed with high-quality mahogany panelling.
Next morning, we scuba dived outside the passe in excellent conditions, and while big pelagics were absent, the coral cover was robust and the deep gullies and swim-throughs made for a beautiful dive. In part, this was a reconnaissance for the afternoon’s expedition in the submarine, which turned out to be incredible. Piloted by Hawkes, we flew through the ancient coral seascape, parting schools of fish and twisting through the coral heads. So well was the Super Falcon accepted by the sea life around us that a remora attached itself to the submarine’s composite hull, presumably hoping for a few scraps from its next meal.
We were not in New Caledonia at the optimum time of year, so unsurprised when the captain announced that the forecast for the next few days was poor, with a passing cyclone threatening high winds and torrential rain. We headed into the protected Baie de Prony, following the wild south east coastline where steep-sided mountains with ancient mineral deposits colour the mountainous soils a deep rich red.
Opposite our anchorage we could see the old stone dwellings and jailhouse now crumbling into the ground or fossilised within encompassing tree roots.
There was enough wind for Perkins to christen Miss Moneypenny, Dr. No’s new cat-boat, built in Arey’s Pond, Massachusetts. She provided the perfect way to explore, with a large, open cockpit big enough to take a sizeable party ashore. As she sailed up the estuary and into the distance, a kayaking expedition was also launched to venture into the mangroves and discover some of the tributaries that feed the bay.
The following morning, despite the continuing heavy rain, a group went ashore to find a river we had been unable to locate by kayak, and unable to navigate by boat. The group traversed an abandoned open-cast nickel mine, stripped of vegetation and riven by deep gullies and potholes where the red soil had washed away.
Next day Dr. No rounded the southern tip of New Caledonia and headed north west up its northern shoreline to the Bay de Ouinne, a good stepping-off point for the Loyalty Islands that lie some 50 miles offshore. Arriving in the afternoon, we went to an outer fringing reef near the Koaukoue passe, where the inner reef wall drops from five to 50 metres – an excellent spot for a wall dive. We dropped in on a wahoo and a giant trevally that was trailing a white tip reef shark.
Then our escort arrived: it was a small and curious grey reef shark. As we moved along the wall, more appeared until we had a group of eight showing interest in us. It seems they were not used to divers and displayed threatening postures, approaching us and circling with recognisably aggressive jerky movements. After several very close passes, we moved up towards the reef flat, away from their territory, though some continued to assert their dominance. After such excitement it was definitely time for a relaxed cocktail hour back on board, where Tom’s son, Tor, had created the ‘Dr. Nectar’, our new signature sundowner.
A pre-dawn start saw us heave anchor for the journey out towards Lifou, one of the Loyalty Islands to the east. By 2pm we had sighted the wide sweep of the Baie de Jinek on the north west of Lifou, and as we neared shore the depth sounder showed a vertical rise in the bottom topography from 700 to 200 metres in clear blue water – potential areas for submarining. The bay was bordered by low undercut limestone cliffs topped with a scattering of houses and churches, while massive coral-heads littered the white sandy bottom. Life slows down away from Noumea, and here the Melanesian pace of life really dominated.
To show our respect for the island’s tribal leaders and the tradition of La Coutume, we offered a small token gift to the local chief. Traditionally, this is a piece of fabric and some tobacco that creates a feeling of kinship and shared obligations. All lands, and the waters too, have a traditional owner and, by custom, permission must be sought prior to engaging in such activities as fishing, snorkelling and diving.
Two days of amazing snorkelling and diving on the coral-heads in the lagoon followed. At night, whole ecosystems of fish were attracted by our stern lights, which inevitably turned into a feeding frenzy for the larger fish, while small larval crabs swarmed over the boat, sometimes making it as far as the upper deck and into the bridge. Diving was combined with sailing, and Perkins took Miss Moneypenny to explore the coastline.
We launched the sub in perfect conditions next to the Reciffe Shelter dive site in 40 metres of water. The dive site is on a huge plateau rising up from the sea floor to the surface, covered in massive healthy coral and thousands of chocolate-dipped damselfish, fusiliers and antheas. Perkins and his son, Tor, spent 90 minutes under water in the sub, following the walls and canyons of the site. Above them, they could see the hull of Dr. No in detail from a depth of 50 metres, while the shimmering silver form could be seen equally well from the deck of the yacht as it glided beneath its hull. It was, they declared, their very best dive to date.
The following day, a pre-dawn departure took us some 25 miles north west to Ouvéa, a triangular atoll in the Loyalty group – and another incredible place. Entering the lagoon, we cruised through water so gin-clear we were able to spot sea cucumbers littering the sandy bottom at 20 metres. We anchored in the lagoon, which is bounded on one side by an amazing 15-mile-long white sand beach, and on the other by a sprinkling of islands and shallow passes through the coral reef, romantically called the Pleiades, after the cluster of stars. Diving in the passes we saw eagle and manta rays, cuttlefish and a selection of sharks including grey reef sharks, white tips and a leopard shark.
With the cruise almost at an end we departed the Loyalty Islands in the early hours of the morning. In the darkness, our transom had again become home to creatures feeding – this time a tangle of sea snakes and needlefish attracted to the stern lights. Soon, at least 20 sea kraits were gorging on small bait fish before slapping their paddle tails against the hull and disappearing back into the darkness – an amazing sight.
The last days of this amazing cruise were spent back among the mountainous bays of the south east, where coconut trees and massive pines grow side by side. We sailed and kayaked, collected coconuts and hiked the trails. Steaks were cooked to perfection by the captain and a good deal of Dr. Nectar consumed.
The next destination for Dr. No and her Super Falcon will be Fiji and then Tonga, where the owner plans scientific research – following whales as they sound, in the hope of discovering exactly what they do. This is cruising at its best.
This is a slightly abridged version of a feature published in the September 2012 issue of Boat International, which is available to order.