No less than twenty cruisers from eight boats were gathered around a warm bonfire glow enjoying our land potluck dinner on one of the coral 'motus', or islets, of Tahanea. We were sharing dishes like Vietnamese salad rolls, lentil and rice burgers, curried tuna patties, hippie popcorn and chocolatey brownies. We were singing campfire songs with guitar, drum and harmonica accompaniment, and reveling in where we were and what we were doing.
"I think the ground is moving," someone said.
"Holy Moly. It IS moving!" someone else confirmed.
The dreamy atmosphere was shattered as we tried focusing on the white coral pieces that make up land here in the Tuamotus. Once our eyes adjusted, what we saw was nothing less than eerie. Hundreds of hermit crabs the size of baseballs were descending upon our picnic.
They came out of nowhere, and from all directions. They slowly crept as though in a trance towards us without a pause. Before we knew it, they had enveloped the picnic blankets. These crustaceans were literally climbing over each other in huge moving piles of shells - big shells. They were scrambling to get into the bowls and tupperware and casserole dishes, and ultimately into the food. It mattered not that we would pick them up and toss them aside. More kept coming. We tried setting a decoy of a bowl filled with peanut marinade off to the side of our festivities and in moments that bowl had disappeared under the pile of hermit crabs drowning themselves in sauce. No matter, before we could do anything about it, another group had climbed into the brownie dish, eaten through the tinfoil (did they swallow it?) and began munching on the chocolate heaven. We began to pick up and cradle our dishes, saving the precious food from needless destruction. Did these crabs not understand that coming upon food in the Tuamotus was difficult for us cruisers? Or perhaps that's the very reason why they bombarded us the way they did. Yes, in fact, they did resemble a bunch of cruisers crowding around free nutritious and plentiful food.
Apparently these critters are called coconut crabs, not because they each coconuts (although by the looks of it they'll eat anything) but rather because they live around coconut trees. There are plenty of coconut trees here, since they are the only vegetation that can survive on coral atolls - at least until they start dying off and the decomposed matter can support other low lying vegetation. These crabs make their homes inside seashells, carrying them around on their backs until they outgrow them, and find a new larger one. But I've never seen hermit crabs this big. Or maybe it was the sheer number of them. Or how tenacious they were. Or how indiscriminating.
But just like the 'Thriller' video, we got used to our guests, and carried on with great singing (although no dancing) - and an indelible picture of creepy swarming creatures in our memory banks.
En route Tahanea to Fakarava, Tuamotu Archipelago, French Polynesia
16 degrees 34.106 minutes South
145 degrees 22.394 minutes West
At 6/18/2011 23:03 (utc) our position was 16°34.09'S 145°22.39'W