Remote was an understatement. I was in the middle of the South Pacific at a depth of 48m surrounded by 20 or more inquisitive grey reef sharks, I had 12 minutes of decompression time showing on my computer and I had only stepped off the plane an hour and half earlier. Welcome to French Polynesia.
Tahiti and her islands are about as far away from any large continent as it is possible to get. Located between 5 and 25 degrees below the equator and around 150 degrees from the Greenwich Meridian, they are also about as far as one can travel around the globe from the UK. The air temperature changes little, averaging an extremely pleasant 26°C, while the water remains a comfortable tepid-bath temperature for most of the year. This is where the ocean is home to big marine life.
Here, a variety of pelagics either take up residence or are en route to and from their breeding grounds, and huge humpback whale cows suckle their young for about a third of the year in the sheltered waters found off the island of Rurutu. Tiger, great hammerhead and grey reef sharks all enjoy the fast-flowing channels that supply an aquatic breakfast and supper to the gigantic lagoon of Rangiroa, while throughout the autumn dolphins gorge themselves on the tens of millions of breeding snapper at the narrow passage in Fakarava.
In spite of glowing reports from other divers, experience told me to remain sceptical and to expect to be greeted with that time-honoured phrase: ‘If only you’d been here last week’. However, after a few hours in the water, my scepticism was changing to optimism.
My first underwater encounter was to be in Rurutu. This island, some 300km southwest of Tahiti, has the smallest airport I’ve ever seen – little more than a simple single-storey building at the end of a Tarmacked strip, which acts as a runway. The indigenous population provides accommodation in the form of ‘pensions’ – the equivalent of guesthouses in the UK, which are usually located on or near the shoreline and at the edge of the rainforest. They offer basic but very comfortable lodging, with superb home cooking.
Serge, my guide, spoke little English and I spoke only schoolboy French, but between us we had managed to form an ambitious plan – to snorkel with humpback whales. But first we had to find them. Luckily, just a short time after boarding our RIB, we spotted a humpback calf. We decided to position the Zodiac about 50m away from where the calf had just surfaced – the idea being that we would gently enter the water using snorkelling gear and swim in the direction in which the skipper pointed. In theory, after about a minute we should then see the huge pectoral fins of the cow below us. I followed the instructions implicitly. And there, maybe 15m below us, lay the cow. She was perfectly still, like a huge submarine trying to avoid detection from an enemy minesweeper, and her calf was positioned under her chin. Apparently, calves are naturally buoyant and rest under their mothers to prevent them floating ungainly to the surface. I was transfixed. Directly below me was a humpback whale cow and her offspring.
After a few minutes the calf slowly ascended, passing me by only a metre or so away, before returning to the sanctuary of its parent. The calf passed me twice more before being joined by its mother. Now I had them both within touching range – they were colossal. Nothing can prepare you for how big these animals are. After a few quick breaths the graceful creatures both swam in perfect unison back to their resting depth. I sensed that the adult humpback knew I was there, but at best I was a mild curiosity and could hardly be considered a threat to this huge animal. To put the humpback whale’s size in perspective, I later found out that each pectoral fin alone weighed about one and a half tonnes!
The island of Fakarava feels even more isolated than Rurutu. Approximately the same 90-minutes’ flying time from Tahiti as Rurutu, the island lies to the northeast of Tahiti. Its highest point is a mere 3.5m above sea level. Like most of the other atolls in the archipelagos found in French Polynesia, Fakarava was formed by a volcanic eruption some 20 million years ago. Today, the edge of the crater forms an elliptical reef with a relatively shallow and sheltered lagoon, while on the outside is the deep, open ocean. The crater measures some 60km by 25km and is the second largest of all the Tahitian atolls.
Several pensions are scattered along the shoreline south of the airport but the top spot to stay is at the Maitai Dream Hotel. Here the accommodation is first class, with well-equipped bungalows situated within a few paces of the lagoon and a quintessentially French colonial bar and restaurant, which serve meals on the waterside veranda with its welcoming sea breeze.
At present there are only two dive sites at Fakarava. However, don’t let this put you off. I rate the ‘Channel’ as one of the best dives in the world. The current at the entrance appears to make the sea boil as it enters the massive lagoon. At a depth of only 6m we were greeted by a semi-resident bottlenose dolphin, which appeared to enjoy its interaction with the foreign aquanauts and led us to our dive site. At a depth of 40m, tens of grey reef sharks patrolled the reef top. Just as my computer started to indicate that I was going into decompression, our guide led us into shallower water and the pace picked up. We were whisked along at about three knots over the stunning hard coral on the sea bed below. For about ten minutes we passed many species of fish until we arrived at ‘the bowl’. This is a break in the reef, which descends to around 10m, offering shelter from the strong current above. Here there were vast shoals of snapper, too numerous to count. On the sandy bottom were sole, grouper and moray eels, all feeding on the abundance of fry and their prey. At the bowl’s edge grey reef sharks swam elegantly against the current, waiting for a stray snapper to leave the relative safety of the shoal. Well into decompression, our guide inflated a delayed SMB and we spent the rest of the dive at 5m until every diver’s computer read that it was safe to return to the surface.
The other dive site is situated a few hundred metres away from the bowl and is quite similar, although the current is not so strong, nor the marine life as prolific. The friendly bottlenose dolphin, however, was also waiting there to greet us on our afternoon dive.
Rangiroa is a short 15-minute flight to the northwest of Fakarava. Its geology is almost identical, comprising a vast, oval-shaped fringing reef with a few narrow passages leading to the open ocean. I stayed at the Kia Ora Hotel, a few minutes’ boat ride from the northwest passage. While not quite as exclusive as the Maitai Dream, it was well built and run to a high standard.
The Blue Dolphin dive centre, which is based in the grounds of the hotel, was the only dive centre I saw on the trip that offered diving for both beginners, and the experienced. Diving in French Polynesia is primarily for the experienced. However, the sheltered waters of the lagoon at Rangiroa offer ideal conditions for learning to dive. Visibility is a credible 10m-plus and the water temperature is in the high 20s. While there are a few coral mounds to explore, the prolific fish life is the main area of interest – the fish are regularly fed scraps of bread by some of the instructors and as a consequence they surround visiting divers with eager expectations. However, we were not here for the small fish but for the larger species. As at Fakarava, diving is conducted when the tide is on the flood, so that if you become separated from the boat cover at least you are inside the lagoon with a good chance of being found.
Our dive at the entrance to the channel was definitely not for beginners. In fact, the local dive guides in French Polynesia have a saying, which many UK divers will see as the very antithesis of their own training: ‘Plan the dive then adapt the plan while underwater, depending upon what you see’. It’s hardly textbook practice and some might think it potentially dangerous, but for the local guides the unpredictability of what will turn up during a dive makes this way of diving their preferred option. At the channel entrance many species of sharks effortlessly orientate themselves into the current. Tiger sharks and the great hammerhead shark are not uncommon; indeed, the dive shop displays a superb photograph taken by its owner of a tiger shark with a grey reef shark trapped in its jaws! Diving the channel entrance is not for the faint-hearted and it is essential to have had previous experience of current and mid-water decompression diving before doing this dive. The reward is spectacular – as well as sharks there are numerous encounters with hawksbill turtles, huge shoals of snapper, grunts and jacks. Caverns and overhangs support an abundance of soldierfish and nurse sharks. Don’t expect macro life – the sea bed is littered with hard corals in good condition but smaller critters, with the exception of the occasional spiny lobster, are rare.
Need to know
Air New Zealand (tel: 0800 028 4149) operates three weekly scheduled flights via Los Angeles to Papeete (Tahiti). My experience is that the service and standard is measurably better than some of its transatlantic competitors. Weight allowance is a massive 64kg in a maximum of two bags. Getting to the islands from Papeete is via Air Tahiti on small, twin-propeller aircraft. Air Tahiti has a weight limit of 20kg including hand luggage, so budget for excess baggage (about US$2 per kilo per flight). Diving, accommodation and meals are best organised in the UK prior to departure. I travelled with Diving World (020 7407 0019), itineraries vary and prices start from £2,200 including flights. French Polynesia is fiendishly expensive so my advice is to book an all-inclusive package as this appears to be much better value for money. Water temperature ranges from around 23°C in the south to 29°C in the north. Currency is the French Pacific Franc with an exchange rate at the time of going to press of 190 Francs to £1.