French Polynesia’s Tuamotus

Beyond blue, beyond compare


Gray reef sharks are a significant component of the shark encounter at Tahiti’s White Valley, but it’s common to see tiger sharks as well.


From the moment we pulled up to the mooring buoy, a squadron of blacktip reef sharks surrounded the swim platform, no doubt accustomed to handouts. We soon discovered, however, that the real action was 60 feet below.

We were diving White Valley, a shark dive off Tahiti that I'd been hearing a lot about. Unlike the dives we would do in the Tuamotu Islands later in the trip, this was a baited dive. The guide brought a small box of chum down onto the rubble reef flat, and we formed a semicircle around it, each diver about 50 feet away from the box.


Blacktip reef sharks greet divers from the moment the boat arrives at
the mooring.
This dive isn't meant to be an interactive shark feed; the chum is used to encourage the sharks to show up, and plenty of them did — immediately. Most were gray reef sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos), but some large lemon sharks (Negaprion brevirostris) were also in the mix. Our distance from the bait box seemed a bit far at first, but soon so many sharks were around it that the distance gave them just enough room to circle in a predictable fashion. It also allowed attractively polarized groups of sharks to appear in a single frame. The shark wrangler would occasionally swim to the box and pull out a little bait, and of course this amped up the action. It also sent cues to the feed's apex predator, the tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier).

While the gray reef and lemon sharks were full of bravado at the outset, they became deferential when the tiger shark arrived. The tiger moved at a slow pace, edging ever closer to the bait. I got only a couple of passes by a single tiger shark, but I understand it's not uncommon for several to show up. This would have been a great photo opportunity even without the tiger, but its arrival made our White Valley dive — the first dive of the trip — exceptional.
Where It All Begins
Visits to French Polynesia begin with arrival at the Faa'a International Airport (PPT) in Papeete on the region's largest island, Tahiti. While some Tuamotus-bound travelers depart Papeete right away on an hourlong connecting flight to either Rangiroa or Fakarava (the gateways to the Tuamotus and the only domestic airports in the region), I decided to spend a day in Tahiti. Not only did this allow some extra time for misdirected bags to arrive and for our group to begin acclimating to the six-hour time difference from the East Coast, it gave us the chance to dive White Valley.

The next day we took the short flight to Rangiroa for two days of diving at a land-based resort. After that we would head on to Fakarava for a Tuamotus liveaboard excursion.


Raccoon butterflyfish are found throughout French Polynesia.


Rangiroa
Rangiroa is the largest atoll in the Tuamotus, consisting of roughly 415 motus (islets) and sandbars. More than 100 narrow passageways are between Rangiroa's lagoon and the open ocean, and a great deal of water moves into and out of these with the tide, generating substantial currents. Most Rangiroa diving is done in Tiputa Pass. We did all our dives there, though if we had stayed longer we would have checked out Avatoru Pass, the second most dived of Rangiroa's passes.

Dives

Chevron barracuda
in the Tuamotus are typically done at the shoulders of the passes, where currents are not as strong, or in the passes as intentional drift dives on the incoming tide. The tidal flow is determined by the width of the passes as well as the lunar cycle, with water flowing faster through narrower channels. Dives in the passes are carefully planned around the tides with the goal of having sufficient flow to concentrate the marine life, but not so much that it's hard for divers to manage.

Our first dive in Rangiroa was at the shoulder of Tiputa Pass. My immediate reaction upon rolling into the water was astonishment at its clarity. Some pristine hard corals were scattered about, but hard coral gardens aren't really the attraction here. The Tuamotus are about pelagic encounters, big schools of fish and breathtakingly clear aquamarine water. While there may be better places in the world to see muck-dwelling critters or pastel soft corals, the Tuamotus are hard to beat when it comes to sharks, dolphins, fish and gorgeous water. Underwater photographers who have spent too many hours retouching backscatter out of otherwise good photos will adore these islands — all the clever backscatter-removal tools and techniques you've learned will rarely be needed.


On Rangiroa, encounters with bottlenose dolphin have become quite predictable and productive.


I can't say that my two-day Rangiroa experience was encyclopedic — we never hit the current just right for an incoming pass dive. That's what really congregates the gray reef sharks for the iconic wall-of-sharks view for which the site is most famous. I had four great dives along the shoulder of the pass though, featuring close encounters with hawksbill turtles on every dive, attractive clusters of raccoon butterflyfish, large schools of paddletail snapper, a resident school of chevron barracuda and what may be the most iconic marine life encounter of Tiputa Pass: bottlenose dolphins.

In one of the dive briefings the guide told us about a resident dolphin known as "Touch Me." According to local lore, she was the first calf born to the resident pod, but when her first sibling was born, she no longer received the maternal affection she craved and now seeks it from divers. Pods of six to eight dolphins swam near us, sometimes stopping to interact for a minute or so. Touch Me did indeed act differently from the rest, actually stopping in front of divers as if inviting tactile interaction. We know divers aren't supposed to touch marine life, but it was pretty difficult for most members of our group to resist reaching out to give her belly a gentle scratch as she slowly swam by. The divemasters did it, and so did the tourists. I didn't, so my karma is still intact, but I have to admit that not doing so probably had a lot to do with having my hands full of camera gear.
The Blue Lagoon

Blacktip reef sharks
A highlight of our time on Rangiroa was a half-day excursion by boat across the lagoon to a shallow sand bar and beach-studded reef. The boat ride was an hour or more each way, and on the day we went it was punishingly rough (though I doubt that's the norm). But the trip was absolutely made worth it by the dozens of blacktip reef sharks that gathered, accustomed to being fed by the daily tour boats.
Fakarava

Bluelined snapper
Fakarava, the second largest atoll in the Tuamotus, is 37 miles long by 13 miles wide and is a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) biosphere reserve. Small "pensions" (modest guesthouses) with dive centers are on the atoll, so Fakarava may be dived from land or by liveaboard. Although diving by liveaboard offers greater range and site diversity, there are more islands and passes than there is time to explore them in a typical seven- or 10-day cruise. What follows is a brief log of some of our most memorable Fakarava dives.
Tumakohua Pass (South Pass), Fakarava

Bigeye scad
Perhaps the most revered of Fakarava's dive sites, Tumakohua Pass is one of the two most memorable to me. Ideally done on a light incoming tide, divers enter the water over a sandy tract. Photographers will be tempted to spend precious bottom time with the small schools of bigeye and barred jacks found here, but the disciplined will anticipate that there is much more to come. There are multiple places to stop (called "observatories") and watch scores or even hundreds of gray reef sharks swim by. Divers find a bit of rubble to nestle in and slow their breathing, and the sharks will swim progressively closer. Those with good luck and good breath control can reasonably expect a handsome shark to come within 5 feet, while dozens more are visible in the background.

When it's time to move to shallower water, you'll find yourself among large schools of bluelined snapper. I enjoyed a few excellent encounters with the spotted eagle rays (Aetobatus narinari) that cruise the reef here. There is a shallow observatory at 40 feet, and at certain times of the day and tidal states it's really quite stunning. It is not only the diversity of marine life that defines the South Pass of Fakarava, but also the consistency and the amazingly clear water delivered by the incoming tide. This is a dive that inspires hope for the ocean and reminds us why we should care about it.


Spotted eagle ray


Garue Pass (North Pass), Fakarava
My divemaster admitted that the South Pass is consistently astounding, but he preferred the North Pass because of its ability to deliver the

Gray reef shark and snapper
unusual with reasonable frequency. The huge manta ray I saw (but could never catch up to) was one example. Silvertips, hammerheads and walls of gray reef sharks are spotted there frequently enough that the divemaster was willing to designate each as reliable. I have no reason to dispute that — this is one of those sites that just feels right for righteously random oceanic encounters.
Otugi Pass, Toau
On the shoulder dive at Otugi Pass, a beautiful manta ray was hanging out at a cleaning station a bit deeper than we had planned to go. When a few divers ventured down to get a better look, Mr. Manta went even deeper. But the patient and lucky were treated to an

A school of Heller’s barracuda patrols a shallow reef.
inspirational flyby at 65 feet a little later.

While the hard corals are quite nice here and the reef tropicals are alluring, it is the thrill ride on the incoming current that elevates Otugi to world class. We followed our guide into the blue to about 80 feet, where we spotted a few random gray reef sharks. But as we reached the mouth of the pass, the current began to accelerate, and the sharks began to congregate. Toward the end of the dive a depression in the reef provided shelter from the current for hundreds of crimson bigeye scad. By the time we surfaced we had drifted probably a mile in 45 minutes. As usual we made sure to exit the water before the onset of the mascaret (tidal bore), the confused and choppy sea state created when a strong current slams into slack water.
Arikitamiro Pass, Kauehi
We did this dive twice on two consecutive days to hit the incoming tide just right. This dive ranks alongside Fakarava's South Pass as one of the Tuamotus' best. It's different

The full moon in July triggers a massive annual spawn of marbled grouper off
Fakarava. In the weeks before the spawn, they arrive in large numbers.
but equally inspirational. We descended, gently drifting down to a reef shelf at 90 feet. In addition to gray reef sharks, we saw an impressive number of marbled grouper. We were in French Polynesia during the weeks preceding the full moon that would trigger the largest annual grouper spawn in the world. Although we saw many grouper, I have heard tales of them being stacked 6 feet high over hundreds of yards of seafloor at Fakarava's South Pass in an undulating mass of living procreation.

Once we lifted off and committed to the current, we were told to watch for a couple of deep indentations in the channel where we could get out of the current for a bit and hide to get a better view of the sharks swimming up-current. It worked, which meant I had to decide whether to photograph the sharks or the biggest aggregation of grouper I had ever seen.

The dive's finale was the "shark pool," a depression in the reef maybe 350 feet across in which hundreds of gray reef sharks swam together clockwise. Our divemaster's log described our adventure through Arikitamiro Pass thus: "Best dive of the trip, ever! Huge school of gray reef sharks in the pool with thousands of groupers. Just amazing!" I agreed wholeheartedly with his assessment — this was one of the great dives of my career.


The diversity of marine life in the Tuamotus is impressive. Commonly encountered denizens include gray reef sharks.


How to Dive It
Getting there: French Polynesia is a territory of France situated due south of Hawaii, about midway between North America and Australia. Its best-known islands are Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora, but there are 118 total islands grouped into five archipelagos: the Society Islands, Austral Islands, Gambier Islands, Marquesas Islands and Tuamotu Islands.

The flight from Los Angeles to Faa'a International Airport (PPT) in Papeete, Tahiti, takes eight hours. Travelers to the Tuamotus will take an hourlong connecting flight from Papeete to either Rangiroa or Fakarava. For luggage restrictions, visit AirTahiti.com/checked-baggage.





Conditions: Visibility in French Polynesia is typically 80 to 150 feet, but it may be less during an outgoing tide, especially near the mouth of a lagoon or during the rainy season (November to April). The average water temperature is 79°F in winter and 84°F in summer. It was 82°F when we were there in May, and I was very comfortable in a 3 mm wetsuit and hooded vest.

Currents are a fact of life in the Tuamotus' passes, and they're the reason the sharks and dolphins are there. The divemasters typically plan dives so the flow is into the lagoon, both for safety and water clarity, and they provide detailed briefings with regard to the current. The Tuamotus are a destination best suited to experienced divers who are comfortable navigating currents.

Diving regulations: French Polynesia limits open-water and advanced open-water divers (or equivalent) to a maximum depth of 30 meters (100 feet), regardless of any deep-diving specialty certifications divers may have. Rescue divers and above are permitted to dive to 40 meters (130 feet), but in the dive briefings most divemasters present profiles with a maximum depth of 30 meters.

A recompression chamber is in Papeete.
See More
Photographer Laurent Ballesta documented the 2016 grouper spawn and the accompanying gray reef shark aggregation at Fakarava's South Pass. Learn more about the project at blancpain-ocean-commitment.com/gombessa-iv-genesis.

View more of the islands' incomparable beauty in Stephen Frink's onus online photo gallery.

Watch Ballesta's video about the 2014 Gombessa II project, The Grouper Mystery.



© Alert Diver — Q3 Summer 2017