Pure Inspiration: Tahiti and her islands cover a vast swath of the Pacific Ocean almost 1,200 miles long. Throughout history they’ve inspired both mutiny and great art. Tahiti represents the ideal by which all other tropical destinations are measured. Its blue-hued lagoons are legendary, and its waters are filled with superlatives. Here, sharks are the norm, sentinels on almost every dive. Mantas and whales fill the waters with awe. And the visibility at most sites exceeds 150 feet. And to top it off, it’s probably the single most romantic destination on earth.
Beneath the castle mount
I awaken early, as I always do when I travel, usually just before the sun rises.
The peak of Otumanu dominates the island of Bora Bora, thrusting above a ring of low clouds like a castle mount, or a kingdom entirely of the sky. I watch as the first golden light of morning caresses the mountaintop then begins to trace its way down the jagged slope, turning the ring of clouds a hushed pink. The sight is almost sensual; I can imagine the mountain shivering off an early morning chill as the heat from the sun reaches it.
At this hour, before light has touched the lagoon, the water seems dark and deep and dramatic. Then, as if embarrassed by the somnolence, the sun hits the water and the scene erupts. The lagoon lights up, glowing a hundred shades of blue, from Windex to royal to pale, and the trade winds pull the drape of clouds from Otumanu, which now shimmers in vibrant emeralds and electric greens as it pierces the sky. The beauty of Bora Bora seems impossible in this light, as if the sun brings a special enchantment and balm that will satisfy anyone’s imagined ideal of South Pacific perfection.
The surface of the lagoon ripples as I gaze, pulling my thoughts below. Beneath the placid skein that separates water from air is the secret lair of giant mantas and sharks. And when you slip beneath the surface, the world of Bora Bora changes. The misty bliss and ether of the world’s collective dream of paradise disappears, replaced by the unpredictable suspense of the ocean. Many of the visitors here are honeymooners; they pour out of the world’s planes and head, with blinders on, to their over-water bungalows, never to appreciate the true charisma of Bora Bora. But divers know.
Right now, I’m headed to Tapu, just outside the main channel, with PADI Five-Star Dive Center Bora Bora Resort. Soon we’re on the seafloor at 85 feet with about 150 feet of visibility, and ambling toward us with the practiced nonchalance of a top predator are three 10-foot lemon sharks. Several three- to five-foot blacktip reef sharks have gathered around as well, but they know their place in the pecking order and keep their distance. Surgeonfish, marbled grouper and bluestriped snapper circulate in the periphery like colorful satellites. They’ve all gathered for the fish head the divemasters have stashed in the coral. As the big lemons move in, the smaller fish part, then follow like a jittery comet’s tail. As soon as the lemons get close, they explode into motion, fighting their way to the fish head, then competing for it once it’s dislodged. The entire scene explodes into a frenzy of zipping and dashing and twisting, and for the smaller fish, petty thievery. Within five minutes even the scent has been devoured, and the melee instantly calms. The haughty lemons saunter away; the restless blacktips put some distance between themselves and our bubble-blowing company; and the myriad other marine life settles back into its normal routine.
The honeymooners, touring the reef in the Atlantis sub, whir past, gazing out their windows for last glimpses of the sharks while the divers with digital cameras check to see who got the money shot of a shark’s gaping maw full frame. Back at the resort as the day ends, I peer at Otumanu just before the sun sets, the last glimmer of light hitting the hidden kingdom of the peak.
It’s unnoticeable at first. As I descend outside Tiputa Pass, the world remains peaceful and calm. Acres of hard corals harbor tiny critters, lionfish, anemonefish, long-jawed squirrelfish, chromodoris nudibranchs. Bright aggregations of vividly red bigeyes move en masse over the reef. Descending farther, to about 120 feet, I encounter more serious marine life. Large silvertips patrol the depths. A squadron of eagle rays glides along the sand bottom. Then comes the first slight tug. You only feel it if you try to swim against it.
The narrow sprinkling of sand and palm trees that calls itself Rangiroa is a ring of land comprising the second largest coral atoll in the world. Rangiroa’s lagoon is vast. Standing on one side, you can’t see the other. But in the entire atoll, there are only two places where water flows between the lagoon and the Pacific Ocean — Tiputa Pass and Avatoru Pass. And during tidal flux, these two relatively tiny gaps become crowded with fast-moving water funneling through.
At the outer edge of Tiputa, the widest part, schools of jacks swirl in cyclones. The sides of the pass narrow, and I really begin to pick up speed. Diving in current rushing along at this speed is a strange sensation. You don’t feel the movement like you would in the wind. You just move; the coral heads and the seafloor sweep past, providing your only reference for gauging your speed.
Once I’m in the pass proper, which narrows even more, I feel like I’m being launched. But all around me — up, down, right, left — there are zippy, darting, scurrying blacktip reef sharks. There are easily 100 of them. About halfway through the pass, I notice the sharks slipping into an opening. This is Shark Cave. I follow them in and suddenly all movement stops. The cave is packed with sharks, ambling, bumping, resting — as I do — away from the current. I move to the opening of the cave and extend my hand, and as if I’ve reached through the open window of a moving car, my hand gets hit with the rushing current. I make my hand into an airplane shape, like when I was a kid. Then I remember I’m in a cavern packed with edgy blacktips. I ease back in among the sharks, and then, as if someone has rung a bell or fired a starter pistol, they all pour out of the cavern, down the slope into the center of the pass, where they line up head to tail against the current, like trekking elephants. In this conga line, they swim directly into the current until they disappear from view. Then before long they come rushing back into the pass. Several dolphins go by, clicking and whistling. Finally, I slip from mouth of the cave and — whoosh! — off I go, tumbling along with the current bound for the lagoon.
When I finally surface after my safety stop, I’m several hundred yards into the lagoon, bobbing over a lush field of hard corals, which are picked over by marauding double-saddle butterflyfish and outrageously colored parrotfish. Just as the chase boat comes to pick me up, a manta slips beneath me like a shadow.
“Ready to do it again?” asks the grinning divemaster.
He already knows the answer.
We’re floating at the surface. The mother humpback whale has finally gotten used to our presence and quietly naps on the seafloor 80 feet below us. Her 2,000-pound newborn, unable to hold its breath for more than five minutes, frequently rises to the surface to breathe. Its curiosity brings it closer to us with each interval, which sends a ripple of both thrill and awe through our little group. We’ve been snorkeling for about 30 minutes and just the sight and presence of a whale in the water is a life-changing experience.
When the calf gets too close for the mother’s comfort, she silently lifts off the seafloor and wraps the calf under her pectoral fin to gently persuade it to move to a more comfortable distance.
The experience has been accompanied by a constant ghostly soundtrack of whale song. The ethereal sounds seem to come from every direction at once. It’s as if the entire Pacific Ocean is haunted. The sound also has a presence. It seems to wrap around and pulse through us at the same time, almost as if the whale song carries a memory that the whale is trying to implant in our minds.
When she finally decides that our little group is not going away, the mother rises and comes in for a closer look. The nearer the whale comes, the more humble we all feel. The whale is enormous, easily 50 feet in length, and she would top the scales at nearly 40 tons. Only when you look into the eye of a whale do you experience the deep sentience of this creature. Being this close to a humpback gives us all a profound memory that we’ll cherish for the rest of our lives. This is the sole reason most of us have come to the little known outpost of Rurutu in the Australs of southern French Polynesia.
Every year between July and October, humpback whales converge upon the warm waters of Rurutu to give birth. They are thought to have chosen Rurutu because its shallow waters are relatively free of predators and because there are two protected bays in which to escape storms — a perfect whale nursery. The island is only about 35 square miles in size, and the whales gather just offshore, so it’s pretty easy to find them, making this one of the world’s premier places to have this unforgettable encounter.
Topside, the island sees few tourists, so traditions not only run deep, but rule the fabric of daily life. One of the most famous traditions, unique to Rurutu, is a biannual show of strength in which the village men and women lift volcanic boulders. It’s called amoraa ofai, and it occurs in both January and July. Once the champion is crowned, the island erupts in a national feast. Lush Rurutu is also riddled with magnificent caves, thick with stalactites and stalagmites. And if you close your eyes inside one, you’ll swear you can hear the reverberations of the whale song emanating from the shadows and rock.
Marquesas — Land of pelagics
There are no coral reefs, calm lagoons or gin-clear waters in the oceanic badlands of the Marquesas. These are primal, high, breathtaking and remote islands that feel the brunt of the Pacific Ocean’s currents and attract the big predators. So far, on three dives off the deliciously exotically named island of Nuka Hiva, I’ve seen mantas feeding on a current line, and spotted eagle rays and hammerheads in addition to thick aggregations of barracuda, snapper, trevally and, in the shadows, soldierfish. On one early morning dive, I spent about 20 minutes in the water with more than 30 melon-headed whales. This is pelagic country, the wild west of the dive world. It’s even culturally different from the rest of French Polynesia.
But right now I’m headed out to a site called Motumano Point to see what’s going to show up today. Like most of the sites in the Marquesas, Motumano is washed with current. And when we reach the undersea tip of the point, a group of whitetip reef sharks greets us. They seem to love the flow, but we round the point to a more sheltered spot, where a large school of trevallies darkens the water. We keep our eyes to the blue and are rewarded with two mantas that linger before passing — but not too close.
For the second dive, we head off to Taiohae Bay to a shallow site called Ekamako. A large cavern under a cliff, it’s one of the rare sites in Nuku Hiva that has calm water. Once I’m inside the cavern, my eyes adjust to the dim light and I fin toward the back. Soon my dive light picks up mounds in the sand. Dozens and dozens of stingrays cover the floor, resting. Normally skittish, these rays hardly stir at my approach. I have no problem getting as close as I like. It’s like a Shangri-La for stingrays.
The sense of the unusual continues topside. Here in the Marquesas the greeting is “ka oha,” which is distinct from the “ia orana” one hears in the rest of Tahiti, and the tattoos and woodcarvings in these isolated islands are distinct in their designs. The Marquesas rise almost straight out of the ocean, like citadels. And with such steep topography, it’s not surprising that one of the world’s highest waterfalls (Vaipo Waterfall at 1,148 feet) tumbles noisily in these wild islands. Gauguin and Melville found inspiration here, and if you’re into the lush and untamed, then you should go straight to the map and circle this corner of French Polynesia.