Diving into French Polynesia

January, 2022
swim with sharks French Polynesia

Pam LeBlanc dives into the water off Bora Bora as a blacktop reef shark looks on. Chris LeBlanc photo

I could see the sharks from the boat –– dozens of them, swirling beneath me in the gin-clear water off of Bora Bora in French Polynesia like moths around a glowing lantern.  

Blacktip reef sharks don’t typically act aggressively toward humans, but stepping into water where 75 of them are silently cruising does take a little brain management. I watched for a few minutes –– sleek, silvery animals, 3 or 4 feet long, with dorsal fins that look like they’ve been dipped in dark ink –– then pulled my mask over my eyes and slid into the ocean. 

Read more: Hiking and swinging through Moorea

“Jaws” gave sharks a bad name. But the truth is, sharks are important apex predators who help keep the ecosystem in balance, and humans aren’t on their menu. They’re also really graceful creatures and fascinating to observe. 

The 45 minutes my husband and I spent swimming with them during an all-day boat tour around Bora Bora ranked near the top of a day filled with highlights. After photographing the sharks, we floated in shallow water while stingrays glided around us, then ate lunch and sipped wine at a picnic table submerged in knee-deep water. We listened to our boat captain play traditional Polynesian music on his ukelele, learned how to crack open a coconut and squeeze milk out of its meat, and weaved palm leaves into a purse, too. 

The islands of Tahiti serve up adventure 

sunset bora bora

The sun sets behind coconut palms on Bora Bora. Pam LeBlanc photo

Not bad for just one day in French Polynesia, a great option for Americans looking for alternatives to better-known destinations like Costa Rica and the Caribbean. And unlike Hawaii, which became so flooded with tourists last year that rental cars ran short and the average cost of a hotel room in Maui shot to $596 per night, some of the lesser-known islands around French Polynesia are practically devoid of tourists right now. (Visitors need a negative Covid test to enter the country and to return to the United States, and bring your proof of vaccination if you’ve got it.) 

From the bustling capital city of Pape’ete on the island of Tahiti to the lush, mountainous islands of Moorea and Bora Bora, French Polynesia is made up of 118 islands. Each one, it seems, offers its own unique experience.  

barracuda French Polynesia

A school of barracuda cut through the water off an atoll in Tahiti. Chris LeBlanc photo

On remote atolls, you can scuba dive with clouds of fish in impossibly turquoise-colored lagoons. In Moorea, you can hike through pineapple fields or soar over treetops on a high-flying swing. Offshore, you can scuba dive with lemon sharks bigger than a man, and on Bora Bora, the manta rays –– looking for all the world like flying carpets come to life –– flap and roll right in front of your eyes. 

Highlights of a trip to the islands of Tahiti 

After spending 12 days on the islands in December, I’ve come up with a list of some of my favorite experiences on the four islands I visited: Tahiti, Manihi, Moorea and Bora Bora. Without further ado… 

turtle

A sea turtle swims above the reef in Tahiti. Photo by Chris LeBlanc

  1. If turtles are your thing, your first stop after arriving in Papeete, on the main island of Tahiti, should be a dive site called The Turtle Platter, where chances are you’ll see bunches of the cute, tire-sized critters. We spotted at least 20 sea turtles –– both green and Hawksbill –– some tucked into crevasses in the reef, others swimming over it, and one that was ridiculously obsessed with my husband. Fluid Tahiti dive shop offers free pickup from your hotel to their shop at the largest marina in Papeete.  

surfers in French Polynesia

A surfer catches a wave in Tahiti. Pam LeBlanc photo

2. While you’re out on a boat, make sure to take the time to watch the surfers catching big waves just south of Marina Taina in Papeete. (Fluid Tahiti dive shop offers boat tours, even if you don’t want to scuba dive.) You also have a good chance of seeing spinner dolphins, which leap out of the water and twirl like ballerinas in an incredible show of athleticism. 

pam scuba

Pam LeBlanc prepares to scuba dive during a December 2021 trip to French Polynesia. Chris LeBlanc photo

3. You’ll find some of the best scuba diving in the islands around the tiny coral atolls scattered throughout French Polynesia. We dove along Turipaoa Pass in Manihi, where we encountered large schools of bullet-shaped barracuda and parrotfish with pink, green and blue scales. (We didn’t even make it to the highly rated scuba diving destinations of Fakarava, Rangiroa, or Tetiaroa, known for large, pelagic creatures like mantas and sharks. Those will have to wait for another trip.) 

Read more: Hiking and swinging through French Polynesia

4. Tahiti is also a top destination for whale watching. Humpback whales come here from the Arctic for about six months each year, and tourists can get an up close look from a chartered boat. Peak season runs from August to October.  

5. After three days on a remote atoll, we headed back to Papeete, then hopped a ferry to Moorea, where we joined Nemo’z Diving for two morning dives in hopes of spotting some of the island’s famous resident lemon sharks. The sharks can reach sizes of 9 to 12 feet (and, our dive master warned us, sometimes make close passes on divers.) Forty-five minutes into the dive, just when we thought we’d been skunked and were about to head up to do our safety stop, one finally turned up, swirling along the ocean floor and into the blue. (There has not been a fatal shark attack in French Polynesia in more than 50 years, although a woman lost both her hands in a rare attack in Moorea in 2019. 

manta ray French Polynesia

A manta ray flaps past during a dive in Bora Bora. Chris LeBlanc photo

6. Our next stop was the honeymooners’ paradise of Bora Bora, which looked like a scene from “South Pacific” with its coconut palms and blazing sunsets. There, once again, a dive boat from Eleuthera Bora Diving picked us up directly from the tiny seaside airport and delivered us straight to the first dive site. The spot, Anau, is known as a “cleaning station” where manta rays congregate to let smaller wrasse nibble parasites off their bodies. We donned our gear, leaped overboard, waved at a passing sea turtle, then spotted an octopus tucked in a hole. (The reef here looked strained in areas, due to bleaching. That happens when warm water temperatures cause the coral to expel the algae living in its tissue.) Then a big manta –– about 15 feet long –– made an appearance. The ray turned and wheeled, circling us for 15 minutes before departing.  

Read more: A rare glimpse at a pearl farm in Tahiti

7. Besides manta rays, Bora Bora is known for black tip reef sharks, and at a dive site called Tapu, you’ll find dozens (and dozens!) of them. Feeding sharks in the lagoon and around passes is banned by law, but the animals still show up in big numbers here, cruising the reef and eyeing divers lucky enough to take a swim with them. I got excited when the first one swam over a ridge; I had no idea that 75 more were gliding just on the other side. We spent 45 minutes with the sharks, all about 3 or 4 feet long.  

clownfish French Polynesia

A clownfish swims above an anemone in Bora Bora. Chris LeBlanc photo

8. Another highlight of diving in French Polynesia? The clownfish. They’re not everywhere, like they were when I dove in Fiji a few years ago, but a good dive master should be able to direct you to them. The little orange and white fish made famous in the Disney movie “Finding Nemo” are fun to watch. In real life, the fish form a symbiotic relationship with anemones, swirling among their finger-like tentacles. The fish gets protection (the anemone doesn’t sting it) and the anemone gets better water circulation –– plus some nutritious excrement –– as the fish moves around it. 

picnic in bora bora

In Bora Bora, Lagoon Service will take you on a custom boat trip and serve lunch at a picnic table in the water. Pam LeBlanc photo

9. Lagoon Service Bora Bora offers custom tours –– half day or full day –– in beautifully painted 30-foot outrigger motor boats (that’s how we saw the sharks and the stingrays one day). And the picnic was unforgettable –– fresh fish in coconut milk, grilled beef, chicken and fish, banana pudding, and a bottle of white wine, served at a picnic table perched in shallow water. Our boat captain, Raiarii “CoCo” Spies, serenaded us with traditional music, taught us how to crack open a coconut, then showed us how locals weave palm fronds into purses and hats. 

10. One final thing that scuba divers can applaud in French Polynesia? A local movement started in 2017 to grow new coral. Through the project, called Coral Gardeners, scientists harvest bits of corals that have survived bleaching events, plant them on ropes and racks, then replant them on degraded reefs.  

If You Go

Getting there:

Air Tahiti Nui offers direct flights from Los Angeles to Papeete, Tahiti. From Tahiti, Air Tahiti offers connecting flights to smaller islands, including Moorea, Bora Bora and Manihi. You can also take a ferry from Papeete to Moorea. 

Stay:

We moved around a lot. Our favorite places were the smaller, independent pensions including Green Lodge Moorea. We also stayed at Maitai Bora Bora, Hilton Hotel Tahiti and InterContinental Resort Tahiti, which had its own swimmable “lagoonarium.” 

Do:

Scuba dive, snorkel, swim, hike, relax. 

Eat and Drink:

Our favorite places were the little rulottes on the side of the road. Don’t miss A l’Heure du Sud, which offers lots of vegetarian options. We also liked Bloody Mary’s and St. James Restaurant in Bora Bora.  

Pro Tip:

Airlines put a weight limit on inter-island flights, but if you tell the agent you’re carrying scuba gear, you’ll get a higher allowance. 

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