Off the Wall in Tahiti – Action diving in Rangiroa
by Dave Moran
No matter if you have seen a thousand of these beautiful creatures, to be within arms reach is an experience a diver will never tire of. The whiteness of their bellies and protruding horns burned into my memory as the twin strobes awakened the remora hitching a jumbo jet belly ride. It seemed like an eternity, yet it was only a few fleeting seconds before the five manta rays vapourised into the blue-blackness at the limit of our visibility, 45 metres away.
I had traveled 4,395 km to the Atoll of Rangiroa (huge sky) in French Polynesia with some old Aussie dive mates to hopefully witness the annual feeding habits of large hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna mokarran), and with a little extra help from God, maybe tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier).
Why do over 10,000 New Zealanders and 10,000 Australians annually visit Tahiti and her islands and atolls in French Polynesia? For many it is simpleâ¦ romance. You mention the word Tahiti and your mind is flooded with pictures of beautiful palm fringed beaches and emerald coral reefs scattered under a vast ocean blue sky, beautiful Tahitian men and women, and wonderful tropical food mixed with the culinary masterpieces that are unmistakably French. And, of course, the wine to complement the exquisite magic of an evening meal with your lover while being drenched by the orange warmth of a setting sun melting into the horizon. Yes, the word Tahiti can easily be substituted for the word romance.
French Polynesia has cast its spell on many since the first Europeans visited in 1521. It is easy to see why Fletcher Christian and his mutineers decided to jump ship in 1789, and how the romance captured writers and painters such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Somerset Maughan, James Michener and the famous post-impressionist, French painter Paul Gauguin. Hollywood was seduced as early as 1920 when the first of three Mutiny on the Bounty movies were shot. Marlon Brando owns an island there.
Some of the mountainous islands are stunningly beautiful, such as Moorea and Bora Bora, which seem to have been created from the fairyland mind of Walt Disney. It is as if the master of creation decided, on the seventh day to really let his hair down and give people a chance to experience pure paradise on earth. For us, diving was a bonus with adventure and excitement and a chance to see some of the large animals for which these 118 islands and atolls are world famous.
Rangiroa is an hours flight from Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, and is the largest atoll of the Tuamotus group. The lagoon, covering an area of 100kms long by 20kms wide, could swallow the main island of Tahiti. The 2,000 inhabitants mainly live on a motu – a strip of sand, coral and coconut palms only a few hundred metres wide.
During rainy season in January and February the grey reef shark (Carcharhinus amblyrhyncos) and eagle rays (Aetobatis nari nari) mate in the waters around Rangiroa. The hammerhead and tiger sharks cruise in from the open ocean to take advantage of the grey reef shark and eagle raysâ romantic liaisons. After mating, the females are very weak and make easy targets for the powerful and swift hammerhead and tiger sharks. Frenchmen Denis Lagrange and Pascal Jagut of Blue Dolphins Dive, which operates out of the five star resort Kia Ora, have witnessed their mating behaviour. Using rebreathers, they sat on the bottom like blocks of coral and photographed tiger and hammerhead sharks munching up their breakfast. It is very impressive seeing these large sharks with sharks and eagle rays hanging from their mouths. The photographs are absolutely amazing and are now so exclusive that the originals have been stored in Paris for future marketing.
Sharks, sharks, sharks…
The most feared word in the English language, yet the word represents one of the most majestic animals on the planet. The crew from Dream Dive who are also based on Rangiroa have shark feeding perfected into an art. Stephan Xvereb, Yann Hurbert and Isabelle Reynaud, like other dive operators in Rangiroa, mainly dive in and around the two passes that feed into the lagoon – Tiputa Pass to the northeast at the airport end of the motu and D-Avatoru pass off the village of the same name at the other end.
Dream Dive has two shark feeding stations located out from the entrance of both passes. The sharks, especially in the Tiputu Pass, are well tuned to these free handouts. As you descend you realise that you are in for one hell of a partyâ¦ look at all those hungry guests!!!
A small amount of fish is stuffed under a piece of coral plate and the first prize is awarded to the shark who can figure out where the party cake is. Numerous fish lead the search party with the red snapper (Lutjanus bohar) being the âmuscle boysâ. Road raging reef sharks ram their noses deep into the coral scattering clouds of multi-coloured reef fish. Then, as if only interested in the main course, a few three metre oceanic white tip sharks (Carchachinus longimaus) casually glide into the party. There is only one word to describe these majestic sharksâ¦ beautiful. They are in no real hurry and are happy to check out the other invited guests for a few minutes while the junior sharks do all the work in searching for the cake. Then, suddenly, casual cruising flicks into a blurred mass of sharksâ twisting bodies. Huge noble Maori wrasse – Napoleon fish (Cheilinus undulatus) throw their pectoral fins frantically into reverse. An oceanic white tip crunches the scaly party cake firmly in its jaws and moves out into the deeper water away from the partygoers who are like seagulls behind a fishing boat, fighting over the crumbs drifting in the current. Within minutes the scene is calm again, the community is busy doing its housework while the gray reef sharks once again patrol up and down the reef.
Rangiroa is famous for its manta rays which are frequently encountered as they feed and play in the massive volumes of water that rage in and out of the lagoon each day. August and September are the optimal times to dive with these awe-inspiring gliders of the seas, although you can expect to encounter them all year round. If you are into drift dives and roller coasters, you owe it to yourself to ride the currents in the passes. At speeds up to 10 knots it sure makes for a great way to finish off the shark feeding dive. You thunder past undercut ledges that are stacked with red squirrel fish. You need to see the ledge coming up and position yourself to duck under it and hopefully out of the full force of the current. As you enter the lagoon the current starts to dissipate and it is relatively easy to hug the edge of the pass and find yourself in current-free water, which in the Tiputa Pass is appropriately named The Aquarium. The amount of water movement and the associated food created by such water action makes the twin passes at Rangiroa the hot spots for fish action. Donât be surprised to see passing dolphins, marlins, sailfish, dogtooth tuna, schools of barracuda and jacks and the singing humpback whale. You definitely need to visit Rangiroa more than once, or stay for a year to experience the changing moods of the visitors to her waters.
Just 30 kilometres away is the island of Tikehau. There are two dive operators here: Activites Nautiques de Tikehau and the Raie Manta Club. Frenchman Eric Roubeaud from the Raie Manta Club took us out to the only major boat pass into the lagoon. Shark feeding is no longer practiced on the island, but the white silver tips still remember those days and were soon circling, hoping that things may have changed.
The top dive site here is along the reef edge where a very deep cave system adds some adventure to the reef edge. Sharks are frequently seen riding an elevator of currents that flow up from the 70 metre bottom to the entrance at 40 metres. A feature of this area was an amazing amount of fish life compared to the rest of the reef. The usually flighty red squirrel fish were abundant and were delighted to have their pictures taken. We encountered playful spinner dolphins and schools of barracuda at the outer entrance to the pass. Tikehau is virtually a round lagoon with numerous motus clinging to its 28 km perimeter. The four hundred residents, mainly living around the village of Tuherahera, are involved in copra production and fish trapping. The fish are destined for the fish markets of Tahiti. The Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort is due to open in 2001, and will have some over water bungalows.
Our tripâs quest was to witness the large hammerheads and maybe the occasional the tiger shark. We were a little disappointed that these encounters had not eventuated until our last day on Tikehau. Warwick McDonald from Action Dive Melbourne had a golden opportunity to film a tiger shark but forgot to press the button on his video camera as he was too busy concentrating on tightening his sphincter muscle! During the dive up on the reef edge checking out some interesting guts and ledges in three to five metres of water, Warwick was bowled over by a three metre tiger shark that come charging up over the lip of the reef to surprise the eagle rays that were held up in the gut. Surprise indeed, when it crashed into Warwick and his camera – the ugliest eagle ray it had ever seen. Totally confused by this unexpected meeting, the tiger shark headed back out into the deep blue. After changing his pants Warwick was thrilled to have had such an encounter, though not capturing it on film is totally unforgivable!
We will have to return to these exciting French Polynesian Islands to try and be in the right place at the right time to witness the feeding habits of the hammerhead and tiger sharks. My gear is already half packed!
Next issue we explore the adventurous diving and outdoor pursuits that are available on the main island of Tahiti. We also look at how staying in homestay accommodation (pensions) can save you a bundle of dollars while discovering the uniqueness of the adventures and the romance that only French Polynesia can provide.
Auckland, New Zealand
Ph 0-9-360 8880, fax; 0-9-360 889, Email: email@example.com. Sydney, Australia
Ph 0-2-9281 6020, Fax: 0-2-9211 6589, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
â¢ Blue Dolphins Dive
â¢ Dream Dive
â¢ Raie Manta Club
â¢ Rangiroa Paradive
â¢ Activites Nautiques
â¢ Raie Manta Club (details as above)
DIVING ON THE WEB