by Neville Smith
The day dawned clear and we headed out for the first day. A large crowd thronged the wharf â as a percentage of the population it would have been a 150,000 person crowd in Auckland. National and local press and television followed our every move and eventually our departure. Unfortunately, an organisational hiccup meant the competition start was delayed by a couple of hours. By the time we were sent on our way we needed to cool off, after sitting sweltering in the sun in our wetsuits.
Shane Fitzmaurice and Pat Swanson headed straight inshore to work the shallows. Dwane and Herb Herbert were sent out to the edge to pick up the surgeonfish, cod and big parrotfish. Neville Smith and Steve Crabtree discussed tactics in the team boat for the first hour, whilst Colin Smith tried to learn how to speak Austrine. The team dived hard all day, picking up fish steadily. Unfortunately some of the parrotfish proved elusive and the shallow divers had to work hard to fill up on some of the categories. There was no time to stop and have a drink or something to eat â just six hours of solid hunting. Meanwhile Herb and Dwane were doing a great job out on the drop-off. They had a difficult time with a big drummer. Dwane speared it in 30 plus metres and it dived under a bommie and stuck fast. Herb dived and at 36m found it in a cave, and had a tug-of-war with a large moray eel to extract it. What a diver!
For the last half hour both pairs fished towards the boat, to avoid being late. For the shallow pair, they wondered why they hadnât moved into the middle ground earlier! They came upon a nice area of staghorn and plate coral in 15-20m, with plenty of fish. In short time they had a couple of good surgeonfish and a big squirrelfish. There were more fish to be had, but the team was out of time.
With the first day over, all that was left was the weigh in. We knew we hadnât made the most of our opportunities, but hoped it hadnât cost us too greatly. Weâd also learnt a lot to apply during day two.
The weigh in was well organised. The weighing facilities were good, and all the team captains were given time to scrutinise each teamâs catch. As expected Tahiti took out the day (75 fish), the locals from Tubuai had a great day (70 fish), while New Zealand was third, but well back (54 fish). Australia was close behind New Zealand (53 fish), followed by Hawaii (51 fish), and New Caledonia (45 fish). As New Caledonia only had one pair competing, their result was actually very impressive.
We knew it would be very difficult on day two to catch the Tahitians, but we hoped to get a little closer to them and also to the local Tubuai team. Our secondary goal was to pull out a gap on the other teams and be the best of the visiting teams.
The weather was even better on day two. We headed out a different pass to an area on the western side of Tubuai. Although we had seen good fish on the training days in this area, we didnât expect it to be as productive as the area the previous day. We spent time discussing strategies and landmarks before the start but left several options open to change the plan during the day.
For the divers in the water the basic plan for this day was the same as the first day. Herb and Dwane would head out to the drop-off, while Shane and Pat bombed the shallows. The shallow pair sped straight in to the reef break and soon fish were being loaded into their plat (fish boat). They started off with some drummer in the shallows, and picked up a steady stream of parrotfish. Species that were difficult on the first day proved easier this day, while all had to hunt hard for species that were easy yesterday! Many fish were up in the white water. With over a metre of swell, you had to time your dives well â carefully observe approaching waves, follow one into the shallows as it breaks, spear a fish in the whitewash and then swim flat out underwater back out with the receding torrent, as the next wave breaks over you! Needless to say, coral cuts were de rigeur for the team. Shane and Pat got into a steady rhythm.
As Shane surfaced, usually with a fish, Pat would hand him the floatline and dive immediately. Neville came and offloaded our catch regularly, keeping us informed on what we had and what we needed. There was no time for food or drink, just 6 hours of constant swimming and diving. Back in the team boat Neville and Colin were busy weighing fish, checking identifications and trying to glean information on the progress of other teams from fleeting conversations. Steveâs secret sign language indicated that the Tahitians were having another great day. Well at least that is what we thought he meant flying past in the Tahitian boat gesticulating wildly at 30 knots. Maybe he was just trying to hold on!
Meanwhile, Herb and Dwane were on some great fishing out wide, including spearing some French Polynesian record sized apai, or Tahitian squirrelfish. They were also picking up some great parrotfish, as well as the usual surgeons.
Despite the abundant fish life and spearfishing action, there were few sharks around, mainly the odd black vee whaler.
After six hours the divers collapsed into the boat, having done the best they could. We knew we had done much better than the previous day and had covered off our list of target species for the day. But, if we had a good day we assumed everyone else had too.
Back at the weigh-in, the Tahitians once again proved their superiority in the coral, with a tally of 84 fish. To our delight, we were second on the day with 75 fish; the best ever catch by a New Zealand team in the coral. Australia and Tubuai each had 71 fish, followed by New Caledonia on 54 fish and Hawaii with 51 fish. It was great to beat the locals, even if it was only on the day. As always, the fierce rivalry between Australia and New Zealand was maintained, and boy was it great to come out on top!
Apart from the really pleasing result, Tubuai showed us that French Polynesia still has some really productive diving available. But, it is remote, has a small population and has a large productive area for fishing. With sustained pressure it wouldnât take long for this paradise to go the same way as the Society Islands.
Ashore it was great to be treated as rock stars by the locals. People would introduce themselves, wish us luck and thank us for visiting at any opportunity. It was all very humbling. As Kiwis it also had a feeling of home. The links between the Maohi and Maori culture obvious all around us.
So how does it rate as a dive destination? If you want sandy beaches, tranquillity and some great diving then Tubuai rates highly from what we have experienced in French Polynesia. The food and hospitality are honest, simple and homely. You could be at the childhood Kiwi bach with the neighbours except for the heat and lusciously warm water. Apparently large schools of various pelagic fish pass through in the late autumn and early spring migrations. Whales also abound for a month a year. But, if you want cheap condos, fast food and English as the lingua franca, go elsewhere!