Big sharks and ripping currents: Tahiti’s atoll excel

Dave Abbott picks up Part II of his recent Tahiti adventure

All photos by Dave Abbot

Though sad to leave Moorea I was excited to be jumping on a plane to Rangiroa in the Tuamoto’s, one of the world’s largest atolls and home to the famous Tiputa Pass with its ripping current and big pelagic fish.

A short 1½ hr flight across azure blue ocean and I was looking down on a thin golden ring of land surrounding a vast lagoon – 1446 square kilometres – all that seawater emptying and filling each day through two narrow passes, teeming with life!

The first evening was spent on a deck built over the water on the edge of the pass where I was mesmerised by endless standing waves generated by wind against current, and where several large resident Bottlenose dolphins were surfing in the channel right out in front.

Rangiroa’s lagoon is actually so large it has its own horizon, and since it is less than 35m deep, the currents flowing in and out the passages, when combined with strong winds, can even create localized, interior storms…pretty astonishing!

Resident bottlenose. Photo: Dave Abbott.

Tiputa Pass stunning

My first dive in Tiputa Pass next day was simply stunning. We started outside the pass in clear blue water dropping away to the depths, and cruised along the outside reef wall shadowed by the odd reef shark and hulking Dogtooth tuna.

Loud squeaks alerted us to a couple of dolphins zooming in to check usout. The resident Bottlenose can be very interactive with divers, but the strong winds on the surface were creating perfect surfing conditions in the pass for them and they were soon off out to play.

The current really picked up as we reached the corner of the pass, and so did the shark numbers! Swirling around us were 30 to 40 of them, effortlessly holding position in the current dragging us rapidly into the main pass amidst a school of hovering barracuda.

Blacktip reef sharks. Photo: Dave Abbott.

All this was at speed. I was turning my head back and forth, side to side, taking it all in.

Midway through the pass are the ‘canyons’, coral gutters where we can duck below the current and lie in wait for passing sharks. In one of these I caught a flying glimpse of a Hammerhead on my first dive, wishing I had my rebreather to stay down longer.

During my stay I dived this pass several times on both incoming and outgoing tides. The teeming life was a constant: the occasional Manta ray and turtle; huge Dogtooth tuna; schools of barracuda; and lots of reef sharks.

Keldane sets up for a photo. Photo: Dave Abbott.

Almost as exciting were the boat pickups! In the weather conditions while I was on Rangiroa the timing for the pick-ups outside the pass was critical. Not only because of the raging outgoing current but added to by the confused, large seas and waves. The Tahitian skippers handle these challenges with consummate skill and style, manoeuvring their dive boats and judging pickups between waves to the split-second.

Fakarava iconic

Almost as well known as Rangiroa is another iconic dive site in French Polynesia, Fakarava. This too is large atoll with a lagoon and a pass renowned for its ‘walls of sharks’ and annual grouper spawning, an event I had attended in 2016 to film for a National Geographic documentary.

I rate the Tumakohua (South) Pass at Tetamanu as one of my all-time favourite dives, one of those experiences so deeply etched in my memory.

The dive starts in deep water outside the pass. You drop down to around 30m and drift into the channel on the incoming current through one ‘wall’ of sharks after another. You run the gauntlet of three main ‘shark walls’ on the way through. (Just to be clear, ‘wall’ doesn’t refer to a topographical feature; it describes the aggregation of hundreds of sharks in tight formation.) Though we dived and filmed in the South pass on at least 15 occasions it never once began to feel normal to be amongst so many sharks!

In between dives great snorkelling is also to be had in amongst the many Blacktip sharks that hang around the shallow reef near Tetamanu.

And in between these marine adventures of course, as for everywhere in French Polynesia, the food is a delicious experience: fresh tuna sashimi, luscious tropical fruits, and my favourite, poisson cru, the signature local dish consisting of raw fish, citrus juice and coconut milk.

Tigers and Humpbacks

The last week of my trip I spent diving with a good friend who lives in Tahiti, filming Tiger sharks and free-diving with Humpback whales in the beautiful indigo-blue waters surrounding Tahiti and Moorea.

Close. Photo: Dave Abbott.

Being eyeball to eyeball with large Tiger sharks is very special. Their big square heads, jet black eyes, beautiful markings and massive bulk bestow a real ‘presence’.

Tigers would have to be one of my favourite sharks as they are generally calm and measured, well, at least compared to Mako’s!

Tiger. Photo: Dave Abbott.

Most of the whales we encountered were mother and calf pairs or solo singing males. Being so close to such massive creatures was, as always, breathtaking.

Few places can offer such memorable diving as French Polynesia and its 118 islands, especially if you like sharks, and warm-water diving.

If you also love spectacular scenery, friendly people and great food (especially fresh tuna!) Tahiti is a wonderful place to go.

Getting there:

Air Tahiti Nui has a direct flight from Auckland to Papeete that takes about five hours.

My flight with Air Tahiti Nui was one of the best I have ever had – amazing food, super friendly staff, and very roomy comfortable seats, which if you fly a lot you know is a big deal. One of the cool things about Air Tahiti Nui is that on top of the normal baggage allowance, you can check-in an additional dive bag up to 23kg free of charge.

The airline also has a partnership with Tahiti’s domestic carrier Air Tahiti, and if you come in on an international flight you can get additional weight allowance on flights between islands, an awesome policy. This year is the airline’s 20th anniversary and in November they will be rolling out a new fleet of B787 Dreamliners.

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