By Bernardo Sambra
Twenty-five years diving around the world and countless hours of research were not enough to prepare me for the experience of diving in the world’s second largest “pass”. Out of control, disoriented and incapable of taking a photograph; that is how I felt the first time I fell victim of Garuae the giant.
The name French Polynesia immediately brings to mind perfect white sand, bungalows hovering over crystal clear water and coral reefs; elements to satisfy the imagination of dreamers and romantics alike. Nonetheless, the Polynesian islands are also known as the Shark Capital of the Pacific. In fact, there are far more sharks than people in these islands.
Polynesia which means many islands harbors 118 islands and atolls distributed in five archipelagos: the Tuamotu archipelago, the Marquise Islands, the Gambier Islands, the Austral Islands and the Society Islands. The latter, the most widely known, includes Tahiti and the idyllic Moorea, Raiatea and Bora Bora, as well as about 85% of the inhabitants of all the islands.
After much planning, my wife Valerie and I decided to center the trip around the wildest side of the Polynesia, away from the tourism centers and focusing on the least explored islands and atolls.
The Tuamotu archipelago was our choice.
Known by ancient seafarers as The Dangerous Archipelago, due to the challenge that meant getting around the vast amount of reefs surrounding the islands, this archipelago is made up of 80 atolls virtually intact. One of which is the Fakarava, the new star of extreme diving and the focus point of our itinerary.
After a two-hour flight from Papeete, we arrived at Rotoava, the more important of the two villages that exist on the island. The nearly 500 inhabitants of this atoll dedicate their life to the cultivation of black pearls, an industry that, along with tourism and copra (dried coconut sent to Tahiti for oil production) has become the main source of income for the region.
A few scattered houses, a church built with coral, small pensions, an elementary school and a new and luxurious resort were practically all the infrastructure in the island.
We finally arrived to the Havaiki Pension, an ingenious proposal by Joachim, a Frenchman dedicated to the growth of the famous black pearls, and his wife Clotilde, which combines his house and the black pearl farm with six small and cozy bungalows right on the shore of the central lagoon, with a direct view of our primary objective, the Garuae pass.
Fakarava – which means beautiful reef – became famous in recent years thanks to the Garuae, the largest pass of all the Polynesia, a huge 800-meter long opening, which literally sucks millions of liters of water during each tide shift.
This atoll, declared a Biosphere Reserve by Unesco, is one of those places that appear to have been the result of an ideal ensemble, combining the perfect weather, landscape and underwater world.
When compared to other diving spots in the world, Fakarava might be considered limited, since it only offers three additional spots besides the Garuae: Tumakohua, Te Ava Nui and Central Park; none of them compares to the experience of the Garuae. Nonetheless, they can be a good complement for any visitor lucky enough to stay in this place for more than 5 or 6 days.
Something we learned along the way was that diving in an atoll was different than everything we had ever experienced. An atoll is simply a ring-shaped island with a body of water in it. This “lagoon” is fed by colossal amounts of water that flow through broad channels known as “passes”, allowing the open sea waters to enter and recycle the central lagoon through the tide shifts. Precisely, what makes diving in an atoll special is that all immersions are done adrift, letting the current sweep you through the great pass.
Depending on the occasion it is possible to find currents of one, two and up to six knots that can turn a calm underwater dive into an electrifying, out of control ride.
It was 8 in the morning and we were aboard a dinghy operated by the Te Ava Nui company, property of Jean Christophe, the pioneer diver and main operator in Fakarava. After a short, 15-minute ride, we crossed the pass and remained outside the atoll, guarded from the current.
With great expertise, Jean Christophe gave us a simple but intense briefing: on three we all drop into the water, descend rapidly and remain weightless at about 25 meters below the surface. Thats when the show starts. The current that rushes in from the ocean will take us towards the central lagoon. Dozens of sharks should be waiting at the channel entry and, if we’re lucky, we may also see a tiger and a hammer. Enjoy!
When we dropped into the water the adrenaline was already pumping. The first thing we noticed was the reef: intact, completely covered in hard coral (Montipora, Pocillopora and Acropora) and so vast it was lost in the horizon. Four huge manta rays passed beneath us and, in an orderly fashion, stopped and made a line at a cleaning station.
A few minutes later, still overwhelmed by the pristine coral gardens, we learned the true meaning of “deep blue”. Cameras in hand, we were suspended at twenty meters below the surface, in the midst of cobalt blue water, waiting to feel the force of the current. After a brief kick we fell prey to the strength of Garuea, all eight of us, led by Jean Christophe seemed like feathers at the mercy of the wind, rushing uncontrollably in the same direction.
With over 50 meters visibility, we were able to see what, up until that moment, we had only imagined: a living wall of inquisitive and excited sharks; grey, white tip, black tip and barracudas, waiting against the current the arrival of food that accompanies each tide shift. The only difference was that this time we were served on the same platter.
Among the shouts of elation that the divers let out through the regulators, I managed to hear the signal of Jean Christophe, who was beckoning us to the bottom. We all descended immediately to a small place that kept us shielded from the current… the prefect spot to enjoy the show!
At that point, we felt that all that we had read and heard about the Garuae was true. We had roughly over a hundred worked up sharks feeding frantically.
After several minutes of pure adrenaline, we got the call to go back into the current. We ended up losing ourselves in the deep blue while we did a long decompression and safety stop on our way to the central lagoon, where our boat was waiting.
For five consecutive days we did up to three immersions a day, each of which had a magic and personality of its own. Even though it was the same place, it was the currents, the different animals and the light that turned each immersion into a unique experience.
During the three following weeks of our trip, we had the opportunity to dive in several other islands in the archipelago. In all of them we had unforgettable immersions; however, Fakarava remains in our memory as the true representative of the Tuamotu and of extreme diving with sharks.
Let us trust the local authorities and operators will be capable of preserving this natural paradise.