Long known as a destination for honeymooners and other species of lovebirds, Tahiti and the islands of French Polynesia offer over-the-water bungalows and picture-perfect settings. But more and more divers are discovering that just off these islands famed for mutineers and nuclear blasts lies some world-class diving. Today you're likely to hear divers whispering Somerset Maugham's sentiment about Tahiti: "I knew right away that there was the place I'd been looking for all my life."
Where to Dive
There are 118 islands and atolls in the vast area known as French Polynesia, and 11 that have diving centers: Bora Bora, Raiatea, Huahine, Moorea, Tahiti, Tikehau, Nuku Hiva, Tubuai, Rurutu, Rangiroa and Manihi. With so many islands to choose from, it's difficult to decide where to go. Here are four excellent choices:
Under the Sea in French Polynesia
The islands of French Polynesia offer a diversity of dive profiles:
Lagoons Somewhat shallow, the lagoons make ideal areas for novice divers or for tuning up dive techniques.
Ocean Drop-Offs Vertical reefs spilling into deep oceanic blue that provide one of diving's ultimate thrills.
Passes High-energy drift diving where you'll find big manta rays and schools of sharks cruising through the channels. Due to the often strong currents, the passes are for the more experienced divers.
Moorea: Shark World
Located in the middle of the South Pacific, Moorea is Tahiti's heart-shaped sister island and the model for Bali Hai, James Michener's mythical island in South Pacific. The dive specialty in Moorea is hand-fed shark and stingray dives.
At Tiki Point, swarming blacktip sharks greet divers the minute the boat arrives. A single divemaster carries fresh or frozen fish in a bag and hands it out to hungry sharks. Lemon sharks, whitetips, blacktips and abundant schools of bluestripe snappers all compete for the food.
Taotoi is another favorite site with excellent visibility. Not only are sharks fed here, but you can swim with moray eels and Napoleon wrasses. At Stingray World, divers can touch, play with and even feed as many as 10 stingrays during a dive. Be careful not to kick up sand and spoil the visibility at this shallow sandy site.
Bora Bora: Romance and Rays
Located northwest of Tahiti in the Leeward Society Islands, Bora Bora's lagoon is world-famous for its beauty and offers brilliant displays of coral ledges and cliffs, along with varieties of colorful reef fish and graceful manta rays, eagle rays, schools of barracuda and the ever-present shark population. Known as one of the world's most romantic islands, Bora Bora is almost completely encircled by offshore islets and reefs, with only one narrow pass to the open sea, creating a magnificent lagoon of infinite depths and color. Shark feedings are usually done here once a day, dropping the fish from the boat instead of hand-feeding. At one point, a huge lemon shark came in to feed, along with whitetips, blacktips and gray reef sharks. The dive sites here are diverse, with swim-throughs, wall diving and open water. On one of the dives (no names were given to the sites), we encountered a school of eagle rays as well as manta rays.
Rangiroa: Shoot the Pass
Rangiroa, located northwest of Tahiti, is the second-largest atoll in the world (only Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands is bigger), and from the edge of the lagoon, it's impossible to see the opposite side. This large coral reef is open at two passes between the lagoon and the ocean, and twice daily the tides carry water to and from the lagoon through these passes, creating strong currents and attracting an immense collection of marine life.
Rangiroa's calm lagoon is world-famous for its abundance and variety of marine life, being one of the richest spots in the number of native marine species. But the thrill rides are in Rangiroa's passes, where experienced divers ride the strong currents.
Favorite Rangiroa dives include Avatoru Pass and Tiputa Pass. At Avatoru Pass, along the outer rim of the reef, expect large silvertip sharks, schools of big eyes, silver fish, and blacktips, to mention a few. At Tiputa Pass, 50 sharks circle under an immense school of barracuda. Also here are gray sharks, white-tips, blacktips and silvertips, as well as surgeon fish, Napoleon wrasse, grouper, turtles and eels. Big hammerhead sharks can be seen in Tiputa Pass from December to March.
Manihi: Black Pearl
Lying 330 miles northeast of Tahiti with a population of under 800 residents, Manihi is one of the prettiest atolls in the Tuamotu Archipelago. Famous for its black pearls, the atoll is also home to some of the best diving in French Polynesia.
The Break draws some very hungry blacktip sharks, gray sharks and even large lemon sharks. Here, as in Moorea, the ocean seems to explode with sharks swarming in a frenzy — twisting and tearing the fish to shreds, then leaving as abruptly as they came once the food is gone. In June, expect to encounter hundreds of groupers, which gather here to breed at that time every year.
Tairapa Pass, which connects the ocean to the lagoon, is an exhilarating drift dive that ends up in the lagoon of manta rays. We also saw eagle rays, as well as tuna, schools of barracuda and shimmering jacks. The Drop Off, another popular site, is a wall descending from 10 to 4,500 feet deep. Here you'll find impressive schools of snapper, gray sharks, Napoleon wrasse, tuna and barracudas.
While in Manihi, don't miss the chance to visit the working pearl farm where you'll be shown the various stages of development that are required for the oysters to produce their beautiful black pearls.