Atoll Hopping in Tahiti
There is nothing like touching down in the Islands of Tahiti—a wonderland I dreamed of getting back to since my first visit in 2011, and a place I regularly visited in my mind during dry days on land during the early pandemic. As soon as Tahiti opened back up again to visitors in May 2021, I started plotting my return to my favorite archipelago on the planet.
We all know that one-and-done dives exist, as well as those places you never forget. And for me—and most divers who make it here, I’m willing to bet—the sharky, fish-packed passes of the Tuamotu Archipelago (the largest chain of atolls in the world) falls into that second category as one of those dive destinations that burn into your memory and never stop beckoning you back.
Grey reef sharks of Fakarava atoll.
On my recent visit in December 2021, I was determined to do more than diving, to fully bask in this incredible pinpoint on the planet. And the nature of atoll hopping in the Tuamotus—which requires short flights on Air Tahiti to get between spots, to maximize your time—makes it all the easier to plan some incredible surface interval days between dives.
Read on for an itinerary with topside and underwater fun that’s the makings for tropical diving memories for life.
First things first. Make sure you have a window seat for the hour-long flight from Papeete to Rangiroa (pro tip: there aren’t any seat assignments on Air Tahiti, so line up to board as soon as possible). What unfolds over the course of the next hour is scenery that most people who don’t live here or dive here have likely never seen—the atolls look like giant life preservers tossed across the ocean’s vast blue expanse. It is simply out of this world, beyond description, until you see it for yourself.
Somewhere over Rangiroa.
When you arrive at the tiny, open-air airport on Rangiroa, the largest atoll in the Tuamotus, locals line up to greet families and friends with thick strands of fragrant tiare flowers. If you’re staying at a local guesthouse or hotel, there will be someone proffering a flower strand for you, too—hospitality is next-level in French Polynesia, where you’re always welcomed with blooms and sent off with a shell lei.
Where to stay: Ocean views are everywhere when you’re staying on the thin, sandy ribbon of land that makes up an atoll. Make sure you book a room that takes advantage of the views. I loved sliding my patio door open at my bungalow at Hotel Maitai Rangiroa to180-degree views of the dazzling ocean, just steps away. The bungalows are woven from coconut thatch, and my bed was covered with flower petals and two swans made from towels. There was no doubt I was back in the tropics, and you couldn’t transplant me to a chic, city hotel or fancy overwater bungalow for any price. Meals are served in the hotel’s open-air dining room, overlooking a pier that’s lit up at night and draws sharks and mullet as eye candy.
During my stay, fellow guests included a family from France with young kids and a large group of divers from a club in Spain who were on a similar atoll-hopping tour as I was.
The dive: Diving in the Tuamotus, where huge quantities of water flow in and out of narrow atoll passes, is all about timing. At Rangiroa’s famous Tiputa pass, visibility is best on the incoming tide. So that’s when I enter the water with Rangiroa Diving Center, located just a 10-minute boat ride from the pass. In the shop, I browsed a poster with photos of the pass’s resident dolphins, with names like Zip, Nikki and Maui. And right when we entered the water on the outside of the atoll pass, it was Nikki who showed up with her day-old baby, which we watched nurse from her as they swam past.
Curious and wild common bottlenose dolphins and scuba divers in the Tuamotu Islands.
This is the kind of magic that happens on the regular in the Tuamotus. And as if reliable dolphin encounters weren’t enough of a thrill at Tiputa pass, the legendary site teems with unicorn fish, paddle tail snapper, African pompanos swimming in tight, skittish schools and eagle rays, too. It’s the kind of dive you surface from with a brand-new appreciation for the entire sport of diving—and a desire to immediately go back down and do it all over again.
The day trip: The logistics of atoll hopping on short flights between the Tuamotus means that you’re going to have more non-diving days on your itinerary than you do when you visit a single island or destination. But that's more than okay in these parts, where wondrous outings on the water to snorkel and see other wildlife await. The best day trip in Rangiroa, the world’s second-largest atoll, takes you across its enormous lagoon to a special corner called Blue Lagoon with tiny family-run operator, Tereva Tane e Vahine. You get a real impression for the size of Rangiroa (it stretches 42 miles long and 16 miles across) as you speed across it for an hour to reach this spot. There, I explored with two young local guides in their early 20s—friends who call themselves brothers and grew up on Rangiroa before heading to Papeete for university. They ultimately returned because they missed the nature on their island so much, they told me. While the guys grilled fresh fish for lunch and played their guitars, I watched baby blacktips and lemon sharks circle by the scores in the lagoon’s shallow, sheltered waters, where they spend their early years. Giant hermit crabs patrolled the sand. And in the open water of the main lagoon, I entered the water to swim with six-foot-long lemons and larger reef sharks that come to hunt, proving what no diver wants to admit—that sometimes snorkeling can be just as much fun.
Insider’s Tip: The most famous place to buy pearls on Rangiroa is Gaugin’s Pearl, where it’s definitely worth taking a tour to learn how the gorgeous black pearls from Tahiti are farmed right offshore. But your French Pacific Francs stretch further at the tiny, wooden shack of a shop called Pearly, right near Hotel Mai Tai and the airport. The pearls here are all from the Gambier Islands and go for far less, despite being just as pretty. There’s no nicer souvenir for friends back home than a pearl on a leather black cord — prices start around $20. You can fill your basket and consider your holiday shopping done.
Fancy staying in an overwater bungalow but prefer a crowd of serious divers and intrepid travelers compared to mixing among the honeymooning masses in a place like Bora Bora? Then the beautiful atoll of Tikehau, a 20-minute hop on Air Tahiti, west of Rangiroa (basically, you go up and then go back down—just make sure you secure that window seat, again, because there ain’t no ocean views like atoll views) is the spot.
This sleepy little atoll has just one tiny town, Tuherahera, where its roughly 500 residents live on palm-lined streets, blooming with frangipani trees and billowing bougainvillea. When you're not diving, pedal its backstreets and explore the low-tide zone on the ocean side of the atoll—where I met my own octopus teacher when a curious cephalopod swimming in a few inches of water curled a lone tentacle across my toes before slinking away in a moment I’ll never forget.
Overwater bungalows at Le Tikehau by Pearl Resorts on Tikehau.
Where to stay: I never really understood the overwater bungalow hype until I got to spend a few nights sleeping in one at Le Tikehau by Pearl Resorts, which strikes the perfect note of barefoot chic on a private atoll, only a few minutes by boat from the village. Dive boats pick you up right at the resort’s pier, too. I slept like a baby in my thatched palm cradle of a bungalow, hovering over gin-clear waters where a curious triggerfish would peer up from beneath my deck every morning as I sipped my coffee and blacktip sharks patrolled past. There’s great snorkeling from the overwater bungalows here, too, with Picasso triggerfish and schooling mullet everywhere.
Courtesy Terry Ward
Author, Terry Ward gets ready to dive in in Tikehau.
The dive: There’s just one pass to dive in Tikehau—Tuheiava, which Jacques Cousteau once said contained the richest fish life in all of French Polynesia. On the day I dive it with Tikehau Diving, the small pass (just over 600 feet across), is crammed with fish in every nook of the reef. Massive Napoleon wrasse patrolled over pastures of hard coral, surgeon fish gathered in clouds in the water column and in one adrenalin-pumping moment when we noticed smaller sharks go into bolt mode, a great hammerhead came swooping through the scene. It felt almost relaxing, by comparison, to hit a manta cleaning station to snorkel next, near the site of an abandoned pearl farm, where two of the giant mantas took turns winging in and out of the blue and I floundered like a baby whale overhead, taking it all in.
The day trip: A lesson you’ll learn quickly traveling in the Tuamotus—prepare for whatever the day brings to be even more mind-blowing than you imagined. I had no idea what to expect when my guide, Enoha, a 26-year-old from Tikehau, told me we were headed to see a “bird island,” the Ile aux Oiseaux, during a day tour with Tikehau Ocean Tour. I’d been to pelican-covered rocks and the like before back home, but this was a serious level up.
After speeding for an hour across the glassy lagoon, a raggedy motu twittering with life and surrounded by purple rings of coral came into sight. When we stepped ashore, it was to hundreds of newborn, fuzzy headed birds—white terns, red and brown foot boobies, frigates and more—peering down from nests and exposed branches, waiting for their parents to return from the sea with a snack. Baby bird season comes twice a year—December and July—and since there are no predators here (except crabs, which prey on unlucky birds that fall from their nests), the island is an absolute wonder. They were absolutely everywhere and I spent an hour walking around the island in awe. Later, Enoha spearfished for solider fish and parrot fish while I snorkeled and we tore into them grilled over coconut husks near a tiny fishing camp astride a world class surf break with not a soul paddling out. If travel is akin to dreaming, Tikehau is a dream I didn’t want to wake from.
Courtesy Tourism Tahiti/Lei Tao
Fish swim amongst a shallow reef in Tikehau.
Insider’s Tip: Looking to save money on a stay in Tikehau? There’s a smattering of family-run pensions near the village with no frills rooms and oceanfront views. Royal Tikehau, on a private atoll island, is another option that’s less expensive than an overwater bungalow, with beach bungalows offering direct access to the lagoon.
I remember the first time I visited Fakarava, many years ago. I met a salty dog sailor who had just arrived after a month-long Pacific transit from Puerto Vallarta. He said to me, “Do you have any idea where you are in the world?” He stopped me in my tracks, imagining the vast ocean he’d transited by wind power that I’d simply flown across on an 8.5 hour Air Tahiti Nui hop from Los Angeles to Papeete. But I can tell you now that Fakarava is easily one of the top three most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, both below and above the water. The air is scented with flowers, the churches are strung with seashells and locals have a friendliness and welcoming hospitality about them that is worth traveling the many, many miles to get here. And after Rangiroa, Fakarava’s lagoon is the second largest in the Tuamotus and home to some of the most epic diving in the world. So, there’s that too.
Where to stay: About a 20-minute shuttle ride after you arrive at the airport you can find yourself checking in at Havaiki Lodge, a mellow little resort surrounded by coconut palms that stretches along a gorgeous white sand beach, lined with little individual bungalows. On moonless nights, the sky is so inky here that even amateur astronomers can pick out the Southern Cross and Milky Way without trying. Come sunset, I suggest strolling out on the lodge’s long pier with a frosty Hinano beer in hand to watch nurse sharks and lemon sharks corralling schools of fish in the translucent water. The resort’s crowd is an interesting mix of international divers and French and Tahitian families escaping Papeete for a spell, everyone in all-out vacation mode.
Courtesy Tourism Tahiti/Bernard Beaussier
For your best chance at spotting a hammerhead shark, plan your trip to Fakarava anytime during December to March.
The dive: For divers who love sharks, it’s the stuff of dive fantasies made real to find yourself watching the wall of grey reef sharks (and the occasional oceanic silver tip ) that fills your entire underwater line of vision at Tetamanu Pass. There is simply no dive like this one. “The brief is follow me,” my dive guide, Thibault Gachon of O2 Fakarava says as we back roll in. The dive is just as I remember it from my last time here, utterly mind-boggling.
The kind of dive to remind you how much you love this sport, should you have forgotten somewhere along the way. In addition to the sharks, we spot paddle snappers, massive clouds of anthias glinting like treasure everywhere over the reef, Napoleons, unicorns and trigger fish. After a surface interval lunch of poisson cru (raw fish with coconut milk) on a motu, as one does, it’s back into the water to dive Tetamanu on the outgoing tide. Not all dive shops do it, because it doesn’t deliver as many of the sharks people come here to see, but it’s a wonder in its own right—fishy as hell and so worth it for the two absolutely massive vortexes of schooling barracuda we hover over in the water column at the end before we surface. Fakarava’s north pass, Garue, is sometimes overlooked, too, but Thibault calls it “The Louvre if the South Pass is Disney World,” with fewer sharks but more surprises. We spot a great hammerhead, and surprised I am.
The day trip: Tahitian Artist Enoha Pater from Fakarava Tour runs fascinating tours to show visitors some of the topside gems of Fakarava—which might look like just another sandy atoll. But these atolls harbor many secrets. His most interesting tour takes place after dark, at low tide along the atoll’s ocean side, where Enoha will introduce you to rare (and sometimes dangerous) shells and other tidal zone denizens you don’t usually see diving.
Tahiti Precious Pearl owner Anna Marissal describes the differing black pearl classifications found in Tahiti.
Insider tip: Still searching for that perfect Tahitian black pearl to bring home? Some of the most stunning ones in Tahiti are being cultivated by a young French woman, Anna Marissal, who grew up oyster farming in Arcachon, France with her parents and has taken up pearl farming on Fakarava. Visit Tahiti Precious Pearl, ask Anna to spread out her wares for you to see, and I dare you to go home empty-handed. They are that luminous and beautiful— like a little piece of the Tuamotus to wear forever and call your own.