Tuamotu Archipelago, French Polynesia | photo by Philippe Bacchet
??It is said that the human brain rarely forgets an aroma, and this was borne out by our arrival in Papeete. The sweet and heady aroma of our welcoming lei – a garland made from Tahiti’s national flower, the tiare – brought back pleasant memories of earlier visits to French Polynesia’s far-flung islands. This flower has no set form and it is a local belief that each visit to these islands will, like the flowers, be uniquely enjoyable. We had high hopes that this would prove true as, on this trip, we would take in Tahiti and Moorea from the Society Islands, and voyage to the remote Tuamotu Archipelago, some 200 nautical miles to the east, on the 58 metre motor yacht Seawolf.
T: +1 954 646 4970
Just 10 minutes’ ride from the airport, the glistening outline of Seawolf made an impressive sight alongside the quay in downtown Papeete. While this ISPS-approved berth may be a little more public than the nearby Taina Marina, it is more convenient for a yacht’s guests, who can stroll into town at their leisure. We planned to stay in Papeete for a couple of days to acclimatise and recuperate.
Next morning, after a lazy start we did just that, walking into the charming town whose shops are a blend of those found in France, India and China. French culture was evident: gendarmes patrolled streets with familiar French names and road signs; the covered market rivals its counterpart in Antibes; and baguettes are the bread of choice.
A call from Rodolphe Holler, our diving guide for the Tuamotus, changed the plan for the second day of recuperation. There were whales off the northern shore of Moorea, where he lives, and he invited us over to see them because they are less common in the Tuamotus. In the morning Seawolf headed across the 13 nautical mile strait that separates Moorea from Tahiti.
Like Tahiti, Moorea is a mountainous island with a dramatic skyline and a largely uninhabited interior. For yachtsmen, it offers two world-class anchorages on its north shore, unrivalled for their scenic beauty and security. The slightly larger one, Opunohu Bay, was more convenient for us and Seawolf was soon riding comfortably to her anchor, overlooked by dramatic towering crags.
Seawolf’s nine metre Goldfish tender was soon speeding through the passe in the fringing reef, after which we paused for Holler to deploy a hydrophone to detect whales by their song. They were there all right, and not too far away. Sure enough, we saw a plume of spray break the horizon and, closing in, picked up ‘footprints’ on the water created by eddies from the whale’s tail. Eventually a black body appeared in a rush of breath and spray as a hump broke the surface. Then excitement, as a much smaller back broke the waves – this was a mother and her calf; humpbacks. We followed this pair on their swimming and diving training, our only sadness being that they were moving too fast for us to snorkel with them.
Back aboard Seawolf, we headed for the Tuamotu Archipelago, a chain of 78 low coral atolls. At Seawolf’s 10-knot cruising speed this was a 22-hour passage, but should charter guests feel a whole day of their holiday at sea is too much, it is easy to book into a top class resort hotel and relax on the beach for a day before making the same voyage by aircraft in just one hour.
With the sharks
Fakarava atoll – 32 nautical miles long by 13 wide – is, like all the Tuamotu islands, a narrow necklace of coral reef and sandbanks enclosing a huge, shallow lagoon dotted with coral outcrops. Our destination was the Passe de Tamakohua, or South Pass, at the other end of the atoll, one of the world’s great scuba experiences.
Within minutes of launching the big tender we were speeding towards the passe. By any standards it was a superb dive: clear water, healthy coral and tropical fish in abundance, plus a handful of inquisitive grey reef sharks and black tip sharks. We surfaced, exhilarated, but Holler assured us even better was to come the next day.
Next morning, while those who would dive later that day using rebreather sets did equipment training, the remaining guests headed for the little settlement of Tamakohua on the edge of the South Pass. Once the atoll’s main village, it is now a tourist settlement for scuba divers, who stay in waterside chalets built from coconut wood and woven pandanus leaves. Later, we rolled into the water near the spot we had surfaced on the previous dive. Descending to 25 metres we found ourselves in a coral-lined, deep-water channel with superb visibility, where we were joined by grey reef sharks.
As we drifted up the channel with the tide, their numbers increased until we were surrounded by the two-metre-long beasts, whose curiosity brought them within touching distance. This dive, into the shallower water of the lagoon, took us past increasingly colourful corals and fish including shoals of parrotfish and a huge, friendly Napoleon wrasse. It was one of those dives that on surfacing everyone tears out their mouthpieces and shouts, ‘Wow! Wasn’t that incredible?’ We had swum with about 100 sharks.
After a gourmet lunch aboard Seawolf, it was time for another shore excursion, to an area known as Pink Sands, a few kilometres southwest of the passe. This amazingly tranquil area just inside the reef offers glistening turquoise water surrounding tiny islets, edged by pristine pink-tinged sand.
The plan was to sail overnight to Rangiroa atoll, the largest in Polynesia and about 160 nautical miles distant. Sunbathing on deck or a swim in the yacht’s large pool were options but, feeling adventurous, we took the tender and called in on a local pearl farm. Greatly coveted jewels, black pearls are one of French Polynesia’s main exports and the islands are dotted with pearl farms. This one, Hinano Pearls, is a small cottage industry operated by a couple of people who tend the oyster’s whole life cycle: rearing them, seeding them and harvesting the pearls.
Moored near the North Pass for dinner, which was preceded by a glorious sunset, Seawolf slipped out of the lagoon on her 14-hour passage to Rangiroa, the muffled beat of her slow-revving engines creating a suitably soporific ambience.
At daybreak, we were off to Tiputa passe, one of the two entrances to Rangiroa’s lagoon, renowned for its friendly dolphins. Half a dozen gambolled in Seawolf’s bow wave, leaping and diving in evident pleasure. The anchor was dropped off the Kia Ora Resort, a newly rebuilt four-star resort hotel close to the atoll’s airport, which offers an excellent stopover for guests wishing to avoid the long bash into head seas on the return to Tahiti.
Tiputa is another world-class diving site. ‘Diving the passe in an outgoing tide such as we have now can be dangerous,’ explained Holler in his briefing. ‘The strong outgoing current, which descends rapidly once out of the passe, can carry you down to depths where survival is impossible – even when your buoyancy device is fully inflated.’ Our dive was therefore on the coral wall outside the passe, well clear of danger. Again, visibility was up in the region of 50 metres, and we could see a manta ray gliding past in the distance. By the end of the dive we had ticked off a school of barracuda and a few black tip sharks. Our second dive in slack tide brought us closer to the passe, where a pair of bottlenose dolphins swam up like old friends and paused to be tickled – a truly rare experience.
In the poor weather next morning, being underwater seemed more attractive than being on top, so we planned a drift dive from ocean to lagoon in the atoll’s second entrance, Avatoru passe. Descending to 22 metres, we were greeted by half a dozen huge silvertip sharks, which circled us as we excitedly snapped away with cameras. Following us towards the passe, they attracted a following of big-eye jack fish, while a few African pompanos with long trailing fins swam aloof, at a greater distance.
Just two hours after bidding farewell to Seawolf and her crew, we were back in Papeete, where the ‘Monoï Trail’ awaited. An article in a local magazine had applauded the benefits of an oil it claimed beautified the skin and, used as a massage, also calmed crying babies. This had to be seen, so Eric Vaxelaire, from the Monoï Institute, offered a tour that took in all the aspects of the Monoï oil’s production: harvesting the coconuts, extraction of the white flesh from which the oil is refined, and its blending with the tiare flower to create the scented Monoï. Following Tahiti’s coastal road, these visits add interest to the scenic drive, especially if you stop for lunch, as we did, at Le Coco’s – one of the island’s great French-inspired restaurants.
With her first-rate, highly enthusiastic crew, great deck spaces, superb tenders and an 8.8 metre Herreshoff keelboat to play with, Seawolf is an ideal yacht for exploration, while Tahiti, with its excellent yacht support facilities, makes a great base. The only difficulty in visiting these islands lies in their isolated position near the centre of the South Pacific, but such distance is also their salvation. A superyacht is the only way to discover the whole region and dive its pristine seas in comfort, but the huge distances also mean relatively few yachts actually make the trip.
Seawolf is available to charter in French Polynesia through Yachtzoo.
For more information contact:
On our brief cruise we did not encounter another yacht. Nor did we even skim the surface of French Polynesia’s attractions, which are spread over 118 islands in five well-separated archipelagos. This is a cruising ground where one can stay almost indefinitely, yet still find new experiences.