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It was just after nightfall when our Air Tahiti Nui flight from L.A. touched down at Tahiti’s Faa’a International Airport. On entering the terminal the 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.
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.
Just 10 minutes’ ride from the airport, 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.
Next morning we did just that, discovering the charming town where 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. There were whales off the northern shore of Moorea.
Like Tahiti, Moorea is mountainous with a largely uninhabited interior and it offers two world-class anchorages on its north shore. We anchored at Opunohu Bay and Seawolf’s nine metre Goldfish tender was soon speeding through the passe in the fringing reef. We saw a plume of spray break the horizon and, closing in, 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.
Back aboard Seawolf, we headed for the Tuamotu Archipelago, a chain of 78 low coral atolls. At the yacht’s 10-knot cruising speed this was a 22-hour passage, although it is also easy to book into a top resort hotel and relax on the beach for a day before making the same voyage by aircraft in one hour.
With the sharks
Fakarava atoll 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.
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.
The next day we rolled into the water near the spot we had surfaced on the previous dive. Descending to 25 metres we found a coral-lined, deep-water channel with superb visibility, where we were joined by grey reef sharks, whose numbers increased until we were surrounded by the two-metre-long beasts and within touching distance. This dive took us past increasingly colourful corals and fish including shoals of parrotfish and a huge, friendly Napoleon wrasse.
After a gourmet lunch we visited Pink Sands, a few kilometres southwest of the passe. This tranquil area just inside the reef offers 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. Feeling adventurous, we took the tender and called in on a local pearl farm. Black pearls are one of French Polynesia’s main exports and this farm, Hinano Pearls, is 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, Seawolf then slipped out of the lagoon on her 14-hour passage to Rangiroa. 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, until anchor was dropped off the four-star Kia Ora Resort, 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, but Holler warned: ‘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. Visibility was 50 metres and we watched a manta ray gliding past in the distance. We also saw a school of barracuda and a few black tip sharks. On our second dive a pair of bottlenose dolphins swam up and paused to be tickled.
Next morning 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 and big-eye jack fish, while a few African pompanos with long trailing fins swam aloof, at a greater distance.
After bidding farewell to Seawolf, we were back in Papeete for the ‘Monoï Trail’. Eric Vaxelaire, from the Monoï Institute, offered a tour about 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 scenic coastal road we stopped for lunch, at Le Coco’s – one of the island’s great French-inspired restaurants.
A superyacht is the only way to discover this isolated region and dive its pristine seas in comfort, but the huge distances also mean relatively few yachts make the trip. 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. If cruising is your delight and you have not yet explored these islands, they must surely be on your wish list.