Dive into the deep tranquility of Tahiti
By JOHN BRILEY | The Washington Post | Published: March 26, 2020
This rain — relentless, chilling, downright vengeful — wasn’t in the brochure. I am sitting on the gunwale of a dive boat off the French Polynesian atoll of Fakarava about to back-roll into a tropical sea famous for its abundance of sharks. I’m with two other divers and a guide in Tumakohua Pass, one of the two major breaks in this necklace of coral where the ocean feeds a 37-by-14-mile lagoon.
Swells pitch the boat as the rain turns horizontal. We are only a few hundred yards from shore, but the dock from where we departed is barely visible through the gale. At our guide’s signal, we drop from the maelstrom into the blue calm.
Fakarava is one of five atolls in French Polynesia, a collectivity of 118 islands cast across the South Pacific Ocean like unconfirmed rumors. The best known of these, and the territory’s commercial and cultural center, is Tahiti. I came to these islands to dive and in hopes of finding remnants of the ancient Polynesian culture, a playful, kind, egalitarian ethos exquisitely captured in David Howarth’s book “Tahiti: A Paradise Lost.”
First things first. As we drop past 50 feet, I see them, dozens of gray reef sharks gliding along a wall of coral, at once sleek, powerful, beautiful and (sure) a little unnerving. They come to feed on the buffet of species in the pass and have only grown in number since 2006, when the territorial government established a shark sanctuary here. Experts estimate the local shark population in the hundreds.
They feed at night, so we’re seeing them in a relatively passive state, although whenever I approach one for a photo, it bolts into the dreamy blue background. Our guide, Gils — lanky, dark-featured, serene — drifts meditatively, perking up only at the appearance of a school of small skipjack tuna. My focus swivels from them to the sharks to the organic brilliance of the coral to a massive green-and-blue humphead wrasse, a fish that can reach 400 pounds, silhouetted in the stormy light above.
We barely have to kick at all because the current is escorting us back toward the boat dock in the village of Tetamanu (population: 40), where I’d arrived the day before after a 90-minute boat ride from the airport in the slightly larger town of Rotoava. There is no other way to get here, and no cars in Tetamanu, either; all travel is by boat, foot or fin, across, into or adjacent the infinite acreage of radiant water.
In fact, take away the Yamaha outboards and a few other modern trappings, and the place probably looks a lot like it did when the Polynesians first settled here in A.D. 500 after paddling or sailing canoes across immense expanses of ocean. They navigated by wayfinding, dividing the horizon into 16 sections and reading wind, waves, currents, and the movements of birds, fish and stars, an even more remarkable achievement when one sees how tiny and tentative this atoll appears on a map, engulfed by the Pacific Ocean.
Tetamanu, perhaps especially in the driving rain, feels like the end of the Earth, and that’s a big part of the allure, says Vaiete Maltby, who manages the Motu Aito guesthouse, a collection of eight wood-and-thatch bungalows where I’m staying. (“Motu” is the Tahitian word for islet, and Fakarava, like most atolls, is made up of dozens to hundreds of them.)
“People say they come here to disconnect, and most of them do,” aided occasionally by power and WiFi outages in this isolated spot, she says. “But you’ll also connect: with nature, yourself, whoever you’re with.”
The next day, I head back north for a tour of Rotoava with Enoha Pater, a guide who greets me at the boat dock wearing a turquoise pareo (wrap) around his waist and little else.
“This island has two rental cars, three scooters, two nurses and no doctor; everything serious, we give to the shark,” he says with a smile as we hit 80 mph on a dirt road in his 2012 Saab SUV. He speaks English with an Asian cadence, having learned English and Japanese simultaneously while working at a Club Med in Mo’orea.
We stop in on a family-run coconut oil operation — one of the main industries here, along with farming the oysters that produce black pearls — then wend through stands of kahaia, tohonu and aito trees while Enoha tells me about plucking lobsters off the reef at low tide (but only during the first-quarter moon) and surfing the legendary wave at Teahupoo, Tahiti, where he was drubbed on the reef and broke his arm. We stop to snorkel at a secluded arc of sugar-white sand framed by swaying palms and the pearlescent lagoon. A sailboat anchored offshore is the only other sign of human life.
The back road ends at a sprawling cape of beached coral that marks the west side of Garuae Pass, at a mile wide the largest pass in French Polynesia. Again, that end-of-the-Earth aura, broken only by a dive boat heaving on lapis swells outside the reef, and my urge to get back underwater to commune with the rainforest of life.
I hop a short flight to another wispy atoll, Rangiroa, and alight at the Kia Ora Resort & Spa, a dreamy property planted on the sandy shores of French Polynesia’s biggest lagoon. The sun comes out, casting its magic on a preposterously appealing scene — thatch bungalows built over the lustrous water, an outrigger paddler gliding across the horizon line, a waiter carrying umbrella drinks to bronzed tourists in an infinity pool.
The Kia Ora is also a five-minute boat ride from the main attraction here: the diving in Tiputa Pass, famous for its vibrant reef and a family of dolphins known to approach divers.
“Oh, sometimes they come right up to you,” Magali Bazzano tells me on the porch of the on-site dive center. “Rub their bellies; they like it. Just don’t do that with the hammerhead sharks.”
One can be tempted in remote yet populated places like this to assume there’s action just around the next corner. And one afternoon on a rented scooter, I go looking for it, riding west to swales of beached coral at Avatoru Pass, site of occasional pro surfing competitions. All quiet there, as it is around the few lagoon-front resorts I pop into. I see flashes of activity off the main road — local kids riding bikes, a fisherman selling two beautiful, glistening tuna and a boatload of snorkelers unloading at a dock — but that’s the extent of it. This isn’t Miami Beach, and that’s a wonderful thing.
Besides, action is in the heart of the beholder. After dinner, I walk away from the soft glow of the Kia Ora, across the unlit road and into the pitch-black night of the oceanside beach. To a soundtrack of breaking waves and clinking shells and coral, I look up into the spangled dome of stars, so many and so bright, and gaze until my neck aches.
The next morning on a solo snorkel trip through the pass, I roll from boat into ocean and see the pod — a mom and a calf not 10 feet in front of me and, below them, five other dolphins. They seem suspended, as if frozen in amber, but within seconds, they’re rocketing into the dark blue (no bellies offered). I kick to try to line up a photo, but it’s pointless.
I spend my final two days on the island of Mo’orea, a 30-minute ferry ride from Papeete, the main city on Tahiti and the bustling capital of French Polynesia. Beyond Papeete’s congestion, colorful market, bars, shops and busy industrial port, much of Tahiti — and all of Mo’orea — look very much like the brochure, with reef-fringed coastline and forested hills that sweep up to pinnacles of jungle green.
From the ferry dock in Mo’orea, I follow the island’s coastal road past fruit stands, modest homes, black pearl shops, tattoo parlors and cafes, tracing the bays where Captain Cook and other emissaries of Britain, Spain, France and Russia dropped anchor. The French claimed these islands while their colonial rivals were distracted or uninterested (long story; read Howarth), and today Tahiti and Mo’orea in particular flaunt a France-meets-old-Hawaii vibe.
I taste it in the poisson cru (raw sushi-grade tuna with coconut milk) at Le Lezard Jaune Cafe an open-air roadside restaurant in Mo’orea where the flamboyant owner, Dominique, flits among the tables in a blazing floral top and pants. I see, hear and smell it in the Papeete market, stalls of fresh fish adjacent island-style carvings and weavings and, outside, gaily colored fabrics alongside a table of pastries overseen by a Gallic baker in a towering white chef’s hat. And it’s on full display on the beach in front of Les Tipaniers hotel, bar and restaurant in Mo’orea, where French families — Speedos, body oil, cigarettes and delightfully unattended children — sear in the sun.
My closest brushes with old Tahitian culture come at the Papeete ferry dock, where an old woman, perhaps confused by my attempts to engage her in conversation, smiles warmly while offering me her lei flower necklace, and in supermarkets and shops, where staff and customers alike seem content, peaceful and unhurried.