Tahiti and Bora Bora
Destination Review: Tahiti, Bora Bora, Rangiroa & Fakarava Diving
Tahiti or more accurately, French Polynesia, grabbed us when we arrived to live, work and scuba dive in the Society Islands back in 94. All of the islands have their own brand of incredible diving and adventure and yes, as cheese ball as it sounds, some of them are right out of a picture book. First of all, you don’t have to be on your honeymoon to go here but, these islands are seriously romantic if you are. Tahiti just has that exotic feel. It is what we think the prototypical South Pacific should be palm tree covered islands with fine white sand and turquoise lagoons.
A note on geography: French Polynesia is composed of 118 islands divided into five archipelagoes or island groups; four are volcanic, one is coralline. The Society Islands, one of the five archipelagos, includes Tahiti, Bora Bora and Moorea. These islands are mountainous and green, often with stunning lagoons and surrounded by outer reefs and small barrier islands called motus. The Tuamotus, a second archipelago, are coralline atolls and include Rangiroa, Fakarava and Tikehau. They are shaped like a donut with a lagoon in the middle and usually one or more passes that run from the lagoon to the open ocean. The palm trees are taller than the tallest point on these islands. The lagoons can be 48 miles across. The Marquesas Islands, a third archipelago, are rugged, mountainous and green, usually without lagoons or barrier reefs. This is where Paul Gauguin made his home. Tahiti, although technically it refers to a single island, is often colloquially used to describe French Polynesia.
Why We Think Tahiti and Bora Bora Rock or Don’t
Because the Society Islands are these green covered, jagged giants with great lagoons and the Tuamotus are some of the most beautiful atolls in the world. Tahiti has a vibe all its own and the Tahitians are super friendly. What’s not to like about sleeping in an overwater bungalow and diving roaring passes loaded with sharks?
Things that Rock
- maybe the best shark diving in world, protected by the government and Tahitian culture
- exotic Tahitian culture
- amazing islands
- Robinson Crusoe
- incurably romantic
- amazing lagoons
- easy flights and travel friendly
Things that Don’t
- no Caribbean like coral
- average biodiversity in the fish life
- expensive the French Pacific Franc is tied to the euro
We have dived extensively across much of the country, islands and atolls. Essentially, when you dive in Tahiti (French Polynesia), you are either diving on the outer oceanic slope of the reef that surrounds a lagoon or island, inside the lagoon or in a pass. They all have a very different character. Lagoons tend to be more placid although they can definitely have current on ingoing or outgoing tides. The diving here is usually characterized by shallow coral gardens. The outer reef slopes typically start with a reef flat in 20 to 40 feet of water and then drop at a 30 to 60 degree slope from their tops into the depths below. At some time or another during the year, most of the external reef slopes of these reefs get hammered by big waves. So while the coral life is abundant and healthy, its not the lush coral reefs of the Caribbean but rather almost all close cropped, small branching hard corals. It’s just a different look. There is a lot of fish life on the reefs and you need to keep an eye into the blue for passing sharks and other pelagics. I’ve been buzzed by a 16 foot greater hammerhead shark twice on a safety stop here. Pass diving can be absolutely kick ass. On an incoming tide, huge volumes of water can flow into the lagoons and bring large numbers of fish. The predators, including schools of sharks, load up at the pass entrances and just inside to feed during the incoming tide. These are high energy drift dives. You start outside the pass and drift with the rest of the food, er I mean fish through the pass and into the lagoon; often flying past sharks and other predators.
Both the Tahitian government and Tahitian culture protect sharks and these islands have as healthy a shark population as probably exists anywhere in the world. I’ve been on dives here where I’ve seen eight types (species) of sharks on one dive and over 100 individuals.
A note on shark diving. Shark diving is the practice of introducing bait into the water to attract sharks. We believe that when done in an ecologically cautious way, it is a win/win for everybody. We win because we have the opportunity to see, up close, what may be natures most perfect predator. The local economy wins because shark diving can bring in good money and jobs. Most importantly, the sharks, which are not harmed, win BIG. Sharks are being slaughtered by the 10′s of millions each year, mostly for their fins which are used in shark fin soup. A slaughter of this size would never happen with panda bears because pandas are cute and cuddly. Sharks are feared. And it’s only by changing perceptions and educating people on sharks important role in the ecosystem that we will stop their precipitous decline. I’ve never seen a better way of accomplishing this than by getting people in the water with sharks on a dive.
Shark diving has been practiced in French Polynesia for decades and likely originated there; yet, there are a LOT of dives where you will see loads of sharks and no bait is used. They still naturally occur in large numbers here.
The Diving Areas of French Polynesia
Society Islands The Societies are high islands, often with large lagoons and several passes into the lagoon. Diving is done outside the lagoon on the sloping reefs, through the passes and inside the lagoons. Some of the lagoons have cleaning stations that attract manta rays. Black tip reef sharks are frequently sighted both inside and outside the lagoons. If its rough outside, you can dive inside.
Tahiti- We rarely dived in Tahiti but always enjoyed a short hop over to the small plane wreck near the airport. Visibility generally sucks but you can sit in the cockpit and take a photo. More of just a photo op than a true dive! I have yet to check out Bernardo’s new shark dive but he raves about it.
Moorea- Don’t expect soft corals but smaller hard corals with lots of reef life. Black tip sharks patrol the coast and you will see them passing on every dive. The Tiki site outside of the Club Med became a favorite shark dive for many dive operators on the island. A few years ago, regular sightings of tiger and lemon sharks became the draw. The Roses is a spectacular site with huge “rose” shaped corals at 150ft.
Raiatea- Pass diving rarely disappoints and always holds surprises including grey reef sharks, snake eels and large Javanese morays (max 2 per hole!). If you are lucky and dive there in April you can see the hatching of the juvenile red toothed trigger fish which are yellow and cover the reef!
Bora Bora- By far my favorite dive is White Valley around the corner from the airport. This deeper site has a literal sand valley (thus the name) winding it’s way through the reef. White tip reef sharks rest on the bottom and hoards of ocean triggerfish ply these waters. Grey reef sharks swim up to meet your boat as you arrive and lemon sharks lurk deeper.
The Tuamotus are fantastic diving and quite simply may have the best pass/drift diving in the world. Generally, this is not diving for beginners with blue water drops, drift diving with strong currents and lots of action. All the diving here is done as drift diving.
Rangiroa- Rangi is by far the most well known of the Tuamotus and the most famous dive of all is Tiputa Pass. You drop into the blue and glide through the pass often through hundreds of sharks. Do not expect beautiful reef in the pass, it is washed by up to 6 knot currents. Avaturo pass is a great shallow pass to dive, lots of fish. Also be sure to do a silver tip shark dive. One of our favorite dives is to go outside the pass into the blue, hang chum over the boat and sit at about 50 feet and see what swims in….AND IT DOES!
Fakarava- This extremely quiet island has grown in reputation with divers over the past five years or so. The main northern pass, Garuae, is a phenomenal dive as is the south pass though it is a couple hour boat ride (best to overnight there). Also, I LOVE to dive on an outgoing tide just outside of the murky lagoon water in the north pass. Big fish patrol on the edge of the murk and you stay in the clear water. If you get the opportunity and the seas are calm, definitely get over to the island of Tuop. Great diving there!
Our Favorite Things to Do Out of the Water
We believe in Surf and Turf checking out the best of underwater AND on land. It just so happens that most of the worlds best SCUBA diving destinations have other amazing things going for them in addition to kick ass diving. Don’t miss it.
- Rent a 4×4 and drive UP to Hotel Relais de la Maroto on the island of Tahiti. Be sure you know how to change a tire because you WILL get a flat, plan for twice the time than expected and know how to drive over rocks and through streams. The hotel was built to house the engineers who built Tahiti’s hydroelectric system. It’s laid back, expensive and dusty but there is great hiking up top. Stay or don’t stay at the hotel. I think the thrill is in the 16km drive up the mountain!
- Hop on Le Truck, the local island transportation on a Friday night in Papeete. Then use your little or non existent French to strike up a conversation with the locals. Hours of entertainment here!
- New shark dive. Shark diving pioneer, Bernard, has recently helped set up a new shark dive on the island of Tahiti. It’s sure to get your adrenaline flowing!
- Hike up The Needle in Cook’s bay on Moorea. DO NOT attempt to climb to the “hole” unless you are an experienced climber. Once we had to call out the French Military Super Puma and rescue a fallen climber. THAT cost some bucks! Or you could just drive up to the overlook for a sunset happy hour!
- Visit with biologist Dr. Michael Poole at the biological research station on Moorea and see what projects he is working on.
- Bike around Bora Bora. It’s an 18 mile circumnavigation on a paved road. Stop and talk with the locals en route, have a Hinano, the local beer, at the famous Bloody Mary’s restaurant and tell Craig we say hey!
- Jump off the town pier on a Sunday morning at Huihine! Polynesian children LOVE to jump off the pier. I dare you….jump with them and make some new friends!
- Try karaoke at the Raiatea disco on a Friday night!
- If you can figure out a way to climb the famed volcano, Otemanu on Bora Bora, let us know!
- Snorkel the Hoa…What? Ok, this is water that flows at high tide across the atolls creating 1-2 deep river with little fish, eels etc. You walk up the edge of the hoa and snorkel down with the flow. It is HOURS of fun. Try this at the Pearl Beach Resort on Tikehau.
- Wander the aisles of the local grocery store on Fakarava and try to guess what the mystery meat in the freezer is. I dare you to try to buy a bottle of beer……
- If you are there to dive, take a couple of days and dive and stay at the pass at the south end of Fakarava island….Can you say BIG tiger shark fly by????
- Snorkel under the dock at Te Ava Nui dive shop on Fakarava and see how many juvenile batfish you can find!
- Do a drift snorkel at Avatoru pass on Rangiroa
- DO NOT MISS watching the dolphins leap at sunset in Tiputa Pass on Rangiroa. It’s the stuff of movies!
- Take a day trip to Tuop Island, an outpost for Fakarava fisherman.
- Enjoy a sunset cocktail in the infinity pool at the Kia Ora Hotel in Rangiroa!
- Make a successful phone call from the payphone on the main road in Fakarava
- DIVE DIVE DIVE- more on that in the diving section
Tahiti, Bora Bora, Rangiroa and Fakarava Seasonality
Seasons in the Society Islands (which include Bora Bora, Tahiti and Moorea) follow fairly predictable patterns. November-February is rainy, warm and humid and typhoon season. Though not many typhoons hit the area, this is the highest probability time. Runoff from the mountains especially on Tahiti and Moorea can cause muddy waters at some dive sites. March – May is pleasant with generally calm seas and fairly good visibility. Water temperatures which were up in the mid 80′s in January are beginning to cool. June -August brings the coolest water temperatures meaning upper 70′s to around 80 but the best visibility. It also brings the wind and choppier sea conditions. September and October are my favorite months to dive. Visibility is still good, temperatures are just beginning to rise and the humpback whales are in season. I have never had the opportunity to see them while diving but often you can hear their magnificent calls and see them breeching off the island of Moorea.
While the seasons are similar to the Society Islands, you can actually dive in the Tuamotus year around without getting run off from the mountains like in most of the Society Islands during the rainy season. December and January can bring windier, rainier and therefore choppier conditions, BUT this is the time of the arrival of the BIG hammerheads in Rangiroa. Be prepared to dive 150-165ft to find them cruising the bottom and hunting grey sharks! Because these are atolls and not tall volcanic islands, runoff from seasonal rainfall does not affect the water clarity.
The biggest hurdle to Tahiti may be the cost it’s cashy to begin with and with the greenback sucking wind to the Euro – and that not about to change any time soon – its even cashier. But the Tahitian Tourism board knows this so they are putting together some good packages and making the airfare affordable to get there. Air Tahiti Nui, the flagship carrier, is a good airline and has regular service out of Los Angeles, Paris, Narita (Tokyo), Auckland and Sydney. Decide whether to stay on one island or more and stay in the Societies or get up to the Tuamotus (about a 1 ½ hour flight). It’s always a place we can’t wait to get back to.
Sharkman and Mantagirl Give Tahiti, Bora Bora, Rangiroa and Fakarava
Two Fins UP
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