FRENCH POLYNESIA

FRENCH POLYNESIA: FAKARAVA, TUAMOTU ISLANDS

The South Pacifics Kingdom of the Pelagics

Season: Year round diving

Visibility: 25-60m/80-200ft

Water Temperature: 26-28°C/79-82°F


Bottle-nosed dolphins (Charles Hood)

Shore-based resort: Pension Havaiki and Te Ava Nui Dive Centre

Diving: Atols, sharks, Manta Rays, caves, walls

Can be combined with Rurutu

 

The islands of French Polynesia, which provided the inspiration for the artist Paul Gauguin’s vivid and passionate images of the South Seas, must be everyone’s dream of the South Pacific. Australia lies to the west, South America to the east and directly north lies Hawaii. Towering mountains clad in dense vegetation, atolls and lagoons formed by strings of idyllic low-lying coral islands – little wonder that the crew of the Bounty defied Captain Bligh in order to stay on in these beautiful islands with their beautiful inhabitants! Add to this some of the most stunning pelagic encounters and pristine hard coral reefs and it is clear why divers are happy to make the long journey to the South Pacific.

French Polynesia comprises five distinct island groups: the Society Islands, the Tuamotu Islands, the Gambier Islands, the Austral Islands and the far-flung Marquesas Islands, most of which offer superb diving (or, in the case of the Australs, amazing snorkeling with whales).

The mountainous Society Islands have beautiful lagoons protected by barrier reefs. A bounty of exquisite reef fish, fine reefs and the special attraction of Manta Rays and sharks lure divers in this direction. The low-lying Tuamotus, with their classic coral islands and islets, offer divers some of the most exhilarating pelagic, and particularly shark, encounters anywhere in the world. The Australs, far to the south, have a remarkable attraction in the form of the Humpback Whales which migrate to these islands to mate and calve from July to October each year. It will be so difficult to decide which island groups to visit that you will probably want to sample more than one of them!

The Tuamotus lie within the heart of French Polynesia and comprise almost 80 atolls stretching in an arc over 1,500 kilometres long and 500 kilometres wide. None of these ‘islands’ reaches higher than a few metres above sea-level. Each is individually shaped. Some, like Fakarava, have their outer rings cut by passes. Some are square, some circular and some irregular. It is here, in the Tuamotus, that pearl culture dominates the economy. These lustrous ‘fruits of the sea’ range in colour from the palest shade of ivory to dark pewter (the famous black pearls) and are surely some of the most beautiful jewellery a woman can own. There will be simply no excuse for not bringing home a lovely gift if you visit the Tuamotus!

Fakarava is a huge Tuamotu atoll, comprising a thin strip of land wrapped around a ‘rectangle’ of lagoon 60 kilometres long and 25 kilometres wide. Happily for us the tourist trail has not yet hit this lovely, out of the way destination and if a genuine sense of wilderness appeals and you are happy to stay in simple but wonderfully positioned beach-side accommodation, you cannot make a better choice. The main ‘town’ on Fakarava is Rotoava which currently has a population of 248 people. As a measure of Fakarava’s remote location, kindly note that there are currently no films available for purchase, there are no post cards, credit cards are not accepted, and food variety is fairly limited. There is no bank, but there is a post office and 3 telephone boxes. If this still appeals, keep reading...

The atoll, teeming with tropical reef fish, is pierced on the north-west side by the Garuae Pass and again on the south-east by the Tumakohua Pass. Diving here will soon teach you the true meaning of the Polynesian term ‘moana’ – deep and intense blue. It is at Garuae Pass that your pelagic dreams will be realized! Spinner Dolphins can be seen leaping and spinning as their name suggests in the waters on the outside of the lagoon. At this enormous pass, over 800 metres wide, you will ride the ‘Garuae Express’. Dropping over the back of the boat, you will sink down in the blue until the powerful incoming current will pick you up and sweep you along with a swarm of reef fish. It is not unusual to be joined in your descent by one of the local Bottle-nosed Dolphins that seems to enjoy hanging out with divers! As the reef slope comes into view many inquisitive sharks, including numerous Grey Reef Sharks (up to 100 or more!) and some massive Silvertip Sharks can be seen gathered in the pass. Once at the reef it is easy to find anchorage amongst the coral rubble to watch, film or photograph this amazing sight, until computers (and the sound of the air horn from the divemaster) indicate that it is time to ‘lift off’. The strength of the current varies with the cycle of the moon and tides, but often creates an exhilarating drift dive needing some experience to manage the speed with control. The coral here is low growing hard coral that can withstand the fast-flowing current. After several minutes of gliding past huge schools of bigeyes, unicornfish, snappers and squirrelfish, the aim is usually to settle down on an anchorage point within a depression in the coral and spend the rest of the dive marvelling at schools of thousands of bigeyes and other reef fish. Try your hand at action art by carving shapes in the school as you swim through the fish, shearing off mini-schools or changing the direction of this fishy mass by a movement of an arm or fin. Divers follow the divemaster as he inflates his SMB and drifts upwards towards the waiting RIB. Manta Rays can also be found in the waters around the pass. In July, Marbled Groupers congregate in vast, swirling schools to breed. If you are looking for big schools of big fish, look no further than Garuae Pass.

The more relaxing Tumakohua Pass has conditions which are easier to handle, but still manages to retain a flavour of the wildness found at Garaue. Once again, divers drop into blue water and swim into the pass to be greeted by schools of reef fish including Napoleon Wrasse, Moorish Idols, triggerfish, angelfish of many varieties, trevallies and Forster’s Seapikes (a type of barracuda). Once over a ridge at 12 metres, the sea bed slopes away into the lagoon. Peek into a cave at around 28 metres to see the dark-dwelling soldierfish, or take a rest and gaze out into the blue for patrols of Grey Reef Sharks. Within the atoll, the dive is completed, along with schools of goatfish and snappers, beneath the restaurant of the Tetamanu Village Guest House – handy for lunch!

Not far away to the north is the atoll of Toau, only half the size of Fakarava and with only a handful of inhabitants. No airport, no roads: only passing divers visiting. This is virgin territory and here you will find some really big fish and a host of reef dwellers. As the divemaster says, “faune tres riches”! The current here can give you a really spectacular ride with Silvertip Sharks and Dogtooth Tuna often spotted lurking outside the pass. Once again you will drop off the back of the boat and glide down to the seemingly barren outer reef wall where low-growing hard corals manage to survive, though if you prefer to hang out in the blue there is always the possibility of meeting Manta Rays or sharks waiting for the turning tide. After making your way to the corner of the pass, the divers usually re-group for the ride into the lagoon. The tide and currents can work together to make this an adventure as exciting as Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, with horned helmets replaced by regulators and wet suits! As the current dissipates inside the lagoon there is more time to take in the incredible fish population that feeds on the nutrients surging in. There are many species of gobies and other small reef dwellers, but your eye will be caught and held by the immense schools of Bloch’s Bigeyes, trevallies and jacks and until the bleeping of computers alerts one to the call of the surface.

COMBINATIONS: Why not combine a stay on Fakarava with a visit to the amazing Humpback Whales of Rurutu in French Polynesia’s Austral Islands? Being in the water with these leviathans is a truly awesome experience. Talk to us about the possibilities.


Barracuda and diver (Gary Clarke)

Resorts

Liveaboards


Reef shark silhouette (Vincent Truchet)


Fakarava is famed for it's fish filled waters (Sylvain Geradot)


Divers descend in the company of sharks! (Sylvain Geradot)


A photographer shoots schooling jacks (Sylvain Geradot)


Manta Ray (Vincent Truchet)


White-tip Reef Shark (Vincent Truchet)

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