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January 2012    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 27, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Topdive, Bora Bora and Rangiroa, French Polynesia

fantastic diving - - if you can afford it

from the January, 2012 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Diver,

It was as if I'd just been dumped into a huge tropical aquarium. My first day's diving at Bora Bora's Anau and Tapu dive sites was exhilarating. A dozen giant mantas with wing spans of 10 feet languidly glided before me as I descended in 79-degree water with visibility up to 80 feet. Lemon sharks 10 feet long cruised within 15 feet of me, curious but not menacing. As I moved along a reef somewhat chewed up by a recent typhoon, smaller blacktip sharks circled above me, alternating between a leisurely cruising speed and frenetic dashes for no apparent reason.

The variety of large pelagics and smaller species at the same dive sites was an experience I could not recall in more than 700 logged dives over the last 14 years. Crammed into these waters was a greater variety of sea life than there are cars on Los Angeles's 405 freeway at rush hour. A sample: Picasso, titan and yellow margin triggerfish; teardrop, threadfin and red-fin butterflyfish; blue-fin trevally; common and spotfin Lionfish; large schools of black surgeonfish; pennant and long-fin bannerfish; and swarms of fire dartfish hugging the ocean floor. It seemed most of what you see in Paul Humann's book Reef Fish Identification-Tropical Pacific was on hand during my first day's diving last September.

Intercontinental Le Moana, Bora BoraI'd purchased a hotel/meals/dive package through the dive travel agency Deep Blue Adventures, knowing that French Polynesia is unaccommodating to a diver on a budget. My 10-dive package with Topdive-Bathy's, two companies that have combined, cost a hefty $750, but allowed me to allocate the 10 dives between Bora Bora and Rangiroa. I had brought my own dive equipment, but Topdive supplied my two dive buddies with near-new Seaquest BCs. They provided basic dive briefings aboard their 27-foot-long, awning-covered, inboard dive boat, which held a dozen filled tanks for the second dive. Delphine, our capable dive guide, let us dive our own profiles, and only asked that we signal her when we were down to 1,500 psi, and to surface with 500 psi. These rules were not strictly enforced, but all the divers seemed experienced anyhow. Entry was by giant stride off the stern, where a ladder hung for reboarding. Interestingly, Delphine acted as both boat driver and dive guide. No one remained aboard the anchored boat during our first day's dives. The boat lacked rinse/soak tanks, but the shop has fresh water showers and dunk tanks. I stored my gear at the shop overnight, but took my regulator and computers back to my room.

Topdive, Bora Bora and Rangiroa, French PolynesiaAfter a nine-hour flight from LAX to Tahiti, and a midnight arrival, I marinated the next day in comfort -- gym, spa, pool, black sand beach, spacious living room/ bedroom suite with two bathrooms -- at the Radisson Plaza outside Papeete. I wandered about Papeete for three hours, which was two hours longer than the seedy, humid city deserved. The Marche Municipal (central market) was entertaining -- lots of wares and bustle, including parrotfish embedded in crushed ice for about $6 per fish. Then I took an Air Tahiti bi-turbo prop for the one-hour flight to Bora Bora. Air Tahiti grants divers a 55-pound maximum for checked luggage without charge (show your C-card to get this perk), whereas nondivers must do with 44 pounds. I was about three pounds overweight on all three flights, but airline personnel overlooked my venal sin.

Home for my four-night stay in Bora Bora was the Intercontinental Le Moana. This resort had nearly everything my jaded tastes could want -- a broad white sand beach in front of my clean and spacious hut, fine food and beverages and an attentive staff, but no gym or spa. My two dive buddies opted for an over-the-water hut on a pier with its own ladder to enter the ocean below, which could be viewed from a glass viewing box. It was essentially like live TV coverage of what was swimming below the hut.

Delphine picked us up the next day at 8 a.m. for the 15-minute ride to the dive shop. The wind made for a lot of chop that rocked the boat on its way to the sites. Black-tips and gray reef sharks were everywhere. At Muri Muri, an eight-foot lemon hung at the bottom during my safety stop. Delphine had hung the hind end of a large tuna from a stern line just before we ascended for the first of our two dives. Blacktips went into a frenzy, darting in, grabbing the carcass in their jaws, then thrashing their bodies wildly to separate flesh from bone. Black triggers circled outside the crazed black-tips, snatching meat scraps that floated free while the sharks feasted. All this inspired me to do a five-minute safety stop although my max depth on the dive was only 68 feet. Boarding the boat after each dive was dicey as the boat bucked in the waves, threatening amputation to any wayward finger slipping between the ladder and the hull.

The second dive at Toopua started with poorer visibility (around 45 feet, while the rest of my Bora Bora dives averaged 80 feet). My two dive buddies and I lay in the sand as a dozen spotted eagle rays approached, but our chance to get an up-close view was sabotaged by novice divers from another boat. Like paparazzi chasing Lady Gaga, they rushed the rays in the silly belief they'd get close enough for good pictures. The rays immediately disappeared. At dive's end, I wandered about for 20 minutes at 15 feet. For lack of a more evocative word, a phantasmagoria of sea life swam about. I saw at least nine varieties of butterflyfish (vagabond, threadfin, yellowback, teardrop, raccoon, saddled, lined, big longnose and Pacific double saddle); three types of angelfish (lemonpeel, flame and regal); four different triggerfish (titan, yellow margin, orange-lined and Picasso); six wrasse types ( yellow-breasted, three-spot, bird, ringtail, sunset and sixbar). A host of others included clearfin lizardfish, Pacific sailfin tang, blue-patch and red-lip parrotfish, striped large-eye bream, white-cheek surgeonfish, fire dartfish, spotted toby, scissor-tail sergeants, and varieties I could not identify even with the help of Delphine and Paul Humann.

Back at the hotel, food was plentiful. Breakfasts were excessive: made-to-order crepes, omelets, pancakes, French toast, waffles, kiwi, papaya, mangoes, prunes, breads, sweet rolls, yogurts, meats, cereals, and chafers filled with scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon and potatoes. Dinners on the meal plan allowed a first course, entree and dessert. Mahi Mahi, swordfish and other fresh fish grilled with various sauces, chicken in spinach, pork in a curry sauce, pasta and beef were among the offerings. I found the beef challenging; after two bites and a good deal of futile mastication, I gave up. One night, the resort put on a Tahitian dance exhibition coupled with a buffet dinner featuring black mussels, shrimp, oysters, smoked salmon, tuna, chicken and beef. Local and foreign beers averaged $7.50 a bottle, and wine by the glass ranged from $12 to $19. Bottled wines ran from $30 to over $100 -- wines are heavily taxed in French Polynesia, making them, as the French would say, tr?s cher. The ma?tre d' touted what he considered an irresistible bargain: a 2005 Ch?teau Domeyne Bordeaux from the St. Estephe Commune for around $79, versus its normal reputed resort price of $113 (it's available online in the U.S. for $35). It was unmemorable.

Le Maitai, RangiroaAvis rented me a four-door, air-conditioned Hyundai for four hours -- and $139 -- to tour the island, which was mildly interesting. It is about 19 miles in circumference and has craggy mountains. The world-famous Bloody Mary's restaurant/ bar is worth a peek. A large sign lists the many celebrities who have allegedly visited, from Roman Polanski to Kim Kardashian.

My next stop was Rangiroa, where I spent five nights at Le Maitai Rangiroa resort, and did my remaining six dives over three days with Topdive. Rangiroa is the largest atoll of the Tuamotu Island group (Bora Bora and the main island of Tahiti are part of French Polynesia's Society Islands group). It is sparsely populated (about 2,530 inhabitants versus Bora Bora's 5,800) and 140 miles in circumference. Rangiroa is more primitive, and I found less English spoken there than in either Tahiti or Bora Bora.

Topdive, Bora Bora and Rangiroa, French PolynesiaLe Maitai Lagoon resort consists of a collection of huts, a few (including mine) facing the ocean. The water wasn't potable, but one can buy bottled water from Le Maitai's bar or collect the bottled water from your table at lunch and dinner. The air-conditioned huts were clean and serviced daily. Each had a TV with CNN as the lone English language channel. The resort lacked a swimming pool and a sandy beach. To take a swim, I either had to risk shredding my feet when climbing over razor-sharp volcanic rock to get into the ocean, or climb down a ladder at the end of a 25-yard long pier. Le Maitai rented a collection of shabby, well-used bicycles with no gears and very narrow seats. I rode one about 10 miles to visit Tiputa Pass and check out the KiaOra resort. Afterwards, my inner thighs felt like they had been worked over at Abu Ghraib prison. I should have rented a motor scooter.

Rangiroa is an oblong-shaped atoll island with but two passes -- Tiputa and Avatoru -- through which currents go from inner lagoon to open ocean or viceversa, depending on which way the tide is running. Rangiroa's signature drift dive had me catapulting in five- knot currents from the open ocean through Tiputa Pass and into an inner lagoon. My first four dives with Topdive were in the morning, when the current runs from the open ocean through Tiputa Pass and into the lagoon. My final two dives started in the afternoon. Topdive supplied me with a 100 cu-ft. aluminum tank, and set up my tank and regulator so it awaited me when I slid off the dock into the 16-foot, single outboard Zodiac.

The wind blew fiercely, creating heavy chop in the lagoon and heavier chop as we rode through Tiputa Pass into open ocean. I cradled my tank and attached BC/regulator between my legs, and held onto a line along the Zodiac's interior to avoid being thrown overboard as the boat muscled through the chop. Entry was by backroll. We entered the water and descended and ascended in groups. The Zodiac driver then fetched the group once he sighted us. Getting back on board was a challenge. The Zodiac, unanchored, thrashed about like a stallion in heat as I handed my weight belt, BC and attached tank to the driver. I then finned my way half way up the Zodiac's tube side (no portable ladder here, but with this chop, one would be useless), then was hauled in by the driver like a gaffed albacore. They changed tanks at the shop after each dive.

Stephanie, our dive guide, gave her dive briefings at the shop with the use of a large map of the lagoon and outer ocean. These briefings were more extensive than those in Bora Bora. The shop provided rinse tanks for dive gear and fresh water showers. My one disappointment with Topdive here is it never took us to Avatoru Pass to dive, even though one of my dive companions requested a dive there.

Like Bora Bora, Rangiroa dishes up a galaxy of large and small creatures. Fourfoot- long Napoleon wrasses were common. A green moray with a circumference rivaling the biceps of Detroit Lions defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh peeked out of its hole just after I had swooshed through Tiputa Pass into the relatively calm lagoon. Hordes of raccoon butterflyfish hovered at the mouth of small caves as the current shot me along the ocean side of the atoll. Gloves come in handy, since you need to get a solid grip on the reef if you want to arrest your forward motion to look at something, and you don't have a lot of time to select what you grab. Once through Tiputa Pass, you're then out of the current and can more leisurely view the endless life living here. I watched Stephanie play Mother Nature, lifting coral as a hawksbill turtle followed her like a pet dog, knowing that tasty sponge awaited it once Stephanie moved the coral. Rangiroa had a similar variety and amount of sea life to what I had seen in Bora Bora.

On my last Rangiroa dive, two bottlenose dolphins approached me as I hung in the open ocean 50 yards off the reef. They came within 10 feet of me and did a series of somersaults and twists. Each allowed me to pet its stomach and then its back, and they hung around when other divers joined me for the aquatic petting session. By then it was late in the afternoon and getting dark, with reduced visibility. Ubiquitous porcupinefish had left the reef for the water column, and sharks were moving from the blue in closer to the reef.

With all this action, I ate well. My American meal plan provided all three meals, including a local beer, soft drink or glass of wine with lunch and dinner. Breakfast offered eggs, sausage, bacon and fried potatoes. From the buffet tables, you can fetch a variety of fresh fruit, as well as yogurts, dry cereal, various meats, bread and sweet rolls. Lunch off the menu included ham and cheese paninis, burgers, black mussels, pasta and a salad bar. An unwelcome addition to breakfast and lunch was an impressive collection of black flies hovering about the fruit and salad bar (the flies apparently had an early bedtime, as they did not join us for dinner). Dinners featured fresh, grilled mahi-mahi, ahi, shrimp and an unidentified but tasty "lagoon fish," all in a variety of sauces. Pastas, chicken and beef were also on the menu. Le Maitai offered some very good wines by the bottle (e.g., a 2003 Ruppert and Rothschild Cabernet Sauvignon from South Africa, and a 2001 Louis Latour Pinot Noir), but with some wallet pain ($90 to $140 for the top red wines). The selection of mixed drinks and liqueurs was also good.

My Rangiroa land excursions were minimal. The first was Gauguin's Pearl operation. Its guide showed how the oysters are raised and seeded to generate pearls of various sizes, shapes and colors. The ride there was free, but you're encouraged to part with big bucks at Gauguin's air-conditioned shop with lots of pearl baubles for sale. The second was in Vin de Tahiti, a winery about 10 miles from Le Maitai. It is closed to the public, but I cajoled its French manager/winemaker Sebastien Th?p?nier to give me a tour, explaining that I own a vineyard near Paso Robles, California. His go-to wine grape is Carignane, which, along with a bit of Muscat and Italia grape, he makes a very drinkable white Blanc de Corail, as well as a ros?. I am frankly mystified how he grows in Rangiroa's coral/calcareous soil and a climate lacking the hot, dry days and cold nights in which wine grapes thrive.

To sum up, these two French Polynesian islands offer the rare combination of large pelagics and smaller ocean creature, and tons of both. I am somewhat addicted to my creature comforts, so I made few efforts to rein in expenses beyond using a travel agent to get better prices and buying meal plans. Of course, there are lower prices, and the sidebar we offer gives you more information about those. If you can work French Polynesia into your travel plans, especially if you have a bit of the French language still in your subconscious from school, you'll find the diving quite remarkable.

-- J.D.

Topdive, Bora Bora and Rangiroa, French PolynesiaDivers Compass: Round trip from LAX to Papeete on Air Tahiti Nui runs about $1,100 coach and $3,200 business class, while Air Tahiti's intraisland airfares cost me $835 . . . Four nights at the Le Moana ran $3,750 for lodging, modified meal plan, taxes and airport transportation; five nights at Le Maitai with full meal plan, air transportation and taxes ran around $4,650 . . . For a trip similar to the one I did, I recommend booking with the dive travel agency Deep 6 Blue Adventures ( deepblueadventures.com ) to handle the bookings . . . Topdive's price includes nitrox and tanks with DIN valves fitted with yoke converters; I could not fill my spare air because the adapter would not mate with the too-large DIN valve . . . Take a dive repair kit, as it is very difficult and expensive to buy any extra parts; one buddy lost his gloves on Rangiroa and there were no dive gloves for sale anywhere on the island, while I had to replace a hose for mega-bucks . . . Most restaurants on Bora Bora will transport you to and from your resort for free, and tips not expected for this service) . . . French Polynesia is famous for its cultivation of black pearls, but never buy at the stated price until you first haggle to get a better price; Gauguin's Pearl operation in Rangiroa gave me a "certificate of authenticity" setting forth the shape, size and quality of the purchased pearls . . . I found few inhabitants on Rangiroa who spoke English, save at the hotels and other tourist-focused businesses, so visitors might find a small French-English dictionary useful; Topdive shop personnel at both Bora Bora and Rangiroa spoke passable to very good English. Websites: Topdive ( www.topdive.com ); Intercontinental Le Moana Bora Bora ( www.ichotelsgroup.com ); Le Maitai Rangiroa ( www.pacificbeachcomber.com )

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