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August 2017    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 32, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Bora Bora and Tikehau, French Polynesia

... not for your scuba bucket list

from the August, 2017 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Four Seasons, Bora BoraRangiroa and Fakarava, which I wrote about last issue, are considered the twin pinnacles of French Polynesian diving, but I wondered if Tikehau, a lessvisited Tuamotu atoll island, might deliver the same excitement. And how about the legendary Bora Bora? Arguably the most beautiful islands in French Polynesia, a Four Seasons beach-front villa could set you back $19,000 per night, not including breakfast. I decided to find out -- about the diving, that is, not the Four Seasons.

An hour's flight from Papeete, Bora Bora's airport is on one of the motu -- atoll reef islets -- that encircle the main pictureperfect mountainous island, with a spectacular extinct volcano at its center and a short ferry ride from Vaitape, the main settlement. After meeting us at the wharf, our host for four nights, Marc-Andre, stopped at a store to help us select supplies before heading four miles north of Vaitape, to Bungalove, where he offers two units in a luxuriant garden on the lagoon by his home. The larger bungalow came with a queen and single bed; no air-conditioning, but fans kept us comfortable.

The following morning, we were driven to Top Dive's shop north of Vaitape, which runs a covered fast aluminum boat with a well-designed ladder. Most customers were given a 10l or 12l steel tank with Nitrox 32, regardless of their certification or whether they knew about Nitrox (probably a good idea if they remained with the guides!). My negatively buoyant partner asked for an aluminum 80 tank (which are only filled with air).

For the first dive at Muri Muri, I swam down to 85 feet (26m). The 84°F (29°C) crystal-clear blue water highlighted the sparse site. Our guide, Jeffery, pointed out two tiny nudibranchs, a pipefish, a distant turtle and a whitetip reef shark, but the giant barracudas, gray reef sharks, and schools of jacks highlighted on Top Dive's website just weren't there. "The corals are wearing the 'autumn/winter collection' colors," my partner joked, "just brown and beige." I was underwhelmed.

Map to Bora Bora and TikehauAs the guides changed tanks, we motored to nearby Haapiti, on the outside of the lagoon. After a 40-minute interval, during which we were offered tea, biscuits, and coconut, we jumped back in. Only a passing lemon shark relieved the boredom of another unremarkable dive. Jeffery claimed Muri Muri was the best dive site in Bora Bora, so we returned there on the second day. All other dives took place in the lagoon.

Despite the poor diving, we had a good time, riding bikes on the flat road that encircles the island, stopping for a $10 four-cheese pizza lunch. We cooked most meals in our well-equipped kitchenette, enjoying the spectacular sunset view of the lagoon and mountains from our deck. In the water below, we swam, snorkeled and kayaked. One evening, we followed the sound of drumming to a field where dozens of young musicians and dancers practiced for the month-long July island festival, a far more authentic experience than the tourist dinner shows at the resorts. While every stranger greeted or smiled at me when I passed, it seems everyone knows everyone else's business. As a taxi driver told me, "If I am stopped by a female tourist asking for directions, my wife will be on the phone within minutes to ask me what I was doing with her."

On our last diving day, we were led by Clement, a young and exuberant Frenchman who endeared himself with his earnest briefing. "The sharks are not your friends," he intoned gravely. "Oh no!" I interrupted. "Please take us to a site with friendly sharks." Not wanting to take any chances, Clement brought us to Toopua, a shark-free lagoon by the Conrad hotel, with 60-foot (18m) visibility. A single anemone patch and its resident clownfish relieved the hard, monochromatic, coral landscape. It soon gave way to a sandy stretch, a cleaning station with flounders peering from the sand. A small school of spotted eagle rays returned three times.

Although Top Dive operates at two resorts, including the Four Seasons, they ferried divers to and from the main dive center, choosing sites, it seems, for the convenient transfer of their resort customers. They offered complementary gear, including nitrox 32, but did not supply computers. "You don't need a computer when you are with a guide," said Ana, one of the instructors. "And if your divers go deeper than they should?" I asked her. She smiled. "We just lead them to a shallower part of the reef." Top Dive is oriented for those who come for one or two dives. In Bora Bora, that's plenty.

Tikehau and the open ocean beyondTikehau Atoll, a narrow strip of low-lying motu encircling a lagoon, is a short flight from both Bora Bora and Rangiroa. Pension Coconut Beach proprietor Jean-Louis met us at the airport in his rickety pickup. Curtained windows in our unit had no panes, no hot water, a lumpy mattress, and even with the door permanently open, we were always too warm. Sitting on the cracked plastic toilet seat was a punishing experience. Well, at least the room was clean and had a small fridge for our water and beer. And while it sat alongside a beautiful sandy beach, we had no lounge chairs to enjoy the view. In paradise, you can't have everything.

With their loose and misaligned handlebars, Jean Louis's bikes were as rickety as his pickup, but we managed to ride them to the dive shop. Top Dive had assured us that their Tikehau branch would contact us upon arrival, but they were not expecting us. Tikehau Plongée, we discovered, was independently owned and only partnered with Top Dive, which had goofed. Thankfully, they had room for us. After their skiff had stopped at two resorts to pick up customers, it was 40 minutes to Tuheiava, Tikehau's only pass. On the way, we stopped at a tiny islet to snorkel with a couple of mantas. They were all that remained from many that had once made it home, said our guide, Claire. At the pass, I descended over a hard coral garden at 65 feet (20m) and swam to a wall, which dropped another 100 feet (30m). Visibility was excellent and fish life abundant: schools of bigeye and fusiliers, many barracuda, black tip reef and gray sharks competed for our attention. A large boxfish hovered motionlessly above the drop-off, its big eyes surveying the action.

Some years ago in DIVER magazine, John Bantin related his dive at this site. There is a cave at about 200 feet (60m), and he wrote that when the gray reef sharks heard the splash as he rolled into the water, they swarmed out of it like bees from a hive. They were lured by bait carried by the guides, and John descended to 130 feet (40m) to see this. These days, guides no longer carry bait, and recreational divers are forbidden to descend below 95 feet(29m). So while we were diving above the cave, we saw many sharks, but none "swarming out." Out-going tidal conditions also prevented us from riding the pass. Even then, my four dives here were definitely better than those off Bora Bora.

Rating for Top Dive, Bungalove, Bora Bora, French PolynesiaTikehau Plongeé, Pension Coconut Beach, Tikehau, French PolynesiaAfter our dives, Jaime, Claire's boss, drove us to the only snack in the village (which has four churches and a store) for a $14 plate of either Chicken Teriyaki with rice or fried prawns with French fries, and a local $5 Hinamo beer. On Sunday, when the snack was closed, Jean-Louis boiled water so we could eat the 'pot noodle' we had bought at the store.

One evening I attempted to snorkel to the neighboring motu, a few hundred yards in front of our guesthouse. Although the crossing was only a few feet deep, black tip reef sharks, some over 6 feet.(2m), were everywhere. Unsettled, I abandoned the effort. The sharks are attracted by the fishermen who clean their catch in the lagoon. "Don't go wading at dusk," Claire warned me. "They sometimes bite."

Jean-Louis served meals at Pension Coconut Beach on the small deck of our room. Breakfasts: half a baguette, butter, jams, an apple or an orange, and coffee or tea. Dinners were more elaborate: one began with Poisson Cru a la Tahitienne, a delicious raw fish ceviche in coconut milk, followed by grouper in a creamy mustard sauce with rice and salad, then ice cream. Afterward we walked through the quiet village streets. A talented troupe of four drummers invited us to sit with them while they practiced.

As you can see, Bora Bora and Tikehau are not for serious divers. Both have their topside charms, and while Tikehau's diving is pretty good, the distances, accommodations, prices, and facilities don't make it a candidate for your bucket list.

-- DTV

Our undercover diver's bio: DTV has been lucky to dive since 2001, mostly in the Indo-Pacific: Solomon Islands, Indonesia, Philippines, Palau, Chuuk, and the Maldives. He has also dived at the Cocos and Malpelo Islands, the Galapagos, French Polynesia, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, the UK, and the Azores. He swam with humpback whales in Rurutu and with Orcas in Norway. He doesn't bother with a camera, preferring to capture memories in his mind's eye.

Divers CompassDivers Compass: A minimum four-night stay in the deluxe bungalow at Bora Bora's Bungalove costs $973; meals are extra (https://goo.gl/8RGJcS) ... A three-night stay at Tikehau's Pension Coconut Beach cost $479 for two including breakfasts, dinners and transfers (depier.hitihei@gmail.com or search the pension's Facebook page). For more information, check the July 2017 Undercurrent article.

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