The
The south coast of Tahiti Iti from a divers viewpoint on surfacing.



TO OUR LEFT, THE CORAL WALL fell away below to the dark, deep blue of depth. In front we could see Gilles and his group. To our right was the seemingly endless diffuse blue of the Pacific Ocean.
Then something in the blue changed. At first it was simply an imbalance, a slight darkening in the water, then it gained form. Two manta rays appeared as if by magic, powering effortlessly and gracefully towards us.
They swept past the divers in front of us and vanished.
While we were recovering from this unexpected spectacle, they returned, this time passing within a couple of metres of us before disappearing for good into the ocean. Gilles smiled afterwards and explained that mantas were rarely seen, quite unpredictable and he hadnt bothered to tell us about them as he never knew whether they might be around!
We were sure it was pure curiosity that had made them swim past us!
On another dive I could have spent my whole time on one anemone. Gilles had pointed it out, clinging onto a slightly less steep and more fragmented section of wall than most. Slightly flustered but not too frightened, its two inhabitant Nemos (as I am assured clownfish should now be called) flitted around, such a tempting but infuriating subject for my camera.
Finally I called it a day and followed the others onwards, along a wall that soon became simply a foundation for the numerous orange-yellow sea-fans characteristic of Tahiti Iti.
Tahiti Iti is famous for its surf. At one point Gilles showed us a small valley cutting into the reef-top from where it was possible to watch rollers as they passed overhead and then broke.
As each broke, there was a flash caused by light reflecting from the curling under-surface of the wave.
This was a fascinating way to end a dive, although the pressure change effects on the ears were noticeable.
Gilles knew the limits of this valley, and even in the safe zone the tremendous force of the undertow could be felt. Sometimes we could see small fish swimming contentedly in the near breaking wave, only to scoot away before it finally broke.
Very occasionally, you come across a diver who is truly at home in the undersea world. Gilles Jugel is one such. The Iti Diving International dive centre in Tahiti Iti is his one-man business, and is situated in Vairao, part way along Tahiti Itis southern coast road.
It occupies a slightly ramshackle building in the delightful and largely disused Puunui Marina, but appearances are deceptive. Inside is a stock of modern, well-maintained dive gear and a powerful compressor.
Although Gilles is French, he speaks English well enough to be able to pull the legs of any English-speaking guests who decide to dive with him.
He is friendly, laid-back (verging on the horizontal), has a good sense of humour and brews a mean cup of expresso! He also knows the diving here intimately. We found him to be both environmentally aware during dives and very interested in both the reef and its inhabitants.

Diving is boat-based and mostly involves running out through a gap in the fringing barrier reef before diving on the dramatic drop-offs on the seaward side. Disconcertingly large rolling waves constantly break onto the narrow reef top, and while the resulting surf can be spectacular, it never caused us any concern under water.
From a surfers point of view, waves here can be world class. The Tahiti Billabong Pro round of the world surfing championships take place off Teahupoo (pronounced chupo) in Tahiti Iti each May.
Gilles has set up several moorings that he prefers to use, as anchoring can damage the reef. His boat is an open glass fibre dory with a substantial outboard and is quick, stable and suited to local conditions.
My wife Lucy and I were visiting Tahiti for four days on our way back from a trip to New Zealand, and decided we would spend all our time on Tahiti Iti.
The name means Little Tahiti. It would be a separate island to the south and east of Tahiti proper, if it were not joined to the larger Tahiti by a narrow isthmus. It doesnt seem to be chosen by many divers visiting French Polynesia, but as we wanted to spend as much time diving as possible during our short stay, it seemed to offer the best possibilities.
We soon discovered that we were travelling in the footsteps of such luminaries as explorer Captain Cook and writer Robert Louis Stevenson.
On the seaward side of the barrier reef, the sea is that rich tropical blue that is full of promise. In February, when we visited, the water was a very pleasant 28ÃÂ as opposed to the air, which was decidedly hotter. Sun-cream was essential even for the short boat journeys out to the dive sites.
Rolling into the beautifully clear water revealed gently sloping reef tops that dropped away in sheer walls to depths way beyond vision. Diving here has the potential to be disconcertingly deep.

Because of its location, you wont find the massive diversity of corals found westwards towards Indonesia. The coral on both reef top and walls was abundant and in good condition, though not as colourful as that of, say, the Red Sea.
Unusually, the many local sea-fans are of a yellow-orange colour. These adorned the wall and were one of the highlights of diving Tahiti Iti. Fish life was abundant, tame and colourful, and we saw several blacktip reef sharks patrolling over the reef-tops (though none would come particularly close).
On one occasion we could see a sharks fin cutting through the water towards the boat as Gilles moored up over a dive-site, but its owner disappeared as soon as we rolled in.
Dropping down the walls revealed plentiful life, and in some places the underwater scenery was stunning with its swim-throughs, caves and short tunnels, most of which we dived with
the light at its best - Gilles knew when to show the sites to best advantage.
The reef dives were dominated by substantial vertical drops, and it would have been very easy to dive deeper than anticipated without a careful eye kept on the dive computer.
On one dive, a pinnacle rose up alongside the wall, providing an excellent photo opportunity, although as its top was not much shallower than 40m, time was restricted for taking many pictures of it.
It was here that we momentarily lost Gilles! Having taken some shots and seen deco appear on our computers while we were at 42m, we looked around to find him and spotted him only when we resorted to looking down.
Gilles was lying on his back at 47m at an angle of 45Â, perfectly neutrally buoyant, arms folded and obviously simply enjoying being there.
He told us later that he monitors his breathing rate and that it actually reduces below 30m. Just as well hes at home in the water, because he dives up to three times a day, and we wondered whether he ever desaturated at all.
On another dive, a French diver ran low on air during the safety stop. Gilles simply offered her his octopus valve and calmly continued pointing out yet more interesting fish, diffusing any potential for panic or even worry. A perfect approach to a disconcerting situation!

While the wall-diving takes place outside the fringing reef, diving is available inside the lagoon too - useful if the weather is rough, swells too substantial or just for easier diving.
While diving outside the reef offered walls, corals, sea-fans and numerous reef fish, inside the diving was over sand with some coral outcrops,
different fish including rays, a few invertebrates and even the odd wreck (well, a yacht anyway).
But diving inside the reef can still be relatively deep, and Gilles could offer at least one dive involving a substantial swim - there was a lot to see, but it required a reasonably long dive time.
He was forever pointing out creatures, from minute shrimps living on urchins to large sting rays. Im not heavy on air but I did find that I was decidedly low by the end of this dive - though by this time I was in only a few metres of water.
When we had contacted Gilles he had agreed to organise accommodation for us, and we chose to stay at a family-run pension not far from his dive centre.
This was the Pension Chayan, run by Yan, his wife Chantalle and their three daughters.
We ate with the family - mostly traditional Polynesian meals - and these included Polynesian dishes of raw fish on several occasions.
We had a recently built bungalow to ourselves in an idyllic location. A small waterfall splashed down out of the jungle just a few metres outside the front door, and the garden was a blaze of colour, with carefully tended bushes and plants.

The downside of visiting in the wet season was that we did get bitten by mosquitoes and other, equally irritating insects, though luckily malaria is not a problem in Tahiti.
Yan runs a surf boat that is used by the TV camera crews who come over to film surfers during the Billabong Championships. He also ferried us from the airport in Papeete in his minibus.
The South Seas are the stuff of dreams, and there is still a romantic perception of the islands that inspired characters as creative and complex as Paul Gauguin.
We had too little time to explore Tahiti Iti, with its steep, forest-clad mountains, but noted that Polynesian families do seem to live in the sea. And many young Tahitian women look as if they have walked off the set of a Hollywood movie in their short, colourful skirts, stylish skimpy tops and hibiscus in their hair.
Tahiti appears to be a vibrant, modern society blending its traditional culture with many trappings of the western world. Most things are on the expensive side, although we bought very little as we were on full board, and there were few shops near the dive centre or pension.
Visiting fulfilled for me an ambition held ever since reading about the Kon Tiki expedition, and we really enjoyed diving Tahiti Iti.
However, while its an excellent place to visit, Im not convinced that its diving alone is sufficiently diverse to hold the interest for a substantially longer trip.
Given that there are many other islands and dive sites to explore in French Polynesia, you would normally want to visit the area for at least 10 ten days to make the long journey from Britain worthwhile.
But as a part of a bigger trip, Tahiti Iti should certainly be considered.

Divernet Divernet
Looking
Looking upwards, the coral walls reveal a cacophony of colourful encrustation.
A
A wrecked yacht lies split open on the sand inside the lagoon, providing shelter for numerous fish.
One
One of two mantas which cruised unexpectedly past.
Masses
Masses of orange-yellow sea-fans cover coral underhangs and walls.
From
From a valley in the reeftop it was possible to view the rollers as they passed overhead.
The
The protecting tentacles of the anemone give this orange-fin anemonefish confidence to allow itself to be

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Fly Air Tahiti Nui from Paris, via Los Angeles to Papeete, the capital of Tahiti. Travel by road from there to Tahiti Iti. Air New Zealand and Air France also fly to French Polynesia.
DIVING: Iti Diving International can arrange diving, accommodation and transfers (www.itidiving.pf)
ACCOMMODATION: Pension Chayan (www.pensionchayantahiti.pf)
WHEN TO GO: Paul Kay visited Tahiti in the wet season and enjoyed excellent weather, but the winter dry season (May-October) is recommended as being the best time to visit, as the air is drier, slightly cooler and there is less rain.
MONEY: French Pacific franc (XPF). US dollars and credit cards are widely accepted.
LANGUAGE: French and Tahitian. A little English is spoken.
PRICES: Return flights from the UK start at around £1600. A bungalow at Pension Chayan (two sharing) costs around £140 a night. A dive costs around £32 or a 10-dive package around £290 with Iti Diving International.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Tahiti Tourisme, 020 7771 7023, www.tahiti-tourisme.com