WE’RE ON OUR WAY out for an afternoon dive, but first we make a detour to a fish-processing plant. An old hull at the quay groans under the weight of discarded fish-heads, mostly from big tuna, though the stench is less overpowering than I expect.
One of the crew of our TopDive boat leaps onto the heap and selects more than a dozen heads, tossing them into a perforated cylindrical container.
He is about to jump back when he notices an unusually large, dark head with starry white spots, grabs it and rams that in too. I can’t identify the species, and on asking I’m told it’s from a “deepwater salmon”.
We motor out to the White Valley dive-site, where the lidded bucket is set down on a flat area of seabed in about 18m. As its contents start wafting fragrant signals through the water, we back-roll in.
We’ve been told to settle close to some coral outcrops, and to be aware that hidden eels can venture out of the coral and take divers by surprise. But any thoughts of marauding morays are rapidly driven from my mind.
The action is already well underway as we take our places for an hour-long live show. It’s a gob-smacking scene that’s about to smack even harder. The fish-head container is now at the vortex of a swirling mass of sizeable fish that all seem to know their place in a hierarchy.
The restless mass rises and falls, bunches and extends, its base formed by blue-striped snapper with a dense layer of chunky humpback red snapper above them.
These snapper I reckon to be among the most photogenic of fish, with their grey-to-ruddy flanks, fiery-coloured pectoral fins and “faces” that at times can appear cartoon-human. They’re wonderful to watch.
There are other fish in the swirl too – thousands of bluestreak fusiliers, big lone emperors and blubberlips snapper. Preferring a lofty overview, jack patrol at a higher level.
As in those bar-brawls in old Westerns, where a character actor crawls out from the melee, straightens his Stetson, picks up a chair and dives back into the fray, so from time to time a baffled-looking porcupinefish, a titan triggerfish, an unattached remora or even, comically,
a tiny butterflyfish emerges, reflects briefly on what the hell it’s doing there, and then decides to stay in the moment and plunge back into the bouillabaisse.

AND THEN THERE ARE the sharks. Blacktips, dozens of them, chase around like over-excited dogs. As faithful as canines, they are our constant companions in French Polynesia.
Several sizes up are the grey reef sharks, also present in numbers, less frenetic but still keen not to miss out on this social occasion.
Humans who can’t resist the aroma and warmth of high-street coffee-shops are induced to pay way over the odds for a hot beverage. Similarly, these Pacific islanders can’t resist the odour of rotting tuna and the electrical activity generated by mass movement of marine life.
I’m transfixed by the central spectacle, but also trying to take in what’s happening on the periphery in the 20m-or-so visibility. Sharks come and go at a bewildering rate, including one or two large lemons, but they play it cool and don’t hang around for long.
But lemon sharks are not the apex predator here, because the tiger sharks are out in force this fine afternoon, and once you lock onto them, everything else becomes background.
It turns out that there are four specimens around, which is highly unusual. And even on the scale of these stripy big boys, one of the four is such a giant that for a moment I have that rare experience of hardly believing my eyes.
It happens when a vast body descends almost vertically onto the bucket, like a nose-diving zeppelin, not far from where I’m perched. I must have done a comical double-take, because this tiger is a good 4.5m long and built like a Sumo.
Clouds of sediment billow out, small fish shoot from the point of impact like shrapnel, and for a moment the shark appears to have bored its head straight into the sand. Its insane momentum must have popped the hinged bucket-lid, but it just shakes its head, somehow extricates itself and propels its bulk ponderously up and away.
As it bombs directly over my head and I instinctively lean backwards, I can see that it’s holding in its mouth a spotty trophy. It dawns on me that the deep-sea salmon’s head is now the dish of the day.
What seems a long time later, I look down and notice a green moray halfway out of its hole and gurning away beside me. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t seem that big a deal.

WE’RE DIVING WITH TOPDIVE, the dive centre for the Intercontinental Tahiti Resort on the island of Tahiti itself. Its three boats visit a dozen sites, but the White Valley dive must surely be the jewel in the crown.
French Polynesia is renowned for its exciting big-animal diving in the current-filled passes of outer islands such as Rangiroa and Fakarava, as described graphically by Mark Hatter in DIVER (Spectacular Tahiti, November).
It’s a long, long journey to the hub island of Tahiti from the UK, however, and even longer for those continuing to the outer islands.
Given that these days there are some surprisingly competitive packages for flights and luxury accommodation on Tahiti and nearby Moorea (it’s all relative!), I wanted to find out what these central islands can offer divers.
And it turns out that what they lack in currents and passes to attract pelagics, they make up for with regular if discreet use of essential oils – or chum.
I’m well aware that for some divers attracting sharks (this isn’t “feeding” as such, though that big mama tiger shark may not have recognised the distinction) is unacceptable. I respect their views – this destination may not be for them.
I also spoke to one or two non-divers living in Tahiti and Moorea who worry that one serious incident could have far-reaching consequences for the important tourist business.
My personal opinion is unchanged – it is that respecting sharks and giving them a value as creatures to be admired rather than executed is, provided it’s sensibly administered, a Good Thing.

THE VISIT TO WHITE VALLEY I’ve just described, one of three, came on my first day in Tahiti. The flight had seemed interminable – an early-morning hop to Paris to link up with Air Tahiti Nui, a 12-hour flight to LA (plus three hours on the runway at Charles de Gaulle waiting for a computer part), a short stopover and another eight hours south-west across the Pacific.
Yet because of the time difference it was still Monday when I reached the welcoming Intercontinental, which is blessedly close to the airport.
Tahiti is the largest of the Windward group in French Polynesia’s Society Islands. Most inhabitants live around the coast, including the capital Papeete – the majority are Polynesians, with some 30% Europeans and Chinese.
The ancient Polynesians arrived in these remote islands from Asia by canoe and today they are worldbeaters at canoe-racing. Most children learn the sport at school and when you’re out on the dive-boat you’ll see many a canoe tear by with bare-chested, intricately tattooed men paddling furiously, as if off to war.
Our diving life-style was far more relaxed. My warm-up dive at Three Pitons had seemed promising as the dive-boat headed across only slightly choppy waters, with a pod of bottlenose dolphins leaping enthusiastically in our bow wave and a humpback whale and calf offering a generous display as they rolled together off the port side.
You don’t see that every day – except it seems that you do in Tahiti in early October.
The whales are around for some three months until late October, ready to mate and breed before returning to the South Pole.
One thing I didn’t see once submerged was colourful coral – rather scrappy hard corals were the order of the day. Trois Pitons was typical, the pinnacles perhaps affected by exposure to El Niño conditions as well as human activity over the years.
A small group of yellow snapper followed me around at close quarters like pilotfish, and clearly had experience of divers as a food source. A small turtle rested high on one of the pitons, some lone titan triggerfish raced around and small lionfish and grouper lurked in a crevice, but there was nothing to presage the delights to come after lunch.
Revisiting this site later in the week was more fun, however, with the snapper multiplied, another relaxed turtle allowing a close approach until it was time for it to take a breather, and a titan triggerfish that took to my buddy Lionel and me in a big way.
Normally I’m cautious around these pugnacious fish but this one was clearly not nesting or defending territory out in mid water, and simply detected that there was something fishy about Lionel, who sported a shroud of dogged snapper throughout the dive.
There were grey reef sharks resting near the shot at the start and finish of the dive and a sprawling housing estate of anemones for a small population of clownfish and black damsels.
It was a pleasant enough site, but we couldn’t keep away from White Valley. Sometimes the guides like to take you for a tour of the site before settling down for the main course, but we all knew it was just delayed gratification.
When we did this tour, the billed drift turned out to be a mild slog across the current. There were plenty of lone sharks and a shoal of barracuda to watch, but I was glad to reach the chum-site again.
This time I was nearest to the bucket and at times felt engulfed in the action, particularly in a heavy swell that made it hard to remain upright, but no tiger sharks appeared this time, or the time after that. The currents had strengthened and the action seemed more stretched out into ribbons of activity.
It was always absorbing, but I’d been spoilt by that thrilling initial experience.

ONE AFTERNOON WE WENT whale-watching. We had seen humpbacks on most of our dive-boat rides and we saw them today, but the plan on these trips is to try to join them in the water.
Now I freely admit that my speed-snorkelling skills in hot pursuit of big creatures leave much to be desired.
On at least one occasion that afternoon, however, my slackness paid off.
I saw the rest of the pack ahead stop, and turned back to see a humpback breaching not 10m away, but I was never likely to translate that luck into usable pictures. Doug Allen has nothing to fear.
However, I should mention the finale to that second Trois Pitons dive, as we were starting to think about ascending for a safety stop. As the dive-guide pointed urgently up and away my gaze followed his finger, but I could make out nothing but what seemed a large area of shadow.
My focus was all wrong – I was looking for something smaller.
It was only as the shadow moved out of range that I twigged that a humpback whale had just passed overhead. My brain just hadn’t been programmed for that.

TRANSFERRING TO MOOREA to the west of Tahiti was easy. From Papeete a frequent car ferry does the journey in 45 minutes, then it’s a taxi ride through a mountainous and lushly vegetated landscape to the north-west coast and another Intercontinental resort, but one built on a more intimate scale – the Intercontinental Moorea Resort & Spa.
Both this and the Tahiti beachfront resort achieve that desirable but harder-than-it-looks balance of quiet opulence combined with the sort of pleasant informality you want on holiday, with good food and friendly service.
In both cases it’s a short stroll to professionally run and well-equipped dive centres with nitrox and 15-litre cylinders if you want them. Tahiti’s resort has 245 accommodation units of all types, subtly spread out, while Moorea has 144.
The diving I experienced on Moorea was characterised not so much by the 20m-deep sites themselves as by the posse of humans, fish and small sharks that would be milling around them.
We might be briefed to look out for sessile life such as nudibranchs or stonefish in the meadows of pleasant hard coral at ridge-and-canyon sites such as Coral Walls and Lemon Shark Valley, but it’s hard to get in the mood for macro meandering when the Pied-Piper guides always carry a little chum with them, and we bring the marine life along with us.
So it was more entertaining to treat the dives as the equivalent of taking the dogs for a walk, and simply enjoy the view and the company.
The blacktip sharks and snapper were usually there, and trigger and butterflyfish and the odd turtle would come and go. The blacktips would fondly accompany us all the way back to the boat-ladder.
What stood out for me was Eagle Ray Corridor, where my buddy Philippe and I followed the reef wall on a gentle drift. There wasn’t that much to see until, about 20 minutes in, a squadron of eagle rays appeared overhead.
We elected to leave the rest of the group and finned back against the current to catch them as they returned, rejoining the others later in the shallows to bimble about looking for subjects to photograph.

THROUGHOUT MY STAY I enjoyed excellent topside guidance from Tui from Tahiti Tourisme, and she went beyond the call of duty when I returned from Moorea on a Saturday night, driving me east across Tahiti Nui to quiet Tahiti Iti so that I could spend a night in my own hilltop retreat overlooking the sea.
Vanira Lodge was a good place to off-gas, because sadly there was no time left by now to dive this far end of the island.
The 2015 El Niño weather had been unpredictable in French Polynesia but luckily it was kind to me.
This had been a distinctive diving experience in which we rarely needed to go looking for big marine life – it came right at us, allowing plenty of time to get accustomed to each other’s company.
That was certainly a great privilege for me; I can’t speak for the marine life.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Air Tahiti Nui flies from Paris, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Auckland to Tahiti, with connecting flights from London with Virgin Atlantic, www.airtahitinui.co.uk
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Topdive Tahiti and Topdive Moorea are PADI 5* centres, www.topdive. com. InterContinental Tahiti Resort & Spa, www.ihg.com; InterContinental Moorea Resort & Spa, www.moorea.intercontinental. com; Vanira Lodge, www.vaniralodge.com
WHEN TO GO: Year-round, average water temperature 26°C. Wettest months November-April.
LANGUAGE: French, Tahitian.
MONEY: Pacific franc (CFP or XPF), pegged to the euro. Credit cards widely accepted.
PRICES: Return fares with Air Tahiti Nui to Papeete via LA from £1450. Intercontinental Tahiti Resort rooms from £140 per night, Intercontinental Moorea Resort & Spa from £229, Vanira Lodge from £83. 10-dive inter-island pass with TopDive 85,000 CFP. Whale-watching 11,000 CFP.
VISITOR INFORMATION: For more on the islands of Tahiti, tour-operator package deals and special offers visit www.tahiti-tourisme.co.uk