THERE WAS A STANDING WAVE IN THE TIPUTA PASS in Rangiroa when we were there. The current was so strong we couldnt dive.
There was a standing wave in the Tiputa Pass in Rangiroa when we dived it. The current was so strong, it was awesome. We saw masses of grey reef sharks, turtles, schools of huge barracuda, a couple of silvertip sharks and finally we saw several dolphins surfing close above us while we did our safety stop.
Two very different impressions of the same place. If you want to get the most out of the diving in the Tuamotus, you have to learn how to fly the passes.
The Tuamotus are a group of low-lying atolls that form part of French Polynesia. Motu means small island in the local languages. Dont look for the Tuamotus on a flat atlas. Theyre in that part of the world often omitted because of space considerations. Rangiroa is the largest of the atolls, and has the worlds second largest lagoon (Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands has the biggest).
The airport in Tahiti, in the Society Islands, is called Tahiti Faaa. Its about as faaa from Britain as you can get. Rangiroa is about an hour further by plane.
I had been there before but had time for only five dives. These turned out to be among the most exciting I had ever done, so when I was invited to join the Tahiti Aggressor liveaboard, which embarks its passengers in Rangiroa, I jumped at the chance and decided to add an extra week in Rangiroa afterwards.
The Tahiti Aggressor is a modern aluminium catamaran with all the amenities the modern liveaboard diver has come to expect. I quickly become acquainted with my Californian cabin-mate Robin. He looks less like the loveable villain of Nottingham Forest and more like Alan Rickmans portrayal of the Sheriff. There are 16 other passengers.
Depending on weather, the Tahiti Aggressor visits different reefs and passes of the numerous other atolls in the vicinity. We go to dive at Toau, Fakarava, Apataki and return to Rangiroa.
In the lagoon at Toau, Grace, the locally born stewardess, hand-feeds a solitary barracuda from the swim platform of the boat. The barracuda is more than 3m long! Can you imagine the immense girth of a fish like that
But in the passes of the Tuamotus , its the sharks that are the big attraction, and until the long-liners move in, as they did in the Marshall Islands, there are veritable walls of them.
Its funny to read postings on the Internet by those who travel by sail-boat in this area: We couldnt swim here because there were so many sharks, or: We managed to get back into the dinghy just before a great big shark attacked us!
In reality, its difficult to get close to the sharks unless theres something in it for them. So far as attracting sharks goes, our two French dive-guides on the Tahiti Aggressor, Sebastian and Bertran, are the Dream Team. Or they were, until Bertran was badly bitten, but more of that later.
I know these two from my previous visit to French Polynesia, before the Tahiti Aggressor moved here from Fiji. This proves useful, because the other passengers are very competitive about getting in the best position for a shot at the sharks.
I discreetly arrange with Sebastian or Bertran to be sure to lure the sharks near me. So what will draw a shark in for a close-up Food of course, or the promise of it.
I smile when I think of those people on the Internet worrying about smelling of the fish they had at lunch. These French guys each tuck the massive head of a mahi-mahi under their BCs (theyre much too big to get into a pocket) before jumping into the water.
They then scrape bits off it with a knife to chum the water while were down there. They always try to do it near me, until the other passengers cotton on.
Like the Palau Aggressor, the Tahiti Aggressor has the wonderful facility of a hydraulic lift at the stern that will lift the diving-tender or skiff, complete with its passengers and kit, onto the aft deck of the boat. Sheer luxury! You never have to get your feet wet before you need to.
However, this does mean that everyone goes in the tender to the same dive site, including the guides and the ships videographer. Thats 21 very competitive people diving at the same time and place.
One time I come across one of numerous hawksbill turtles feeding undisturbed on the reef. I move in close but the turtle is unfazed. It even tries to bite its reflection in the dome-port of my underwater camera. Its just me and the turtle, working in quiet harmony.
Then I find I have another diver in the background. I move round only to find another, and another. I look up and see six divers armed with cameras, less than patiently waiting their turn with the turtle. Why cant they find their own
Once they discover my special arrangement for shark-feeding with the Frenchies, things get even more crowded. They all want to be close to me! Now what about those passes
Each atoll is formed by coral growing on the rim of a prehistoric and sunken volcano. The water trapped in the centre of the ring of reefs and islands so formed is called the lagoon. When the tide of the ocean rises, the lagoon fills.
When the tide drops, the water in the lagoon flows out. Tidal ranges may not be great but the surface areas of the lagoons in this part of the world are so great that a lot of water is being forced to move. It gets in and out of the lagoon through any channels or passes there may be in the reef.
The Tuamotus have few passes, often only one. So when all this water flows, it flows in a torrent.
Five knots is fairly normal. Ten is possible. This is a flow that can almost rip your computer off your arm!
When water flows out of the atoll, it takes nutrient-rich water with it but the visibility in the pass can be very poor. If you dive it, you can be tumbled out into the open ocean and be very hard to find later.
When the tide turns and the water becomes slack, the dives are dull, with little wildlife. When the tide rises and clear ocean water floods into the lagoon, the big animals turn out to enjoy it. When you come up after a dive you are at the surface in the restricted waters of the lagoon. You are relatively easy to find, even though the water can be exceedingly rough at the surface. My Diver surface flag proves useful more than once.
The sharks enjoy the passes. There is food in the form of prey fish and the strong currents allow them to cruise effortlessly. Otherwise they have to keep swimming to force oxygenated water past their gills.
We dive the passes when the current is flowing strongly inwards. The sharks are there, surfing on the flow, predating on smaller fish washed helplessly towards them in the current.
At Fakarava, I get lucky. We do a dive in slack water at the entrance to the pass and its like going to Manchester Uniteds ground in midsummer. Nothing is happening.
The lucky aspect is that the dive is so dull that most of the passengers opt not to repeat it two hours later. The handful that do dive are rewarded with a mask-ripping current and lots of grey reef sharks.
Sebastian and Bertran put on a good show with pieces of dead fish, and appear to get a few close calls with these ravenous raiders.
Was it scary for them My enquiry afterwards is dismissed with a Gallic shrug of the shoulders: Poof!
The pass at Apataki is particularly narrow and the atoll has only one. All the water that flows into the lagoon must pass through here. Diving here is like whitewater rafting without breaking the surface.
Its not difficult once you perfect the technique. No-one can swim against such a flow, but once you get your current-hook secured in the firm substrate, and provided you keep your line between your legs and your back to the flow, you dont even need to put air in your BC to fly. Stay where you are and the action comes to you.
To move to a new position, earmark your next safe anchorage point under the flow of your exhaled bubbles before releasing yourself. Ive been doing this on and off for more than 20 years now, so Im starting to get quite proficient. Im also good at picking my positions.
I see where Sebastian is anchoring ahead of me and I spot a nearby rock embedded in the sea-floor, worn smooth into the shape of a ski-jump. I know this will give me an eddy of water where I can rest without even being attached.
Sebastian scrapes away at the head of the mahi-mahi. I am battered by an intermittent blizzard of exhaled bubbles and fish scraps and the sharks come up past my camera to investigate.
Perhaps only 20 or 30 sharks do this. I say only, because beyond us in the channel is a wall of hundreds of sharks. But as we try to get closer, they simply move back. So it seems that only the brave, or the curious, or the very hungry chance a close pass with any of us noisy air-bubbling monsters.
I stay comfortably in my eddy while the other Aggressor divers look enviously down at me from where they are hooked onto the reef wall above, enjoying the effects of the mask-ripping flow. They covet my rock.
Nitrox supplied via a membrane system on the Tahiti Aggressor allows us a short surface interval, so we can get in again during the peak of the same tide.
For this, our second and last dive in the pass at Apataki, I ask if I can make a different plan. I want to let myself go from where I will be hooked on in the channel, in an attempt to hold my breath long enough to get washed down through the pass and through that wall of waiting sharks.
I plan to be picked up later at the surface where I end up in the lagoon. I have my Diver surface-marker flag with me and am confident that I will still be within the five-mile range to which I have tested its effectiveness. Alas, the Aggressor captain says no.
Ever with the safety of his passengers in mind, the captain fears that if I come up in the turbulent water, those in the pick-up skiff might get injured, as it will rock n roll. So I have to content myself with a repeat plan from the previous dive.
I have forgotten that many of the other divers covet my special spot, my rock and eddy. The next dive turns into something of an underwater scrum down there, and I find myself pushed past my rock out into the open flow. I get my hook in and fight my way back.
Another diver, hooked-in but exposed out in the flow on the channel floor, decides to brace himself by putting a foot up on my ski-jump rock, thereby putting his fin up in front of my lens. I get my dome-port nicely gouged. It will take hours of polishing later to reduce the scratches.
The sharks seem well ordered by comparison Ð until they spot some unlucky prey near the surface. They dont mess around and 100 or so sharks hurtle towards it in an instant.
We never learn what it was. Little do we know either that, during our fierce jockeying for positions, Bertran has sustained a bad shark-bite to his hand.
He adopts my disallowed plan and leaves us to get washed down through the wall of waiting sharks. He makes it to the surface, is missed by the crew in the skiff, and swims, bleeding heavily, about 2km back to the Tahiti Aggressor.
We dont know that at the time. We suffer a bit of a low point when he fails to get back on the skiff with the rest of us after the dive, and start searching for him in the white water at the surface. Meanwhile, hes getting first aid from the captain.
Back in Rangiroa, a Japanese dive guide from the Blue Dolphin dive centre called Lupin has sustained a bite to the leg during a dive, with the reef baited with dead fish to draw in big silvertips.
We return to find that the local mayor has temporarily banned shark-feeding. Bertran comes back from the doctor with 20 stitches and an unendurably long lay-off from diving.
Sebastian used to work at the Blue Dolphin Dive Centre, and it was with him that I did those five brilliant dives last year. We dive the Tiputa pass. The currents fly us in and through. The sea floor is polished smooth by millennia of rushing water. We all follow Sebastian. Hes playing at home.
Suddenly, he ducks down out of the current into a long canyon that stretches across the pass. Its what the crew of the Aggressor call a wrasse-hole. We all follow. I remember that it was here, last year, that I had my memorable close encounter with a great hammerhead shark.
I make my way stealthily in the calm and protected water, towards some whitetip reef sharks stalking a huge shoal of striped convictfish. I am suddenly elbowed out of the way by an overtaking camera-wielding diver. The sharks are gone.
I reflect that there is more than one wrasse-hole down here, and content myself with photographing the tight-knit group of striped convictfish instead.
Never mind. Pascal Jagut, who owns Blue Dolphin, has invited me to spend a week doing some Inspiration rebreather dives. Unfortunately, technical problems with his unit deny us this privilege, so its back to diving the old-fashioned way.
The ban on shark-feeding is a problem. Pascal knows thatI have come a long way and am unlikely to return soon. He is passionate about both diving and underwater photography and does not want to let me down. He takes a risk.
We go to the Aviatora pass, to the reef outside it. He hides a few scraps of fish under the coral. Lots of great reef sharks turn up, and then the silvertips. Its a repeat performance of a dive I did last year. I said at the time that the best dive was one with gin-clear water, no current and big animals that come close. It used to exist only in my imagination. Now here we are again. Brilliant! But its a one-off this week. We make our way past a spinning vortex of jacks, back into the pass.
Next we dive the Tiputa Pass again. At 50m I see a huge mass of sharks below me and, cruising quietly among them, the great hammerhead. Its a magnificent giant, but I have no way of getting down there. We have to lure the sharks up to us instead.
We do a bluewater dive in the ocean, outside the pass. The other divers are told to stay in a tight group. They might think this is some form of defence strategy against marauding sharks but in fact it makes it easier to prevent a rock accidentally clouting anyone on the head during the next part of the plan.
Rudolph, our guide, free-baits the water with pieces of dead fish. At the same time our boat-driver drops half a dozen rocks, one at a time, into the water from the boat and we watch them plunge out of sight. The idea is to rouse the bottom-dwelling sharks to come up and see whats going on.
It works. Rudolph has to fend off a couple of grey reef sharks, which try to mug him for the food he carries. I try to swim within suspended patches of bait. The grey reef sharks seem rather aggressive, dropping their pectoral fins and chasing off other fish. They are then superseded by the bigger boys. A big silvertip cautiously joins us, then a second.
The larger one stays out away in blue water. Obviously a veteran of endless struggles with sting rays on the reef, its covered in old scars, not just from the rays barbs. When silvertips get old they get less cautious, and often damage themselves hunting close to the hard coral.
Later someone says its scars are caused by divers stabbing it in defence. I think not. If you were to stab this predator, it would confiscate the knife complete with the hand that held it!
Theres always something to see, diving the passes. If it isnt sharks, its mantas or the school of barracuda that are bigger than sharks, lazily cruising up to inspect us.
One time I jump in with the resident pod of dolphins. Theyre like the ones from Douglas Adams Hitchhikers Guide. They waste their days larking about in the waves. These swim right pass me and I get off an unprecedented four frames of film.
They are well within range of my flashes and beautifully lit. Alas, my cameras auto-focus switch was turned to the off position before I jumped in the water!
Off-gassing, the day before flying home, I lie dozing on a sunbed on the beach. I awake with a start, realising that I am at last doing something really dangerous.
Looking up, I can see a cluster of coconuts directly above me, ready to fall from a great height. More people are killed by falling coconuts each year than are ever injured by sharks.