Sunny & Cher
Divernet
French Polynesia is the size of western Europe, so travelling between the best dive sites can be a time-consuming process, and costly too. But with several UK tour operators looking to add it to their brochures, John Bantin set off on a three-week haul around the Pacific, and sent back some postcards

TAHITI, THURSDAY
Dear all,
I arrived safely in the early hours of Thursday morning after a 25 hour door-to-door journey from Heathrow Airport with Air New Zealand, and a quick connection at Los Angeles on the way.
     Monique collected me from the airport and I was soon ensconced in a comfortable bungalow at the Pension Fare Nanao. This is a collection of traditionally built structures with thatched roofs on the waters edge.
     Fare means house in Tahitian. Monique came here from France, took time out to have five daughters and three sons, all now grown to handsome adulthood, and built this little guest house in a combination of local tradition and Parisian belle-époque. Its sort of French eccentricity gone native.
     The first thing I had to do was photograph the interior of my bungalow before the air got hazy with the smoke from the smouldering mosquito-repellent coils. The building seemed to be made from an informal collection of tree branches. It was rather pretty there on the waters edge, though the effect was slightly marred by the sounds of French drivers rocketing past.
     This road circumnavigates the island and all the human development is along its margins. Tahiti is obviously rather rich.
     On the seaward side, the flat-calm Pacific meets the Tahiti reef wall. Here all the energy secretly built up within the oceans expanse is transformed into a mighty permanent pressure wave that threatens to eclipse Hawaiis reputation for offering surfers the ultimate thrill.
     That afternoon, Monique kindly dropped me off with Gilles from Iti Diving International on a largely undeveloped part of the island known as the peninsula, Tahiti Iti. It is joined to the main island by a narrow isthmus.
     Gilles has given his business an impressive name but runs it from a building that resembles a semi-derelict public lavatory. Monique suggested I look at the sky as we approached it.
     Gilles and his assistant Eric welcomed me in good English and had an international sense of humour. Gilles has worked all over the world, and Monique calls him Speedy Gonzales.
     They gave me a 12 litre steel tank and we set off in their small speedboat, leaving the small lagoon where fat, happy young mothers bathed their cute babies at the warm waters edge, as if straight out of a Gauguin painting.
     Soon I was down at 50m, enjoying views up the wall and trying to get inspired by the sight of thousands of tiny gorgonia. There were endless free-swimming giant green morays, too.
     Gilles was obviously impressed, but I was more concerned not to outstay my welcome at this depth.
     Once I was down to around five minutes of air remaining, and still with 11 minutes of stops to do, we ascended to 5m and were surrounded by 30 or more pretty little blacktip reef sharks, bodies lit bronze in the afternoon sun.
     I attempted to photograph these lightweights of the shark world as they raced about, but was mindful of the need to take it easy as I eked out my last gasps of air. Getting bent on the first dive here would have been unfortunate.
     Having passed what must have been some sort of diving test especially conceived for me, Gilles allowed me to dive alone the following morning.
     This was more relaxing. I noticed that a titan triggerfish, the underwater animal I fear most because of the unprovoked attacks I have suffered elsewhere in the world, seemed docile, even friendly. Thats because Gilles regularly hand-feeds everything.
     A large silver trevally buzzed me repeatedly, looking for hand-outs, something else new in my diving experience. I had never known a jack to be sufficiently intelligent to be friendly. A chunky red snapper, in serious need of an orthodontist, also buzzed me.
     I did four dives in two days along the Tahiti wall, and every time the gang of blacktip sharks in the shallows proved to be the highlight. They moved frantically, making it impossible to compose them into a good photograph. If I went back now I would readily exchange the time at 50m for the same time at only 5m. Then it was time to fly on.
     I opted for a 4x4 off-road trip to the centre of the island for my pre-flight day - rather stupidly, in terms of off-gassing, because the centre of Tahiti has recently-formed volcanoes that rise to several thousand feet.
     I was grateful that we did not climb too high until the afternoon and that ultimately a tunnel took a couple of thousand feet off the top. Tahiti has endless rivers and waterfalls, and this trip was a great advertisement for the Land Rover Defender.
     Until now I had not had to spend any money, but at short notice had to equip myself with a picnic for this trip. A baguette, a bottle of water and a can of Danish frankfurters cost US $15 in a local shop. Cher!

BORA BORA, SUNDAY
Dear friends,
Laura Laura from Bora Bora, take me down to your bungalow.
     So go the lyrics of the US rock song, but Bora Bora is better known as the setting for the musical South Pacific. The Bora Bora atoll is within the archipelago of Tahitis Society Islands and is so beautiful its like a film set, with its perfectly formed volcano with palm-fringed slopes, spiking up from the centre of a turquoise lagoon enclosed by a necklace of coral islands. The airport is on one of these, and the first view of the place is breathtaking.
     You are given a garland of flowers when you arrive, but where on this atoll were the slender, grass-skirted maidens of my dreams Many of the women looked muscular to the point of manliness, giving new meaning to the South Pacific lyrics: There is nothing that you can name, that is anything like a dame!
     I took the boat to the Sofitel Marara to be given an immaculate water bungalow equipped like a honeymoon suite. As I sipped my breakfast tea, fish gathered below the decking, possibly mullet but posing like koi carp. Laura, Laura, where are you now
     I was picked up by Stefan from the Bora Diving Centre, owned by Michel and Anne. Though everyone was French, they all spoke English too. The dive centre was a tiny beach-hut with headroom designed for Japanese customers. I dived with six slightly concussed Germans.
     They were a disorganised lot. I joked that they must be from southern Germany, somewhere near Naples! They got they own back by telling me that I must be German too, because Bantin is the name of a village near Hamburg. This was more stupefying news than anything a low beam could do.
     It was all very relaxed. Stefan seemed genuinely impressed by my old BSAC Instructors card (CMAS 3 Star), and there was no other paperwork.
     Armed with 15 litre aluminium tanks, we zipped out from the lagoon in one of the centres twin-engined tinnies. It had no outrigger, though the locals seem to fit them to everything else afloat.
     We arrived at Teavanui Pass, a channel through the surrounding islands and reef into the open ocean, and dropped to 35m to find several heavily pregnant lemon sharks skulking about in the shadows. They could smell the fish scraps in the dive guides pockets but would approach no closer than several metres from us, just out of range of my powerful flashguns.
     They were impressive animals at around 3m long but a bit ponderous, and obviously preferred to keep close to the bottom.
     There was little current, contrary to my expectations. Back in the shallows, the ubiquitous little blacktips darted against the sunlit surface and Stefan was mobbed by some large black trevallies, a host of smaller jacks, emperors, butterflyfish and even a couple of free-swimming remoras.
     The reef itself was inauspicious, even a little dull, but I was impressed by the number of fish. Then my guide excitedly pointed out a solitary lionfish. Later I told him that lionfish are far from rare in British divers favourite haunt, the Red Sea.
     Back at the hotel, most of the other diners seem to be rather muscular and wearing baseball caps. My visit had coincided with the outrigger canoe-racing world championships and my ears were filled with the sound of manic, tinkling ukuleles.
     The next days first dive was to Muri Muri, on the ocean side of the airport island. Hundreds of grey reef sharks around 2m long were in evidence, and 20 or so came to rush about beneath the boat, creating a nice surprise when we rolled in.
     We dropped onto yet another inauspicious tract of coral and I photographed a couple of browsing hawksbill turtles, one closely attended by a Moorish idol.
     Back on the boat, the show was beginning. Seeing our bubbles, Michel threw lumps of dead fish into the water and the grey reef sharks went mad for it. It was spectacular and we took an extended safety stop to watch. Just below the surface, two passing blacktips diverted to investigate but had second thoughts about joining in the rough and tumble.
     We return for a local lunch. A mahi-mahi burger, fries and a bottle of water cost US$15. Ce nest pas cher!
     That afternoon, we were joined by a traditional French diver. He smoked Gitanes, as evidenced by his nicotine-stained moustache, and carried his well-worn gear in a tattered hemp sack. His fins were as long as his body and under water turned out to be longer than the distance between his feet and my head.
     We dive within the lagoon at Toopua and it was like its name. Visibility was very poor. We got only flash sightings of eagles rays, and I photographed one of two large spotted puffers and finally a clownfish on an anemone. It seemed a waste of one of my four dives here. Dont worry, said Stefan, were going to see mantas next!
     The ride to Fafapiti was through a powerful tropical deluge. Stefan said the boat was so full of water it was like a budget French production of Titanic. I was relieved to be out of the sun for a bit.
     Fafapiti was far from the dive centre, and sadly the visibility was appalling. In the lagoon I was lucky enough to collide with a manta, but it was a moment of excitement within a long period of boredom. The German divers managed to chase off all the other mantas. When will people realise that you must stalk wild animals rather than racing up behind them
     Two of the four dives here were world-class, the other two were extremely disappointing. I watched the outrigger canoe-racing during the 24 hour off-gassing period, and reflected on a hotel bill for meals that I might have difficulty explaining to my editor, before flying on. Trop cher!

RANGIROA, WEDNESDAY
Dear readers,
I arrived in Rangiroa, in the Tuamotu archipelago. It is one of the largest atolls in the world and 220 miles from Tahiti. Things looked very promising, including the slender maidens greeting people with garlands of flowers.
     The atmosphere at the busy Blue Dolphins dive centre was exactly right. It made nitrox, and Inspiration and Dräger Dolphin rebreathers were in evidence. Sebastian from the centre was waiting for me, and I was in the water at Tiputa Pass with him and Pascal, another instructor, within the hour.
     So what did I see on that first dive Endless grey reef sharks, which came close thanks to the usual bag of fish scraps in Sebastians BC pocket, and a big shoal of barracuda into which I managed to insinuate myself.
     Inside the lagoon, we hooked on and watched more grey reefs and a few whitetips and the fish they were feeding on. Then, the fish that feeds on sharks passed within inches of my ear.
     The fish that feeds on sharks I was so stunned by its size that it was off before I had time to focus. A 4m great hammerhead is a massive fish - its passing wing looked like that of a small plane! Then a manta ray passed by too.
     Evidently an equally large tiger shark also munches on the reef sharks at this pass. I never saw it, but I saw Pascals many photographs. So that was my first dive in Rangiroa!
     Blue Dolphins use a couple of large Zodiacs as dive boats, as the two passes through the reef to the ocean are not far from the centre at the Kia Ora Hotel.
     A spectacular gourmet meal and a night in my luxurious beach bungalow and I was ready to go again, this time to the ocean outside the Aviatoru Pass.
     I always said that the perfect dive involved gin-clear water, no currents, depth of less than 18m and big animals that come up close, but that it doesnt exist. Only it does, at Rangiroa.
     Two large silvertip sharks circled closely round us, thanks to a bit of fish Pascal had hidden in the coral. I took 36 close-ups of these magnificent denizens of the deep. Silvertips, at up to 3m long, look the business. They seem aggressive, though they are in fact timid.
     On the next dive we met up with a huge school of jacks that were mobbing the grey reef sharks, rubbing off their parasites on the rough skin of the sharks, and in such large numbers that we couldnt see the shark, only an outline made up of glittering jacks.
     Hawksbill turtles browsed unbothered by the presence of divers among the corals. Big, friendly titan triggerfish (I never thought I would combine those words) bothered the dive guides for food, and I watched large moray eels covered in cleaner fish.
     That evening we returned to the Tiputa Pass, but the grey reefs seemed spooked, rushing about in a panic. It seemed that the big boys had dropped by for their dinner.
     However, as a consolation prize some 50 eagle rays passed over us like a cloud of migrating monarch butterflies. There is always something spectacular to see in Rangiroa, and thanks to the enthusiasm of the dive guides, I fitted in more dives in less time here than anywhere else.
     Next morning we did a bluewater dive with the silvertips. It was too unpredictable a dive for great photography, but still a great experience.
     On the last day I rented a fun car to explore the island. I said that Tahitians seemed to want to fit outriggers to everything. Here even this car had them, but it was so unstable that it needed them to stop it falling over on corners. The only fun is in watching other tourists driving them.
     Did you know that the word haemorrhoids is the same in French as in English You dont have any Try driving a fun car.
     Rangiroa does not offer the volcanic drama of the Society Islands. One of the Tuamotus, its a low-lying coral atoll covered in palms and casuarina trees. I took the car back before two hours had passed because I felt I had seen it.
     The meals at the Kia Ora Hotel were spectacular and the bungalows extremely comfortable. Trs cher - mais ça valait la peine!

TAHITI, SATURDAY
Dear everyone,
Im back here staying at a characterless international hotel for a night while I await a connection to Tikehau.
     I started the day visiting the Tahiti-Plongée dive centre, which seemed interested only in training divers to do it the French way. The elderly owner told me proudly that he was a CMAS 2 Star instructor. I said nothing. Back at the Maeva Beach Hotel I wasted time people-watching. I saw American senility trying to cope with the shock of a foreign language, and realised that American obesity could be outclassed by a well-developed French liver.
     Some tourists were looking a bit char-broiled, and my head had developed a permanent leak that ran down into my eyes. Not at sea to enjoy a cool breeze, I took cover in my room during the hottest part of the day.
     I was going to Tikehau, again in the Tuamotus, because the dive centre at Hika Hiva in the Marquesas, another archipelago, had been closed due to lack of anyone to run it.
     French Polynesia Tahiti and 118 other islands forming five archipelagos cover an area of the Pacific as big as western Europe. Think of the Marquesas as Denmark, the Gambiers as Greece, the Australs as Spain and the leeward side of the Society Islands as Ireland and you get an idea of the travelling involved. But Tikehau is very close to Rangiroa.
     It was a day for refreshment and renewal. I sang in the shower: Im gonna wash that salt right out of my hair!

TIKEHAU, SUNDAY
Hi again!
Air Tahiti does deals on excess baggage charges if you pay once upfront for every trip on your ticket. The plane stopped off at another island, Mataiva, on the way, and we three passengers were joined by locals returning to work in Tahiti after a national holiday.
     All were garlanded with flowers, and the plane soon smelled like a florists.
     My destination was on a different motu, or island, and I was the only passenger on the boat there. The year-old Pearl Beach Resort is ideal for lovers and honeymooners, and my water bungalow was so spectacularly romantic that I just had to phone my wife, 9000 miles away in England.
     There were only seven guests in the restaurant for dinner, and guess who was the gooseberry
     I ate the excellent French cuisine and retreated to my bungalow, where I watched through the glass panel in the floor a grey reef shark thrashing about in the shallows. It must have chased some prey in here and been trapped, because these sharks normally never enter shallow water.
     The following night I watched a small blacktip shark doing the same thing. That is more common.
     I dived with Carol from Blue Nui Dive Centre, and Yvonne, a charming lady who shared a small estate outside Brussels with her husband. It took half an hour to reach the solitary channel out to the ocean, so Carol preferred to do two dives in the morning with an hours interval rather than dive in the afternoon.
     I was disappointed, because without a lover there was little to do in the afternoon but think about what a fantastic place this would be to visit with a lover!
     There are really only two dive sites. One is called the Shark-hole, and the other is the channel or pass itself.
     The first dive was on a wall. The Shark-hole is an opening in the reef about 60m down, and when they heard the splash as we rolled into the water, the grey reef sharks swarmed out of it like bees from a hive. Carol didnt believe in taking shark bait into the water, but the two other dive centres on the main island of Tikehau clearly did, which was why we got this reaction.
     The sharks rushed to meet us in the 40m range. Great swarms of bigeyes were shoaling on the reef next to swarms of soldierfish, blue-striped snapper and black-sided horse-eyed jacks. A super-male Napoleon wrasse browsed among them. We had plenty of time to watch the action during the deco-stops on the buoyline in the shallows.
     The second dive was in the channel to 32m. There was no coral to speak of, but the largest tight-knit school of silver-sided horse-eyed jacks I had ever seen, like a glittering reef.
     Hordes of large whitetips hid under overhanging rocks, and Carol expected to see rays, though none turned up. We repeated the exercise the following day.
     I later pointed out that the other divers really should wear computers for this type of diving but they did not. I had four on my arm, and would have loaned two had I realised earlier that the other divers were so ill-equipped. No wonder they were so interested in my computers during the deco-stops.

TAHITI, WEDNESDAY
My last communication!
I have one day to spend here at the Tahiti Beachcomber Parkroyal Resort before setting off for home. I wandered down to the Aquatica dive centre and met Didier who runs it, but had no time to dive. He told me he could supply three dives a day, including to walls, coral gardens and the wrecks of a freighter and a Catalina flying boat.
     He also told me he would be at the next Dive Show in Birmingham, on the Tahiti stand. I went back to my hotel to apply lotion liberally to my sunburnt skin. Tahiti is both sunny and cher!

The
The hotel there was located on an outer island
Blacktip
Blacktip sharks with brassy trevally
Emperor
Emperor snapper
horse-eyed
horse-eyed jacks
local
local woman on the romantic island of Tikehau
hawksbill
hawksbill turtle with a Moorish idol
Fish-feeding
Fish-feeding at Teavanui Pass in Bora Bora - trevallies, jacks, emperors. remoras and others join in
The
The titan triggerfish seemed unusually docile in Tahiti
Tikehaus
Tikehaus Pearl Beach Resort
jacks
jacks in mating guise
divers
divers should beware altitude when sightseeing on Tahiti island
a
a free-swimming remora
A
A silvertip shark in Rangiroa
Rangiroa
Rangiroa has special cars for tourist - piles of fun!

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE Fly Air New Zealand (baggage allowance 2 x 32kg) via Los Angeles to Papeete, the capital, and connect with the other islands using Air Tahiti (baggage allowance 20kg). There is no exit tax from Tahiti.
DIVING: Recommended English-speaking dive centres include, in Tahiti: Aquatica Dive Centre (www.aquatica-dive.com); Tahiti Iti: Iti Diving International (www.itidiving.pf); in Bora Bora: Bora Diving (www.boradive.com); in Rangiroa: Blue Dolphins (www.bluedolphins.com); and in Tikehau: Blue Nui (e-mail: tikehaubluenui@mail.pf). Book diving before you go. Dives cost around US $60 each. The Tahiti Aggressor starts liveaboard operations this autumn (Divequest, 01254 826322).
ACCOMODATION: Hotels are usually very good but expensive. Small pensions and local restaurants offer better value, and being French the food is always excellent John Bantin travelled at the invitation of Tahiti Tourisme and stayed at: Pension Fare Nanao Tahiti (e-mail: farenanao@mail.pf); Sofitel Marara Bora Bora (H0564@accor-hotels.com); Kia Ora Resort Rangiroa (resa@kiaora.pf); Maeva Beach Resort Tahiti (H0547@accor-hotels.com); Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort (welcome@tikehaupearlbeach. pf); Tahiti Beachcomber Inter-Continental (tahiti@interconti.com).
COST: A 13-night, four-island package covering Tahiti, Bora Bora, Tikehau and Rangiroa, including all flights and 18 dives, costs from£3100 (plus that cher food and drink). A nine-night trip to Rangiroa, including flights from London, domestic flights and half-board pension accommodation, starts from£1385, plus£280 for 10 dives. Tour operator Dive Worldwide can put together a suitable package - call 020 8400 6575 or visit www.diveworldwide.com
WHEN TO GO: Any time.
LANGUAGES: Maltese and English.
MONEY: CFP or Cours du Franc Pacifique (100CFP = US $1). US dollars are readily acceptable and credit cards work everywhere.
language: Local languages, French and English.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Contact Tahiti Tourisme on 020 7771 7023, www.tahiti-tourisme.com




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