Lemon Shark in Bora Bora

Lemon Shark in Bora Bora

Friday, July 1, 2011

Scuba Diving Motu Tapu Bora Bora, French Polynesia

Bora Bora, just the name alone stirs images of beauty, romance, and adventure and rightly so.  You would be hard pressed to find a more beautiful setting in the world.

 I had the pleasure to live in French Polynesia aboard the Tallship Star Flyer for about 8 months leading groups of divers from all over the world.  I logged hundreds of dives in locations like: Tahiti, Bora Bora, Moorea, Huahine, Tahaa, Raiatea, Rangiroa, and Fakarava, but I want to start with one of my all time favorites.

 Bora Bora, The Pearl of the Pacific, is located in the Society Archipelago.  This of one of 5 (sometimes 6) island groups that make up French Polynesia.  Society Islands, Marquesas Islands, Austral Islands, Tuamotu Islands, Bass Islands (often considered part of the Tuamotu’s), and the Gambier Islands.
A little history of French Polynesia.  The roughly 118 islands, Motu, and atolls that together form what we call French Polynesia are home to just under 275,000 people.  Over 60% of who reside on the Island of Tahiti.

These islands were formed around 5-6 million years ago by volcanic activity in the region.   The region was claimed by the French in 1842 and declared a French Protectorate, in 1946 it was re-declared an Overseas Territory of France and most recently in 2004 it was designated a French Overseas Collectivity.  This basically means that it has its own local assembly and government but ultimately it is part of France.  First discovered in 1521 by Ferdinand Magellan of Portugal and later was explored by, among others Captain James Cook of England.

The Polynesian language does not have the letter B and the true name is Pora Pora meaning “first born” as it is said that it was the first Island that the god Taaroa pulled from the turquoise seas. Cook’s Bay today is a pristine port located on the Island of Moorea.  

During the Second World War Japan had planned to make the area part of its own empire and American forces established a supply base on Bora Bora.  Approx. 5,000 American troops and about 20 American ships fortified with multiple cannon established at strategic points around the island in what was called “Operation Bobcat” Many of these cannons are still present today on majestic Mount Otemanu the remains of an ancient volcano that is the centre point of this Island gem, and those gun placements are a popular site tourists still visit.  Well a Japanese attack never occurred and I have heard it said it was the best place to spend the war.  According to a local I met on the Island the biggest medical concerns were “sunburn and syphilis” and at the wars end many of the troops remained behind with their Polynesian wives. 

Bora Bora was the setting for the famous Rogers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific” and today many visitors still visit the local landmark “Bloody Mary’s”  bar which is one of the oldest business’ on the island and has it’s own dock on the breathtaking lagoon.  Tourism, vanilla, coconuts, and the famous black pearls drive the local economy.
  The people are very friendly and at first encounter many North Americans are unsure how to take it.  It is not uncommon at all for a local to sit down beside you on the beach and start talking to you like they are a long lost friend.  You will not often be harassed by merchants, peddlers, and time share bandits.  In fact if you do choose to browse the local shops and booths in many cases you will just get a pleasant smile and they tend to wait for you to ask them questions.  However anyone you meet will have a friend with a small Pearl Farm where you can find deals well below the cost of most of the larger jewelers and pearl exchange. 

 I myself made a good friend, Ray an American surfer, and diver in Huahine that came to the Island in the 1990’s chasing the perfect wave and the endless summer.  He fell in love with the Island and also met his wife and started a family.  He runs a small pearl farm and has build a quaint little shop in a huge tree in his backyard he calls “The Pearl Tree house” I found him to be a good honest man and his pearls were about 1/3 of the cost you will find them in the Capital of Papeete.  Hey Ray there’s a plug for you buddy! 

 Now that I have shared a little bit about this south pacific marvel let’s get to the good stuff, the diving!  Where do I start?  I guess I will start with the best known dive site Motu Tapu located just east of the Pass, which is the only way into or out off the lagoon.  This site is anywhere from 30’ to a max 125’ though most of the dive can be done at 30-40’ for max bottom time and you really won’t see any more at a deeper depth.  The site is marked with multiple buoys and is a popular spot for shark and ray feedings and snorkelers.  The visibility is well over 100’ and the coral in incredible. 

 They have had an ongoing problem with “Crown of Throne” it is a starfish type invasive species that tends to ravish the local coral.  However the locals are doing all they can to preserve this resource.  When you pull up your French local guide, present on every dive as dictated by French law, will secure the boat to one of the moorings and shut the motor off.  This action tends to produce an effect I call Pavlov’s sharks.  Because this is a popular shark feeding location the sharks are conditioned to the sound of the boat motors and when the shut down they know it is dinnertime.  You will usually see 5-10 black tip reef sharks measuring 3-5 feet in length they usually stay mid-column and will follow you throughout the dive.  They have yellowish eyes and I honestly was a little afraid of them for my first dozen dives or so, but really harmless they just add to the excitement. 

 On the bottom are the real stars of the shows.  Large lemon sharks 10-14” in length patrol the sea floor usually 3-5 of these beautiful fish can be seen at any time during the dive and make a great photo opportunity.  No there are no cages, or chain mail, boom sticks or James Bond types with harpoon guns protecting you.  You don’t need them.  Believe me the sharks really have no interest in you at all. 

It is pretty scary and I remember my first dive with them.  Before we went out I was lowering my Zodiac from the davit on my ship.  The bowline was caught up on some gear and I gave it a big pull, well it came free and I launched it at my head and the carabineer on the end struck my forehead and I started to bleed.  I knew this was a shark dive and I have heard how the sharks will be jolted into a feeding frenzy by the presence of blood so I went to our local guide Terry.  “Hey Terry I just cut myself and I am bleeding here should I still dive?”  he looked at me and said in his strong French accent “are you worried that the salt water will sting you?” and I had not even considered that so I guess I looked at him with a dumb look and said “No” then he cracked a huge smile and said”Ah, you worry about a shark attack?’ at this point I had no idea how to respond so I maintained the same dumb look and simply shrugged my shoulders.  Then Terry’s coy smile instantly transformed into a full belly laugh and I was more than a little ashamed of my inexperience. When he was done laughing at me he assured me I would be just fine and had nothing to worry about.  Honestly seeing his reaction to my concern really helped give me the confidence I needed to proceed with the dive.  If he thought it was that funny I must have nothing to worry about. 

 That was the first of over 50 dives I did at Motu Tapu, incidentally I was not injured on any of them nor did I see anyone else get molested in any way.  However I did recount my shameful tale almost every time I led a new group of divers to the site.  I think my misfortune was a valuable tool in helping people get over their own misconceptions about sharks. 

Among the other residents here you will find, some of the biggest Moray eels I have ever seen in my life, some of them have heads the size of a St. Bernard, hump head Maori wrasse, napoleon fish, titan trigger fish, turtles some octopus,  and if you are lucky you may even see the odd humpback whale.  With the visibility as endless as it is here and the abundance of sea life you can shoot a lot of great pictures here.  It is only one of several superb dive sites on the Island and in future posts I will share some more with you.

  Due to the remote location of French Polynesia, (about halfway between South America and Australia) things can be pretty expensive.  There are several World Class resorts including the InterContinental, the Bora Bora Lagoon Resort and Spa, the Four Season, the ST. Regis, and Sofitel to name a few.  These resorts offer over water private bungalows and room service delivered by kayaks and amazing spas and all of the luxuries imaginable.  Also you can take advantage of one of the many “pensions” similar to a bed and breakfast and plenty of live aboard boats that can bring to costs under control. 

 There are plenty of great places to eat as well though you will not recognize a single chain or franchise on the Island.  Send me an e-mail I will point you in the right direction.  This Island is truly a rare gem.  If you are looking for something out of the ordinary in a vacation, look here.


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