French Polynesia - the Tuamotus, July 3-13 2021
As international travel became a possibility, our first order of business was visiting Tim and Clara, whom we hadn't seen in well over a year. Although Switzerland (where they live) was still closed at the time, our late May rendez-vous in Greece was a great success.
Next up was a more traditional vacation, which for us nearly always involves multiday hiking, sailing, and/or scuba diving. Countries open to visitors, even vaccinated ones, are still limited, but one location beckoned: French Polynesia. Back in 2003 we had a great time renting a sailboat in the Society Islands, but we've always wanted to check out the more remote atolls of the Tuamotus for their famed scuba diving. We cleared another 10 days from our work calendars and booked quickly as we were hardly alone in zeroing in on French Polynesia as a destination for this time. We invited Emily and Tim to join, but both had other things going on, marking our first significant trip with just the two of us in 26 years (an easy calculation -- we departed on Tim's 26th birthday). We have a Sierras backpacking trip planned with Emily for later in the summer.
Plenty of paperwork was involved, including pre-approval from the French Polynesian government -- first of our vaccine cards, then our exact itinerary. After the Covid testing misinformation debacle on our way to Greece, we overcompensated by taking three different Covid tests 72 hours before travel; this time we truly were good to go.
French Polynesia is far easier to get to than many people think: there's a nonstop flight from San Francisco several days a week, just 8.5 hours to the main city of Pape'ete on the island of Tahiti. After an overnight in Pape'ete we caught our first of several inter-island Air Tahiti flights, to Fakarava atoll in the Tuamotus. Similar to Rangiroa, which would be our other main destination on the trip, Fakarava is a thin strip of low-lying land surrounding a gigantic lagoon, all formed by the sinking of a volcano millions of years ago. What attracts scuba divers are the occasional breaks in the land, creating passes between the lagoon and the ocean that are natural funnels. Diving the passes involves strong currents, but the rewards are crystal clear water and masses of marine life.
Fakarava has two main passes, Garuae in the north and Tumakohua in the south, far enough apart that it's worth spending time in each place. We started in South Fakarava, known for its "wall of sharks" present on every dive. The fact is we saw hundreds of sharks on most of our dives throughout the Tuamotus, but Tumakohua pass was a good place to start since it has the mildest currents and we hadn't done much diving in a while. When we hit the water for our first dive we were stunned by the seemingly limitless visibility; that feature was also present throughout much of the trip.
Typical atoll in the Tuamotus, this one uninhabited
Tiputa pass, Rangiroa (excuse the plane propeller)
Rangiroa's Tiputa pass was the wildest of the three in terms of ripping currents and variety of marine life. In addition to plenty of sharks (including one lucky sighting of a large tiger shark), a wide variety of schooling fish, some eagle rays, and a turtle or two, Rangiroa is famous for its playful dolphins. Apparently it started with one curious female 15 years ago, and now all the members of her extended family pay friendly visits to divers -- we had several magical encounters with up to four at a time.
Although the Rangiroa dolphins frequently play with divers,
this pair seemed more interested in each other than in Alex
"The big guys" are the main event in the Tuamotus, but the ocean is equally busy with large schools of tuna, jacks, and other pelagic fish, as well as plenty of interest on the reef:
Most of our dedicated scuba vacations are on liveaboard dive boats that travel throughout a region. There are no liveaboards in French Polynesia at present, so all of our diving was land-based, via speedboats that travel 5-30 minutes from dock to dive site. Land-based diving has the advantage of meeting a wider variety of fellow divers over time, but the disadvantage of fewer different locations, and more rigmarole per dive amounting to fewer dives per day (though by law three dives a day is the maximum allowed in French Polynesia anyway).
Our dive boat in South Fakarava, at sunset
Our dive companions were mostly French with a smattering of others, varying from rank beginners to crusty veterans like us. We befriended a tattoo artist from New York, a pair of women tech workers from the Bay Area, a couple from France who were compatible partners on every one of our nine dives in Rangiroa, and most interestingly a doctor who had purchased a run-down 120-foot fishing boat 30 years ago, fixed it up, and has traveled on it all over the globe while investing in biotech companies (successfully it seems). He, his wife, and another couple who were on the boat as guests invited us to a memorable breakfast aboard. Alex was especially curious about their lifestyle -- in our retirement perhaps?
When we weren't diving there was plenty to keep us busy, including cycling the unbroken length of each atoll on one-speed cruisers: 22 miles each way on Fakarava, just 5.5 each way on Rangiroa which was a good thing as those Rangiroa bikes were in a bad way, necessitating constant repair stops. In all of our locations we stayed in small "pensions" comprising a few bungalows -- just two bungalows in a couple of them. We enjoyed the personal atmosphere and getting to know the proprietors and other guests, although our minimal French was a decided hindrance.
Cycling on Fakarava - the far better bicycles of the two islands
Bungalow porch on Rangiroa
And lastly, the food: Never have we eaten so much fish, so fresh, so much of it uncooked -- and enjoyed it so thoroughly! From simple lunch shacks, to impressive gourmet dinners at one of our pensions, to the "roulottes" in Pape'ete, just about every meal was a seafood treat.
Gourmet first-courses at our tiny pension in North Fakarava,
including the ubiquitous and yummy raw fish
While traveling to French Polynesia was a last-minute decision among limited options, and we missed having kids along, overall it was a trip with much to offer and remember, holding its own alongside our well-planned favorites.
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