We are dropping through clear, dark blue water with the seabed about 40m below us. As we get deeper more and more sharks come into view, first below us and then all around. We are at one of the French Polynesian "passes" where a gap in the atoll allows clear ocean water to pour into the lagoon as the tide comes in. Over the course of our 11 days on board the Aquatiki II we repeat these pass dives 11 times in different places and never tire of the amazing shark and fish life that congregate in these tidal currents.
The Aquatiki 2 is a very comfortable 18m catamaran operating in the Tuamotu islands, a group of low-lying atolls to the North East of Tahiti. We booked this trip as part of our round the world tour as we had heard how good the diving in French Polynesia was and know that the best way to reach remote and interesting dive sites is on a liveaboard. Aquatiki is much smaller than the liveaboards that we have stayed on before but still manages to be a great base for diving with the bonus of sailing between the islands. Our crew of three does a great job looking after us and the other guests and teach us some fun new card games as well as delivering great food and mixing a mean tea punch.
We experienced two types of dives in Polynesia - drifts and reef dives. On a drift with the tide coming into the lagoon we start outside the pass and drop to around 30m. If there is current we grab the bottom on the lip of the pass to watch sharks and schooling fish before drifting into the lagoon. The base of the lagoon is cut into canyons and basins and you can shelter from the current in these and watch more fish and sharks before either ascending in the lagoon or swimming up the reef if we are near the edge of the lagoon. At Tetamanu in southern Fakarava there is a special canyon (the observatory) where hundreds of sharks swim up and down (above). Amazing. Because these dives start quite deep you have to watch your bottom times and on several dives we extend our safety stops to seven or eight minutes to decompress and clear our computers. Drifts through the passes on incoming tides are more spectacular as clean blue water is sucked in from the ocean rather than the sandy water when the lagoons empty.
On the reef dives we dive the outside reef walls of the atolls near to the passes. This gives us a chance to admire the fine hard corals (we don't see much soft coral) along with millions of reef fish. Sharks and barracuda swim past in the blue as do the occasional eagle and manta rays. Currents were light making for more relaxing dives after the excitement of the passes. When you reach the 'corner' between the reef and the pass there is usually a lot more action.
As well as the sharks we see napoleon wrasse on almost every dive - very unusual when we dive in Indonesia. Also a lot of steephead parrotfish including some in big groups like top right above - something that we also don't see elsewhere. We also see lovely red and orange ones. Of the schooling fish some of the most common are the paddletailed snapper (above). Also common are surgeon fish, big-eyed emperor, Heller's barracuda, bluelined snapper and soldierfish. The biodiversity here is not as great as Indonesia due to the remoteness of the islands but the reef fish are still spectacular.
Above the water it is great to get the sails up as we cross between the atolls. With one exception (!) the seas were not too rough. The atolls are so low lying that they are quickly out of sight and likewise you don't spot the next one until you are a couple of miles away. Unlike the Solomon Islands we did not find fishing villages spread among the islands, or motu as they are called here. The Polynesians have become much more modernised and most now live in the towns and would only come back to a little house on the reef for a weekend's fishing. At Tetamanu in the south of Fakarava we find a charming little coral church but its village has mostly disappeared with the exception of a diving centre and associated guest houses. The 'towns' are also very sleepy - a few guesthouses, a couple of stores, a church and a school and perhaps one or two basic restaurants on the beach. Very different from the more built-up volcanic islands like Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora. Still very charming to stay for a few days and ideal on a boat.
Overall we are very glad that we came and loved the experience on Aquatiki II. Many thanks to Thierry, Sidonie and Toto for looking after us so well and good luck to Mathieu and Nina who are taking over. Diving the passes has been a new and stunning experience for us with those hundreds of sharks.
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