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French Polynesia, September 20 - October 6 2019 Trip Report

Escorted by: Cindi LaRaia

Cindi with a dolphin - diving in French Polynesia

French Polynesia ~ September 20 - October 6 2019

We are finally on our way to French Polynesia! A fabled group of islands I had yet to visit in all my diving travels!! I have a wonderful group of dive friends joining on this 4-island adventure! This is very different from the types of dive trips I normally do personally. Usually I book liveaboard dive boats around the world and bring my groups. NOT this time as I wanted to enjoy the bounty of what some of the different islands have to offer after sending many dive guests to these incredibly beautiful islands!

The trip was to offer 2nts on Tahiti Island to dive with Tiger sharks; Rurutu with the beloved Humpback Whales (my true love); Rangiroa for the enticing 1 way screaming current on the incoming tide; Fakarava for the walls of shark and hard coral in the southern pass!

Tahiti Sept 20-23 2019

Arriving at 0500hr in Papeete Sept 20 2029, we could not check into our pension; so instead we went on a full day 4x4 tour in the interior of the island of Tahiti! This was a beautiful tour for approx. 6hr, however I think it was longer! Those of us who did not come in the night before, struggled with lack of sleep on the night flight from LAX. The flight is only 7.5 to 8 hrs so not long enough to take a proper sleeping pill. NO sleep for me! This tour was a good way to force us to stay up and kill time before getting into our rooms at Relais Fenua. The vehicles were 4 x 4 open roof and sides, hard bench and a lot of movement! The interior of Tahiti is a stunning display of very green and lush foliage, waterfalls and mountains.

The meals were not very exciting at this pension and no lunch on offer. Thank goodness for the market at the end of the road, this became our everything store! Lunch more baguettes, cheese, cold cuts, pate and alcohol; tonic water, snacks and mixers. The store must make a fortune as no other game in town near this pension.

We did go to town one night to try the "food trucks" this was interesting as they have a lot of choices, picnic type long tables and chairs. There was a dance show from Marquesas as the cruise ships where in that night.

The next day we made 2 dives at White Wall, originally this was to be a Tiger Shark baited dive, however the government stopped the baiting a few months before our arrival. At this point it was too late to make any changes with the airlines and all confirmations paid and in order. We did not see any Tigers, however we did see a few beautiful BIG Lemon Sharks which was a new shark species for me! Who knew, they have 2 dorsal fins!

Rurutu September 23-28 2019

The next morning Sept 23, we flew south to Rurutu in the Austral archipelago; it was a rather long travel day as our flight was delayed for 3hrs! Our stay is for 5 nts at the lovely Le Manotel pension. It is set in a stunning botanical garden with so many varieties of orchid and many other blossoming delights! Our hosts treated us like family and cooked us lovely meals as Yves the owner"s son is a chef!

I wanted to come here to swim with humpback whales that journey to Rurutu from Antarctica from mid-July to mid October; females give birth and males sing to attract the females to mate! This has been a long-time dream of mine to come here as I have sent many others and they have had amazing encounters with Humpbacks; only a few boats here, unlike many boats and operators in Moorea!

We had 4 days of whale swim mornings. The first day was dark and gloomy, the most we saw was a tail fluke. However, our friends on boat 2 heard the male singing right through the boat!

The place we suit up- magically transforms into the town lunch spot, with fresh sashimi and other local fish delights to choose from!

Our pension cooked us lovely dinners each night, the son of the owner Yves is a chef.

Whale day 2 started with a bang! Within 15 minutes of heading out we had a mommy and baby who allowed us to stay and swim with them! It is truly one of life"s most beautiful moments that you can experience!

The Zen of sharing this crystal-clear cobalt blue ocean with a new baby whale who is very curious about these crazy humans kicking around on the surface can only be described as otherworldly! The baby and mom stay about 30 to 40 ft below the surface. The baby feeds and needs to come to the surface 3 times for every one-time mama does. The calf likes to visit and share whale love with us ungraceful swimmers!

It is the sweetest thing to watch the calf purposefully swim in front of the line of snorkelers so we all get a lovely look into this adorable calves eyes, eyeball to eyeball! It simply brings tears to your eyes! The emotion is strong and difficult to explain until you are there in the water looking into the soul of this gorgeous mammal!

Our guide Avrel is wonderful, he shouts to me at the surface; "Cynthia this way" and points to the direction of the whales, then he stops us, lines us up by our fins and then points down in the water to where they are resting! WOW,, then slowly up comes the baby!

The calf heads down to rejoin mama; the tenderness as her 6ft long pectorals embrace her offspring is beyond touching! It is spellbinding!

Humpback whales - Mom and her calf

Our host Yves also took us on a trip around the island after our long successful whale day! He is very knowledgeable about the history and geology of the island; we had a great lesson. Rurutu, an ancient island was formed some 12 million years ago, uplifted from the sea and volcanic in nature. Craggy limestone formations abound as these used to be coral reefs; we could still easily see many fossils in the rock!

We also visited a Taro plantation, a cave with lovely stalactite and stalagmite formations, and a museum at the airport.

Day 3 was OUTSTANDING with the whales! It was an incredible morning; we were in the water for over 1 hr as another mama and baby allowed us to share ocean space with them! How priceless this privilege is! We had a long time out on the water and a lot of long beautiful swims with the whales!

I was lucky enough to be in the right spot with my new housed iPhone to notice the mama and baby slowly making their way up to the surface! I had a steady hand following this beautiful ballet with reverence! Each time the baby would come up for breaths of air, she would make a pass by us snorkelers to brighten our day!!

My dream of eyeball to eyeball with my beloved whales has been fulfilled!

There is no greater wildlife reverence I can think of; and I travel the wildlife world, then being in the water face to face eyeball to eyeball with our beloved great whales of the sea!

4 of us went on an afternoon hike after this amazing morning! It was more like a long strenuous technical mountain climb! Les, Marie, Terri and I took this challenge. It took us 4hrs of hard work, the 2 guides are brothers and wore flip flops ;--O

This climb was stunning in every way and brutal, climbing up sheer walls where they say, "put this foot here, and this hand there". Ok yeah it worked. As I glanced down at the sheer strait wall below and above me, limestone rock with loads of foliage everywhere like a jungle.

Lovely white sand beaches at the start and at the end with beautiful untouched views.

Climbing up and over and through this labyrinth of stalactite and stalagmites, I teased my friend Les, "I beat you" as he went around the outside edge and me thru the middle, I stood up too fast and proceeded to impale my forehead on a baby stalactite and went DOWN,,,, trying to NOT pass out, I did see stars.

Next thing I know, I am bleeding profusely down my face and feeling woozy. Terri my roomie and family doc, is trying to wash away the blood. The guide took off his red shirt to help clean my face after he unceremoniously shoved something into the hole in my head. What is that? It stopped bleeding! Tabaco. Wow! How he knew to do that is beyond me, the bleeding stopped instantly! Luckily, I thought to bring 4 Band-Aids and we used them all!


Day 4 we had a lot of whales, but they were all on the move, plus it was windy and more difficult to navigate. One huge male swam under our boat but did not stop. Sadly, no whale swims on our last day.

Very sad to say goodbye to this intriguing island, with beautiful cobalt blue water and whales!

Sept 27, Off to Rangiroa via Papeete, arriving at our lovely pension called Relais de Joshephine. A lovely group of bungalows set on the Tiputa pass. Fun views from the deck of leaping dolphins in crazy waves, as the roaring outgoing tide blasts through the cut! It is a pretty wild scene to witness.

We only dive Tiputa pass and each dive can be something very different!

Our first day diving we started on the outside reef to get the lay of the land and prepare for the incoming current tides. A nice reef system with the usual culprits; surgeon fish, banner fish, stone fish which are HUGE, schools of barracuda, jacks and what"s this,,,, DOLPHINS coming to play!!?

OMG they have these huge Pacific Bottlenose dolphins that come right up to us to play, and get love pets from divers! One big female dolphin makes many rounds! Then further down was a mom and baby, they visited us often! What a wonderful surprise! I have been in the oceans many times with dolphins but never like this with playful loving dolphins, oh my goodness what a spectacular surprise!!

Playing with a dolphin

Dive times each day are different based on the incoming tide times. You can only make 2 dives on the incoming tide if the times are right, we had 3 dives a day here, one or 2 would be reef dives, ending around the corner which we would either swim in the channel with the fish and fly thru or hang more on the side in the reef. Depending on the dive times, they would bring us back to our pension and pick us up again. We would head back for lunch and again there was a market we could walk to for our booze for happy hour or snacks!

We could have lunch served at Josephines, thank goodness!

Some dives would bring us in the current thru the channel but then it is over pretty fast, so we would hang outside on the reef wall for a while before heading into the channel.

Back at the pension, a funny story. People on laptops, working on pictures or emails. Terri is far down the table and sees Greg with a picture of something on the front of his laptop. She asks Greg, what is that picture on your laptop I don"t have my glasses but it looks like a butt hole. (Mind you she is a family doc).

Greg says "WHAT?" indignantly, "It's a monkey"!

Friend Les pipes in and says, "it"s a butt selfie"! Wow that would be called a "Belfie"! That that was that, we all laughed and roared until our guts hurt and the tears fell,, I have not had that BIG belly laugh in ages and we all howled! It was the funniest thing I have ever heard!

Sept 29, due to a later start we had a lovely reef dive with friendly dolphins, loads of fish and some sharks. An amazing HUGE school of convict tangs scouring the sea floor feeding like mad, they were roving like locust, it was most intriguing to watch these beauties!

The next dive was to be a channel dive on the incoming tide, however for 20 solid minutes we all swam INTO THE current. WHAT? This is not the plan, as it turned out, we went in a bit too early and the tide had not quite changed yet. We got quite a workout before we resumed the normal plan! We were rewarded with more dolphin visits and love! Lots of fish as they love to hang out in the gully. We race over and turn and grab the pipes underwater, not sure what they are but thank goodness as we know we have to make the Spiderman turn and grab so we don"t go sailing into the lagoon! Fun to be one with the fish all hanging low in the gully with us! Then you can swim easily with all the fish in your face as the current rages above us! We had a lot of fun following our guide through the gully and swim throughs!

They call this the "fishbowl" and for good reason! They are all here and hawksbill turtle, giant green sea turtle you name it! Crazy fun to fly through the channel, I LOVE it! Super crystal-clear water, lots of gray reef sharks in the distance and a quick visit from a hammerhead! I was hoping to see a GREAT hammer head but I did not see a big one. The season for them is March but they can be seen anytime!

Sept 30 offered us a lovely reef dive, huge stone fish hang out in the shallows within the boulders, some nudis which was a real surprise to me for some reason. Then a channel drift again was fun.

We had a long wait until the 430pm dive so some of us took the bicycles that Josephines has to use and went to see the Kia Ora resort- 4 star hotel, the only one on the island. Since I have sold it a lot, I needed to see it and some of us went and did a tour. A very nice resort especially the over water bungalows which were all full so we could not actually get into one, though the other room types were lovely especially the beach front!

On the 4:30pm dusk dive, I always love to see the sharks getting feisty ready for the evening meal!

Oct 1- Sadly our friend Greg's father passed in the night. He was already booked to leave the trip early, but the flight did not leave until today. Sadly, we bid him farewell and now he will miss diving in Fakarava with us.

This last diving day offered us a lot of dolphin love, pretty fishy reef dives and a fun last current dive! I felt like I was in Neverland swimming in the gullies, loaded up with fish, swim throughs and just a lot of fun! The current dives get more fun each time as you know what to expect and can play in the current with perfectly clear water, watching the fish below, the sharks and all wildlife in the channel, very sublime!

A very different experience to say the least!

We bid farewell to Linda and Terry who left for Moorea to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary and Greg left for Chicago.

We visited the pearl farm before our flight to Fakarava at 3:00pm!

FAKARAVA! Oct 2-6 2019

Oct 2- The Pearl Havaiki pension is still a small pearl farm and our home for the next 4nts. Here we only do 2 dives a day due to the nature of diving the "cuts" here are a bit different than Rangiroa. Everyone is thrilled as they have A/C here, wow! All bungalows are on the beach and the view of the sunset stunning! Resident small black tip sharks and nurse sharks swim in very shallow water here at your feet. No one even takes notice here as it is so normal! I crack up, if we were anywhere else you would hear people screaming,,,, "SHARK", not here! They just swim around in the shallows, it" pretty cool! We also had an eagle ray swim under the dock! Amazing!

Oct 3-Our first day of diving they took us down to the south pass, a long boat ride, 1 hr 10min. We arrived on the outgoing tide we did a reef dive in the pass, lovely pristine hard corals, groups of sharks and fish!

Lunch is at the Motu Aitu Pension "Top dive Resort" which is on the South pass, they took over this resort from the locals. They have rustic accommodations and kitchen, it looks nice- though basic, I would suggest 2nts here to dive the south pass for 2 days! The lunch was delicious with BBQ grouper and Jack fish, pink potato salad from beets and other lovely options and chocolate cake for desert.

Afternoon dive, the water a bit murky, no current, they dive on the slack here! We saw groups of gray reef sharks, like they were waiting for the tide to come in. I counted 50 sharks in one go!


Oct 4 diving at the north pass in Fakarava at 12:30 pm. Good vis, lots of shark and tuna"s! BIG dogtooth tunas and other tuna. Big Fish area here from what I can see with lots of big schools of fish everywhere!

The afternoon dive offered the incoming tide and great vis! Just as we jumped in, we had 5 HUGE beautiful mantas! One lower on the reef feeding with his mouth open getting cleaned, then here comes 4 more all in a beautiful formation. Just the perfect scenario for Quentin to get in there and take some gorgeous images of these beauties! They are always a welcome gift to see, but to have 5 giant mantas staying around for a long time, all taking turns and turning in formation is quite a sight to behold!

Then in the shallows we see the largest school of goat fish by the thousands! Clown fish an anemone, what a huge surprise and very pretty nudi"s! Of course, more shark but where is the "wall of shark" I am hearing about all these years???

I am loving Fakarava! Though I am missing the loving Dolphins.

Oct 5 is our last day of diving in Fakarava and French Polynesia and it did NOT disappoint! This was a 5 star day in my log book!

The dives had to start later due to the tide table. Again, a wonderful dive with the 1 giant Manta ray then in came the other 3 today! Tuna all over, outgoing reef, clear water, yeah! Huge massive schools of surgeon fish loads of cobalt blue anthias and another huge stonefish. (MY new fav color is Cobalt Blue!)

4pm- Sadly our last dive in Fakarava; perfect conditions, slack with incoming tide. There is a line you see of the milky water from the lagoon as you wait for the start of the incoming tide to push it back to the lagoon. It is getting later and the light is dropping, I am trying hard NOT get into DECO, I am determined to see this fabled WALL OF SHARK!

We are holding back just hanging in this area as this is the sweet spot. Finally finally the big tuna start moving in, a big yellow fin tuna and a giant Dogtooth tuna!

I stayed deep with Nico- the boss, if he can I can!! The huge march of the great wall of sharks began! IT DOES HAPPEN! Outstanding, they all came together, I lost count, they just kept materializing out of the murk and created a wall like no other I have ever seen in my life! Hundreds and hundreds of gray reef sharks all in formation! WOW!

Then one last manta came in for good measure!!!

Wall of shark in Fakarava, French Polynesia


The Tuamotus (Rangiroa and Fakarava) have a lot to offer if you are ok in current and happy to see a lot of shark, schools of fish, mantas and dolphins! Each dive is in the same place but can offer something unique and different on all the dives. It is Nature and she shows up when she wants! It is NOT always current but that is the exciting part!

Rurutu: The only tourists they have is in whale season July thru October. There are only 1 or 2 operators. So not many boats. However, we did not have a big variety of whales for some reason this year, so everyone visited the same whales each day. Moorea on the other hand also has whales but a LOT more operators and boats. I think it all depends on the year and the experience each one can offer.

It is always about timing!

I loved it. The diving is not as easy and convenient as being on a liveaboard. Schlepping cameras and gear, back and forth from the dive shop to the pension can get a bit old. However, like anything else, you get used to it! We would not have been able to experience what we did otherwise!

Thank you, French Polynesia, you offer cobalt blue water, whales, and a lot of sharks and fish! I will be back!!

Working on a Marquesas dive plan next with more whales for another trip idea in French Polynesia!!

Stay Tuned!!

Cindi LaRaia

Bike ride Dive boat