Diving in Tahiti
Among Tahiti’s plentiful attributes, there is one in particular that draws divers from around the world and this is the opportunity to dive with vast quantities of one of the marine world’s most exciting big animals – the shark.
Since the time man first entered the sea, the shark has occupied a prominent place in our minds in the form of both reverence and awe. So much so that some ancient seafarers in the Pacific had even gone as far as to worship the shark as a god. Its image, the emissary of death and a symbol of power, has even been depicted in the form of drawings on cave walls by early man and in the pages of hand-written journals. Composed of some 118 islands, covering an expanse of ocean the size of Europe, many poets, painters and writers have sought inspiration in these far away islands. To dreamers and tourists alike, Tahiti and her islands have been the depiction of what a true South Pacific paradise really is. Diving in the Society Islands (Moorea, Bora Bora, Raiatea and Taha’a) offers a variety of dives, from exciting pass diving and shark feeding to shallow lagoon dives. Advanced divers head for the Tuamotus where strong currents guarantee high adrenaline dives with large animal encounters on virtually every dive.
Just a short ferry ride northwest from the island of Tahiti is Moorea. Scarcely 37 miles in circumference, Moorea presents an island of spellbinding beauty, with jagged mountain spires built from a volcanic past, blanketed in verdant green and surrounded by crystalline, blue lagoons. Unexpectedly, the underwater terrain varies greatly from that above. While seen from the air as a near impenetrable ring of coral rising up from the depths, the coral itself tends to be extremely low growing, seldom reaching more than a few feet above the reef mass. However, it is not the formation of the reef that is so dramatic, but rather what cruises around the broad barriers, various passes and outer drop-offs. To the Polynesians, this is the “Kingdom of the Shark.”At least five species of sharks can be seen by divers. The lagoon is much smaller here, tidal currents are less intense, and conditions are more suitable for less advanced divers. Gray reef sharks are regulars at some of the sites, but blacktip reef sharks are much more numerous.
The dramatic peak of Otemanu rises majestically out of the pristine lagoon surrounding the island of Bora Bora. The waters of the lagoon are home to a variety of rays, including mantas and spotted eagle rays which are often seen in large groups of one hundred or more. While out in the open water, sharks, schools of jack fish, barracuda by the hundreds, tuna, marlin and occasionally dolphins and even whales can be seen in this area.
The Garuae pass on the north end of the Tuamotu atoll of Fakarava is French Polynesia’s largest pass at nearly a kilometer wide. It is said that seven different currents run through this pass which provide a multitude of encounters with the prolific marine life that inhabits these rich clear waters. During incoming tides, divers will pass through an amazing spectacle – a virtual “wall of sharks” at the mouth of the pass. On the south end divers will find the Tumakohua Pass in an area that has been designated by UNESCO as a nature reserve for the pristine quality of its reefs and ecosystems.
Manihi, one of the Tuamotu atolls which houses hundreds of thousands of Black Pearl oysters, is also home to an incredible variety and quantity of fish, sharks, and other various pelagic species. This ring of coral has only one deep water pass called Tairapa. Consequently, all water movements through it are crucial, as is the flow of food which attracts this unique density of sea life, as the tides rise and fall. Truly one of natures gifts, at only 120 feet wide and a half-mile long, it is a great aquarium that can be covered from one end to the other without so much as a single fin stroke due to the mild current which reaches a maximum of three knots.
Raiatea & Taha’a
The islands of Raiatea and Taha’a share the same lagoon and a view of Bora Bora’s Otemanu in the distance. Less frequented by tourists, these islands offer a wide variety of activities for the off-the-beaten-track traveler. From the vanilla plantations and black pearl farms of Taha’a to the revered cultural sites of Raiatea, there are many opportunities to learn about the island’s cultural roots and meet its people. One of the region’s only wrecks, the Nordby, a 150 foot schooner which sank in 1900, is located just fin kicks off Hotel Hawaiki Nui’s dock.
Rangiroa, with its 42 mile long by 16 mile wide turquoise lagoon, is the largest atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago and the second largest in the world. While Rangiroa might appear as a near perfect oval of reef and land from the air, the chain is not entirely closed. Linking this semi-contained body of water to the outside ocean are two huge, deep-water passes, named Avatoru and Tiputa, after Rangiroa’s two villages. On the ocean side, each pass widens to form a broad funnel which is only several hundred yards across. With each tidal change, phenomenal quantities of water pass through both the passes, the flow regularly reaching speeds of five to six knots. The sensation of drifting the entire length of either pass on an incoming tide is as close as one can come to flying through water. During these substantial water changes, large animals including sharks, dolphins, mantas and more will enter the mouth of the passes to feed, sometimes traveling their entire length in the company of divers.
Passport and/or Visa Requirements
A passport valid for six months beyond duration of stay is required. Visas are not required for stays of up to one month. Extensions for up to three months may be granted locally by applying to the border police at the airport or to the Haut Commissionaire (The French High Commissioner). The application for an extension must be presented with a fiscal stamp, which can be purchased in a post office.
EXIT REQUIREMENTS: There is no airport departure tax for either international or domestic flights.
Check with your doctor and the Centers for Disease Control on recommended vaccinations for travel to Tahiti at Traveler's Health CDC
Culture and Customs
The Tahitians of the modern era maintain their heritage and traditions of their Maohi ancestors. Oral history recounts the adventures of gods and warriors in colorful legends where javelin throwing was the sport of the gods, surf riding was favored by the kings, and Aito strongmen competed in outrigger canoe races and stone lifting as a show of pure strength.
In celebration of ancient traditions and competitions, the annual Heiva festival has been the most important event in Tahiti for the past 122 years. For visitors, there is no better place in the world to be during July than surrounded by this pure display of Polynesian festivity. Tahitians gather in Papeete from many islands to display their crafts, compete in ancient sporting events, and recreate traditional and elaborate dance performances.
The beauty, drama, and power of today’s Tahitian dance testify to its resilience in Polynesian culture. In ancient times, dances were directly linked with all aspects of life. One would dance for joy, to welcome a visitor, to pray to a god, to challenge an enemy, and to seduce a mate. Dance is still accompanied by traditional musical instruments such as thunderous drums, conch shells, and harmonic nasal flutes. Modern Tahitian music is enjoyable as well, with a sound that often blends Polynesian rhythm and Western melody.
Centuries before the Europeans concluded that the earth was round, the great voyagers of Polynesia had already mastered the Pacific Ocean. Aboard massive, double-hulled outrigger canoes called tipairua, they navigated by stars and winds. Today, the canoe still plays a role in everyday Tahitian life and is honored in colorful races and festivals throughout the islands.
Tropical flowers seem to be everywhere on the islands, particularly in the hair of Tahitians. Hibiscus blossoms are worn behind the ear or braided with palm fronds into floral crowns. The Tiare Tahiti flower is used in leis for greeting arriving visitors and returning family. Tradition holds that, if taken, women and men wear a flower behind their left ear.
Electricity, Telephone and Internet Access
Electricity in Tahiti is 220 Volts, alternating at 60 cycles per second. A converter/adapter is often required for appliances you bring, including computers.
Direct dialing international calls is available in most hotels and phone booths. Phone cards are easily purchased in Tahiti. When calling from the U.S. to Tahiti, dial 011 and then the country code of 689 along with the local number. Your cell phone with U.S. service may not work in Tahiti depending on the type of phone you have and your service provider.
Internet access is available in several internet cafes as well as hotels and resorts.
Tap water is good in most hotels and restaurants. Bottled water is also available.
Language & Currency
French and Tahitian are the official languages, but English is spoken and understood in tourist areas.
The currency of Tahiti is the French Pacific Franc (XPF). Bank notes come in denominations of 500, 1000, 5000 and 10,000, and coins in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100.
US dollars and euros are widely accepted in the islands, although at a less favorable exchange rate than at banks.
Tahiti time is GMT -10 and the islands are just two hours behind Pacific Standard Time. During Daylight-Saving Time (April to late October) they are three hours behind.
History, Art, and Culture
The era of European exploration began in the 1500's and in 1521, Magellan spotted the atoll of Pukapuka in what is now the Tuamotu Atolls and, in 1595, the Spanish explorer Mendaña visited Fatu Hiva Island in the Marquesas. More than 170 years later, Captain Samuel Wallis and the H.M.S. Dolphin was the first to visit the island of Tahiti during his journey to discover terra australis incognita, a mythical landmass below the equator thought to balance the northern hemisphere. Wallis named the island of Tahiti “King George III Island” and claimed it for England. Soon after and unaware of Wallis’ arrival, French navigator Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, landed on the opposite side of Tahiti and claimed it for the King of France.
European fascination with the islands grew as news spread of both the mutiny of Capt. William Bligh’s crew aboard the H.M.S. Bounty and of tales of tropical beauty and the warm nature of the Tahitian people. Knowledge of Tahiti and the South Pacific continued to grow as Capt. James Cook brought back thousands of illustrations of Tahitian flora and fauna as well as the first map of the islands of the Pacific. In the 1800s, the arrival of whalers, British missionaries, and French military expeditions forever changed the way of life on Tahiti and created a French-British rivalry for control of the islands. The Pomare Dynasty ruled Tahiti until 1847 when Queen Pomare finally accepted French protection of the islands of Tahiti and Moorea.
In 1880, following the queen’s death, King Pomare V was persuaded to cede Tahiti and most of its dependencies to France. In 1957, all the islands of Tahiti were reconstituted as the overseas French territory called French Polynesia. Since 1984, a statue of autonomy was implemented and, in 1998, French Polynesia became an overseas country with greater self-governing powers through their own Assembly and President. With these powers, the country is now negotiating international agreements with foreign states in matters of commerce and investment.
The word tattoo originated in Tahiti. The legend of Tohu, the god of tattoo, describes painting all the oceans’ fish in beautiful colors and patterns. In Polynesian culture, tattoos have long been considered signs of beauty, and in earlier times were ceremoniously applied when reaching adolescence.
The skills of the ancestors’ artistry are kept sacred and passed on by both the “mamas,” the guardians of tradition and the matriarchs of Tahitian society as well as by skilled craftsmen. Items include weaving, quilting, wooden sculptures and bowls, drums, tapa, carvings, and hand-dyed pareu.
Location and Size
Tahiti is located south of the equator halfway between California and Australia and Tahiti is 28 miles wide and covers 403.5 sq miles.
There are approximately 262,000 residents of Tahiti, about 78% of them from the various French Polynesian islands, another 12% of Chinese descent, and the remainder are Europeans (primarily French).