TAHITI TRIP REPORT - SEPTEMBER, 2003
(Click here for pictures from the trip.)
Any dive trip that starts with a 10-foot Manta ray swooping beneath your . . . even the most cynical of us would probably think, "This is a good omen."
Welcome to Tahiti.
The Reef Seekers group, consisting of Sandra Kline Nichols, Kathryn Traweek, Marilyn Lawrence, Mike Gallipeo, Victor Douieb, Harry Kreigh (a buddy of mine from high school back in Dover, Delaware) and Harryís friends Abe Weitzberg and Lauren & Brad Greider, converged at LAX on September 5th for the non-stop flight to Tahiti. (Kevin Brooks left earlier and caught up with us later.) Our ultimate destination was Rangiroa and the Tahiti Aggressor for a week (5Ĺ days actually) of diving.
Tahiti is more properly known as French Polynesia (the two are used interchangeably), a collection of five island groups covering an area 1200 miles east-to-west and pretty much the same distance north-to-south. Longitudinally, theyíre a bit east of Hawaii and latitudinally about even with Fiji. We were heading out to the Tuamotu area, with atolls featuring narrow passes that generate tidal currents attracting schooling fish and pelagics, specifically sharks and lots of them. (The areaís billed as the shark-diving capital of the South Pacific.)
Getting there was fairly easy via a non-stop Air Tahiti Nui flight to Papeete (8 hours, big plane, perhaps half full) on the island of Tahiti in the Society Island chain. We overnighted at the Royal Tahitian Hotel (comfortable and inexpensive by Tahitian standards - and the bar is a hangout for the locals, who happen to be FABULOUS dancers, doing a Polynesian version of a tango), and then boarded an Air Tahiti flight (60-seater) for the 90-minute journey to Rangiroa, a little over 200 miles away.
A big concern was the Air Tahiti weight restrictions - 20 kilos (44 pounds) and one carry-on. Weíd heard about divers paying for excess baggage ($1 per pound over) but also heard of divers getting by with no problem. So when we checked in, we werenít certain what to expect. On our flight, the right-hand line got stuck for overage, the middle and left-hand lines did not. Luck of the draw.
We were met at the Rangiroa Airport at 9:30AM by Mike Veitch, the Aggressor photo pro. He took charge of our baggage but since you donít board the Aggressor until 2PM, youíve got time to kill. We went to Raira Lagoon (a small resort) where for $25 we had brunch and hung out on their beach. Pleasant people, good food, nice surroundings, and an good way to get into vacation mode.
Mid-afternoon we boarded the Aggressor, a 106- by 30-foot three-level catamaran. The boat was originally the Fiji Aggressor (an almost-identical twin to the Palau Aggressor II), and moved to Tahitian waters about a year ago. Itís showing itís age a bit in areas, but was basically very comfortable and generally well-kept. We were joined by Kevin Brooks from our group, plus two Floridians, two Italians, two Englishpeople, and one Japanese gentleman. An eclectic international group to be sure and a full load of 18 divers.
The lower/main deck of the Aggressor contains the dive area (back third of the boat, big camera table, adequate gear storage area, and the hydraulic cradle for the dive skiff). Down the central passageway in the forward 2/3 of the deck, there are eight staterooms (our bags had already been placed in our rooms - nice touch), each with a lower double and an upper single, sink, drawers and storage cabinets, and a head and shower.
And speaking of showers . . . rave reviews. Showering on many liveaboards is akin to standing under a leaky pipe with cold or tepid water at best. Not here. We enjoyed modern massage-head showers with terrific water pressure and plenty of hot water. Absolutely the best liveaboard showers Iíve experienced.
The rooms are all individually air-conditioned. However, thereís a bit of a musty smell that I was told comes from the way the AC piping and insulation was installed, allowing moisture to form around the pipes. I could smell it slightly but it didnít bother me. Others on the trip noticed it more.
A ninth stateroom opens directly on to the dive deck. Itís got a lower and an upper double (which makes the room feel much smaller actually) and the other amenities. Because of the size and location, itís an "economy" room at a $200 lower rate. Personally, Iíd opt for the standard staterooms.
The second deck houses the galley, main salon (couches for lounging, three dining tables seating seven per table), an al fresco bar area, tables and chairs outside (where we usually ate lunch), and a hot tub. The upper deck is the sun deck plus a large canopy-covered area, with more tables & chairs and three hammocks slung under the canopy. Short version - itís a comfy boat with plenty of hanging-out space.
I got a pleasant surprise when I heard from behind me, "Well, I guess theyíll let anyone on this boat." I turned around to find Brian Stephenson, with whom Iíd done our previous Palau trips. Heís taking over the Kona Aggressor and was spending a couple of weeks in Tahiti filling in a second captain.
Due to the number of sharks and the boat motoring during the evening hours or overnight (to get to distant atolls), there is no night diving. Also, donít expect soft corals or dramatic and brilliant coral formations. Tahitian reefs are comprised of sturdy, thick hard corals able to withstand the currents and the weather. In many ways, the coral structure is very similar to Hawaii, though with a bit more variety and shape. Most of the reefs slope out to a wall (at about 50í) and then plummet into the abyss.
Dives are done either as a pass dive or a corner dive. Pass dives are on the incoming tide, starting at the pass mouth (sometimes hooking in, sometimes not) and then drifting into the inner lagoon. Corner dives are on the outgoing tide, dropping along the wall, moving to the corner of the pass, and then turning around and doubling back (since the outflowing water would simply push you into the blue).
The term "hooking in" refers to the Reef Hook each diver carries. Itís a large barbless fishing hook, attached to your BC by a four-foot nylon line. When you reach the "hook-in point," you find a bare patch of reef, hook around it, and then play out the line so that the hook holds you in place as the current whooshes on by, often making you flap like a flag in a breeze.
The daily sked was breakfast at 6AM (most of us were up by 5:45AM for coffee or tea), dive #1 at 7AM (dives are 45 minutes long with a max depth of 110í but you donít get berated for minor violations of those limits), followed by a mid-morning snack, dive #2 at 10AM, lunch around 11:30AM, dive #3 at 1PM, mid-afternoon snack, and dive #4 around 3:30PM. Sundown was 6PM, dinner at 6:30PM, and most everyone was asleep by 8PM.
All the diving is done from the 30-foot dive skiff (consensus opinion - one of the ugliest boats weíve ever seen), which sits level with the dive deck, on a hydraulic lift. Tanks, regs, BCs, weights, mask, snorkel, and fins all stay on the skiff. When itís time to dive, you put on your wetsuit and booties, board the skiff, and itís lowered to water level and off we go.
Most of the runs were 10 minutes or so. You gear up on the way out. It was a bit cramped with 18 divers, plus 4 crew members, but doable given the short runs. At the dive site, itís a mad dash out the two mid-skiff gates but everyone was pretty good about not crowding. It rarely took more than ninety seconds to get all 18 divers off the skiff. Water temp ran a pretty consistent 81ļ at all depths and the vis was anywhere from 60-150í. Since you dive loosely as a group - more on that later - the skiff follows the bubbles and picks you up when you surface at the end of the dive. (The dive guides also deploy float markers during the safety stops so the skiff driver has an idea where everyone is.) The skiff then runs back to the boat, slips into the cradle - no simple feat with currents and wind - and the cycle starts again.
So it was with great anticipation that we left Rangiroa late Saturday afternoon to begin an overnight 117-mile trip southeast to Toau, arriving at dawn Sunday to a spectacular sunrise and our first day of diving in French Polynesia.
As mentioned earlier, we started immediately with a manta (and another one twenty minutes later), plus sharks (grays, black-tips, white-tips, and an occasional Silvertip), curious Dog-toothed tuna, huge schools of soldierfish, schooling Reticulated butterflies, lots of hawkfish, goatfish, and bannerfish, schooling barracuda, male and female Napoleon wrasses, some Teardrop butterflies, and plenty of puffers.
I got excited on the first dive when I spotted a Flame angel. Having been only a month ago in Kona where theyíre rare, I started shooting, thinking this may be my only opportunity. Then I spotted another. And another. And then a bunch more. Seems theyíre about as rare in Tahiti as Garibaldi are in Southern California. One reason they proliferate is that the aquarium trade is not allowed to collect these animals from Tahitian waters. In Hawaii, theyíve been over-collected. But like their Hawaiian cousins, these guys are skittish and a challenge to approach closely and photograph. (Thank goodness for a 105mm lens.)
We also got our first taste of current diving and the difficulties of staying together. After hooking in at Otugi Pass and watching a parade of sharks for 10 minutes, we unhooked and began our flight down the channel (itís referred to as "pass flying" due to the speed at which youíre going - the Aggressor even issues a comp TDI "Pass Flying" certification for those who want it) . Another photog and myself hung back (with guide/DM Karen Varndell) to shoot a Napoleon amongst the soldierfish. In ten seconds, the main group was out of sight. We shot a little longer and Karen indicated we should move on. I turned to take one more shot and when I looked up, Karen and the photog were gone. (Actually they were above and behind me but I didnít see them.) I drifted down the channel, finning madly to catch up, thinking they were ahead of me. When I couldnít find them after a few minutes, I decided not to drift alone, aborted the dive, did my safety stop, and the boat picked me up.
The lesson here, to be repeated a few days later, was that itís easy to get separated from the group so itís best to stay close to the guides, especially when in unfamiliar territory.
Otugi Pass also gave us our first look at standing waves. Although the channels in French Polynesia are relatively deep (50-100í), it was amazing to see waves 2-5 feet tall forming over the top of them. These are caused by the strength of the currents and the wind. When the wind is strong or blowing counter to the currents, the standing waves can reach heights of 8-10 feet. We were advised not to surface in the standing wave area as boat pickup is nearly impossible. (As you ascend, you can look up and see if youíre in the standing waves and you simply swim at an angle to shallower non-wave water.)
Our second dive day, Monday, was also spent at Toau and thatís when we ran into a huge school of what Iíve always called Sennet barracuda and what they called Signet barracuda. Either way, it was pretty impressive as they numbered in the multi-hundreds. Plus we ran into an interesting school of sharks. I counted 27 at one point and the neat thing was that it was five or six adults and the result were small juvies. It was almost as if the adults were teaching "Apex Predator 101" to the kids.
We also dove a spot that has to have the best dive site name anywhere - Fakatahuna. As you drift down the channel, thereís a 10í deep depression (hole) that you can drop into to get out of the current where youíll be joined by thousands of tightly-packed Crescent-tail bigeyes. The area is known as the "Wrasse Hole" so you can say truthfully say "I dove that Fakatahuna Wrasse Hole" and not be guilty of uttering an obscenity.
Tuesday found us 17 miles further away at Fakarava, with four more enjoyable dives. This offered a chance to shoot Lemonpeel angels, a bright yellow mini-angel with electric blue around the eye and borders, and who had taken shyness/elusiveness lessons from the Flame angel. We ended the day at a spot called Dreamland, aptly named we felt.
Wednesday brought us to Apataki, halfway back towards Rangiroa, and a place where we found the strongest currents. Our first two dives were corner dives. The second spot was named Anchor Point due to the large, old encrusted anchor thatís there. The Aggressor crew claims itís from "Mutiny on the Bounty." We suggested that it sounded more like it was from "Mutiny on the B.S." and their good-natured reply was, "Thatís our story and weíre sticking to it."
But the amazing dive here was the channel dive known as Shark Plaza. When we first dove it at 1PM, the current was ripping, going an estimated 4-5 knots down the center, slightly slower at the edges. (To put this in perspective, Olympic-class swimmers canít swim this fast.) Once hooked in - no small feat in itself - you had to hold on to your mask for fear of it being ripped off your face when you turned sideways. Why would you look sideways to the current? Well, thatís where 40-50 sharks mill about, having no problems moving against the flow. Very impressive but because they were about 40í below us and perhaps 100í away, it was visually interesting but photographically frustrating.
In fact, when it was announced that our last dive of the day would be back at Shark Plaza, a couple of people decided not to go and a couple of others decided theyíd go but wouldnít take their cameras. Big mistake on both parts.
What a difference two-and-a-half-hours makes!!! There was slightly less current, better vis, and MANY more sharks. I lost count at 60 and we estimate easily over 100. And this time, we were more savvy about hooking in and getting closer to the sharks. We were even able to see some of them, mouths agape, getting cleaned with little cleaner fish bravely darting amongst their teeth. As a finale, when we unhooked and drifted into the shallows for our safety stop, we were greeted by a(nother) Manta ray, winging itís way down to the action. Not a bad way to end the day.
But it only got better.
Thursday, found us back at Rangiroa near the famed Tiputa Pass. A beautiful sunrise beckoned so I pulled the camera out of the housing, shot, and then resealed it for the dive. (Donít worry, it didnít flood.) This dive would give me the highlight of the trip, as well as the lowlight. To borrow from Dickens: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
We plopped into azure blue water and began our descent towards the wall. I noticed some small blue specks in the water. But a sixth sense told me the little blue things werenít were the action was. Thatís when I turned around to see a large gray shape behind us, almost matching our moves and speed. But as it came closer, the song in my mind wasnít the opening from "Jaws" but the theme from "Flipper" because we were being investigated/stalked by an 8-foot Bottlenose dolphin, 80í deep.
What a thrill. The dolphin seemed genuinely interested in us and made the rounds of all of the divers. The was truly the best of times.
The worst of times came an instant later as I raised my camera to take a shot of the dolphin and another diver belly-to-belly. I squeezed the trigger and heard the heart-breaking sound of a lens searching for focus. In my haste to reassemble the camera following the sunrise shots, I had neglected to reattach the +4 diopter, crucial for focusing a zoom lens through a dome port. As I said in my logbook: "Nothing like a fantastic dive where your sophisticated camera is nothing more than a hi-tech weight because your Neanderthal brain neglected to screw in a diopter. Arrggghhh!!!! That notwithstanding . . . wow!!!"
So I wouldnít be able to shoot. Big deal. But this IS Tahiti after all, and wouldnít you know that on this dive we ran into sharks on patrol, more schooling barracuda, turtles (including one that let me feed him), and a manta PLUS at the end of the dive while we were doing our safety stop, two more dolphins gave us the once-over. All in the timeframe of 45 minutes. (Did I mention the part about not being able to shoot any of this . . . ???)
After two other dives (one through the pass) that got us more sharks, turtles, mantas, barracuda, and reef fish, we prepped for the final dive of the day. This was also to be a personally interesting one for me.
We dropped just outside Tiputa Pass around 4PM and drifted in on the current. We had done a similar dive only hours before, but this time the current was strong enough that we were told not to hook in and would just fly the pass.
In a current, divers move at different speeds either because of streamlining (or lack thereof), kicking, the current moving at different speeds depending on where you are in the water column, and other factors. After about 25 minutes, I was in the back of the group (what a surprise) along with one other diver, Pat. As we flew along, I spied a protected ledge ahead and, thinking their might be white-tips underneath, motioned for Pat to duck in. I made it but she didnít. As I was about to follow her, I saw two white-tips side-by-side in the back. I decided Iíd take one or two quick shots. That was a mistake.
Unbeknownst to me, as Pat flew by the area, she could see the main group turn left into a side channel out of the current. She followed and tried to make them understand that I was still behind.
So when I popped out, I finned along with the current, fully expecting to see Pat and the group ahead, not knowing that I kicked right by the side channel. I thought they were WAAAAY ahead of me. When I didnít see them after three or four minutes, I decided to abort the dive, mainly so I wouldnít drift too far away from the main group and fully believing I was downcurrent of them. At this point I was 35 minutes into the dive and the max bottom time was to be 45 minutes. I figured Iíd be the first one up, would get picked up, and then endure the inevitable and good-natured "What happened to you" from everyone else.
I did an abbreviated safety stop (a minute or so) and surfaced just outside the end of the channel. I was surprised to see the dive skiff behind me, not ahead of me, about 200 yards away. No big deal. Itís still sunny. The crewís good at watching for divers. It was close to the pick-up time anyway. I could see there were no other divers on the boat and I couldnít see any markers on the surface. I inflated my yellow safety sausage, held it high, and waited. I gave my Dive Alert a few blasts. And waited. I waved the sausage. And waited.
Bear in mind I was still drifting with the current, which at this point was probably only a knot or so, but still moving me away from the dive skiff. I could see the shoreline, I could see the Tahiti Aggressor on itís mooring, I could see other boats, and I could see the dive skiff. After 10 minutes, I could see groups of divers on the surface near the skiff getting picked up. I was sure that the skiff had spotted me but also knew if that was true, that they would have come pick me up first because I was so far away.
I started to contemplate the idea that no one knew where I was and that they wouldnít think of me as missing until all the other divers were up. One of the downsides of solo diving, or just being comfortable finishing the dive on your own when separated from the group, is that thereís an assumption on the part of the DMs, and probably a reasonable one, that everythingís okay and youíll finish the dive normally. By the same token, I knew that they knew that Iím not one to exceed max times and that if I wasnít on the surface after a certain time, something was amiss.
I watched the skiff pick up the rest of the divers, three different groups in all. At this point, Iíd been on the surface displaying my safety sausage for about 15 minutes. Now I could tell that they didnít know where I was because the boat started circling. Then I saw it go one way along the coast, and then the other.
"Come out here!!!" I was thinking to myself. But I really wasnít too worried for a number of reasons. First, I figured at some point theyíre going to start to follow the current direction and will come my way. Second, the Aggressor had issued to each diver a personal EPIRB unit (itís a transmitter that sends an emergency signal to the skiff, to the Aggressor, and to anyone else in the area monitoring EPIRBs) to be used if you hadnít been picked up within 30 minutes or so. And third, my camera flash has a special test/strobe setting, so that when it started to get dark, I could use the flashing strobe light and they would easily spot me. So I wasnít too worried. But I wasnít too thrilled about all this either.
When Iíd been on the surface for almost 25 minutes I could the skiff turn towards me. "Finally!!!" I thought to myself. When the skiff was perhaps 100 yards away, it slowed. I could clearly see people on board looking my way but also knew the setting sun was somewhat behind me, meaning they were looking towards it and might not be able to see me through the glare of the waterís surface. I hit the Dive Alert again but noticed that a breeze had picked up which was blowing from the skiff to me, which I knew would lessen the effectiveness of the air horn. I waved the sausage. I blasted the Alert again and again.
And then the skiff turned away.
I couldnít believe it. Now I was pissed, not at any of the individuals, but just at the situation itself. I didnít think I was going to die or anything like that (donít forget I still had that strobe-in-the-dark card to play) but I also felt people might now be getting worried and I felt bad about that.
Iíll be the first to admit that Iíve got a huge ego and the thought of being "rescued" is never high on my list of priorities. By the same token, neither was being lost at sea, let alone because I was too pig-headed to ask for help. Since Iíd been on the surface for 30 minutes, I reached over and grabbed the EPRIB, extended the antenna, and flicked it on, somewhat relieved to hear it going "whoop-whoop-whoop".
Three minutes later, I saw the boat heading towards me. Although I thought it was because of the EPIRB, in reality they had decided to come downcurrent one more time (they hadnít activated their EPIRB receiver yet), certain that this was the area Iíd be in. So after floating on the surface for 35 minutes, I was back on the dive skiff to much good-natured (I think) derision as well as genuine (I think) relief that all was okay.
Fortunately, the two dives on Friday morning (our final dive day) were not nearly as eventful. We dove Silverado Roundup at the mouth of Avatoru Pass and had three big, stocky Silvertip sharks (in the 10-foot range) come in to see what was going on. Very impressive animals and larger than the other sharks weíd seen. More turtles, a school of jacks, a swarm of Reticulated butterflies, a Napoleon getting cleaned, a Manta ray, and our only Eagle ray of the trip rounded things out.
Friday afternoon was spent cleaning gear. That evening (since you donít get dinner on the boat), we all went out to a local restaurant, finished packing Saturday morning, and then flew back to Papeete where we spent the day encamped at the Sheraton, with forays into downtown Papeete for souvenirs and local flavor. Then we caught the red-eye back to LAX, arriving mid-morning Sunday, leaving time during the day for doing the wash, reading the mail, and just catching up.
All in all, it was a really great trip which Iíd recommend highly. As usual, we have nothing but praise for the Aggressor crew. Theyíre attentive without being overbearing, jumped in to fix problems when they arose, and were always good-natured. And we can only rave about the variety and quality of the meals prepared by the Aggressorís main chef, a Rangiroan woman named Pascaline who managed to tantalize our taste buds at every meal.
While we had a great time, the caveat is that this is not a trip for newbies, at least not the itinerary we did. You should have at least 50-60 dives under your belt, been diving recently, be in relatively good shape, and be comfortable bobbing around on the surface waiting (but hopefully not as long as me) to be picked up. You also need to be comfortable dropping into bottomless blue water, maneuvering in currents, and being around big animals. But if you meet those criteria, French Polynesia is definitely a place that should be on your radar.