I counted the blacktip sharks gracefully gliding past our small dive group as they went about their midmorning rituals. They seemed unaware of our presence in their underwater world, about 100 feet below the incredibly clear water’s surface. When I reached 70 in my counting exercise, I was only about two-thirds of the way across the ever-moving wall of sharks in Fakarava’s South Pass.
As I floated, watching, what caught me by surprise was how calm and controlled my breathing remained at that depth with all of that activity happening on every side. As my body gently swayed with the current, the sheer beauty of the scene unfolding before me far outweighed any thoughts of fear or anxiety. A sense of peace washed over me as I watched in awe of the life simply existing in this undersea world.
Bora Bora, Tahiti and essentially all of French Polynesia occupy the prime spots on many bucket lists, their positioning bolstered by images of crystal-clear waters in gradients of blue, deserted white-sand beaches with reaching palm trees and dreamy overwater bungalows. For scuba divers, even more enticements may just nudge the destination to the No. 1 spot on the list.
With water visibility at about 130 feet, temperatures ranging from 79 degrees Fahrenheit in winter to 84 degrees in summer, and a difference of only about one-half degree from the surface to 166 feet below, you may be hard-pressed to find better diving conditions. Add world-class dive sites with myriad options of open water to advanced diving including lagoons, drop offs and passes, plus more than 1,000 species of marine life and 20 shark species, and diving in French Polynesia becomes even more appealing to those eager to dive in. Marine life is so rich here, in fact, scientists consider the 2.5-million-square- mile Polynesia sea zone the “richest aquarium on Earth.”
During my week-long French Polynesian dive trip, I visited the islands of Tahiti, Fakarava, Rangiroa and Bora Bora, diving into the “aquarium” off of the latter three with TOPDIVE, realizing each of the islands has its own personality. Fakarava in the Tuamotu Islands archipelago, for instance, is known not only for the wall of sharks but for its rich coral reef systems, vibrant schools of fish by the thousands and underwater passes with swift-moving currents that ramp up drift diving to seemingly warp speeds.
Likewise, marine life abounds in the waters surrounding Rangiroa, the world’s second-largest atoll, also found in the Tuamotu Islands. Here, 240 islets loop together more than 110 miles to completely encircle a deep lagoon known as Moana-tea, or Peaceful Ocean. On the other side of the chain of islets lies Moana-uri, or Wild Ocean, where you may spot larger marine life such as whales, manta rays, sharks and dolphins while drift diving. A highlight of one of my Rangiroa dives occurred when a pair of curious wild dolphins came close to check out our odd-to-them “pod.”
The calm, crystal-clear lagoons of Bora Bora in the Society Islands archipelago are full of marine life as well; bright, tropical-colored fish dart in and out of lively coral gardens while manta rays dance over underwater canyons.
Discover plenty of fun topside on non- diving days, too, like a personal Fakarava tour with Enoha, an islander who also shares a lagoon-front art gallery with his wife, Cécile. Or go off-roading on an ATV with Heiarii and Fakarava Adventure. Choose your own freshly harvested oyster (and, therefore, pearl) at a pearl farm, or hop onto a bike and explore the islands on two wheels. Of course, there is nothing wrong with sitting back, relaxing and soaking in the stunning atmosphere surrounding the islands, especially after a day of diving.
Options for staying in French Polynesia are as varied as the dive sites and islands themselves. Choose from traditional Tahitian guesthouses, or pensions, such as Tokerau Village on Fakarava; a beachfront hotel like Hotel Kia Ora on Rangiroa, reopened in July; or a luxury resort such as Conrad Bora Bora Nui.
On the boat ride back to the north side of the island after our two dives in Fakarava’s South Pass, TOPDIVE dive master Mana and I chatted about the wonders of the underwater world we had just witnessed.
“If I could live my life underwater, I would,” Mana said as he gazed at the horizon. After spending a week in the undersea world of the Islands of Tahiti, I wholeheartedly understand his sentiment.
INFO TO GO
Daily, eight-hour direct flights arrive from Los Angeles (LAX) in Papeete, Tahiti (PPT), on Air Tahiti Nui. Once in French Polynesia, inter-island flights are available to more than 25 of the 118 outlying islands, making island hopping fast and easy.
In July, French Polynesia reopened borders to international tourism from all countries. All travelers must have a negative COVID-19 test carried out within three days prior to their international air departure and must present the certification receipt on the Electronic Travel Information System. During the stay, visitors must self-test four days after arrival in the Islands of Tahiti.
I imagine that when writer Hans Christian Andersen mused, “Life itself is the most wonderful fairy tale,” he was standing at the edge of Copenhagen’s historic Tivoli Gardens, one of his favorite haunts, enlivened by the swirl of human happiness that surrounded him: children laughing; carousels spinning; games of chance played for prizes; lovers holding hands; hungry people whispering over sweets, hot drinks, beer and towering, open-faced smørrebrød, Denmark’s quintessential sandwich. That fairy tale lives on today at the second-oldest amusement park in the world, a spectacle of folly architecture, bakeries, gardens, rides, restaurants, puppet shows and joy ... and which also happens to be one of the city’s most storied places to convene for business.
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The Rittenhouse has long stood out as one of Philadelphia’s finest hotels, centrally located in one of the city’s poshest neighborhoods. Needless to say, I knew I was in for an afternoon of luxurious pampering when I hopped in my car and headed down I-95 from my suburban home to the heart of the City of Brotherly Love. As I drove through the seemingly endless roadwork on the highway, I realized just how long it had been since I’d driven this once-familiar route into the city as a result of the pandemic. Of course I was eager for the relaxation and bliss that was in my future, but it was also a welcome feeling to head back into Philadelphia for a moment of normalcy.