Our Airbnb host in Tahiti was one of the best. In addition to all the other aspects of her impeccable hospitality, like dropping off some croissants and a baguette on our first morning, picking up passionfruit and bananas at the market for us, and having us over for dinner, she provided a list of recommendations. She said one “must-do” was a boat tour to Tetiaroa featuring Bird Island. We followed her advice and booked the tour.
Tetiaroa is a small atoll about three hours by boat from Tahiti. The atoll was once a refuge for members of Tahiti’s royal family. According to our guide, the atoll was lost to a dentist in a card game near the turn of the 20th century. In 1960, Marlon Brando visited the island and eventually purchased it. One of the islets is now home to The Brando, a luxury eco-resort. For those of us that don’t have the pleasure of staying, there is a day tour to visit some of the atoll’s islets.
Since the transit to the atoll takes three hours, the tour begins at 0600. We were up in the dark to find parking and make our way down to the pier. The crew provided a light breakfast of coffee, juice, bread, jam, and something that seemed like malasadas without the sugar. Soon we were on our way. After curiously eyeing the other boats in the harbor, we moved up to one of the trampolines at the front of the catamaran for the transit.
The sun was still low in the sky as Tahiti’s mountains became smaller and smaller behind us. While we sat admiring the views a boy of about eight or nine struck up a conversation with us. We exchanged names, and despite a language barrier, he continued chatting in French undeterred by us telling him we didn’t speak the language. As the passage continued he would go back to lounging or to speak with his parents at the back of the boat, but he kept coming back. Each time he sat closer and closer gaining courage until he would simply tap my hand to let us know he was back and ready to talk again. Through inferences, a few French words we understood, and lots of hand gestures he explained how the islands were formed, how the rain clouds move around the islands, and the concept of lift applied to sails pulling a boat through the water. He insisted we tell him as soon as we could see Tetiaroa on the horizon. We laughed to one another impressed by his knowledge and bewildered at his persistent discussion. Throughout the tour, he would be right next to the guide asking lots of questions or getting yelled at by his parents for venturing too far on the reef alone.
After a sunny and wet ride, the boat laid anchor outside Tetiaroa’s coral reef barrier. We were told to bring only what we needed off the boat: water, sun protection, and a snack if needed. The reviews of the tour online had mentioned wading in water about five feet deep and rough terrain, so we sadly left the camera behind since it isn’t waterproof. The incredible scenery we were about to enjoy would spur us to buy a GoPro action camera soon after this tour. A camera can only do so much anyway, so, for now, this special place will remain in our minds. Two by two, we lined up at the back of the boat for the transfer to the shore.
The transfer to shore was unique. We each sat on one side of a small boat and held on to a rope in the middle while the boat driver timed the waves to cross over the reef when there was enough water. Once everyone was on land we set out for our guided hike around the island, beginning along a coral beach. The guide stopped every thirty feet or so to describe a plant and its use both in French and in English. The sun was blazing hot and there was little shade. As we circled around the island walking the views steadily became more awe-inspiring. Frankly, they became ridiculous. The terrain wasn’t really all that rough, mostly loose rock and old coral, but it became difficult to keep our footing. Our heads kept swiveling at the beautiful vistas, a veritable paradise.
The views were an exquisite minimalistic chant: Sky. Sea. Sand. Palm trees. There was nothing else. Another atoll in the distance, repeat the chant. Another only 30 feet away, repeat the chant. Behind us lay open ocean.
We paused at a sandy spot next to the pale blue channel. I was so hot, I was about to wade in even if this was another informative stop. Happily, the guide announced we had twenty minutes to swim. Zack and I were some of the first in the water. We immediately went under and came up with blissful smiles, it felt glorious. The water was perhaps four or five feet deep at the center of the channel, the sandy bottom dotted with sea cucumbers.
We moved to the edge of the group and looked out to the ocean, taking turns floating and admiring the view. The views were beyond spectacular. The sky seemed massive and the water went on endlessly behind us, impossibly turquoise, shimmering in the midday sun.
After the dip we waded, crossing the small channel and hugging the coast of one atoll. A massive shallow lagoon was to our left contained by sandy beaches and palm trees of the far atoll. Behind that, only more sky and some clouds in the distance. The water became very shallow, only about six inches deep, and we paused again.
Our destination was Bird Island, a sanctuary for several species of birds including the white tern and brown booby. The booby’s name may sound undignified, but these were some of the most beautiful birds. We were taken aback by their striking looks. Very dark in color, with bright white contrasting feathers, slightly blue beaks and feet, they were long and lean in body. They flew like jets, a group of two then three, in effortless graceful, powerful circles around our group. One word came to mind: sleek. We only saw one white tern sitting in a palm, an immaculately white feathered, blue beaked bird that could be straight out of Eden.
Eventually, we turned back making our way toward the islet we had landed on. We slowly strolled back, feeling as though we were in another world. Never had we seen anything like it, it felt like we were on a moon of paradise, the deserted island of many a fantasy. Our guide took another dip, and gratefully, we joined him. We were some of the last out of the water.
The tour ended with a hike across the middle of the island. Tetiaroa was once used for copra, dried coconut meat or kernels used for coconut oil production. What’s left of the plantation’s buildings are now being reclaimed by the jungle in ruins. Finally, we circled back around to the beach and began the two by two transfer back to the large catamaran. Zack and I were some of the last back and the guide gave us a good little ramp of the incoming wave on the way back sending us airborne with a laugh.
Once all were back on the catamaran we had a much-welcomed late lunch. It was buffet style and we took advantage of the poisson cru, barbecued tuna, rice and spicy sauces on hand. After lunch, snorkels and noodles were provided for some afternoon swimming. Blacktip reef sharks had been circling under the boat shortly before we arrived and we anxiously hoped to get a look at them in the water.
The boat was anchored next to the atolls’ protective reef and the water was perhaps twenty or thirty feet deep. We snorkeled around the reef spotting many tropical fish and diving down to get a closer look at the reef itself. About ten minutes in, Zack motioned to me and pointed back toward the boat. I swam over. Sure enough, two sharks were swimming in lazy circles below us. I exclaimed something in my mask, the sound gargled and absorbed quickly by the water. They were remarkable. Seeing them so close and actually being in the water with them was incredibly thrilling.
The sharks swam with such grace, effortlessness, and power it seemed like they were being propelled through the water by some invisible force. Their fins hardly moved yet they glided through the water with speed and it appeared, lazy precision. We were in excited awe.
It was clear the sharks weren’t too interested in us. Even though we rationally knew that they weren’t after us (people snorkel there a few times a week without incident), and that black tip reef sharks generally aren’t aggressive anyway, it was still a bit disconcerting to be so close to any shark. We recognized this as a taught reaction. Sharks are commonly depicted in movies and television as man-eating killing machines which are of course inaccurate. Nonetheless, as humans, being in the presence of an animal that actually could cause harm to us is very humbling. Suddenly, we were very aware of our own gracelessness in the water, our arms and legs waving as we tread or swam. We were in their world.
Eventually, I lost sight of them and returned to the reef. Zack stayed put, watching the beauties. I took several dives down toward the reef and sandy canyons among it. Aided by fins, I was able to get deeper, faster. I loved diving down, taking a close up at the coral and fish, then allowing my body to float to the surface. For brief seconds I was completely in that world, watching the fish swim around me and then the light change from dark to light blue as I ascended in silence. That was the best part, the silence. Snorkeling is largely quiet, but you still hear your breathing and the occasional splash. The utter silence made me feel more a part of the undersea.
I was snorkeling and diving, exploring a section with beautiful silver and black striped fish when somehow I ended up surrounded by them. Looking to my right, then my left, then behind, I was in the middle of the fish! It was a wonderful moment. I half wondered if they knew something I didn’t. I had glimpses of the sharks below every now and then, appearing out of the dark then disappearing again. I started looking at every shadow twice. Each time I saw one, I would check to see if anyone else was around. Sometimes someone was, sometimes not. When I was alone I was both unnerved and electrified at the realization.
While in this exceptional moment a thought crossed my mind. My, how we humans yearn to be a part of nature, we go to such lengths to feel connected to it. When we do, we often report that the feeling was amazing, transcendent, sometimes even self-defining. Then we go back to our lives in the “real world” and trample it as if our normal life and that experience are in two different worlds. We fail to realize that those differing experiences are in fact in the same world and in the same life.
Someone was calling my name. It was Zack back on board, time to go. I took one last look at the shark, keeping my face in the water for as long as I possibly could before heading up the ladder. As the crew readied to leave we discussed our swim. We were enlivened, chatting about sharks and what we each saw. Zack had stayed in the prime viewing spots, watching the beautiful predators circle again and again. He, often with the area to himself, reported the same feelings at seeing them appear and disappear and finding nobody else around.
The boat left the anchorage and we began the transit back. Zack and I sat on some of the benches for a bit, watching as the sea spray splashed up the hulls and onto the other side. Neither of us generally get motion sickness, and on the transit, we discussed how grateful we are for that. It is something we often take for granted on boat tours, ferry transits, taxi rides through the Andes, and many things we have enjoyed on our travels so far. We were made very aware of this as one poor woman was sick the entire transit to and from the island. She looked miserable, but to her credit, at the island, she had hiked and snorkeled despite it.
Although we don’t get seasick watching someone sick is unpleasant so we moved forward to the trampolines once more. The splashes on the way back were large, but all the way forward was protected. We dozed and lounged until the captain retrieved us. As we approached the city, the Doritos returned and rum punch was poured for all. We toasted to our day with thoroughly satisfied smiles.
Pareos (sarongs) were handed out to the ladies and the stewardess led the women who were willing in a Tahitian dance. The reality was more like a Polynesian “Simon Says” but nonetheless we attempted to follow with silly smiles and toasted once more as the boat pulled into the harbor. It was once again dark as we drove up the hill.
One Final Note
The tour was wonderful, and an excellent excursion from Tahiti. After booking, but before going, we read online about walking on the reef/coral and possibly putting food in the water. We discussed skipping it but figured since it was already paid for we would just go and see. Some of those reviews are accurate and some are not. There is walking on a reef which looked to be long dead. The walking on coral referred to the coral beach, which along with sand is made up of small white coral pieces, common in French Polynesia. It is like walking on a rock beach.
The crew did put food in the water to attract fish and sharks. While we loved our time snorkeling, there are plenty of ways to see fish and sharks without feeding them, especially here. From reading reviews and speaking with other people in French Polynesia it seems feeding is a common practice. Tours are advertised as providing wildlife sightings and the competition is fierce.
Some argue that feeding changes the sharks’ behavior and can result in more aggression toward humans. Others say it allows more sightings which promotes education about sharks, something that is ever more important as their numbers decrease due to shark fishing and other factors. Regardless of the positive or negative effects of this controversial practice, for me, it changes how I look at the experience. After the fact, snorkeling near those sharks doesn’t feel like we were seeing sharks in the wild. It was staged and we know it.
The tour was $160 USD per person on Poe Charters in March 2017. It is a lot of money to spend if any of the above practices are a deal-breaker for you. I mention these factors because we care about them and you may too. I don’t know if every tour is the same (it looks like they are all very similar), and I am not sure of the true impact of some of the above practices, but it is worth mentioning and being aware of especially if you have a strongly held position on these matters. For us, this will spur further research!
© Cheers Life Partners 2017