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Sharks in the Shallows, Rays in the Sun
In most oceans, swimming with sharks and stingrays is something you could only do once – before you feature on their lunch menu. But in the aquamarine lagoons of Tahiti it is an experience you can enjoy – and return to tell the tale, as Walter Glaser reports.
Wearing bathing suits, masks and snorkels, we are standing in crystal clear, azure-blue water and holding onto a rope strung between two outrigger canoes anchored half a mile off the shore of Bora Bora. One by one, we lower our faces under the surface of the water, feet floating behind us, and enter the magical underwater world of the South Seas.
Schools of brightly-coloured yellow-and-black fish feed on the ocean floor, while others looking like glass cigars dart about much closer to the surface.
The Polynesian boatmen who have guided our four outrigger canoes to this spot on the reef are standing to the right of us, holding floating buckets that contain fist-sized chunks of tuna. One now throws the first fish pieces into the water three to four feet in front of where the rope is stretched.
Initially, only the tropical fish show an interest in nibbling at the fish-chunks. But two or three minutes later they suddenly seem to lose enthusiasm for their meal, and dart off into the distance.
And then we see why! Swimming towards us is a six-foot shark – a beautiful, streamlined creature that moves through the water swiftly and gracefully. Behind him, two smaller sharks appear. And then another! They totally ignore the 20-or so snorkellers in the water, and start to gobble up the tuna pieces with unerring accuracy.
No one panics, although simultaneously our adrenaline levels have gone through the roof. The sharks are so beautiful and move around with such lithe grace that it is almost inconceivable that these creatures might be deadly enemies.
The Polynesians throw more tuna and the sharks continue their ballet-like movements, picking the chunks up one by one, then moving off to be replaced by others coming in to feed. Enthralled, we continue to watch while they circle away, return, swim off, and then come back again.
There are now no new chunks hitting the water, and the sharks circling the area are cleaning up the existing pieces as efficiently as if they were vacuum cleaners. Suddenly, everything has been eaten. Still totally ignoring us, the sharks swim off into the distance.
We stand up in the five feet of water, take off our snorkels and start to compare notes. Did you see that six footer? Were you frightened? How close did they come to you? The questions fly in English, Spanish, German, and Italian. All of us – passengers on the luxurious, cruise vessel Paul Gauguin which is based in Papeete and operates one-week cruise itineraries around the Tahitian islands – think this trip to the reef at Bora Bora is a highlight on this serendipitous cruise, but the afternoon is not yet over.
“Let's get back into the boat,” says our Polynesian boatman-guide, “and find the stingrays.” Stingrays? Ugh! Being in the water with the sharks took a lot of nerve, and now we are going to swim with stingrays?
We clamber back into the boats, watching a tropical rain-squall as it drifts across the ocean. It moves across the water from Bora Bora's cloud-covered mountain that rises into the sky like an emerald-based granite skyscraper, its peak disappearing into the low cloud. To the side of us, a rainbow struts its bright spectrum of colours, and then, as the squall abates, fades into thin air.
The re-emerging sun has brought back the colour contrast of the light emerald shallows and the deep royal blue of the ocean, the two separated by a fine line of snow-white breakers that crash incessantly onto the outer edge of the reef. No wonder the painter Paul Gauguin fell in love with this part of the world. Who could stay immune from such beauty?
The outboard motors restart, and we head for another part of the reef. Here the water is shallower and the reef floor more sandy. As we slowly chug our way through the crystal clear water, we see some large, dark-grey discs, four to six feet in diameter, moving across the light-coloured sea-bottom. “There they are,” our Polynesian boatman says with a smile. “Those are stingrays!” Anchors are dropped, the ladder is once again hooked over the side of the outrigger and, again masked and snorkelled, we re-enter the water.
I had always thought stingrays were very threatening, but now that I see them in their natural environment, they are graceful and not frightening in the slightest. What I had assumed was a sting on the tip of the tail turns out to be nothing harmful at all. “Some species do have nasty stings in their tail or fin”, our boatman continues to explain. “But these will not harm you”.
Under water, a completely new vista opens up. The shadow-play caused by the sun on the small waves forms a cobweb of pattern on the sand. I get my underwater camera ready. And just in time. A large stingray is ‘flying’ toward me, looking just like a small version of one of those huge spaceships from Star Wars.
The stingrays are quite beautiful. They glide through the water with an action somewhat like flying – they flap the outside edges of their circular bodies in a wing-like motion which propels them through the water smoothly and efficiently.
Once again the boatmen bring out buckets, this time with much smaller pieces of raw fish. There is no necessity for ropes, as the stingrays come to us by the dozen to feed on the small pieces of fish that have been dropped into the water. We swim among these giants, reaching down to touch them, neither fish nor man the slightest bit nervous.
To illustrate just how harmless these wonderfully graceful creatures really are, one of the Polynesians lifts a smaller, four-foot diameter stingray out of the water so that those who are not snorkelling can see it. It flaps its mantle, gently splashing all around him. Moments later the boatman carefully returns it to the water, and the stingray swims away.
We spend another half-hour in the water as some 30 of these very large fish swim amongst us picking up the raw fish. I ask if I can feed them too, and with a smile our boatman agrees and hands me what looks like a large sardine.
I dunk this in the water, putting it six inches under the surface before lifting it out again. But the stingrays get the message very quickly! One swims so close he can wrap his mantle around me, his head rising above the water to grab the piece of fish before he slowly glides into the distance.
Two hours earlier, I would have been terrified by this experience, but now feeding stingrays seems a perfectly natural thing to do.
All too soon the buckets of fish are empty. The stingrays stay another 10 minutes among us looking for more food, and then move out towards the reef. We climb back into the outrigger and turn back towards the pier.
This afternoon we will be exploring Bora Bora by helicopter and no doubt flying over a new group who will also be swimming with sharks and stingrays. Will they feed the same creatures? An intriguing thought. If so, these fish are certainly the best-fed in the Pacific.
For anyone with a drop of romantic blood in their veins, Tahiti has to be the ultimate destination. And to cruise these islands on a small, luxury ship like the Paul Gauguin, and then stay on for another week exploring the islands at leisure, is a holiday to dream of. In fact, Charles Darwin said it all when he wrote in his journal during the voyage of HMS Beagle in 1832-6, “this is the island to which every voyager has offered up his tribute of imagination”.
Radisson Seven Seas Cruises m/s Paul Gauguin
We recommend the three outstanding Sheraton properties on Tahiti to use as a base while in these islands.
PO Box 416, Papeete Tahiti, French Polynesia
p. (689) 86 48 48 -- f. (689) 86 48 40
Sheraton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa
PO Box 1005, Papetoai Moorea, French Polynesia
p. (689) 51 11 11 -- f. (689) 51 11 55
Bora Bora Nui Resort & Spa
Motu Toopua Nunue, Bora Bora, French Polynesia
Phone (689) 603 300
U.S. Toll-Free: 1-800-782-9488
Fax (689) 603 301