Swimming with Sharks: Fear & Fashion in French Polynesia, Tahiti
“Friday, 9 AM. Depart for shark and ray feeding excursion (with snorkeling)… Wear appropriate swim attire.”
This hair-raising notice was printed discreetly atop the third page of my Tahitian tour itinerary. No exclamation point. No bold type. No suggestion that I complete my last will and testament before embarking on such an adventure. Just a note about donning suitable apparel.
But what, I asked myself, is “appropriate attire” for feeding a shark? A chain mail bikini? A Kevlar wetsuit?
This subject has never, to my knowledge, been broached between the pages of Vogue.
Before I left for this week long adventure in French Polynesia’s Society Islands, I promised myself that I had absolutely no intention of getting into the water with a shark or stingray, much less a hungry horde of them. With my tour schedule, which would take me from the star-studded shores of Bora Bora to the feral peaks of Moorea, I had too much to live for to risk it…or so I thought.
Bora Bora: Not Just For Celebs
Bora Bora emerges like a great hump-backed dinosaur from a luminous blue lagoon, attracting the likes of Johnny Depp, Drew Barrymore, and Harrison Ford.
I spent three nights at the Sofitel Bora Bora Marara Resort, ensconced in a thatched-roof bungalow with a million dollar view of the lagoon and the resort’s sister property on a private island offshore.
Yet despite its celebrity cache, the islanders remain down-to-earth and rooted in their traditional ways of life.
Down the road, barefoot children played nearly naked in the muddy yard of a makeshift compound, and a friendly, gap-toothed woman emerged from a primitive stick hut to chat about the weather.
In the village of Vaitape, modest fruit stands kept company with shops hawking Tahiti’s famously expensive black pearls.
Even a jet ski tour led by guide Tehei Area became a lesson in Tahitian culture when we stopped for a picnic on his family’s private island, or “motu.”
With a palm frond tied about his head, Area demonstrated how to crack open a coconut using a thick branch of ironwood. After we gulped the milk from its hairy chalice, Area grated the coconut “meat” and carved out the spongy, sweet bulb lodged in one end.
“Tahitian marshmallow,” he explained with a grin, before placing this treat alongside a fruity feast on platters made of leaves. (Look for “organic French Polynesian plates,” coming to a grocery store near you.)
Moorea: A Peak Experience
On Moorea, a short plane ride away, I swapped my bikini for my staunchest support bra in anticipation of a bounce-and-jiggle jeep tour of one of the South Pacific’s most dramatic isles.
Jagged peaks clawed their way up from fertile valleys ripe with pineapple, banana, sour sop and noni—a foul-smelling fruit which my guide, Teiva Teraimatea, claimed could lower blood pressure and help you lose weight.
“It even gives blue eyes,” he joked, holding its pock-marked flesh aloft.
Leaving the whiff ripeness of nature’s gym sock behind, we headed for Belvedere Lookout, where, on a clear day, the aquamarine waters of Opunohu Bay and Cook’s Bay glisten far below.
Unfortunately, a mass of clouds swaddled the summit in impenetrable fog on the afternoon of my visit, but we drowned our sorrows with a stop at Rotui, a gift shop next to a pineapple juice factory, where Teraimatea poured gut-warming shots of ginger liqueur so potent it could probably remove fingernail lacquer as easily as the lining of my stomach.
Those were precisely the types of experiences (barring the liqueur) that I didn’t want to miss by dangling myself like bait in water teaming with predators.
So as the shark and ray feeding day dawned, I sat on the deck of my over-water bungalow at the Sofitel Moorea Ia Ora Beach Resort, sipping a cup of vanilla tea and congratulating myself on my decision to remain out of the water–and off the menu–that day.
Why risk life and limb getting in the lagoon when I could remain safe and dry in my thatched roof bolthole, spying on rainbow-colored parrot fish, lemon peel angelfish, and spotted eagle rays through a window in the floor? It was like watching a reality television show, but instead of voting someone out of the house, the losing contestants got eaten.
I certainly wasn’t signing up for that series. I would go on the boat ride, I reasoned, but I was staying on board.
Yet Captain Jean Pierre Halfon put me immediately at ease as he welcomed me and my companions aboard his 28-foot boat at the Sofitel dock. Deftly steering the boat with one hand, smoking with the other, and gesturing animatedly with what must have been a third hand grown specially for that purpose, he seemed capable of handling any situation.
So when his son dropped anchor in the shallows off the shore, I found myself almost unconsciously slipping on a mask and snorkel. Halfon, stripping down to a Speedo, jumped in straightaway, all the while chatting on his mobile phone, as though he was browsing the grocery aisles and not facing a flotilla of ravenous sea creatures.
As soon as he hit the water, a stingray approached, frisking him like a mafia boss checking for a wire (not that our captain had on enough clothing to hide one), but Halfon wasn’t fazed as he tossed smelly fish chunks into the water.
Soon, there were two stingrays…then three, then four, circling below the surface like dogs begging beneath a table.
Halfon warned us not to touch them underneath, but suggested that we pet their backs. I hazarded one tentative stroke, marveling at its smooth, slippery texture. But for the most part, I kept my arms crossed over my chest, so nervous of the stingers that I hardly noticed a trio of pointy-nosed critters circling 30 feet away.
Remarkably, I wasn’t alarmed by the appearance of these black tip reef sharks, as I was simply too concerned about being strip-searched by a stingray.
Halfon, however, seemed to enjoy the rays’ attention, even kissing one’s snout as she wiggled up his body in a way that would make an exotic dancer blush.
Having bid “adieu” to his favorite ray, we climbed back into Halfon’s boat and continued our tour along Moorea’s dramatic coastline.
Spinner dolphins accompanied us a short distance, abandoning us when we found ourselves in the midst of a race between two canoes.
In the distance, we spied fisherman with spears, stepping out of their outrigger canoes and seemingly walking on water—until we drew close enough to see the reef beneath their feet.
What had begun as a heart-pounding adventure for me had become an enlightening encounter with French Polynesian life, where daily routines are inextricably linked with the lagoon and the creatures within it. I even managed to conquer my life-long fear of sharks.
Now, the only thing I have to fear is…fashion faux-pas. I mean, seriously–a chain mail bikini? What was I thinking?
Jet-ski tour of Bora Bora: Matira Jet Tours, www.boraborawaverunner.com.
4 x 4 tour of Moorea: Albert Safari Tourist, www.albert-transport.net.
Tahiti Tourism, www.tahiti-tourisme.co.uk, http://www.tahiti-tourisme.com