He didn’t really bear a physical resemblance to Jacques Cousteau except for the silvery hair and advanced years, but with his thick French accent the Dive Master might easily win honorable mention in a look-alike/sound-alike contest. He had told me his Moorea Underwater Scuba-diving – Tahiti (M.U.S.T.) operations had been taking divers down on the daily shark-feeding dives for over twelve years.
"And in all that time, you’ve never had any mishaps?" I asked.
In retrospect, I’m not sure what kind of response I expected – maybe something like: "Nah, not in these waters…nothing big enough." Instead, the old Frenchman shrugged in the way that only old Frenchmen do. "Well…" he admitted, as he lifted a hand from behind his desk. "Zmmtimes."
I’m sure I must have audibly gasped. His left hand was heavily bandaged in white gauze, spotted with crimson blotches from the concealed wounds beneath.
"Jesus!" I exclaimed, my eyes round as half-dollars. Only thirty minutes earlier I had been surrounded by sixteen blacktip reef sharks at a depth of seventy feet. I thought it was SAFE!
"Mais non…it was, you see, my own fault," he hastened to explain. "I was not paying close enough attention."
I nodded. I guessed not. In all fairness, as I learned from the M.U.S.T. Dive Master, there had never been any accidents involving the client divers – only the dive guides. The reason for this is that these intrepid guides float unprotected and suspended in neutral buoyancy, waving a hacked-up half tuna as the sharks periodically darted in for a quick bite. Now and then one of the guides suffer the consequences of a momentary lapse in concentration. In the cases of the old Frenchman, it had taken sixty stitches to sew up the resulting damage.
I must admit that, given my proclivity for a moderate measure of danger in my travel adventures, the moment only added to the growing list of fond images and anecdotes that would perpetuate this trip among the more memorable ones that I have taken. My outlook was understandably heavily affected by my learning of the accident after my own shark feeding dive, rather than beforehand.
The dive site, not far from Cook’s Bay, was humorously christened "The Sharks Dining Room," – not because of the occasional bite out of a dive guide – but rather due to the tuna offerings fed to the sharks that gather for the morning feedings. Up to ten divers descend, with one or two local dive guides, to a stretch of dead staghorn coral at a depth of seventy feet. The dive guides take down a couple of plastic garbage bags containing two or three sliced up tuna.
Before entering the water, the guides had instructed us to descend all the way to the coral and then lay horizontal and motionless once we were in position. Under no circumstances, they solemnly warned us, should we use our arms to tread water, or swim forward. Such arm motion, they explained, might be mistaken for the waving the guides do with the tuna. The point was well taken by the entire group of divers.
After the entire group was in position at the coral, one of the guides swam a short distance away and removed half of one of the tuna. Waving it slowly back and forth, he began summoning the sharks. The first one appeared in less than two minutes, and it wasn’t long before the "Dining Room" was hopping. I counted sixteen at one point, but there could have been more. They move like phantom torpedoes – here one moment and fifty feet in another direction the next. In reality, I never felt apprehensive – nor (for the prudent diver) is there any need to worry. Despite the Frenchman’s accident, these Pacific Blacktip Reef Sharks are far more fearful of humans than we need be of them. Whenever the dive guide had us move forward in the water, the sharks vanished as completely and instantly as by a David Copperfield illusion. It was the only species of shark that I saw. After we had surfaced the guide related that he had glimpsed a larger (10 foot) lemon shark on the outer limits of his vision, but by the time he motioned us forward to get a look, it had turned tail and disappeared.
The Blacktips are small sharks – only three to four feet in length, although, as all divers know, everything is magnified underwater. They appear much larger to the eye and still have that sleek, predatorial look and effortless ease of lightning motion that instills such awe. As already related, their multi-rowed, razor-sharp teeth are also still plenty capable of getting the job done.
Moorea is the sister island of Tahiti. To tell the truth, I am actually a bit reluctant to advertise how enjoyable I found it. There are precious few places left in the world that as closely resemble Paradise as this French Polynesian island. Fortunately, it is not yet on the beaten tourist track. It is half a world away from the continental United States and therefore a bit too expensive and distant for the weekend sport diver. That suits me just fine.
In addition to the shark dives (which, in case you missed it, are NOT conducted inside shark cages) the waters are home to a myriad host of underwater life. I saw a giant octopus while just snorkeling, and Moorish Idols, wrasses, Lion Fish (nocturnal) and a ho-hum assortment of drop-dead-gorgeously-hued parrot fish, butterfly fish and wonderful coral formations that abounds in the waters around Moorea.
While I might sound like I had to drag myself out of the ocean, the surface side of Moorea is made up of the kind of idyllic Rogers and Hammerstein imagery that most people envision of when someone says "South Pacific." I haven’t yet made it to Bora Bora, but my understanding is that this other better known island is a close look-alike to Moorea. Surface intervals on Moorea might include bicycling around the quaintly populated island, or hiking up treacherously slippery jungle trails to a tropical rain forest waterfall that cascades hundreds of feet to an refreshingly cold pool where you can relax for a hour or two in near privacy before the hike back down. Tahiti is within eyesight, and reachable as a day-trip for those who are interested. There is also a variety of island tours that one can take when not basking in the sun at one of the many superb beaches.
Volcanic, mist-shrouded peaks, swaying palm trees, aquamarine bays, "shark-infested waters" and the background sounds of spoken French and Polynesian music keep the "real world" firmly where it belongs when on vacation – half a world away.