Swimming with Sharks in French Polynesia’s Tuamotus Islands

Drift through a marine haven with black-tipped reef sharks, manta rays and pristine coral reefs in the Tuamotus Archipelago

Credit: Diane Selkirk

An encounter with black-tipped reef sharks proves more fascinating than frightening

Experience a shot of adrenaline in the Tuamotus Islands while drifting alongside fascinating – and potentially dangerous – marine life

“Sharks!” I gasped as I looked downstream through the clear water.

Just ahead were three (make that four, five, seven!, was that two more?) black tipped sharks, all milling about, minding their own business, seemingly unaware that five hapless divers were being swept into them in a rapidly moving stream.

“Lift your foot!” I signalled to my friend Lauren as we passed the first little shark and nearly booted it in the head. We both tried to shift and contort to avoid them—all the while overcome with near-hysterical giggles as the bewildered sharks tried to sort out just what was happening as we blew through the centre of their school.

French Polynesia’s Tuamotus Archipelago

(Image: Diane Selkirk)

French Polynesia may have been put on the map by Captain Cook and romanticized by artist Paul Gauguin, but there is more to the island nation than Tahiti’s soaring peaks and Bora Bora’s honeymoon resorts.

The Tuamotus’ are an archipelago of 76 atolls scattered across 900 miles of ocean. Once considered too dangerous to visit—they were dubbed the Dangerous Archipelago by French explorer Lois-Antoine de Bougainville because of the unseen reefs lurking below the surface—these days it’s the idea of danger that attracts visitors.

Most people who visit the Tuamotus do so for the diving (although the pearls are also pretty nifty…). The atolls boast unparalleled sea life including some 400 species of fish swimming around the reefs and sharks, lots of sharks. There are plenty of reefs and bommies (coral heads) found inside the atolls, which offer gorgeous, albeit low-adrenalin dives. But it’s the drift dives—where you ride the current either into or out of an atoll—that make the place truly special.

Drift Diving

(Image: Diane Selkirk)

Drift diving is like being on a poorly maintained conveyor belt in the world’s coolest interactive aquarium. At times you blast past colourful corals and through schools of fish. Other times you loaf along (or perhaps stop then go backwards) and have time to look a huge napoleon wrasse in the eye before the current catches you again.

The south pass at Fakarava became our favourite dive on our trip through the atolls; on our first dive we saw a giant manta ray, as well as white tipped and black tipped reef sharks. On subsequent dives we added a nurse shark and grey reef sharks to our ‘sharks seen’ list. We soon discovered that unless the sharks were particularly large and excessively interested in us, or we were about to inadvertently run one (or several) down, swimming with the fascinating creatures was more fun than frightening.

The current eased off just after we made it through the sharks. The pass widened out and we slowed down. As we were exploring, Lauren pointed out a giant manta ray cruising by. A few minutes later it returned with two other rays. Soon we had five rays circling us—swimming just out of reach, but seemingly as intrigued by us as we were them before they swam on. With the current nearly halted there was time to look closely at the rainbow coloured coral—and catch our breath—all the while pondering our next dive.

Visit Fakarava

Out of the water don’t miss: A lagoon excursion—visit the ghost village of Tetamanu and take a walk along the outer reef. Then head back to town and visit the pearl farm where you’ll learn how pearls are produced, how the colours are obtained and what to look for in a quality pearl.