Life is as hectic under the waters of Rangiroa as it is serene above. Diving here is not for the feint of heart, unless you want to stay on the shallow reef, but if you are up for a challenge it is incredibly rewarding.
Dive sites surround the fishiest places on the island which are the passes. Twice daily tides in and out of the monstrous inlets bring huge amounts of food for planktivores (plankton feeding fishes) which in turn feeds the piscavores (fish eating fishes).
Currents can swell to more than 8 knots in the pass so careful knowledge of currents is critical to safe diving. We dive with our friend, Yves LeFevre who pioneered the diving in the Tuamotus some thirty years ago. He is intimately familiar with the ebb and flow of tides, seasons of the fish and intricacies of diving the passes. We constantly learn from his infinite base of knowledge.
On incoming tides we often start our dives just outside the pass to the right, then drop into the depths at the northeast point where a plateau stretches out from about 130’. It is here that the resident school of grey sharks hold court, numbering in the hundreds. We often dive into this wall of sharks which range anywhere from about 90’ to over 200’ of depth. Lately, we have also found majestic eagle rays cruising among them.
One day we dropped into the blue and slowly made our way down to the wall of sharks. It was slack tide, which means no one was in a hurray about anything. Slack tide is like the pause between rush hours. It’s quiet and the fish seem in suspension, a break from the busy day of feeding in the current. So we took a break as well. With no cameras to focus on, we descended to 170’ and simply watched, all of us in our own thoughts, watching hundreds of sharks slowly cruise the blue one way and then, as if at the end of a fish tank, turn and slowly meander back again. It was mesmerizing and a sight that few have seen on the corner of this pass in a remote location on the planet, a microcosm of life in the ocean.
Yesterday, one of the sharks took the opportunity to take a small barracuda snack. When the shark hit the fish, it agitated hundreds of others and they all went scurrying up the reef to take part. It was an incredible display of speed and power.
Sometimes on slow incoming tides we simply drop in outside the pass in the blue. I think this is one of Yves’s favorite places to dive. We drop in and see what shows up. Often Yves takes off his glove and pushes it out into the water. It doesn’t take long for the parade of grey sharks to come off the bottom to investigate and soon eight or ten are swimming around us wondering what to do about the glove. Out here we never know what will appear. It is not uncommon to have silky sharks and the occasional hammerhead or silver tip drop by.
From there we head for the pass and fly through using the current to push us along. Tiputa pass is not filled with beautiful corals as it is thoroughly swept by strong currents daily but as we come through we keep our heads on a swivel for passing sharks, manta rays or dolphin.
This past week we had three incredible dolphin encounters. The resident pod love Tiputa pass. When the tide is outgoing and the wind incoming, it creates mountainous standing waves and in the late afternoons the dolphin love to leap out of the water in these waves. It’s a show of natural beauty that leaves viewers awestruck.
But often we hear them underwater and it is not uncommon to see them. This week they have been extremely playful. One day eight came down on the reef to hang out. They played with each other and sped around us. One large animal stopped in front of me and kept grabbing at a large piece of sponge. It was hard to know whether he was trying to eat it or simply play. He would nip at it, then spin around like he was headed onward but then kept coming back to it like it was magnetically drawing him.
On another dive we were inside the pass in shallow water when they came right up to us and simply stopped. One presented his fluke to Yves to scratch. The others had similar plans. It was amazing. It is important to understand, however, that wild dolphin are not trained dolphin and they are powerful animals. You simply don’t reach out to “pet” the pretty dolphin. It is all on their terms in their habitat.
On a third encounter this week, we were out in the blue in the middle of the pass when the dolphin arrived. But for some reason, the presence of the dolphin sparked the interest of the grey sharks and a dozen or so came up out of the blue to check out what was going on. This did not seem smart to me as a dolphin can kick butt on a grey shark and eventually the sharks lost interest and descended back to the deep.
One thing the dolphin seem to know (ha ha) is when I do not have the video camera in my possession. Each of the encounters this week occurred when my camera was safely dry and stored in my bungalow. When we have guests diving with us, one of us is always cameraless to be able to concentrate on assisting our divers.
Ridlon was able to capture all these great images.
During particular moon phases in July and August, many of the different species of surgeonfish spawn. These small schooling fish of about 6-8” begin to gather as the sun drops on the horizon. Just before sunset they stream like long ribbons along the reef, like commuters on a busy highway with a destination planned. Within 10 minutes of sunset, small groups of fish rush together and rise off the reef in a bolt of energy, simultaneously releasing gametes. I feel like I’m in a popcorn popper with spawning rises going off everywhere around. Each night different species spawn on a coordinated lunar calendar.
Meanwhile, it is a feast for the predators. Large trevelly jack and dogfish tuna make calculated runs through the fish in opportunistic feeding raids. It is quite a sight to observe.
One day as we made our way through the pass, we came upon a peacock grouper, a beautiful blue and brown fish with glistening speckles on it’s back half. This foot long fish had grabbed a smaller surgeonfish. The particular surgeonfish, a blue, yellow and white disc shaped fish, was held flat in the mouth of the grouper.
In the underwater world, there are two parts to the dining experience. The first is the ability to catch your prey, which in this case the grouper was successful. However, the second part is being able to swallow your meal without it escaping. The grouper tried and tried to eat this slippery surgeonfish but in the end, it escaped unscathed. However, one fish’s miss can be another one’s meal. As the surgeonfish made his stealthy escape from the jaws of the grouper, a large javanese moray eel came out of a crevice to investigate. But he was slow and the surgeonfish sped off, leaving both fish devoid of dinner.
With normal twice daily tides, for every incoming there is an outgoing, keeping the balance of water in the lagoon. However, this week strong winds have pushed masses of water into the lagoon over shallow reef flats and with only two passes to drain all that water, there have been no incoming tides for the past three days.
On outgoing tides we have a sneaky plan. We begin our dives outside the pass as usual and hang around the corner with the big fish. When we are ready to end our dive, we swim in a small counter current at the edge of the pass. This incoming current can be on the order of just a few feet wide and we hug the reef edge as we make our way. This area hosts huge numbers of reef fish but lower visibility as the outgoing water mixes with the incoming. Take care doing this maneuver, however, because if you get mixed up in the outflow you might as well set your compass for the northern hemisphere!
Well, it’s been a blast writing about the sensational diving here but unless I get back out there, this is where the story ends.
Sea you underwater!!!!!