Paddling with sharks

Monday 30 May 

I stepped off the dinghy and after a few steps was up to my waist in manta rays and reef sharks. I usually run a mile at the mere mention of the S word but here their attention was solely on the fishy chunks and stale cream crackers they were being fed. Soon I was as relaxed as you can be when a four foot black tipped reef shark is giving you the eye as he/she/it swims around you hoping for titbits.

Several friends had mentioned “sting ray city” off the Intercontinental Hotel on the reef to the west off Opunoho Bay, Mo’orea as a must do activity but we’d been a bit reluctant due to the sheer distance in our dinghy. However as Monday evening seemed a good time to leave for the overnight sail to the Isles Sous Le Vent (the leeward Society Islands locally referred to as the ISLVs) it left us with a whole day in which to make the couple of mile expedition. Estimating the dinghy can manage 3 knots the trip across the bay and reefs against the wind and current was likely to take the better part of an hour. We packed a picnic lunch, snorkels and flippers plus plenty of water and some rather soggy crackers to feed the rays.
Once across the dark deep waters of the bay we picked up the line of black and white beacons marking the small boat channel across the paler blue green water of the reef. Conversation was almost impossible due to the noisy 5hp two stroke working hard to propel us westward. The sun shone and the aqua water revealed coral heads and fish. An occasional jet ski or small boat carrying tourist from the various hotels passed us. With a cheery wave. The views of Mo’orea’s peaks with the village of Papetoai snuggled at their foot were worth the trip alone. The red roof of the octagonal church was clear to see. Everywhere in French Polynesia the churches are instantly recognisable from at sea by their red rooftops.
The directions we had told us to look out for the green navigation post just west of the hotel before the motus the head south. We hardly needed them as there were several jet skis and a trip boat in the Polynesian style of two large canoe floats topped with a covered platform. A dozen or more people were standing in the water, having anchored the dinghy behind a coral head, we donned shoes and snorkels to join them on a large area of sand clear of coral.
It was amazing, the manta rays, used to being feed immediately come up to you. It must have looked odd from above; a group of adults with their heads partially submerged, just their backs showing as they bent to peer under the shallow, crystal clear water. We didn’t care, what was happening below the surface was incredible. Like being inside the aquarium surrounded not just by rays and reef sharks but also lots and lots of other tropical fish who being well used to the feeding were fearless and swam up to you to ensure they got some of the leftovers. 
Stood there watching the slender brown skinned sharks with their black tipped fins and white underbellies swim around you was both a little frightening yet also an incredible sight. The tour guide at intervals warned everyone to be careful of their fingers. Reef sharks don’t count humans in their food chain but a stray finger might just look like a tasty fish! On the surface twenty or so shark dorsal fins just showing as they hunted down the last sardine was impressive. 
The rays were also plentiful, they swam up to you hopefully like cats wanting to be stroked and fed, probably in the reverse order. Their looming grey shapes belie a fairly friendly inquisitive nature, gliding through the water with the merest ripple of their wings. When they’d had enough they took off towards the coral and buried themselves under the sand away from the crowds. 
After an hour or so in the water we were getting rather wrinkly and chilly so reluctantly we hauled ourselves away. The trip back was quicker though we made a diversion to the village which was in “cruise ship mode” as the Paul Guigan was anchored at the mouth of the bay; the covered market area at the wharf had lots of stalls selling local crafts. I wonder how much the passengers actually buy as every port of call has similar stuff – mother of pearl and pearl jewellery, pareos, woven straw work, wood carvings, local preserves and fruit like bananas and pamplemousse. Boards advertised various tours – the Belvedere, boat trips, pearl farms etc. Down the road we found the village shop with a small cafe at the rear, business as usual; only the locals and the occasional yachties in search of supplies make it this far. 
Underdressed in our damp reef snorkelling clothes we decided to head home for warm showers and a picnic in the cockpit. It had been well worth the effort and is another memory to treasure. Thank-you Mo’orea for being one of our favourite islands ever!

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