Here we go for a final round of travel tips to go scuba diving in French Polynesia! I wanted to sum up all the things I learnt from the experience of my first trip to French Polynesia, which lasted 3 weeks from mid-September to the beginner of October. I will cover of course the best diving in French Polynesia but also, with so many islands, how to choose where to go while enjoying a relaxing trip in this world-class diving destination
- Where is the best diving in French Polynesia?
- What to see underwater in French Polynesia?
- Which scuba diving centres to choose in French Polynesia?
- When is the best time to go scuba diving in French Polynesia?
- How to go island hopping in French Polynesia?
- Where to stay in French Polynesia?
- My scuba diving itinerary suggestion in French Polynesia
Where is the best diving in French Polynesia?
I summarised below what you can expect from scuba diving in popular islands of French Polynesia, but also islands that are more off-the-beaten-track and I had the opportunity to visit.
1 – Diving in the Tuamotu Islands: Rangiroa, Fakarava, Manihi, Tikehau
I’m going to save you much time. To make it simple, the best diving in French Polynesia is in the Tuamotu Archipelago. It has it all: stunning coral reefs, deep walls, powerful drift diving in passes and abundant pelagic marine species. So as a scuba diver travelling to French Polynesia for the first time, I would make sure to at least visit one atoll of the Tuamotu.
Only a handful of the atolls concentrate the scuba diving centres of the Tuamotu: Rangiroa, the largest atoll of the Tuamotu with 8 dive centres, Fakarava with 7 dive centres, Tikehau with 4 dive centres and Manihi with only 1 dive centre.
During my trip, I discovered Rangiroa attracts way more visitors than the other places, to the point there are currently on-going studies about mass tourism impact on cetaceans. Maybe due to limited availabilities for accommodation, I found Fakarava is a more peaceful shark paradise.
2 – Diving in the Marquesas Islands: Hiva Oa
Hiva Oa is the new hottest scuba diving destination in French Polynesia. Considering how remote the islands, the Marquesas Islands could be the ultimate off-the-beaten-track experience. Despite having much lower visibility, if you love unique adventures, you will discover a staggering marine ecosystem, a real manta ray highway and the opportunity to meet hammerhead sharks.
3 – Diving in Tahiti & Moorea
Tahiti and its largest city Pape’ete (pronounce “Papayhaytay”) serves as the capital of French Polynesia. This is hence where your international flight will take you too.
While the dive sites in Tahiti West coast near Papeete and Moorea didn’t impress me, I fell for the atmosphere of the Tahiti Peninsula, on the other side (only 2 hours of driving away). The dive sites are shallow hard coral plateaux continuing in impressive drop-offs. Apart from a slight tidal current, these are lovely and easy dives away from the crowd, perfect to start your diving adventure in French Polynesia.
The best way to recover from jetlag after your international outbound flight is to stay a few days in Tahiti before flying to the outer islands. I recommend then to go on a mini-road including diving in Tahiti Peninsula and going on a whale watching tour in the if in season.
4 – Diving in Bora-Bora
If there is one island that might be even more famous than Tahiti in French Polynesia, it’s Bora-Bora. However, its fame made it the most expensive place to explore in French Polynesia. Due to demand, you can scuba dive in Bora-Bora, but it’s more a place for discovery dives than the ultimate destination for avid scuba divers.
What to see underwater in French Polynesia?
French Polynesia is the place to see big marine animals and not so much about coral and macro critters. If you are into sharks, manta rays and whales, this is simply one of the best destinations in the world.
Here are some of the incredible marine wildlife you will be likely to meet during a trip to French Polynesia:
- Grey reef sharks
- Tiger sharks
- Hammerhead sharks
- Black-tip sharks
- White-tip sharks
- Nurse sharks
- Lemon sharks
- Manta rays
- Marbled groupers
- Humpback whales
It is important to note that French Polynesia is one of the few countries in the world that ban entirely baiting and feeding wildlife, including sharks, in its environmental law. The law was enforced at the end of 2017, and, unfortunately, some operators are still offering feeding experiences regardless (especially in Tahiti, Moorea and Bora-Bora). Refuse to get involved in this and remember as scuba divers we are only meant to leave bubbles and not to interfere with the ocean.
At the same time, French Polynesia is one of the few places in the world to offer dive sites where you are almost guaranteed to see hundreds of sharks with no baiting nor feeding thanks to the underwater topography of its passes. These natural gates through the coral barrier reefs let water communicate between the lagoon which is rich in nutrients and the ocean. This is how the Tuamotu islands became so famous among scuba divers, and especially Tiputa Pass in Rangiroa Atoll and Tumakohua Pass in Fakarava Atoll.
Which scuba diving centres to choose in French Polynesia?
Scuba diving is not cheap in French Polynesia, but it is generally in line with the overall cost of living, which tends to be high, accommodation and food included. French Polynesia uses the Pacific Franc (XPF) as a currency which is at a fixed rate with the Euro. EU residents can withdraw money without any exchange fee at ATMs with their credit cards.
The price of a single dive in French Polynesia varies from 7,000 XPF (59€) to 15,000 XPF (126€) depending on the dive centre and if the location includes a long boat ride to reach the dive site. At an average price of 10,000 XPF the dive, if you plan at least 10 dives during your trip, the budget would be around 840€ only for scuba diving (if you’re an avid diver that’s the minimum I recommend, I went for 14 dives myself in 3 weeks).
Hopefully, scuba diving centres across French Polynesia gathered in networks to offer packages of diving tickets to spend between the partners. You can choose between 3 networks:
- Te Moana Diving Pass: The 10-dive package is currently at 72,000 XPF (about 603€, 28% discount). You can choose between 14 dive centres in the Society Islands and the Tuamotus.
- Top Dive: Top Dive is the largest scuba diving operator in French Polynesia with 10 dive centres in the Society Islands and the Tuamotus. Their 10-dive package is at 89,000 XPF (about 746 €, 11% discount). If their price tends to be higher, it is interesting to note they offer Nitrox for free to certified Nitrox divers. I also noticed they were the only centre where I could go on a 2-tank trip allowing me to save quite a lot of time in a day.
- E-diving pass: They have the largest network of dive centres in French Polynesia, including dive centres in the Marquesas Islands and the Austral Islands, so you have more freedom to decide whom you want to dive with. There is no pass at a fixed price since you must select beforehand the dive centres and how many dives you want to do in each. 10 tickets to spend between Tahiti, Manihi, Fakarava, Rangiroa & Hiva Oa would be at 82,340 XPF (about 690€, discount of 18%).
Important to note:
- French Polynesia, as its name indicates, is an overseas territory of France, the primary language is French. However, all dive centres offer service in English, as the US is the number 2 country in terms of visitors.
- All dive centres I visited had top-notched rental diving gear so if you don’t feel bringing anything, it’s all right to do so in French Polynesia.
When is the best time to go scuba diving in French Polynesia?
In Tahiti and the Tuamotu Islands, the dry and sunnier season is from April to November (the rainy season is the austral summer from November to March). The archipelago of the Marquesas is much closer to the Equator than the rest of French Polynesia; hence its climate slightly differs from Tahiti and the other islands, it tends to be hotter. The rainy season is from January to the beginning of March, so the typical recommendation is to go between September and December.
The water temperature is between 26 and 28°C all year long (+1°C in the Marquesas Islands). Most people scuba dive in a 3mm shorty, but if you bring your 3mm or 5mm full wetsuit you won’t be too warm (I used my 5mm wetsuit as I was going to slightly cooler waters in Japan after).
From a marine animal migrations point of view, here is the season calendar:
- The grey reef sharks can be seen all year long
- The humpback whale season is from August to October in Tahiti and Moorea, from October to December in the Marquesas Islands
- The hammerhead shark season is from February to March in the Tuamotu Islands, from July to September in the Marquesas Islands
- The mating season of the marbled groupers is from mid-June to the beginning of July in the Tuamotu Islands
For a first scuba diving trip to French Polynesia, I then definitely recommend the month of September like I did last year.
How to go island hopping in French Polynesia?
I first flew internationally from Paris to Tahiti via a 2-hour stopover in Los Angeles, California, with Air Tahiti Nui. If you are from Europe, you’ll need to get to Paris-CDG Airport first. If you are in America, just fly to Los Angeles. For people based in Japan and New Zealand, lucky you, you have direct flights from Tokyo and Auckland; and I, indeed, took the opportunity to return to Japan this way at the end of my trip.
While it sounds very tempting to go island-hopping on a boat, you need to realise the distances between islands and the 5 main archipelagos of French Polynesia (the Society Islands, the Tuamotu Islands, The Marquesas Islands, the Austral Islands and the Gambier Islands). In their in-flight magazine, the domestic airline’s company had the great idea to overlay their route network with a map of Europe to let people get the scale of how big French Polynesia is. From the Austral Islands to the Marquesas Islands, it’s like going from Spain to Russia!
Now, you can easily understand that if you want to have a good glimpse of French Polynesia by visiting different archipelagos, the only way is by flying between islands with Air Tahiti, the only domestic airlines of French Polynesia. They offer different Flight Passes for the Society Islands, The Tuamotus and the Marquesas Islands.
There are a few opportunities to go by boat with the cargo ships resupplying the atolls. However, the spots are scarce and are usually given in priority to locals. If you take into account you won’t be able to book in advance and will have to try your luck at the last minute; I don’t recommend it except if you have 2 or 3 months of travel around French Polynesia.
Of course, you could consider booking a scuba diving liveaboard in French Polynesia but considering how remote the country is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, I would argue it would be too bad to miss life on Tahiti and its islands, especially for a first trip.
For those who have more time, like 3 weeks to a month, you can rent a sailing boat or charter one with a crew. This isn’t a cheap option, but if I could, I would say it must be the best option to explore at a slow pace the islands of French Polynesia, but again for a future trip, maybe not the first.
Where to stay in French Polynesia?
If there is something French Polynesia is famous for (beyond scuba diving), it’s for its overwater bungalows! I mean, who hasn’t seen these appealing pictures of a couple on their honeymoon having the most romantic time of their lives on one of them? I guess you won’t be surprised if I say this is the most expensive way to stay in French Polynesia.
If this is still part of the dream for you, you could book “budget” accommodation for most of your trip and then splurge on your last night in Tahiti before flying back home? To give you an idea, standards rooms in luxury hotels in French Polynesia start from 200€ a night when overwater bungalows start from 700€ a night.
It was my favourite type of accommodation in French Polynesia. For a very reasonable cost (as reasonable it can be in French Polynesia considering the standard of living). For about 100 to 150€ a night, you will have your room with an ensuite bathroom, breakfast and dinner included while sharing the life of a local family and taste the most authentic and delicious specialities from Polynesia.
Hostels & Campsites
French Polynesia has been for a long time a destination only for those with pockets full of cash, but now some budget accommodation appears here and there across the islands.
In Tahiti, I tried the hostel of Papeete for 35€ a night and book also and self-catering home on Airbnb for 59€ a night on the Tahiti Peninsula. (Get 34€ off your booking when you register on Airbnb by clicking here)
On Moorea Island, I saw a hostel and on Fakarava Atoll a campsite with rental tents! It can be a great way to balance your budget if you don’t need full comfort every night.
My scuba diving itinerary suggestion in French Polynesia
If you read until here you surely understood than organising your first trip to French Polynesia is going to require you some time, just to decide where to go. The best advice I could give before giving you my suggested itinerary is to resist the temptation to cram as many islands as you can in your trip.
I understand that for many of you, French Polynesia is the trip of a lifetime and there might not be a second trip considering the distance and the cost. However, I promise you’ll have a far more enjoyable trip by limiting the number of islands. To get a good glimpse of the natural and cultural differences between the archipelagos of French Polynesia, try to visit three such as the Society Islands, the Tuamotus and the Marquesas Islands.
If you only have 2 weeks, like I know it’s mostly the case for our American and Canadian friends, here is my ideal itinerary:
- Tahiti – 3 days
- Moorea – 1 day
- Fakarava – 4 days
- Nuku Hiva – 2 days
- Hiva Oa – 3 days
- Tahiti – 1 day
For people like me coming from Europe, 3 weeks would be a better idea. In this case, I recommend spending that extra week in the Tuamotu Archipelago by exploring 2 other islands among Rangiroa, Manihi and Tikehau.
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This article was written in partnership with the tourism board of Tahiti and Air Tahiti Nui. As always, all my views and opinions are my own and reflect my experience honestly.
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