Before setting foot for the first time on Tahiti and its islands, diving in Fakarava sounded to me like the ultimate shark experience in Polynesia. I was then initially concerned if it wouldn’t be too crowded. Located in the Tuamotu Islands, Fakarava is the second-largest atoll of French Polynesia after Rangiroa, measuring 60 km long by 21 km wide.
However, I soon discovered Rangiroa attracts way more visitors, 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 to still be a peaceful shark paradise.
Fakarava has two passes on the opposite sides of its inner lagoon: The Garuae Pass in the north and the Tumakohua Pass in the south. The plankton growing inside the lagoon escapes by these natural gates through the reef and attracts pelagic species in numbers. These passes and their abundant shark populations are what made the Tuamotu Islands famous worldwide.
Due to its exceptional ecosystem, Fakarava Atoll and its neighbouring islets are a registered UNESCO biosphere reserve. By reading the rest of the article, you will easily understand why.
Diving in Fakarava south pass: Tumakohua
To make it simple, it was THE most epic dive of my year 2019.
There are only two dive centres on the Fakarava south pass area, but only Tetamanu Diving Village is right next to it. It means you are the first one to dive there in the morning in a matter of minutes. I promise you won’t mind waking with the sun around 6.30 am, grabbing a light breakfast at 7 and be ready in scuba diving gear by 7.30.
At the time tides create an incoming current, the boat drops divers after a 5 min ride over the spot nicknamed the “ski slope” and which mark the starting point of Tumakohua Pass drift dive. The “ski slope” is a long white sandy slope between coral reefs. We spent about 10 minutes over this point on our way to the first observation point. Just the time to say hi to a white-tip shark hanging on the sand, and here they were.
My first impression was “hey, calling it a wall of sharks might be exaggerated” but the truth is I had never seen such a concentration of grey sharks or any other sharks so close.
The pass has several observation points which we visited throughout two morning dives before the tides change the current direction. You will be briefed by the instructor how to carefully look for a spot where to safely put a finger on a piece of rock to not damage any coral during the observation periods.
My dive parameters
- Dive #1: max depth 24 m – total dive time 62 min – water temperature 28°C
- Dive #2: max depth 22 m – total dive time 65 min – water temperature 28°C
Love sharks, Hate feeding?
The south pass of Fakarava is the proof we don’t need feeding or baiting to have the shark time of our lives. While we need to accept sometimes, nature won’t be on our side, in Fakarava I would say the chances of seeing the “wall of sharks” as they call it must be 99%. For information, French Polynesia is one of the only three places in the world to have an official ban on any shark feeding or baiting.
Beyond the incredible number of sharks, the most surprising thing was maybe how accessible it is even to beginner scuba divers. As there is no need to dive deeper than 20 m, from the moment you are comfortable with the soft current of a gentle drift dive, you can do it.
Some of the best snorkelling in the world
If you bring non-divers with you, they can enjoy it too! On my second day, I spent an entire morning with just my mask and my snorkel (I advise you to wear anti UV rashguard and leggings too). The dive instructors can drop you off a bit further for free by boat when the scuba divers go. Black-tip sharks, eagle ray, napoleon wrasse, colourful corals… this is by far the best snorkelling I have ever seen in the world. If you are comfortable freediving to 10-15 m, you can even see the grey sharks.
Sharks at night: to dive or not to dive that is the question!
Of all scuba diving trips I did, chances to go on a night dive are the end not so frequent. So, when I was offered to add a third dive at sunset to end my day, I jumped on the opportunity without thinking too much, I must say.
While during the day, sharks are relaxed and passive, night time is when they hunt. What I realised once underwater is they are quite bad at hunting. They miss their target at least half of the time. Of course, I had seen the documentaries of Laurent Ballesta. I knew that, in the dark, while hundreds of grey sharks all around me pursue the same preys, it would be quite an adrenaline-rushed dive.
However, what I only realised after a while after is that sharks being poor hunters, the beam of our torchlights are a great help for them. While my dive guide was all about provoking a feeding frenzy with his light so he could catch it on camera, on my side, at some point, I saw what I believed to be a shaking butterflyfish. Then it struck me. I directly changed the direction of my dive light and thought “come on, go hide”. For once, with sharks everywhere swimming in every possible direction, I felt like maybe I shouldn’t be there. Maybe not all night dive opportunities should be taken.
Exploring Tetamanu Islet, the old capital of the Tuamotu
Surprisingly for a motu (islet) that is so remote, Tetamanu is where the first capital town of the Tuamotu Islands was established in the second half of the 19th century. Still standing, the church of Tetamanu was built in 1874 and made of coral. The other buildings like the city hall and the school from that time can still be seen, but only ruins remain today.
Despite the false impression at my arrival that Tetamanu was only a low-key diving resort, there is still a tiny village with a few houses. Between your dives and snorkelling sessions, explore your surroundings. I promise it is too small to get lost and you won’t run out of pristine spots just for yourself.
However, if you need to be more active, you can take the opportunity of the free daily tours to the “Rose Sands” (Sables Roses in French) organised by Tetamanu Diving Village. In my case, with incredible and unlimited free snorkelling right down my bungalow, I just spent too much time underwater and couldn’t join this tour. I spent three nights but only two full days due to the transfer time between the north and the south parts of the atoll. In a nutshell, I had no time to be bored.
Diving in Fakarava north pass: Garuae
The majority of Fakarava’s dive centres are in the north, près de Rotoava. Beginners can enjoy a discovery dive in the lagoon while experienced divers can enjoy the sporty conditions of the Garuae Pass. Even if dive centres only go at slack tides, the currents can be strong, and there you need to know how to give an efficient fin kick.
The north pass of Fakarava is the widest of French Polynesia with a width of 1,6 km. Because of its size and lower visibility, it didn’t feel as impressive as in the south. On the other hand, in addition to many grey sharks as well, I saw more large schools of tropical fish such as longfin bannerfish and squirrelfish than in the south. Besides, I was lucky to meet the largest Napoleon wrasse of the atoll; sorry I was too far to take a decent picture, but it was roughly as big as a tiny car!
My dive parameters: max depth 31 m – total dive time 48 min – water temperature 27°C
In the north, I scuba dived with O2 Fakarava, which has a lovely dive centre in the middle of a coconut grove. It only takes 20 minutes on their rigid inflatable boat to go to Garuae Pass from O2 dive centre, but they also go several times per week to the south pass in 90 minutes.
After diving, the time I got just floating at the surface of this crystal-clear lagoon while my gear was drip-drying was priceless.
Exploring Rotoava Village surroundings
Although this is where the planes land, I only visited Rotoava, the main village of Fakarava, after coming back from my two days in the south. Not only Fakarava is where I went for the most exciting dive of my Polynesian trip, but this is also where I got the closest to Polynesian culture.
I had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with the local tourism association, which was that day preparing surprises for the visitors at the Airport: black pearl necklaces, palm hats and flower crowns. While I had a lesson of palm waving to make a natural basket, a traditional music band was rehearsing.
After taking a couple of pictures, Hinano, the group leader, insisted I should give a try at Tahitian Dance moves. She called me “Tiare Iti” (little flower in Tahitian), put Tahiti flowers around my neck, a grass skirt on my hips and a palm back on my right elbow, and here I was completely falling for the music and the sometimes amusing moves which are miming the lyrics (Hinano was translating for me step by step)!
For a private discovery of Polynesian culture in a small group, from ancient religion to today’s environmental challenges, ask for Enoha of Fakarava Tour.
He took me all around the atoll by car for half a day from the coconut oil shop to the northernmost tip of the atoll via a stop at Rotoava Church. Covering with passion and generosity topics from the real meaning of “Ia Orana” (hello in Tahitian) to how people of the Tuamotu make the most of their limited natural resources while respecting them, my cultural tour of Fakarava remains my most inspiring memory of French Polynesia.
The most interesting discovery I made was the ancient “marae”, these Polynesian open-air temples, which I had zero clues about before coming to Fakarava. Enoha will tell you the legend that links Fakarav with Raiatea (near Bora-Bora) and Hawaii!
When is the best season to go diving in Fakarava?
You can see the grey sharks of Fakarava all-year long. However, you will have sunnier weather if you go from April to November (the rainy season is the austral summer from November to March).
The water temperature is between 26 and 28°C all year long so 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).
Some other points to take into consideration to choose when going diving in Fakarava:
- the humpback whale season is from August to October
- the hammerhead shark season is from February to March
- the mating season of the marbled groupers is from mid-June to the beginning of July
Where to stay on Fakarava Atoll: South vs North?
I summarised the best I could the advantages and drawbacks of staying in the north of Fakarava versus staying in the south. Honestly, both are good for different reasons. My recommendation if budget allows: 2 nights in the south and 2 nights in the north.
Staying in the north
|Quick transfer between the airport and your accommodation||Far from the best dive site of Fakarava, 90 minutes by boat|
|More choices of accommodation|
|One budget accommodation option|
|Rotoava village & cultural activities|
Staying in the south
|Only 2 dive centres in the south||Long transfer from the airport, almost 2 hours|
|First to dive the south pass in the morning||Most expensive option|
|Quiet remote islet||No internet connection|
|No internet connection|
In the south of Fakarava, I stayed at the Tetamanu Diving Village. It was a real scuba divers’ paradise. My bungalow, basic but cute, was overlooking a shallow lagoon where baby black-tip sharks were swimming at sunrise and sunset. Due to the remoteness of the islet, all meals are included in the price and are taken all together around the same large table in the form of a buffet.
Reaching Tetamanu Village in the south of Fakarava was quite an adventure. After 1h10 of flying and 15 minutes to get my scuba diving bag back, a minibus picked us up with other guests at the Airport. We drived for 30 minutes, picking additional guests on the way until we reached a tiny pier at the end of the road. A small speed boat was waiting for us. At this point, after a few complications to get the engine running, I still had no idea it would take 70 minutes to reach Tetamanu Island, half of it being quite bumpy. But when I finally arrived, right before sunset, none of it really mattered anymore…
In the north of Fakarava, most guesthouses were already fully booked at the time of my booking (3 months in advance), so I stayed in a new lodge by the outer reef of the atoll. Teariki Lodge was beautiful with its wild nature and waves crashing in the background, but without any staff around I felt a bit isolated when there was a technical light issue in the bungalow or no breakfast came the next morning.
I would rather recommend the Havaiki Lodge, which is the most beautiful accommodation I saw on Fakarava. Right by the lagoon, I had lunch there twice at their “Requin Dormeur” (Nurse Shark) snack restaurant and took the opportunity to sneak around the bungalows. If you are looking for budget options, one of my dive buddies said the Tekopa’s camping was just was he needed for 3,000 XPF per night with a rental tent included.
How to go to Fakarava Atoll?
The only convenient solution is to go by plane with Air Tahiti, the only domestic airlines of French Polynesia. 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.
Once I flew internationally from Paris to Tahiti via Los Angeles with Air Tahiti Nui, I just had to take at the same Airport a domestic flight. The flight to Fakarava takes 1h10 and is usually direct from Papeete as many flights make a short stopover in Fakarava on their way to Rangiroa or the Marquesas Islands for instance.
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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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