The Tuamotu Archipelago is one of the 5 main archipelagos of French Polynesia. It covers a gigantic area of 800,000 km² while having a total land surface which hardly exceeds 850 km². The 76 atolls of the Tuamotu are ancient volcanoes that collapsed millions of years ago leaving only behind a ring of sand with a lagoon in the middle.
The Tuamotu could be nicknamed the scuba diving paradise of French Polynesia. It has it all: stunning coral reefs, deep walls, powerful drift diving in passes and abundant pelagic marine species. 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. Indeed, Manihi was the promise of what I love the most in scuba diving: quietness.
Private diving in Manihi Atoll
I will remember this anecdote for a long time as one of the most extraordinary things I got to do on a scuba diving trip: at my arrival at Manihi Airport, Bernard and Martine, the French couple running Blue Way Manihi, came to pick me up with their scuba diving boat! In about 30 minutes, using a sarong to pass a swim-suit on, all my luggage stored onboard, I was doing a rollback to descend along the outer reef of the atoll!
In 3 days spent on Manihi Atoll, I logged 3 dives as I had to stay at the surface on my last day before flying back to Tahiti: 1 on the first day and 2 on the second day. From my very first dive, here was what fascinated me:
- The visibility between 30 and 40 m
- The vertiginous depth of the wall of the outer reef, I would say between 70 and 80 m.
- The gorgeous coral reefs in shape of rose petals along the deep walls
- The numerous schools of small tropical fish such as butterflyfish and longfin bannerfish.
The most impressive dive was the Tairapa Pass. It was the most powerful drift dive of my diving career, so I’d like to recommend it to advanced divers only. The dive briefing was extensive and included how to manage the current including staying close to the bottom and swimming in zig-zag from a side to another of the pass.
Once you apply the briefing thoroughly, it’s all about fun in the current of the pass. This drift dive was incredible and felt like surfing underwater while looking at the wave of the tidal bore above my head.
My two other dives were both wall dives. Don’t forget to look into the blue or in the cracks of the reef; you are likely to spot white tip sharks, nurse sharks, threadfin and bluefin trevally, marbled groupers, tropical sole fish, napoleon wrasse and giant schools of barracudas. Manihi is also known for frequent manta rays encounters, but I didn’t see any, unfortunately, during my stay.
Something surprising happened in Manihi. Obviously, in this remote atoll of the Tuamotu, fish are not scared by too many scuba divers. I had a marbled grouper, a pufferfish and a long fin bannerfish which came right in front of my camera apparently fascinated by their reflection in my dome lens!
Generally speaking, I marvelled at the diversity and the number of small tropical fish in Manihi. It included some species I had never seen before or rarely in other diving destinations of the Pacific:
- racoon butterflyfish, saddle butterflyfish, pyramid butterflyfish, reticulated butterflyfish
- orange spine unicornfish, convict surgeonfish
- regal angelfish, flame angelfish
- fire goby, pink and purple anthias
- longfin bannerfish, pennant bannerfish
- parrotfish, squirrelfish,
- and so many more I couldn’t identify!
It might be too soon to be fully affirmative it is the reason why the marine fauna of Manihi is so rich, but it is good to know that a no-take marine protected area, called Rahui in Tahitian, was established around the Pass of Tairapa in 2017.
Warm crystal-clear waters and private encounters with a rich marine fauna: isn’t it how scuba diving should always be?
My dive parameters:
- Dive #1 Paena Wall: max depth 34 m – total dive time 66 min – water temperature 29°C
- Dive #2 Tairapa Pass: max depth 24 m – total dive time 70 min – water temperature 29°C
- Dive #3 Tairapa Wall: max depth 30 m – total dive time 73 min – water temperature 29°C
The birthplace of the Polynesian black pearl
If you love quiet places, you will love Manihi.
But wait before you think there is nothing else to do on Manihi Atoll than scuba diving and napping on the beach. In Manihi, I had the opportunity to learn more about the lifestyle of the community of a remote atoll and their famous trade: natural pearl culture.
Manihi happens to be the place where the culture of the Polynesian black pearl was born in the 1960s. The very first pearl farm of French Polynesia was founded in the lagoon of Manihi by a team of Polynesian members and Japanese oyster grafting experts. For many years, only Japanese grafters performed the crucial step of grafting a tiny nucleus made of seashell inside a living oyster.
Don’t miss the opportunity during a surface interval to visit a pearl farm in Manihi Lagoon. A fee is usually requested for the group but you will learn everything about the pearl culture. I was so surprised about the time it takes growing a baby oyster to the harvest of the pearl: 4 to 7 years. It is important to note that French Polynesia is one of the rare places on Earth where oyster larvae are captured in the wild for pearl farming.
In the main village, I met with Petero Tupena, which is a legend in the world of pearl farming in French Polynesia. While doing basic tasks at the pearl farms in the early days of the trade, he patiently observed his Japanese colleagues. He started then to make trials on his own oysters by taking precise handwritten notes of what he did each time differently until he found the secret to making the most beautiful black pearls.
Today, Manihi counts 10 pearl farms and young people from all over the Tuamotu can receive education in pearl farming and grafting at the CMNP (Centre des Metiers de la Nacre de Polynésie in French – Polynesian Mother-of-pearl training centre) in Rangiroa. It is indeed a success story for French Polynesia although a recent change to pearl standards regulation had a dramatic impact on the price of the pearls, jeopardising the income for the pearl farmers in the Tuamotu after decades of prosperity.
As you wait for your flight back to Tahiti, visit the small local shops at the airport, the only place where you can buy pearls from Manihi. These were the best deals I saw during my entire trip. I bought 4 medium-large black pearls for 4000 CFP (about 33€ / £29). Black pearls are the best souvenirs you can bring back from Polynesia.
How to go to Manihi Atoll?
By plane, with an ATR-42 to be exact.
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 with Air Tahiti. The airlines’ company is the only one to link the inhabited islands and atolls of Polynesia to Tahiti.
The flight to Manihi also goes to Ahe, the neighbouring atoll. On my way from Tahiti to Manihi, we made a 20-minute stopover on Ahe before flying to Manihi. It took a total time of 2h25. However, on the way back to Tahiti, as the plane already came from Ahe, we flew directly to Tahiti and it took less than 2 hours.
At the check-in, try to get a window seat on the left side of the plane to enjoy the fabulous view of the Tuamotu atolls from the sky. These rings of sand and coral floating at the surface of the deep blue Pacific Ocean with a clear turquoise lagoon inside is one of the most beautiful natural landscapes I have ever seen.
Once in Manihi, the main mean of transportation is by boat. Make sure to have a booking before coming to the atoll.
The owners of Blue Way Manihi had only one double room at their dive lodge at the time of my visit, but they had plans to add a family bungalow on their private “motu” (islet). If you can, try to stay with Martine and Bernard, their homemade breakfast is to die for!
In case they are already booked, they will be more than happy to recommend another guesthouse while keeping proving diving service with a boat pickup in the morning. Wherever you stay, boat transfer will always be included in the price of your stay which often includes full board for meals.
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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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