French Polynesia, September 2019 (Part 1-Tahiti & Rurutu)

Thursday, September 19-Friday, September 20, 2019

Tahiti

In July 2018, driving home from LAX from our first trip to French Polynesia (FP), we immediately called our friend, dive travel specialist Cindi Laraia (Dive Discovery), to sign up to return to FP the following year on a trip she was leading.  That’s how taken we were by our first trip to this tropical paradise, timed to experience the annual Camouflage grouper spawning in Fakarava.

 

A mass of groupers gathers in anticipation of the full moon in summer in the atolls of the Tuamotos, French Polynesia

A breathtaking sight: Fakarava’s  “wall of sharks” in French Polynesia

We were so enchanted by Rangiroa’s resident dolphins and awed by Fakarava’s wall of sharks, we couldn’t wait to return.  Cindi’s trip had the added attraction of a stay in Rurutu, hopefully swimming with humpback whales.

Spoiler: We did luck out with a couple of successful mornings in Rurutu with humpbacks!

On our way up to LAX, somewhere around San Juan Capistrano, I glanced over my shoulder at the bags piled in the back of Rosene’s spacious van.  I did not remember zipping shut or rolling out of the house the photo case with my underwater camera.  In an instant, I knew what had happened…it was still in the living room, next to Steve’s gray Pelican photo case and we each assumed the other would finalize closing it and rolling it out to the garage for loading.

We were making good time, not having run into any notable traffic.  If we turned around for the bag AND didn’t run into any traffic, we would just make it to the airport 2 hours before our departure.  We turned back and there it was, waiting expectantly in the living room next to the collapsible Costco table we erect to build our systems before we pack them, to be sure we have all the little essential bits and all is in working order.

It wasn’t an auspicious start to the trip, but we did make it.  We decided at the airport to upgrade to Premium Economy.  Was it worth the extra $600 each?  For the food, certainly not! Comparing notes with Les afterwards, it sounds like the same marginal pasta salad dinner and omelet breakfast were served in coach.

The movie selection was uninspiring; surprisingly, there was a good electronic magazine selection.  A light, sentimental Japanese film, Until I meet September’s Love, passed a couple of hours for me.  The rest of the time was a patchwork quilt of fits and starts: a catnap here, almost dozing off there, never really quite comfortable enough for sleep, which was desperately wanted but elusive.

Eight hours of flying later, but only 3 time zones away, it was dark in Papeete when we arrived early in morning.  Despite the early hour, we were greeted by a burst of live traditional music.  Trip leader Cindi and fellow divers Terrie and Les were also on same flight.  The rest of our group, newly retired Linda and Terry, Greg, Barb, Kate and Quentin, were already at relais Fenua.  Lois and Richard, who joined the group more recently, were staying nearby.

Breakfast was al fresco and highlighted by homemade green pamplemousse jelly and baguettes.  Once connected to the hotel’s Wifi, good news awaited me.  The day of departure had started for me at our money manager’s office, meeting with Mama and a traveling notary, to finalize the sale of my childhood home (Mama’s home of 52 years until earlier this year).   The sale was finally closed, a tremendous relief.

Thinking we wouldn’t be able to check into our rooms until afternoon, most of us were scheduled for an all-day around-the-island excursion, which took us on a rough road through the middle of the lush volcanic island.

Scenic stop on the Tahiti island tour.

We were pitching around so much, we joked that we should switch sides in order to balance out the core exertion of trying to stay seated, as the open-back truck jounced us around negotiating hairpin curves and steep pitches, asymmetrically exercising our abdominal wall muscles .

Lush interior of volcanic Tahiti, punctuated by waterfalls.

Tahitian island interior: water, stone, ferns, mosses.

We discover along the way in one of those small-world-moments that Barb is the younger sister of a medical school classmate of Steve’s, as well as being the daughter of a Wayne physician.  Fresh water eels at the riverfront gave Steve the opportunity to try out our new, back-up mini camera, an Olympus TG6.

Tahiti interior: not a bad view from the restaurant!

As the lunch restaurant was out of mahi mahi, crevettes, lamb and most of the appealing-sounding offerings, most ended up having the assiette Polynesienne by default (creamed spinach with chicken and rice, with a local form of ceviche, where the fish is cured in coconut milk).

Dinner at relais Fenua set the standard for what would be many all-white-food meals to follow:  potato salad, rice and swordfish.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Tahiti
Dive 1: 83 ft, 50 min

Dive 2: 64 ft, 52 min

The night before, I was too tired to build the camera and fell asleep still fully dressed. Steve came in from the patio to find a stealthy cat had crept in and curled up beside me.

Visual flashes woke me at 5:30 am, in time to build the camera.  I thought I was having visual hallucinations, seeing despite my closed eyes the whirring ceiling fan, punctuated by intermittent light flashes.  When I finally pried my eyes open to investigate, I saw only the silent fan.  Eventually, I woke up enough to realize the flashes were real and emanating periodically from the ceiling fan light.

I built the camera in time to take it on our 2-tank morning dive.  Steve’s preparations were considerably easier, as he elected to dive with our new “toy” back-up camera, the Olympus TG6.  Our destination, White Valley, had been planned as a tiger shark attraction dive, way back 15+ months when this trip was conceived.  Since then, baiting to attract tigers was banned by the government.  This was our first dive in our new Rogue BCDs.  I took a guess at 12# as enough for a rapid descent.

White-tip shark rests on reef sand, near Tahiti.

The highlight of the first dive was a pair of white-tip sharks resting on the sand, with numerous gray reef sharks circling, just not close enough for a good shot.  Beefy lemon sharks made appearances too.

Lemon shark, Tahiti, White valley, identifiable by virtue of two dorsal fins; white-tip and gray reef sharks can be seen in the background.

Our guide was thronged by fish-I realized later he was launching bread crumbs into the water periodically.

A cloud of snappers in Tahiti’s White Valley, with Kate looking on.

A remora was tailing Steve and then caught a ride on his tank.  I tried to catch up to him to document it for posterity but it detached just as I did.

Greg and schooling barracudas, Tahiti, White Valley.

Greg and schooling jacks in Tahiti, White Valley.

Steve had a rough exit from the water, ascending the ladder with his fins and slipping, banging his shin into a rung.  He developed a bulging hematoma visible through his wetsuit.

Back at the room, he was out of sorts, not locating his wrist-mounted dive computer when we arranged our gear on the patio to dry.  He searched, I searched…Cindi called TopDive to put out an APB on it, but the boat had already headed out for the afternoon dive. It turned up later, in his gear bag, concealed in a hidden pocket Steve wasn’t even aware the  bag had.

Greg and Les foraged for food for the group.  Based on Linda and Terry’s intelligence from the prior day, we knew it would be slim pickings for lunch.  They stayed back to relax during our interior excursion, and found most stores and restaurants were closed between 12-2:30 pm.  They were reduced to having the “worst” pre-made baguette sandwiches.  The local market replenished the tonic stores, as well as produced baguettes, salami, ham, Emmentaler and brie cheeses.  We found cut-up mango left over from breakfast in the fridge.

It was early for cocktail hour and gradually the group drifted away to sleep it off or pack.

Steve and I walked over to the beach from relais Fenua for the sunset and a short drone flight.

Dinner took us to Place Vai’ete port where there were dancing demonstrations from the Marquesa Islands and open air dining from a cluster of food trucks parked in the shadow of a huge cruise ship.  Steve, Greg and I decided on the Asian offerings of TukTuk.

Our travel group gets acquainted over food procured from roulettes, Tahitian food trucks.

A convivial, relatively inexpensive and relaxed dining alternative in Papeete is the nightly conclave of food trucks (roulettes) which convene near the port.

Making the best of a bad shooting position: Polynesian traditional dance demonstration.

 

Sunday, September 22, 2019

A looong travel day (Tahiti to Rurutu, in the Austral Islands)

Our mid-afternoon scheduled flight meant we had a leisurely, sultry packing morning.  The pool area was infiltrated by wetsuits, booties, socks, skins, BCDs and other accoutrements of diving which hadn’t fully dried by the time morning came around.  Breakfast featured a tropical fruit new to us, the pomme etoile (star apple).  Its size and deep wine red color resembled a mangosteen.

Greg and I made a lunch foraging run around the corner to the local store, where I nixed potato chips in favor of better-for-you nuts and suggested adding paté to the charcuterie selection.  There was one pain de compagne left amid the plentiful baguettes.  More baguettes and crackers rounded out the midday meal.

After delays and more delays, heat and waiting at the airport, we were finally on our way, 3 hours late.

Landing in the dark at Rurutu, the airport was thronged with lei-bedecked and flowery dress attired women and men in flip-flops , greeting one another with kisses under an open air pavilion resembling a farmer’s market.  The luggage was slid onto wooden shelves, so thronged with people it was difficult to identify bags.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Rurutu-Whale watch attempt #1

This island is palpably cooler than Tahiti.  Our charming family owned pension, Le Manotel, is completely filled with just our party of 11, with Lois and Richard staying elsewhere.  It does rustic chic better than our last accommodation.  Our room is a wooden high-ceiling pavilion with a veranda.

Warnings at the airport advising of a dengue outbreak made me paranoid about mosquitos, but the level of activity seemed light (3 bites during the night and a few audible buzzes).

The pension is set in a dense floral tropical garden, filled with impossibly varied and marvelous blooms.

Beautiful blooms in the gardens of Le Manotel on Rurutu!

The morning was a cold, grey misery.  We were completely skunked our first morning out, not a sighting, wind and waves, cold and wet.  The snorkeling center had transformed into a lunchroom in our absence.

We were warmed up by dinner, beginning with pumpkin soup, curry chicken (with taro) and rice, with soursap creme for dessert.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Rurutu

What a difference a day makes!  Although it was again rainy in the early morning hours, the morning showed promise of sunshine to come and puffy white clouds danced across the sky.  Almost from the moment we launched, this session was a success.  Beginning with watching a calf repeatedly breach to soon being able to slip into the water, this was a completely different experience.

This “toy” Olympus TG6 is smaller and easier to swim with; Steve elected to take it exclusively during our Rurutu humpback swims.

Our first swim landed us over a mother and calf pair down below, which gracefully and almost imperceptibly slowly rose to the surface to breath, with the calf taking a curiosity lap before the pair moved off.

Lift off! A humpback calf silently glides toward the surface and a breath, while mom remains down below, a dark shadow on the sea floor.

Surprisingly, although it remained overcast and we were soaking from the repeated swims, I wasn’t cold.  The effort of sometimes long swims to the line up certainly helped.  The hint of sun and the exhilaration of seeing these great creatures also helped.

A confident humpback calf makes social rounds in Rurutu.

We had planned an afternoon island tour, so arranged to pre-order our lunches before heading on to the boats.

Rurutu differs from much of French Polynesia, being surrounded by a fringing reef, offering relatively protected waters for humpback mothers to give birth and nurture their calves to migrating size.

Yves is a historian and knows a lot about Rurutu’s history: it was formed in successive volcanic eruptions, the first 12 million years ago, with later uplift raising up craggy limestone cliffs which formerly were ancient coral reefs.

A preview of the promontory concealing the monster cave a group of us later scaled on Rurutu, Australs, French Polynesia.

Rurutu is somewhat unusual in French Polynesia in that the inhabitants traditionally were cave-dwelling. Reflecting this lattice-like structure, Rurutu was formerly known in Polynesian as Eteroa, meaning “Large Basket”.  The current name, Rurutu, means “gushing rock” in Polynesian. It is the northernmost of the most southern island group, the Australs.

Rurutu is beautiful from the air: fringing reef, white sand beaches and lush vegetation.

Along our circumnavigation of the island, we visited a taro plantation, a cave and a nascent museum next to airport.

A taro field in Rurutu, Australs, French Polynesia.

Harvested taro, a staple crop of the South Pacific, ready to be transported to Tahiti.

The cave is known as Mitterrand’s Cave, as it was visited by the French president in 1990.

Beautiful stalagmites and formations in Rurutu’s most famous limestone cave, which warranted a presidential visit by Mitterrand in 1990.

Interior of Mitterrand’s cave, with ceiling holes through which cave-dwellers could communicate with their gods.

The traditional name of this cave is Ana a’eo.  It is easy to visit, as Cindi, Terrie, Les and I would learn the next afternoon when we headed out on a guided hike to a cave system requiring more nerve and muscle power.

An intimidating set of monster teeth, pillars of a cave an intrepid group of us would hike into during our Rurutu stay.

The last stop on our circumnavigating driving tour of the Rurutu was to visit this replica of A’a. The original wood carving, now in the collection of the British Museum and regarded as one of the finest examples of Polynesian sculpture extant, was presented by the people of Rurutu to a London Missionary Society group in 1821 to mark their conversion to Christianity. A’a is a god figure apparently in the process of creating gods and men, seen as the small figures which stud the body. Casts of the original were made available to other museums and influenced artists such as Henry Moore and Picasso, who had an A’a replica in his collection.

The figure of A’a is hollow, with a removable back panel, seen here.

Near the end of dinner of a tuna crepe and salad, unicorn fish and fruit salad, I became a little vagal, maybe a reaction to the universally panned unicorn fish or maybe, just too much excitement for one day?

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Rurutu

Even a baby humpback is impressive compared with a puny swimmer! (Rurutu, Australs, French Polynesia)

Our morning was one looong and satisfying swim, exhausting but exhilarating.  We spent the entire morning in the water, swimming with a mother and calf pair that moved a swimmable distance with most respiratory cycles, holding still for 2 cycles only once, towards the end of a long morning session.

Seeing eye to eye with a baby humpback whale is unforgettable! (Rurutu, Australs, French Polynesia)

Humpback calf, coming right toward me; its mother is the dark shadow down on the ocean floor.

 

The afternoon was equally exhausting and exhilarating, a beach and cave hike guided by two brothers in flip-flops, Reti and Joseph.

Into the limestone lattice structure of Rurutu’s caves with the fearless four: Terrie, Les, Cindi and me.

Cindi, Terrie, Les and I were the only takers for the hike, described variably as “sportif”, “easy” and “difficult”, depending on who was asked.  It definitely was physically demanding, up and down and through a craggy limestone cliff with multiple caves.

The craggy monster face of a limestone cave riddled promontory on Rurutu; we climbed up inside the eyes of the beast (below).

A room with columns inside the monster cave of Rurutu.

Very unusual limestone concretions and formations inside a Rurutu cave chamber, resembling a passel of snakes.

With our flip-flop shod guides, brothers Joseph and Reti, we (Cindi, Terrie and me) take a breather from the challenging climb into Rurutu’s cave (Les manned the camera).

We began on a beautiful white sand beach, traversed the latticed limestone fortress, and ended up walking through the opposite side in shallow water, where shell-encrusted sea urchins and elongated black sea cucumbers were abundant.

Looking out to sea from a craggy limestone cave we “conquered” with a lot of support from our guides in flip-flops.

Rurutu: nearly through a complex of limestone caves to our exit onto another beach.

Surprisingly, we only had minor injuries, the most potentially serious when Cindi squeezed through a narrow opening, while Les traversed the cliffside alternative.  Teasing him about beating him, she stood up too quickly, bonking her head on a small budding stalagtite.  When I emerged through the opening, she was bleeding from a gash in her forehead which had been already staunched by the guide with a mound of vegetal matter.   Terrie, a primary care physician from British Columbia who spent 3 years living in New Zealand, had mentioned the prior day seeing Maoris wrapping injuries in spider webs.  Moss was mentioned as another possibility.  Looking around, I didn’t see any moss, so asked the guide what they had used.

“Cigarette” was the answer.  Sooo…I guess tobacco does have some utility.

Women divers of a certain age…undaunted by craggy limestone, in Rurutu, Australs, French Polynesia.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Rurutu

A long morning of waiting and hoping, but no payoff.  We motored north farther than on past days.  One humpback proved elusive, disappearing near the shore and apparently never surfacing.  Clearly, it wasn’t inclined to be eyed by a bunch of colorful bobbers at the surface and beat a hasty underwater retreat.

The afternoon’s packing was broken up for me by a massage with Florian.  The table was deposited on our veranda and covered with a red floral tropical print, coordinating with my Fijian sarong, which served as a top sheet for this open-air, near-deep tissue, oil-intensive rubdown.

All told, we thoroughly enjoyed this leisurely segment of the trip.  Of four mornings devoted to searching for humpback whales, we lucked out on two.

Taking leave of the humpback whales and clear water of Rurutu sadly…

We felt bad for Dan, a young New York attorney with whom we lunched on our first day, who had seen only a fluke from the boat in 2 days’ outings.  The water clarity was superb, the island ringed with attractive beaches and riddled by caves, with a pleasant small pension with nice food (except the unicorn fish!) and easy beach access.  Of course, to be completely scientific about this, I can’t help wondering about Mo’orea, which is better known as a destination for snorkeling with humpback whales.  Our friends Bob and Debbie and Nancy and Gerry, who had inquired about this trip too late to join us, were trailing us by a week and headed to Mo’orea.  Facebook was soon showing it to be a productive destination for them for humpback encounters and more, which has my thoughts turning already to a return to FP in the hopefully not-too-distant future.

Coming soon(ish)! Part 2 of this trip, Rangiroa. A little preview to lure you back…or why we wanted to return so soon to Rangiroa.

Rangiroa’s resident dolphins are curious and interactive.

 

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3 thoughts on “French Polynesia, September 2019 (Part 1-Tahiti & Rurutu)

  1. Very nice! Thanks for adding to my wish list for more locations. Always good to see something new and off the beaten path. Great shots!

    I just got back from Beqa Lagoon and a trip on the Nai’a. No whales but we got close and personal with tiger sharks at Beqa. The second week on the Nai’a was spectacular too.

    Thanks

  2. It is, once again, difficult to express adequate appreciation for the images of your travels that you share with me, Steve and Marie but…
    First, I thank God for His creation. What an Artist!
    Second, a simple thanks to both of you for including me (via His waves and electrons!) through the amazing images you continue to secure for all these years!
    As I remember you saying “Imaging is in your blood”.
    Indeed!
    Love,
    Bill

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