French Polynesia, September 2019 (Part 2-Rangiroa)

Friday, September 27, 2019

Rurutu to Tahiti to Rangiroa

This travel day began early, at 5:45 am, with Greg’s voice in the darkness, saying he was going to fly.  I mobilized eventually and headed to the beach park across the street from Le Manotel with the drone and my phone.  Greg had his drone aloft already and was able to capitalize on a trio of humpbacks offshore, presumably a mother, calf and escort.  Not having flown for a while or on this trip, it took me longer to assemble the drone and I wasted time searching for a 4X neutral density filter, which it turns out we don’t own (what I would have used at this hour and light level with our old drone).

Eventually, I managed to launch the drone but didn’t try to chase the whales aerially.

Rurutu: The beach across the street from Le Manotel, nothing but golden sand.

There was still breakfast to wolf down and last minute packing to finish and suitcases to wheel out to the waiting vehicles.

At the airport, the open air pavilion had a festive and floral aspect as many of the Polynesian passengers were fully decked out in exuberant leis and and flower-bedecked straw hats.

Dressing up for flying isn’t dead after all (flying from Rurutu to Tahiti).

Even the plane was fragrant with floral notes and the search for overhead storage required some creative rearrangement of these creations-definitely not the usual assortment of bags and backpacks.

It took a little creative rearrangement to make room for our camera cases among these botanical souvenirs overhead.

The steward was unusually jovial and had the passengers tittering during the safety demonstration.
There isn’t much flying direct from one island to another in French Polynesia, so from Rurutu our plane stopped first in another Austral Island before winging it north to the capital.

In Papeete, a woman was waiting with a sign “Eilenbug”, one version of our name we’ve never seen before.  I handed over a forgotten dive computer left by a guest, another Marie, who proceeded us at the relais.  Steve had been confounded by the name, which he last encountered in Chile staying at the Awasi Atacama, a Relais & Chateaux.

A delightful breeze greeted us at another relais, not a chateau, but pleasant enough, le Relais de Josephine. Josephine herself was not in evidence, but we received a warm welcome from Severine, her lovely daughter.

The deck at le relais de Josephine, flanked by molded orange armchairs, the perfect launch spot for the drone. The roofs of our bungalows just peek out from the foliage.

As I concluded my underwater camera construction, shouts rang out from the weathered wood deck at the waterfront-dolphins were leaping in the channel in front of the hotel.

The channel in front of relais de Josephine is frequented by dolphins and was our primary Rangiroa dive site.

At last my heavy, long and bulky 100-400 mm lens got a workout.  I had brought it with an eye to topside whale breaches and behaviors, but the lack of cover or protection on the barebones Rurutu boat (covered but no other amenities) had kept it in the camera backpack until now.

Dinner was a mollusk carpaccio, mahi mahi curry with bananas and rice and a chocolate cake with a texture I guessed as steamed.

Saturday, September 28, 2019


Yesterday’s plane flights enabled me to finish the book for my upcoming bookclub, Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing, which had me crying at altitude.  Kya, the protagonist, is a reclusive young woman who lives in a marsh on the North Carolina coast.  Having to fend for herself nearly her entire life, she lives close to the rhythms of the lagoon and sea and becomes a close observer of the lives of the creatures who make their home in the marsh.  She spends many nights on the beach and makes her way by boat, so it seemed peculiarly appropriate to awake here in our oceanfront thatch-roof wooden bungalow, with the roar of the swirling and seemingly chaotic water enveloping us mere feet away.

Greg was already creeping about at first light, which cast a warm yellow gold glow on the vegetation.
I took the drone for a flight over the channel, after Greg showed me the correct way to calibrate the compass.  A few frigates passed close by.

Atolls are at their most beautiful from the air (Rangitroa, Tuamotos, French Polynesia).

This trip has been overshadowed by the specter of Greg’s father falling gravely ill just before our trip.  Although he’d been well enough to travel on a family trip to Alaska in mid-August, visit his sister in LA afterwards and head up to their remote Canadian cabin, he had felt bad enough to drive 14 hours straight back to Chicago, landing in the hospital with heart failure and requiring a panoply of medical interventions.

dive 1: 95 ft, 56 min
dive 2: 95 ft, 43 min

dive 3: 85 ft, 50 min

Our group of Steve, Greg, Kate and me went with Charles as guide (and Nicolas as a spotter in the blue).  Dive 1, on the outside reef, ended near the corner.  It began with a turtle,  a good start.

Turtle, Rangiroa, Tuamotos, French Polynesia.

A pod of dolphins swam through us briefly.

Kate with dolphin mother and child, in Rangiroa, Tuamotos, French Polynesia

Steve and dolphins, Rangiroa, Tuamotos, French Polynesia.

For our second dive, we began on the outside reef, closer to corner, and ended with a brisk, current-bourn ride into the channel, ending opposite Josephine.

A female dolphin who enjoys human contact came by for a few minutes of interaction.

Our guide Nicolas gently strokes a female dolphin’s tail; the dolphins of Rangiroa seem to enjoy human contact.

Nicolas pointed out a pair of eels.

Eel neighbors in Rangiroa, Tuamotos, French Polynesia. A banded shrimp waits nearby for the call for cleaning services.

Towards the end,  in the shallows, swirly and squirrelly currents awaited.

TopDive ran us back to Josephine’s for a quick lunch of tarte salée (zucchini quiche) and salad for me, panini and salad for Steve and bagel and salmon sandwich and salad for Greg.

The afternoon dive was technical, hanging onto “the shelf” beyond the point, where we could see many distant grey reef sharks.  A hammerhead came in for a quick fly-by.  Letting go of the shelf brought us quickly into the channel, very quickly, almost scary fast at some points.

When we were in the shallows, our female dolphin friend reappeared for a round of scratches before the current tugged us away.

Dolphin mother and child come by to check us out in Rangiroa, Tuamotos, French Polynesia.

The evening’s dinner of fish carpaccio, parrotfish with a gratin of sweet potato, and a killer lemon tart was set off by a hilarious interchange between Terrie, a Canadian primary care doctor from Vancouver and Greg:

Terrie:  (seated halfway down the long table seating 14) “Greg, what’s that on your computer?  Something red with hair around it?  A butthole?”

Greg (seated at the end of the long table, 10 feet or so away from Terrie, looks up astonished, having no idea what’s she talking about:  “Whaaat???!”

Terrie (gesturing to the back of his computer, which shows an image something like this):

Something red, surrounded by hair…a Japanese macaque, NOT a butthole!

Terrie: “That, what is that?  I don’t have my glasses on.”

I glanced over, caught sight of the Japanese macaque photo which adorns the exterior of Greg’s laptop and realized what Terrie was referencing.  Of course, Steve and I were with Greg in Japan in winter when he took the image.
Greg (indignant):  “THAT is a monkey!”
Les (seated between them, gets in the act, graphically demonstrating):  “Whaaat, a butt selfie?! That’d be a belfie!”
I laughed so hard my abdominal muscles were aching and I was in real danger of peeing my pants.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Rangiroa, Steve’s 62cd birthday

dive 1: 89 ft, 45 min
dive 2: 89 ft, 57 min
dive 3: 92 ft, 55 min

Our day started later, with a 9:40 am pickup.  We started with a reef dive, notable for a large school of convict tangs fraternizing with triggerfish.

A huge school of convict tangs, a type of surgeonfish,  hovers over the reef in Rangiroa, Tuamotos, French Polynesia.

The second dive did most everyone in, starting with a long swim against current, with plans to finish by drifting to The Aquarium.  Steve was ahead of Charles and didn’t hear him banging on his tank trying to steer him away from the canyon he was heading for; we had no choice but to follow him.

Greg didn’t dive; his father having opted for palliative care, he was making arrangements to fly home.  It turned out he couldn’t fly out until Tuesday, as international flights to the US are not daily.  Kate was sitting out ear issues.

The third dive was a twilight dive with Enzo.  Only me, Steve, Lois and Quentin were takers.  I ended up really enjoying the dive, particularly the dappled light on the shallow hard coral garden.

Late afternoon on the reef, Rangiroa, Tuamotos, French Polynesia

A female dolphin made social rounds among the 3 groups in the water, but it was dark and not a great shooting situation for me.  At the corner, sharks and fish in profusion were speeding busily by, an aquatic equivalent to the Tokyo’s dizzying Shibuya Crossing.

Sleek and graceful dolphins, a highlight of diving Rangiroa’s channel.

Pineapple cake appeared with candles for Steve’s birthday after a dinner of marlin sashimi, beef with crispy potatoes and haricots vert.

Monday, September 30, 2019


dive 1: 110 ft, 50 min
dive 2: 87 ft, 65 min

dive 3: 77 ft, 60 min

It turned out that Greg couldn’t fly out until the following day, so he re-built his camera and joined us.  Kate’s ear was improved, so we were again a group of 4 with Charles. (Charles’ favorite approbation: “Niiiice!” (with a strong French accent)).   The other 2 groups were in close proximity, thanks to the dolphins making periodic, fleeting appearances.<

Sebastien found us a stonefish buried in a coral head towards the end of the dive.  A butterfly fish blocked my view of it momentarily, but it blended so well into the coral of the bommie in which it was concealed, it was hard to recognize it as a fish.

A perfectly camouflaged stonefish hides in plain sight, Rangiroa, Tuamotos, French Polynesia.  Still searching?  It’s just to the left and below the central patch of pink, with an upside down frown of a mouth and an eye giving it away.

We were done around 10 am and our second dive wasn’t until 2:30 pm, so we headed back to Josephine’s to relax.  A group headed by Cindi took the bicycles to check out the Kia Ora.

My hyperstimulated appetite was sated by the assiette, with lightly smoked fish on toast, in addition to the quiche (broccoli) and salad.

We had an unexpected visitor during the afternoon dive, a white manta,  which soared over our group’s heads for a close but thrilling and too brief visitation.

It’s unusual for a manta to come so close in the wild, outside of a cleaning station (Rangiroa, Tuamotos, French Polynesia).

The ride into the channel was a brisk whisk, ducking into and out of two shallow adjacent caves.  Greg had us laughing describing Steve’s abrupt arrival into a fish-filled cavern as akin to the forest fire in Bambi, where all the animals run out as one ahead of the fire.

Eels and schooling surgeonfish were the highlight of our twilight dive.

White-spotted surgeonfish (Acanthurus guttatus) dance in the late afternoon over a hard coral garden, Rangiroa, Tuamotos, French Polynesia.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019


Greg’s dad died overnight on the day Greg was to start his return trip home.  Weirdly, both Barb and I found ourselves thinking the unusual manta visitation the prior day was an aquatic farewell.

A white-winged apparition (manta ray), Rangiroa, Tuamotos, French Polynesia.

dive 1: 85 ft, 57 min
dive 2: 77 ft, 59 min

The interaction between dolphins (presumably mother and child) is touching (Rangiroa, Tuamotos, French Polynesia).

We did 2 morning dives with Enzo.  Dolphins buzzed us on the first and there were many schools of small barracuda in the blue.

TopDive divemaster Enzo and barracuda school in Rangiroa, Tuamotos, French Polynesia

Humpback snappers (Lutjanus gibbus) were also abundant in Fakarava, where they formed tight tornado-like whorls.

The second was notable for groups of pennant bannerfish and parrotfish aggregations, with spawning swoops overhead.

Pennant bannerfish face into the current in Rangiroa, Tuamotos, French Polynesia.

Linda asked me to take a shot of her with “a fish”.  She proved to be an uncooperative subject, but I did manage to capture her close encounter with a dolphin:

A dolphin send-off for Linda from Rangiroa, French Polynesia.

Our afternoon dive started out mellow, sleepy even.  I discovered I had no battery.  I made a classic beginning videographer error earlier, inadvertently leaving the video on, ended up with a 58 minute long video with scintillating rinse tank sequences.

The current swept us into the cave, in a much more controlled fashion than on the prior day’s visit.  We drifted across the canyon, where we found a white-tip shark patrolling a throng of fishes.  It was a very fun ride to finish off our stay in Rangiroa.

Barb had strange lower extremity symptoms arriving back to the dock, as if her leg was disconnected from her body.  She sought local medical advice, which included a review of her computer’s dive log and a police inquiry.  Papeete was consulted, and it was decided she should stay out of water for 10 days/the rest of the trip in case it was decompression sickness.

Happy hour was on our ocean-front deck.  Everyone brought the snacks, drinks and alcohol which had accumulated from the local store but were too heavy to transport to Fakarava and crowded onto the deck. Serious inroads were made into the stocks.  The following day we would be off to our last atoll, Fakarava, the final leg of this Polynesian idyll.  Stay tuned!

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