Panama to Bora Bora
Article submitted to SSCA Bulletin in May 2003
We are now in our second season in the Society Islands and thought we would pass on information we have learned about scuba diving sites between Panama and Bora Bora. In a future article we hope to write about the Western Pacific dive sites. Ventana carries a small Bauer Jr. air compressor that fills a tank in about 18 minutes and for many of the areas we visited filling your own tanks (or buddy boating with someone with a compressor) is the only way to dive. In the Tuamotus gas was only available in a few places so take plenty of fuel for your dinghy and compressor motor. Unless otherwise noted in the text commercial dive operators and air fills were NOT available. In Tahiti and the Society Islands the dive operators usually but not always refused to fill tanks without a French hydro stamp. Rules varied from place to place and it was often difficult to tell if there really were rules or if they were just being French. In any event your chances will be improved if you have a a current VIP and hydro. In Tahiti the cost of getting the French hydro stamp was reportedly over $125.
Our first stop was Isla Cocos, Costa Rica. This is a National Park. Charges in Cocos are $15 per day per boat and $15 per day per person plus an additional $4 per day to dive. The diving is FANTASTIC and worth the trip and expense. Several of the dives there are drift dives or require someone to stay in the dinghy so it is handy to have two boats or extra crew to swap dinghy chores. We anchored in Wafer Bay and dove the rock at the entrance to the bay, Isla Manulita and Sucia Rock all of which were fantastic with hundreds of lobster, many white tip and scalloped hammerhead sharks, 4’ tuna and thousands of smaller fish everywhere. Dos Amigos rock was a bit of a disappointment but we did see many rays. (For additional information on Isla Cocos see the August 2002 SSCA bulletin).
Our next dive stop was Galapagos where there are many commercial dive operations. We did 2 dives at Gordon Rocks with a dive operator and found the water cold and visibility only 35’. We saw Galapagos sharks and black tip reef sharks and quite a few rays. During lunch two 12-foot bull sharks circled the dive boat.
Fatu Hiva-- We had nice diving along the wall about one half mile north of the Bay de Vierges anchorage where a small bay indents the cliff. Five foot tuna, turtles and large octopi.
Tauhuata –Off the point just south of the Hanna Moe Noe anchorage we played with several octopi that had bodies about 14” across- one inked us. We also saw several lionfish, stonefish and some large moray eels.
Hiva Oa- Several excellent dives on the large rock in the entrance to the bay (from a certain angle the rock looks like a silhouette of Dizzy Gillespie). We managed to hand place the dinghy anchor on the lee side of the rock and circumnavigate the rock then follow the rib that extends towards shore.
Nuka Hiva – We did not do any diving here but heard good reports about diving on the rock at the southwest entrance to the bay of Taiohae.
In most areas you will be on your own, however in Makemo, Fakarava and Rangiroa there are commercial operators who might fill tanks and who do offer dive trips and certification courses.
Diving the Passes
Drift diving in the passes of the Tuamotus is a special experience and for many will be the best diving you’ve ever seen. While the conditions are generally fantastic it does require some experience to be comfortable with fast drift dives. Diving with the big guys in the gray suits takes getting used to also – and there are hundreds of them.
If you are not ready for the drift dives then go outside the passes and dinghy along the outer reef about half a mile and you should find a safe place to drop the dinghy anchor and dive the wall free of the strong currents. The walls generally have fantastic coral, in general far healthier than we saw in the Caribbean. Wall dives are also excellent for when the current is flowing out all day long. We found the Cap’n 32 tide tables for Rangiroa to be reasonably accurate. Keep in mind that any heavy swells break over the reef and into the lagoon so the currents may flow out continuously trying to empty the lagoon regardless of the state of the tide. In most of the atolls slack tide may only last a few minutes and 10 minutes after slack the current may be 4 knots in the other direction. Many of the passes get 4’ standing waves with current against the sea conditions- this makes it difficult for dinghy drivers so be alert to such conditions.
Though I have been diving for over 30 years I am neither a dive master nor instructor. The following are my suggestions for diving the passes based upon my own experiences.
Dive the passes only on the incoming tide and the closer to slack water the better. Every diver should carry an orange rescue sausage and whistle or horn. Trail a float or be sure the surface conditions are calm enough to allow the dinghy driver to easily follow your bubbles. If your group gets separated everyone should surface immediately and regroup. You may want to get in the dinghy and begin again. Check the current direction and speed while you are still in the dinghy before you start your dive. Start your dive just outside the pass not in the middle where the current flow is strongest. Have everyone suit up with tanks on and be ready to roll over the side at exactly the same time. We found the best way to keep everyone together was by exiting the dinghy or dinghies together with propellers in neutral and BC’s deflated. Then immediately swimming down while keeping everyone in sight. People floating on the surface or slowly submerging were carried at a different speed and would often get separated. Diving in larger groups offers more opportunity to keep a shark lookout in 360 degrees. If you see something interesting and grab a rock to stop yourself, make certain that everyone in the group does so together. In fast currents it takes only seconds to carry your partners a long ways off. Fortunately the 200’ visibility helps keep everyone in sight.
The only injuries we have ever heard of all involve fishing so we make it a point never to fish or be anywhere near even a drop of blood in the water. After a few dives with the sharks you begin to calm down and you can watch for any aggressive behavior. Specific actions to be on the lookout for are circling closer and closer then facing you and putting the pectoral fins down very stiffly, or swimming with a sort of jerky motion as if they are shaking their shoulders. Bumping you is another serious sign. On one occasion we had a shark show aggressive behavior and it alternately swam right up to each of the three of us. Each one of us kicked it in the face with a fin and it backed off. We then departed the area quickly by letting the current take us on into the lagoon. Safety suggestions include keeping on the bottom, getting back to back with others so you can see in all directions (watch your 6 as the fighter pilots say), put your elbows out a bit and try to look bigger and try not to surface when you are near any sharks. Ascending in the open water feels very vulnerable so try to do it away from any of the big boys. On one occasion I had surfaced and was floating next to the dinghy for about 4 minutes watching the two divers still down when I was bumped by a reef shark who had not been anywhere nearby a moment before. Most of the sharks we saw were reef sharks but at times we did see lemons, silkys, dusky and bull sharks- all more aggressive. In general the farther into the lagoon you go the less sharks you will see.
Slack tide seemed to be two hours after Rangiroa low and one and a half hours after Rangiroa High. This is one of the best pass dives in the Tuamotus and we dove it quite a few times. We saw from 50-150 sharks on every dive as well as 4-foot groupers, tuna, large parrotfish and many smaller species. We also had excellent diving on the walls outside the pass.
There is a small dive operation here and two boys on sv Kela got certified here. We had standing waves at the time of Rangiroa high and for several hours afterwards on the day we arrived at the East pass. We never dove this pass. The West pass at Makemo is excellent and the walls outside are spectacular. Anchoring is difficult near the west pass with coral heads coming up 15 feet off the bottom to grab your anchor whichever way you swing. The walls were better than the pass and we found the south wall the best. Lots of large pelagic fish here- tuna weighing two hundred pounds, silky sharks and two 60 lb. Cubera snappers that followed us one entire dive like lost puppies.
We spent one calm night anchored outside off Tepoto, which has no pass entrance. The wall was so steep that it was like throwing your anchor against the Empire State building. I had to dive down and place the anchor by hand but the two dives to set and retrieve the anchor were stupendous. The healthiest coral anywhere and teeming with fish. The wall was so steep that the anchor was in 20 feet of water and the stern in over 300’.
We did several dives on the walls outside Teavatapu pass as well as a drift dive in the pass. Our favorite was the wall to the east of the pass. On one pass dive we started during the last 15 minutes of the incoming tide. Slack tide lasted 5 minutes and 10 minutes after the tide change the outgoing current was raging and there were 8-foot standing waves in the pass entrance. In this case surfacing IMMEDIATELYis essential to avoid being swept out the pass where the dinghy would have great difficulty finding you.
We missed Toau but sv Lady Starlight and sv Bali Ha’i both reported this as a fantastic stop and possibly the best dive in the Tuamotus. From Amyot go outside the pass and approximately 1 mile north past the point, where two canyons descend to over 230’ and you can swim down one and back up the other. No night diving as tiger sharks have been caught there. There is also excellent snorkeling and the locals are very friendly here.
There are dive shops at both passes here but they will only fill French certified tanks. Neither shop is reported to be cruiser friendly. They will take you diving after a checkout dive. We did not dive here but s/v Lady Starlight reports the North pass is a dangerous pass and that last year the local dive shop lost divers who spent nearly 24 hours floating in the lagoon even though they were diving on the inflowing tide. Nice diving on the walls outside with manta rays. Fakarava’s south pass is reported to be excellent diving with hundreds of sharks during their breeding season in May. Also sightings of manta rays, napoleon wrasse and barracuda. A diver was reportedly lost last year diving on the outgoing tide.
There are several commercial dive operators here and they have made diving this atoll world famous and justifiably so. Rangiroa was Dee’s first post certification dive about 20 years ago and we were anxious to go back and see if it was as great as we remembered. It was still wonderful but the truth is that the other atolls are better diving. The dive magazines don’t write about them because no one but cruisers with their own compressors ever get to see them. Our first pass dive in Rangiroa was a bust and we saw very little so on the next try we received some guidance from one of the commercial dive boats and had a much better dive. The walls outside were interesting as well. Just inside Tiputa pass is a fantastic snorkeling area called the aquarium.
Tahiti and the Society Islands
We did not do any diving in Tahiti though there are a number of sites. There are commercial operators in all the major Society Islands. There is also a guidebook available showing the major dive sites in the touristy areas of French Polynesia. This would be the best place to get tanks French certified. There is one dive operation in the Maeva Beach marina and another just north of there who may be able to do this for you. Downtown near Nautisport is PolyIndustrial who can tumble tanks.
In Moorea like Rangiroa and all the Society Islands the dive operators feed the sharks, morays, stingrays, turtles and other fish. It assures that their clients see lots of action but of course alters the creature’s natural behavior. An excellent dive here is on the buoys just east of the entrance to Opunohu Bay. There are half a dozen buoys strung out along the reef here or you can also drop your dinghy anchor in the sand if need be. The buoys are sometimes hard to see but if you continue east along the reef you will come upon them. Besides the sharks and turtles expecting handouts the highlights are the Opunohu Canyons and The Roses – plate corals that look like giant roses at about 100 feet. There is also good snorkeling between the anchorage and the east end of the public beach. Another adventure is to dinghy from Opunohu to the first green marker past the Intercontinental hotel. Anchor on the reef side of the marker in 5 feet of water and get in to snorkel with the stingrays. Dozens of them will swim up within arms reach expecting to be fed. If you comply you can pet them and play with them.
We tried two dives on Toahotu pass and have to report that both were unimpressive with only 25’ visibility and not much sea life. We did see garden eels inside in the vicinity of the fish traps in only 35’ of water.
There are several dive sites inside the lagoon that are easily accessible from dinghies as well as one site just outside the entrance to the pass to the South. All sites have mooring balls on them and should be easy to find. We found the visibility inside the lagoon a bit disappointing. Near the Southwest tip of the lagoon is Topua Iti motu. There is a drift dive on the Southeast corner of the motu that the dive boats do daily. Jump in the water by the green mark and drift towards the yellow and black marker. You will go right past a good snorkeling area with lots of mooring balls marking it. On the East side of Bora Bora you can anchor North of the Meridien hotel in 8-12 feet near 16 29.1S and 151 42.4W and you will see several mooring balls on the reef to the West. Diving here is reportedly worthwhile for the dozens of manta rays that cruise the channel. We wer told to go to the sandy area off the wall in 75 feet of water. Unfortunately on the day we tried it visibility was very poor and we saw no mantas. It may be a dive where local knowledge is helpful. The chart shows a small boat pass through the reef just east of here but we were unable to get through to the wall outside.
It is important to note that we found most of these great dive sites on our own with little outside input. You can do the same so please do not rely on this article as more than a minor roadmap. Get out and explore and you will no doubt find places even better than we did.
Commodores Rob (KG4PMZ) and Dee (KG4AYO) Dubin
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