Bora Bora, in French Polynesia, is impossibly beautiful. It is Fantasy Island come to life; it is every tropical postcard you’ve ever seen, but in three dimensions. Craggy, jungle-covered volcanic slopes jut dramatically out of the South Pacific, surrounded by azure lagoons filled with the clearest waters I’ve ever seen. A halo of coral reefs protects the island and ensures endless, abundant sea life. It’s like a movie set, really.
And it is popular. As you make your way around the tiny island, you find it peppered with thatch-roofed villas, supported on posts directly over the crystal waters. These quaint little huts, offered by big-name operators like Hilton, Hyatt and the like, will run you several thousand dollars… per night.
We were in considerably more affordable digs: our diesel-powered floating hotel pulled up just as the sun was rising, and anchored in the centre of the great lagoon that surrounds the island. I was all too aware that this isn’t the kind of place you visit every day—not in my tax bracket, anyway—and I wanted to make the most of what was almost certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
We made our way to shore and discovered a number of local companies offering excursions. We chose one that looked reasonable, jogged off to the local bank to get some francs (of the Pacific variety; the Euro hasn’t made it here yet) and hopped aboard our small craft with a dozen or so other tourists.
Our guide for the day was Will, an expatriate Frenchman. Will was a cheerful host and a capable captain. I suspect he does well with tips, his charm and exceptional good looks making up for his ignorance of marine life. (Me: “Will, do you know what species of stingray these are?” “Yes, they are stingrays.” “Uh, ok thanks.”)
Off we motored together, spinner dolphins leaping alongside us through the harbour. Our itinerary included snorkelling in three different locales, and a stop for snacks on a secluded beach.
Our first stop was an anchorage in about thirty feet (10m) of clear blue water. Will announced that we would be snorkelling with sharks, which was a first for me. Some of the other visitors were a bit alarmed at the prospect, but I was nearly beside myself with excitement. At the Vancouver Aquarium we held daily dives with black-tipped reef sharks, and I, not being a certified diver, had to sit out the fun. Now was my chance to hang out with them in their natural habitat, and I threw myself into it, literally.
There must have been at least a dozen of them swimming around us, along with hundreds of elegant black triggerfish. Black-tipped reef sharks reach almost two metres in size, but most of these characters were smaller. They circled lazily around us like stray dogs looking for scraps; I’m sure this is where they get fed regularly. What struck me most was their grace in the water, and the beauty of the grey and white striping along their sides. Will had mentioned that we might see a much bigger lemon shark swimming deep below us, and sure enough, it lumbered by. Lemon sharks aren’t generally dangerous—there have been a few attacks recorded, but none fatal—but this fish was big and I was more than willing to give it a healthy zone of solitude. Of course, someone else in our party felt the need to dive down and try to pull its tail. No violence ensued, but I couldn’t help but think, “Hmm, paging Mr. Darwin…”
I felt protective of that lemon shark. The sharks of the world are in trouble and have been for some time. Shark-finning (the practice of hacking the dorsal fin off a live shark and leaving it to die) is still very common practice, despite all the public education efforts in recent years, and shark-fin soup can still be had in many restaurants around the world. Recently a 150-nation agreement protected the five most beleaguered shark species; it’s a huge step forward but Canada, I’m ashamed to report, didn’t sign. At any rate, I was glad to see so many visitors to Bora Bora exposed to gentle, small sharks in the wild, to see first-hand how beautiful these ancient creatures are.
Next stop was the “coral garden”, a very shallow lagoon where the reef sharks are joined by some very large and bold stingrays. It turns out they were pink whiptail stingrays, exceptionally long-tailed members of the same group of fishes that rose to fame a few years ago with poor Steve Irwin’s demise. Despite that tragedy, they are docile creatures, and once habituated to feeding (as these clearly were,) they’re perfectly at ease swimming right up against you, and rearing up upon you like some ill-mannered aquatic golden retriever. It’s a bit alarming, I can tell you—these things are huge. A couple of the others remarked that these stingrays “had no stingers” but I certainly saw them. Stingrays have a very small, subtle stinger located about 1/4 of the way down the tail—I suspect most people expect to see them as a prominent arrowhead at the very end of the long tail, devil-style.
At any rate, watching these giant fish skimming over the bottom was exciting. They are amazingly graceful creatures— the most subtle flick of their wings propels them forward as they forage for crustaceans in the sand. in fact, they spend a fair bit of time half-buried there; they can settle in under the substrate with just their eyes poking out, and many unfortunate people make their sudden acquaintance by stepping on them. On our ship was a woman from California who had recently stepped on a small stingray there. She said the pain of the sting was extreme, and her foot swelled up for days to the point where she couldn’t walk at all. A doctor prescribed cortisone, which brought the pain and swelling down immediately. Good to know.
Our next stop on our tour was a coral reef, where the fish were unbelievably abundant. The coral itself was beautiful, though it wasn’t as diverse nor as healthy as I had hoped. Recent storms (and careless snorkelers) had broken a fair bit of it, but more alarming were the brown and dying sections here and there. I don’t know if local pollution is the culprit; global warming and ocean acidification are also taking their toll worldwide.
But the fish were fantastic, and I was excited to reacquaint myself with kinds of fish I haven’t seen in five years, the last time I snorkelled in the Caribbean. Triggerfish, tangs, wrasses, damsels and butterfly fishes were everywhere. There was a mild current in the water, and I swam forward for a while and then just let myself drift back, watching and photographing the sea life. Clearly somebody feeds the fish here; the tangs and damsels swam right up in my face before leaving empty-handed. (Empty-finned? Mouthed? Anyway.)
Snorkelling really tires you out, and after a few hours I was bagged. We made our way to the shoreline where we hopped out of the boat and waded to a sandy beach for a mini-feast of coconut, bananas and pineapple—tiny, sweet, local pineapples that put any grocery-store variety to shame.
A half-hour later, we were back in port. We had planned to walk around the town and see the sights, but my sunburned shoulders wanted shade, and I needed a serious nap. We bid Bora Bora goodbye. It’s the closest thing to a pure tropical paradise I have ever seen.