BORA BORA, FRENCH POLYNESIA — Here, family is the single most important thing in the lives of the locals. We experience that first-hand when we see Maui Taati in the blue and white outrigger Keishi as he approaches the dock with two passengers, his wife Nina and 6-year-old son Kenji. They helped him get the Keishi ready by packing the food and supplies for our tour and now disembark — off to visit family on Bora Bora for the day.
Maui greets us with a huge smile and beckons us on board. Nina and Kenji hold the boat as we climb aboard for our Motu Picnic Adventure and Circle Island Tour. They wave and shout goodbye as we leave — as if we were best friends — a warm, caring, open trait that we’ve come to love on these islands.
As we depart the pier — marina would be too large a word to properly describe this facility — we pick up speed as we skim along the surface of the turquoise water, on one side the bright red outrigger pontoon clashes with the beautiful multi-hued greens and blues that play out as far as the eye can see. On the other we face the majesty of rugged Bora Bora. Ahead lays the Tapu area, known for schools of Blacktip reef and solitary lemon sharks. Cruise lines and local dive operators bring scuba divers here for close up shark dives to experience the Blacktip Reef sharks mid-water and the Lemon sharks patrolling the bottom.
Above: Swimming beside a school of sharks off Bora Bora is a heart-thumping experience - just don't get too close.
We will be snorkeling at the surface and hope to see some Blacktips along with other resident fish. Maui lays out a line behind the boat to catch fish as we get closer to Tapu. Most will be used for bait – shark food. If he is lucky enough to catch the right fish, it will be part of our lunch.
We slow as we get to the right spot. Maui starts to chop up the fish he’s caught as we near the anchor point.
“Are you ready to swim with the sharks?” he deadpans, and then smiles “They’re harmless.”
We see dark shapes darting quickly from one side to another, down under the boat as Maui casts the anchor. He tells us they know this is a stop for him and know they’ll get fed when he anchors. More will come once he starts to feed them.
My wife, Lorraine, refuses steadfastly.
“You go” she says to me, “I’ll watch.”
Suddenly I remember that she was insistent on increasing my life insurance policy prior to this trip. Or maybe it was just my mind playing tricks.
Maui throws the first bits of fish bait into the water and we see four, maybe five sharks swarm the area and scoop up their snacks. He beckons me towards the ladder at the back of the boat.
The. Time. Is. Now.
I enter, knowing that — generally speaking — these are safe sharks; however, I am still nervous. But, I tell myself, this is what I came here to do; so I get in the water, and pray.
The water is warm. Like a bath. And calm. Somehow that is soothing and I’m not as nervous as I was when on the boat. I snorkel around, looking quickly in every direction, a little disappointed that the sharks seemed to have gone away after their snack. I consciously try not to play the theme music from Jaws in my head as I snorkel in the open ocean in an area well known for its sharks.
I see something hit the surface of the water just ahead. Maui is throwing more snacks. Suddenly there are more sharks swimming every which way. Fast. So, so fast. Left, right, up, down. They are everywhere … but they are ignoring me. They really don’t care that I’m there at all, focused so intently on the easy food as more snacks get thrown in. I can’t count how many sharks I’m surrounded by — maybe 12 to 15, Maui later suggests.
Emboldened, I swim towards them and with them, although my clumsy attempts with my flippered feet pales in comparison with their hydrodynamically designed bodies that nature has fine-tuned over millions of years.
I frolic with the sharks for what seems like only a few minutes. Maui and Lorraine finally get me to reluctantly come back on board after 20 minutes. WOW. What a rush! And I still have 10 fingers and 10 toes.
Above: Bora Bora’s iconic Mount Otemanu is never far out of sight.
On board, as I tell my grand tales of my intimate interaction with the “large” sharks, Maui laughs and tells us we’re headed to the Coral Gardens to do some more snorkeling, without the man-eaters present. This area is called Piti U’u after the small motu (islet) right nearby. It is a veritable aquarium of small fish and coral.
After a stop at Matira where we were delighted to swim with stingrays in waist-deep water, we anchor for lunch at Tehura — the lagoon of a remote, private motu called Motu Roa.
The water here at Tehura is calm, the sky deep blue. A few billowy clouds drift across the sky giving us glimpses of momentary shade when the clouds obscure the sun. Exploring the deserted beach we can see the signature peak of Bora Bora’s Mount Otemanu not that far away.
Meanwhile, Maui sets up an old-school circular charcoal grill BBQ right in the water and gets it lit with expert precision. He has a patio table and two chairs he sets up with an umbrella — again, right in the water. A linen tablecloth, classy flatware and a wine chiller for the champagne all serve to set the stage for our romantic private motu lunch.
Eventually we are beckoned back from our explorations to have lunch. We sit, the warm water at thigh height, and are served a feast to remember. After a fresh salad, we are treated to poisson cru, a local delicacy to die for. Made of fresh diced tuna, it is marinated in lime juice, coconut milk, cucumber and scallions. It just melts in your mouth.
We sip champagne under the umbrella and talk about nothing in particular as Maui cooks the rest of our feast.
The main course comes soon enough: lobster, steak (cooked perfectly to order), chicken, fresh swordfish and roast potatoes. Hmmmmm. Did I already say “To Die For?” Finally — the perfect encore — an island dessert plate of papaya, banana and pineapple.
Above: The fish you were swimming with a few moments earlier now appears on your plate - talk about fresh!
Now totally sated, we climb aboard for the last part of our adventure; a circle island tour en route back to the pier.
As we pick up speed, the warmth, sun, sea, champagne and food conspire to relax us so much we feel like we’re in a dream. Maui points out many sites as we pass them — Mount Hua on the far left and Mount Pahia to its right, standing guard beside the majestic and iconic Mount Otemanu.
We pass Motu Toopua, home to the infamous overwater bungalows of the Hilton Bora Bora Nui Resort and Spa. Later we view the St. Regis Resort and Spa, home to the 2009 movie Couples Resort starring Vince Vaughan.
However, Maui tells us that the recession has taken its toll on tourism here.
“The past few years have really been up and down for us.
“Last high season was the first year we really saw things pick up after several years of very slow business. Last high season we had on average five tours a week. Low season we had a tour once a week.”
Maui’s family is happier now that the economy is seeing an upturn after a few years of just barely getting by. Traditionally with most of their customers being American or from Japan, they are happy to be seeing more Canadian and Spanish visiting this year. •