The ultimate guide to diving in French Polynesia

If you’ve never been diving in French Polynesia, you’re missing out on one of greatest dive spots in the world. Big fish, rich biodiversity, and endless coral reefs — it’s got it all.

It was Micha who got me interested in diving. She already had a good number of dives under her weight belt when we met, and is always looking for opportunities to dive.

My first series of dives was in the Caribbean, which was a fantastic place to learn. However, it wasn’t until I went diving in French Polynesia that I had my first “aha” moment.

What blew me away were the intense biodiversity and the big fish. Up until this point, the largest fish I’d seen underwater was a relatively small blacktip reef shark. When diving in French Polynesia, blacktips look like guppies compared to some of the larger lemon and grey sharks that are common here.

Diving in French Polynesia, a South Pacific island paradise

Many incorrectly assume that French Polynesia is Tahiti, Bora Bora and perhaps a couple of other islands. When in fact, the island nation consists of 118 islands and atolls stretching over an expanse of more than 2,000 km / 1,200 mi.

Bora Bora beach

Private island beach time on Bora Bora

What’s really fascinating is if you look at French Polynesia on Google maps totally zoomed out, you see mostly blue. This side of our planet is mainly open ocean, and most of the islands and atolls in the South Pacific are so tiny, you won’t see them until you zoom way in.

The islands of French Polynesia are divided into five groups:

  • the Society Islands
  • the Tuamotu Archipelago
  • the Gambier Islands
  • the Marquesas Islands and
  • the Austral Islands.

It would take a lifetime to dive all the islands here, so we focused on the Society Islands and the Tuamotu Archipelago. These are the islands most frequented by divers, and as such there are a number of diver centers scattered around. Here’s a quick overview of the highlights on each island:

Diving in French Polynesia’s Society Islands

Tahiti

This main island is where all international flights land, but Tahiti is way more than just a gateway to Bora Bora. There is a lot to do and see on Tahiti, so you should spend a couple of days there. The island has a lot of easy dive sites, making it a great place to refresh your skills or get certified and jump start your French Polynesian diving experience if you’re a newbie.

It’s a populated island, so you won’t find the kind of biodiversity you would find in the remote Tuamotus (my favorite place), but the rather high density of civilization means there are a lot of wrecks, including some downed planes to explore.

Tahiti Teahupoo beach

Beach time with a mountain view on Tahiti

Bora Bora

Bora Bora is overwater bungalows and so much more. It’s a honeymooners’ paradise, and probably has the most iconic island silhouette in the world. The lagoon here is otherworldly, and so is the underwater world.

I encountered my first big predators here, two rather harmless lemon sharks that were about 3 m/10 ft long. The sharks did make we a little nervous. However, the 10 blacktips I saw just before on the same dive helped acclimate me to these amazing predators.

The most awesome encounter I had in Bora Bora was with some much more gentle, though large, creatures. We were snorkeling near a coral head when suddenly out of nowhere four manta rays glided by. It was such an amazing sight that I almost forgot about having put a fishing hook through my thumb the day before (my biggest catch ever).

diving in French Polynesia: manta ray in Bora Bora

One of the four manta rays we encountered while snorkeling in Bora Bora

If you are a good snorkeler and want to bring a true Polynesian souvenir with you, you might want to try something really unique and dive for your own pearls in Bora Bora.

Moorea

Moorea is Tahiti’s overlooked, stunning neighbor. Like at Bora Bora, you dive in an impossibly beautiful turquoise-green-cerulean lagoon which circles the island.

We found plenty of whitetips, blacktips, lemon and grey sharks in some of the underwater canyons we explored. Some of the greys got a little too much for me when they circled me during my safety stop. Our guide later told me they are just curious, but to me it looked like they were sizing me up for lunch.

Another curious, but much less intimidating, animal we encountered were the many stingrays you find in these lagoons. Unfortunately, many of the tour guides feed them, so they tend to swarm around you in large numbers looking for a hand out.

Moorea stingrays

Friendly stingrays in Moorea’s lagoon

Raiatea

Raiatea was where I did my very first wreck dive. We dived the Norby, a 60-meter long 1920’s Danish three-mast ship that sunk in 1990. The hull and rigging are intact and two of the three masts are still in place. The wooden deck, now rotted away, allowed easy access to explore the inside of the ship where we “surfaced” in a pocket of trapped air.

While French Polynesia is known for big fish, the sea life growing on the hull of the Nordby allowed for some awesome mini exploration — lots of colorful crab, shrimp, Christmas tree worms and nudibranchs.

Tetiaroa

The atoll Tetiaroa was Marlon Brando’s South Pacific private island paradise and served as his retreat from the Hollywood craziness. Still owned by the Brando estate, it’s now a high end resort. Due to its amazing beauty, location and restricted access, it’s one of the most expensive resorts in the world. If you’re willing to pay the price, you or your group will likely have the diving all to yourself:

Tetiaroa lagoon driftwood

Driftwood in the incredibly blue lagoon of Tetiaroa

Diving in French Polynesia’s Tuamotu Archipelago

After exploring the Society Islands we headed off to dive in the atolls of the Tuamotus. Atolls are reefs that once circled islands. Over millions of years, the islands sunk back into the sea and the reefs rose above the water to create tiny islands called motus that circle the large lagoon where the island used to be.

The Tuamotus are so remote, clean and unspoiled, one finds both an enormous density and variety of marine life here. Because of this, the Tuamotus were Jacques Cousteau’s favorite place to dive in French Polynesia.

Rangiroa

Rangiroa is a magical end-of-the-world destination that’s famous for its “pass dives”. Passes are gaps in the reef ring that act as channels where the water flows in and out of the lagoons between high and low tides. Because of the intensity of the currents you find here, you can only go diving when the water flows in — otherwise you’ll be swept outside into the deep blue.

All of this water squeezing through attracts thousands of fish of all sizes, and all of these fish attract bigger fish that want to eat them, hence you find a lot of sharks here.

diving French Polynesia: Tiputa Reef in Rangiroa

Diving over hard coral at Rangiroa’s Tiputa Reef

Fakarava

Amazingly, we actually met Jean-Michel Cousteau on a dive in Fakarava. He wasn’t my dive buddy, but he was on our dive boat and dived the same reef as we did. Given I used to watch his dad’s TV show religiously when I was a kid, it was pretty cool meeting him and diving with him.

Apparently, Jean-Michel dives regularly in French Polynesia, which says a lot about the quality of the diving here.

Fakarava longfin bannerfish

Two beautiful longfin bannerfish during our dive in Fakarava

Tikehau

Tikehau is a secluded diver’s paradise that’s perfect place to unwind. There’s barely anything to do above water but walk along the beach, listen to the waves and think about the next underwater adventure.

After exploring about 20 sites while diving in French Polynesia I thought I’d seen it all, but Tikehau proved me wrong.

Tikihau has the biggest schools of fish (both the schools and the fish) I’ve ever seen. They create clouds so big they block the sun light, and their rhythmic synchronized moves perform an underwater ballet that’s simply mesmerizing.

Tikehau school of fish

The unique underwater world of Tikehau hosts incredibly large schools of fish

It was while enjoying one of these ballets that something huge appeared in the periphery of my vision. I looked to see this enormous shark, way bulkier than anything I had ever seen. It was about 10 m/33 ft from where I was floating. My heart raced and my breathing quickened as I tried not to attract its attention. It wasn’t until it had passed me that I realized it was a 3.5 m / 11.5 ft hammerhead!

Fakarava hard coral

Beautiful hard coral and tiny fish en masse in Fakarava

It’s hard to put into words how incredible it was to go diving in French Polynesia’s Society Islands and the Tuamotus. It transformed me from a casual diver into a fanatic. It’s also hard to say what I loved most: the impossible blue waters, the amazingly healthy hard corals, the biodiversity, or the huge variety and numbers of sharks. Whatever it was, it really got me.

When diving in French Polynesia, as is true anywhere, it’s essential to have a good dive operator. Our company of choice was TOPDIVE on almost all these islands. They have experienced guides, excellent gear and dive centers almost everywhere you want to go diving in French Polynesia. They also offer a free shuttle service from your hotel and their Inter-Island Gold Pass gives you 10 dives in 12 dive centers on six islands (you can even use it together with your partner) at a discount.

If you’re looking for you next dive destination, I really recommend diving in French Polynesia. And if you have no underwater experience yet, I strongly encourage you to learn to dive and discover a magical world underwater. There is so much more to see below the surface, it would be a pity to miss out on that!


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Have you been diving in French Polynesia? What was your favorite underwater encounter or dive site? Share it with us in the comment section below.

Eric

Eric got the travel writing bug after working as a journalist in Cambodia in the mid-90s. Over the years he has written for numerous U.S. magazines and newspapers and taught writing at universities. He finally decided to go full-time with his travel writing because life is short, the world is big and he wants to experience it all.

2 comments on “The ultimate guide to diving in French Polynesia

  1. perfect1972

    I did my first ever dive, a discovery dive, in 6m outside the Tikehau pass. I was hooked. I came back to Tahiti and was certified by week’s end. All 10 dives after that combined didn’t match that 35 minutes at 6m in Tikehau. The best week of my life.

    Reply
    • Michaela

      Cool, sounds you had a blast underwater. Yes, diving gives you a totally new view of things and gets you hooked. We now can’t go anywhere with an ocean without going diving 😉

      Reply

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