Fakarava — top diving with J-M Cousteau

The French Polynesian atoll of Fakarava is a diving paradise where crystal clean waters and rich, unspoiled coral attract an insane variety of marine life big and small.

We had the chance of a lifetime to dive Fakarava this past winter while cruising these waters on the 300-passenger ship M/S Paul Gauguin. I say a chance of a lifetime because the Paul Gauguin not only has a full-service dive center onboard, but Jean-Michel Cousteau (son of famed diver and ocean researcher Jacques Cousteau) is a regular guest of the ship and was also on the cruise.

So, not only did I get to dive legendary Fakarava, but I got to dive with Jean-Michel Cousteau.

Fakarava—one of the world’s largest atolls

Fakarava is an atoll, which is basically a large lagoon surrounded by a coral reef that has created a ring of small islets called motus. It is located in the western Tuamotu Archipelago in French Polynesia and is a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve for the preservation of rare species.

Shaped like a rectangle, about 60 km/37 mi long and 21 km/13 mi wide, enclosing a 1,112 km²/429 mi² lagoon, Fakarava is the third largest atoll in the world. Most of the only 850 people who live here are concentrated around the main settlement of Rotoava.

Fakarava has two passes that let water in and out of the lagoon, Garuae Pass in the north and Tumakohua Pass in the south. At close to 1.6 km/1 mi wide, Garuae Pass is the largest pass in French Polynesia.

The crystal clean water and lack of development here means amazing marine life and abundant coral, making this one of French Polynesia’s top dive sites. And it’s the passes where all the action is.

Fakarava island

A typical Fakarava view from above the water: beautiful island with sandy beaches and swaying palm trees

Diving—the one and only thing to do in Fakarava

Similar to Rangiroa and Tikehau, there’s not a hell lot to do in Fakarava if you’re not a diver. Of course, there are plenty of beautiful beaches and deserted islands if you like that kind of thing, but if you’re looking for something to do besides working on your tan, it’s all under the surface.

TOPDIVE is (in our humble opinion) French Polynesia’s foremost dive company. They have two bases in Fakarava, and as they know these waters very well, the Paul Gauguin dive team works in conjunction with them.

One of TOPDIVE’s centers is on the northern side of the atoll in the main village of Rotoava near the Garuae Pass, and the second one is on the southern side of the atoll on Motu Penu near Tumakohua Pass. Because of its remoteness, the southern dive base has expeditions only once a week, which are organized through the northern base.

Fakarava longfin bannerfish

Two beautiful longfin bannerfish passing by during our dive

Fakarava’s top dive sites:

  • Garuae Pass: The holy grail of dive sites on Fakarava, this drift dive takes experienced divers through the pass at a serious depth past large schools of shark and myriads of fish.
  • Maiuru: Leaving Garuae Pass, this reef dive to the left is a reef-flat before the sharp drop-off and boasts a spectacular array of hard table coral and even some soft coral.
  • Ohotu Reef: On the right side upon leaving Garuae Pass this reef dive is mainly along the wall with regular shark and manta ray encounters.
  • Pufana Reef: Offering a decent array of flora and fauna (including sharks), this is the only dive site inside the lagoon, and as it’s shallower and safer there, it’s perfect for beginners.
  • Tumakohua: Less deep and calmer than Garuae, this pass is safe to dive at both incoming and outgoing tides and offers an extraordinary diverse animal and plant life.

And while we are still editing our own videos, have a look at this great footage from TOPDIVE:

TOPDIVE promotion

Just send us a message indicating the nature of your inquiry (e.g., discount code TOPDIVE) and we’ll give you a discount code that you can use to save 10% on booking with TOPDIVE.

The Jean-Michel Cousteau style of diving

Before I “dive” into describing the amazing underwater sites I visited, I have to tell you how interesting it is to watch Jean-Michel dive—he was easy to spot because his team wears bright blue wetsuits emblazoned with the logo of their non-profit organization Ocean Futures Society.

Jean-Michel likely has more dives in more different places than anyone else on the planet, and given his father pretty much invented recreational diving, he definitely knows what he’s doing underwater.

I had a chance to talk to him for a while, and he told me that while he likes seeing the big animals like sharks (I even saw a video of him riding a great white) and manta rays, he is equally fascinated by the little creatures.

True to his word, while many of the other divers around me were thrashing around trying to find the next big fish, often I’d see Jean-Michel pausing on a coral or on the edge of a sea cave watching the macro life with a Zen-like patience.

Fakarava Jean-Michel Cousteau

Jean-Michel Cousteau (left) taking a closer look at the reef while diving at Maiuru

Diving outside Garuae Pass

During our half-day in Fakarava, our goal was to dive Garuae Pass, as it’s world renowned for its biodiversity. However, it’s also known for it strong currents and occasional poor visibility. Due to these safety concerns, TOPDIVE only takes guests here when there is slack water or an inflowing current. Outgoing currents are much too dangerous and can suck divers out to sea. Unfortunately, we had to “pass” on the pass, as our timing wasn’t right.

So we did our first dive with Jean-Michel Cousteau at Ohotu Reef, just outside the pass on the right. All the dive sites on Fakarava are amazing and all are known for their large marine animals or coral beauty, so we did not complain.

And true to form, during my time underwater I saw a big manta ray cruising right next to me. Seeing these huge, gentle animals appearing out of the blue like underwater spaceships is such an amazing and rare encounter, it always leaves me breathless—which is actually handy when you are trying to be careful with your air consumption.

I also spotted huge Napoleon wrasses, black-tip reef and gray sharks, massive schools of barracudas, paddlefin snappers (that “darkened” the light filtering it from above) and more reef fish than I could count.

Our second dive was at Maiuru, which can have very strong currents and is therefore not suited for beginners. However, the dive instructors are very in tune with the currents and tides here so it was calm, peaceful and fantastic when we were there.

And while we did not see as many big fish here, the hard and soft coral was clean, colorful and incredible.

Following Jean-Michel’s lead, I spent a lot of time watching the intense variety of life living in and around the coral. It’s amazing what you can miss if you are always trying to see the big animals, as there is so much going on at the macro level in these rich marine environments.

Fakarava hard coral

Beautiful hard coral and tiny fish en masse at Maiuru

The world’s best dive site and why you should get certified

After we finished our dive, we rode back to the ship with Jean-Michel and the rest of the guests. On the way Jean-Michel chatted away and seemed as excited as the rest of us at having seen a manta ray.

In fact, for a guy who has “seen it all” underwater, you might have thought this was his first dive. Not surprisingly when I asked him what his all-time favorite dive site was, he said “the next one”.

He also told us a funny story about a dive he did a number of years ago where the dive master asked to see his dive certificate. Obviously the guy did not know who Jean-Michel was.

The funny thing was, Jean-Michel did not have one. Growing up on the Calypso diving with his father and the rest of the team, he never bothered taking the tests and getting the certification.

Of course, once the dive master learned he was talking to a “Cousteau”, he let Jean-Michel dive. But it was embarrassing enough for him to officially get a dive certificate shortly after.

A case of “missing” identity

We had one more bit of excitement associated with our dive in Fakarava.

Anytime someone leaves the ship they get signed out. When you return you get signed back in. This way the captain knows who’s on or off board.

However, when you dive with the Paul Gauguin dive team, you’re always with the staff in their Zodiac and never really go on land, so they don’t sign you out.

Fakarava Paul gauguin watersports marina

The cruise ship Paul Gauguin has its own water sports marina in the back where divers can leave on Zodiacs straight for their next adventure

We arranged our dive with TOPDIVE directly. So, instead of leaving the ship with the dive team, we took the tender to town and met the guys at the dock in Rotoava.

That meant we were the only ones on the dive that were “officially” signed off the ship. When we finished our dive, we returned with the other dive guests through the onboard water sports marina, and therefore never got signed back in.

We didn’t think twice about it until the cruise director was suddenly standing in front of us, sighing in relief and telling us the ship’s staff had been looking for us all over the place. Apparently, there was a ship-wide announcement that we were lost. But we had so much fun at the bar that we just didn’t hear it.

We had made a quite a few friends on the ship, and in addition to the ship’s staff, some of our new friends were also quite concerned. Interestingly enough, Michaela had given a presentation on her photography after her return, which only added to the confusion because technically she was not “on the ship”.

We do a lot of traveling and often there just isn’t time to visit a place twice. However, if I can make it happen, I’d love to return to this part of the world. And if I do come back, I hope the conditions are such that I can dive Garuae Pass and perhaps also head over to Tumakohua Pass on the atoll’s southern end.

Fakarava is legendary, and visiting these magical waters aboard the M/S Paul Gauguin and diving with Jean-Michel Cousteau is nothing short of epic. Jean-Michel does four of these cruises a year, so if you love diving and want an experience of a lifetime, it’s waiting for you.

If you would like to learn more about the other nine islands of French Polynesia that we visited during our trip, have a look at the Top Spots in French Polynesia. Here you’ll find more great pictures and links to more of our posts about places to see in this beautiful island nation.

And if you are a keen diver, our ultimate guide to diving in French Polynesia will let you know all about the underwater highlights of this beautiful island nation.

Have you been to Fakarava? What did you like best about this remote atoll?


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.

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