While the thought of an 18-hour journey to visit a part of France may sound odd, especially to those based in next-door neighbour England, French Polynesia is a far cry from northern Europe. The 121 tropical islands and atolls spread across the South Pacific are an overseas collectivity of France and are also home to some of the world's best shark dives. In addition to the superb diving, French Polynesia's iconic islands are also home to some of the world's most luxurious resorts, providing a perfect, tranquil setting to rest from the journey before diving into the fishy lagoons and shark-infused passes.
With its myriad islands spread over a large swathe of blue ocean and divided into five groups - the Society Islands, the Tuamotus, the Marquesas, the Australs and the Gambier Archipelago - pinpointing the best diving in French Polynesia can seem a little daunting at first. While each of these areas may make an argument to be the home of the best diving in French Polynesia, the islands of Bora Bora, Rangiroa and Tikehau have particularly strong claims for that title.
Tikehau, meaning Peaceful Landing in Tuamotuan, is home to the lagoon with the richest marine life on the planet. At least, that's what Jacques Cousteau claimed, and few people have dived as extensively across the planet as he has. While you may be sceptical that there was some national bias involved in his comments, that scepticism will soon disappear as soon as you descend below the lagoon's surface.
Tuheiva Pass is the sole entrance into the inner lagoon and, as such, is a meeting place for the pelagics. Dogtooth tuna and barracuda tornadoes hang at the pass's outer entrance, and as you glide through, riding the currents, grey reef sharks flash by as if on a conveyor belt. From November through to April, the pass is also visited by hammerheads, and with dolphins and manta rays often seen, Tuheiva Pass is guaranteed a place at the table when the best diving in French Polynesia is up for discussion.
In days gone by, the island of Bora Bora was known as Pora pora mai te pora, meaning 'created by the gods' in the Tahitian dialect, and after a dive or two you'll understand why. On the western side of the lagoon, where the Teavanui Pass allows access to the open ocean, the dive site known as Tapu can offer divine dives among scores of black-tipped reef sharks, manta rays feeding and impressive lemon sharks cruising back and forth.
With Napoleon wrasses and turtles also joining the show, Tapu often gets mentioned among the best diving in French Polynesia, and the adjacent pass dive is seldom left out of that conversation either...
Grey reef sharks, silky sharks, lemon sharks, silvertip sharks, white-tipped reef sharks, black-tipped reef sharks, hammerheads and tiger sharks; convinced yet? How about if we also mention the dolphins, jacks, barracuda, eagle rays and mantas? Sensory overload can be an issue (if 'issue' is the right word for something so mesmerising) when diving the reefs of Rangiroa, and the Tiputa Pass is no exception.
As the biggest atoll in French Polynesia, and the second-largest in the world, Rangiroa offers much more to see than just the abundance of sharks that has made the nation famous among divers. French Polynesia is often referred to as the 'hard coral capital of the world,' and the coral gardens inside the lagoons reveal why.
Pristine bommies are dotted around the shallow, sandy bottoms, with leopard sharks and white-tips often seen resting between them. The lagoons can often deliver dolphin and turtle encounters, and while the pass dives grab the lion's share of the attention, for many, the gentle but bountiful lagoon dives are among the best diving in French Polynesia. And Rangiroa has both a stunning lagoon and an exhilarating pass to enjoy...