Hiria, a sun-stained fifty-ish fellow of slight build, yet powerfully muscular arms, chats casually with Andrea, their conversation centered around the highly specialized speedboat Hiria is currently piloting. They converse in a jumble of French, English and local Polynesian dialect as the boat throttles full bore over the waves, it's deep-V hull slicing and dicing the sea without mercy, it's hugely overpowered inboard engine roaring, while the rest of us, the boat's passengers, keep a tight grip lest we be tossed out. This style of boat, the 'Marara', is common throughout French Polynesia. Colloquially this sort of craft is also known as a 'go-fast' boat, which is exactly what it's built to do. They are the most common, least expensive way to travel quickly from one island to the next, with variations found throughout the tropic regions of the world, however, as go-fasts go, the Polynesian Marara is unique. At idle, the engine of Hiria's boat sounds more like a tricked out street-rod, even amongst her peers, this particular Marara draws attention; totally custom from stem to stern, she is the Polynesian version of a pimped-out ride.
Long and lean, the massive engine is positioned at the far rear, while the cockpit for the driver is stuffed up into the farthest point of the bow; a tiny enclosed space just large enough for the driver to wedge himself inside. This high forward vantage point allows for a panoramic view of the turquoise sea ahead, while joy-stick steering makes for quick maneuvering around obstacles such as the myriad coral heads that lay just below the surface. Flaps positioned under the rear hull for stability can be adjusted by the driver on the fly, making this boat operate more like an old-school open cockpit aircraft. The rest of the Marara is largely empty except for where my companions and I are seated; two opposing rows of bench seats that run lengthwise down the middle. We are, at the moment, rapidly transiting the massive interior of the Rangiroa Atoll, one of hundreds of islands that make up the archipelago of French Polynesia, our destination, a remote group of tiny islands on the southern edge, a magical place known as The Blue Lagoon.
A thin line of green emerging on the horizon signaled our approach, as we sped closer the line grew into clumps of cocoa palms, the deep azure sea lightening in color the closer we came until we could easily see the white sandy bottom and the interior edge of the coral atoll's reef; beyond which lay one of the most beautiful tropical scenes I have ever experienced; a giant pristine lagoon filled with crystal clear water that contained more shades of turquoise than one would ever think could possibly exist. Almost immediately the first sharks appeared as soon as Hiria had us tied off to a mooring buoy. "They know the boat", he explained, "they know we will be feeding them!" Ha ha, but not just yet, first we will be going ashore to picnic on one of these incredibly beautiful, paradise-postcard islands that surround this lagoon that is so remarkable, so incredibly magical, it was as if we were all hallucinating.
While we ogled over the sharks that nonchalantly circled the boat, Hiria busied himself, unloading a small inflatable dingy then filling it up with coolers and supplies. There were perhaps a dozen Black Tip Sharks in the welcoming party, ranging in size from one to two meters long, "the big ones will arrive later", Hiria said cheerfully as he jumped into the flimsy rubber boat that would be ferrying us to shore. We puttered in until the dingy's tiny two stroke outboard decided it was going on strike, at which point we all jumped out onto the shallow rubble of the reef's upper shelf and waded in. Small Black Tip Sharks began circling our dingy and our feet as we made our way to the beach, "don't worry, they are harmless", says Hiria as he hauled the dingy ashore, then went to work setting up his outdoor kitchen inside a thatch-roofed hut.
The lagoon's beauty captivated us, enticing us all to the point that, after exhausting our cameras, we donned snorkel gear and ventured out for a swim, in spite of the fact that the water was literally teaming with small to middling Black Tip Sharks. Once we began wading out from the beach we also discovered a number of large Stingrays, but these too seemed unfazed by our presence. The deepest shade of turquoise lay at the center so it was decided that this was where we were heading, but after a half hour of swimming we realized the purity of the environment made judging distances more difficult and it would take another hour of swimming to reach the center, so we voted to head back and see what Hiria was cooking over a fire he'd constructed out of cocoanut husks.
The barbecue was sizzling away when we arrived, loaded down with fresh tuna steaks and chicken that needed a bit more time on the fire, so we raided the beer cooler and wandered out to the shallows where about thirty small sharks circled continuously. Andrea was the first to grab a bit of raw fish from the cutting board and toss it into the center of the shark school instantly igniting the quietly circling sharks into a frothing torrent...hmmm, perhaps not so harmless? Upon realizing this we slowly eased back out of the water, all but Andrea of course who immediately ran back to the picnic hut for more fish scraps. Soon we were all joining in, taking turns tossing fish pieces to the Sharks; ghoulish fun to the extreme. We were kids again, we were playing with fire, we were clearly acting irresponsibly in close proximity to unpredictable predators, and we didn't care; the rush was awesome.
we began to get more creative with our shark feeding technique
After lunch we began to get more creative with our shark feeding technique. Andrea started feeding them by hand, kneeling in the shallows, trying to tempt the smaller pups to come and take a chicken leg directly from his outstretched fingertips. When one finally did we all shrieked with excitement as the wee shark made off with the chicken leg sticking out from between his rapidly munching little jaws. An hour later we were still hanging out with the 'junior league', our confidence restored as we walked out amongst them with bare feet, but it was now time to head back to the boat and to the next phase of our shark encounter; the majors. Hiria's dingy outboard was still on strike so we towed the tender out to the edge of the reef where his bright blue Marara waited tied to a mooring buoy. Hiria explained there would be a lot more sharks circling the boat, much larger ones, but that in thirty years he had yet to lose a single tourist, so we grabbed our fins and snorkeled out through the small channel and into the deep water.
Majestic is a word that fits, a word that describes absolutely the perfectly streamlined beauty that is an adult, wild, Black Tip Shark in its natural home. The elegant shape, the creamy bronze body punctuated by just the right amount of black accent, and those golden eyes, sharp and piecing like a cat's. Lost inside this mesmerizing moment it occurs to me that we are indeed in their world now, there's no shore to run too here, we're in open water, their water, and unlike previous shark dives where I was comfortably encased in the marginal safety of noisy, bubble spewing SCUBA, here I'm only in snorkel gear; completely exposed. What we were doing was akin to jumping out of the safari jeep and frolicking with the leopards in the open bush; a crazy- ass thing to be doing, but I hadn't felt this juiced in years. They were all around us, perhaps forty individuals that we could see but there were likely more that we couldn't, the largest of the Black Tips were just over two meters in length, but the Lemon sharks would be bigger. Hiria assured us 'the big one', his favorite, would show up, and sure enough, I looked down to see a large Lemon shark quietly cruise beneath us, this one easily three meters long.
We snorkeled amongst the schooling sharks for nearly an hour, swimming slowly, calmly meandering along in a constant circle around Hiria's go-fast. None seemed interested in us. They were close, sometimes very close, but only because there were so many in the group. We were just part of the scene, a few more party-goers waiting for the main event; betting that the headline entertainment would not in fact be us. Feeling confident, Andrea decided to free dive down to where the Lemon Sharks were hanging out. If the Black Tips were this undersea club's sharp-dressed dance floor crowd then the Lemon Sharks were the VIP's holding court at the private bottle tables, each rolling with an entourage of brightly colored pilot fish and remora; the ultimate hangers-on. Heavy bodied and, appearing at least, to be much slower than the Black Tips, Andrea was able to dive down and pet them easily, but we left the large Black Tip Sharks alone, preferring to simply be a part of their school and observe. All the while much smaller fish: Sergeants, Unicorn Fish and Grey Snappers by the hundred, were also leisurely hanging around, making Hiria's earlier claim seem pretty plausible. Then we all got back on board and watched as Hiria tossed buckets of fish scraps into the water we had only moments before been happily swimming in, and in a word, it was mayhem. Our blissful close up marine life experience rudely snapped back into glaring reality as dozens of large sharks viciously churned the sea white. Would I do it again? Oh yes, definitely.
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