Fakarava: diving the north pass


During my February 2016 trip to French Polynesia, my buddies and I visited two islands in the Tuamotus archipelago: first Rangiroa, then Fakarava. We spent around a week at each place and both were fantastic. In this post I am going to focus on the dives we did in the north part of Fakarava, which is where we dived the most on this island. In a later post I will describe our dives at Fakarava’s famous south pass.

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Being an atoll island, Fakarava is an elongated ribbon of land around a vast lagoon. A thousand or so people live in the main village of Rotoava clustered at the northern end of the atoll, and one surprisingly broad tarmacked road (built for a presidential visit that never happened) unfolds for some 20km before petering out into a dirt track. The land is only about three hundred metres wide and it’s a short stroll from the quiet lagoon on one side to the crashing waves of the Pacific on the other. Homesteads are dotted all along the island, in between scrubland and coconut trees. Our accommodation was in a charming local guesthouse set on a lagoonside lawn complete with resident cat, dog and groupers living under the pontoon: pension Vaiama.

The dive shop: Kaina Plongee

In Fakarava we dived with the unassuming and quietly excellent Vincent Perceval of Kaina Plongee (English name: Fakarava Diving Center) and his colleagues Jean-Charles and Sebastien. The dive shop was a no-nonsense affair and both the boat and facilities were in very good shape. I particularly appreciated Vincent’s easygoing approach to running dives, his willingness accommodate our photo requests, his attention to detail with our dive gear as well as the convenient pick-ups and drop-offs every day.

Vincent offers two dives per day. Being the crazy divers that we are, we had initially hoped to cram in more than this, but in the end, a more relaxed pace at Fakarava suited us well after Rangiroa’s non-stop underwater antics and I ended up with more time to snorkel and kayak in the lagoon and take naps — and what more perfect place in the world to do that!


Reef dives

The diving in Fakarava is extremely rich, and extremely sharky. In the north of the atoll, there are basically two dives available, depending on whether the current is incoming or outgoing. On an outgoing current, dives are conducted on the Ohotu reef, where countless reef-dwellers can be observed going about their business: groupers and unicornfish being cleaned of parasites, fat parrotfish and triggerfish chomping at the coral, and big napoleons sailing along. The fish are neither scarce nor shy here.

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We did a fair few of these dives and so my buddy and I got round to shooting macro too, as can be seen in the gallery below. We also did a very chilled-out macro photo dive on one occasion in a shallow, aquarium-like coral area in the lagoon, close to the pass. (Photo note: my default ‘everything’ lens for this trip was the Canon 17-40 F/4L; the macro lens, which I used on just three dives, is the Canon 100mm F/2.8L.)

Ohotu reef and lagoon dives photo gallery:

Drift dives

However, as I said in my last post, we didn’t come to French Polynesia to shoot macro. The real highlight of diving north Fakarava is the drift dive in Garuae Pass (aka the north pass), which is dived on an incoming tide. This incredible dive is a roller coaster of non-stop action at every stage of the journey. You first drop down to a sloping, sandy plateau at around 35-40 metres depth with a resident school of goatfish. Look out to the blue, and you will be greeted with a fairly mind-boggling wall of grey sharks.

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The dive then gets shallower as you drift at quite a lick through some scenic coral channels and gullies, reaching its shallowest point at around 15 metres. The pass is very wide and various routes can be taken through it, passing white tip reef sharks, nurse sharks hiding under alcoves, and more groups of grey sharks.

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If you are lucky you can even witness some shark action as a whole team of grey sharks decides to chase after an unfortunate small fish. This is what is happening in the photo below.

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The final part of the dive redescends down to 20+ metres to a sort of coral valley nicknamed ‘Ali Baba’ — a more accurate English translation would be ‘Aladdin’s cave’: literally a treasure trove of fish. If the earlier parts of the dive weren’t fishy enough, at this site you find yourself in the middle of dense schools of unflappable bigeye and snapper, and photographers can have a field day.

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The bigeye in particular are a delight to shoot. Under natural light at 20 metres’ depth they look a dark grey-brown, but with a burst of light, their attractive colour pops out. I must admit I got very excited here and I now have rather a lot of pictures of bigeyes. That’s me below, photo courtesy of Eian Kee.

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With such a dive profile, it is hard to avoid accumulating a little deco on your dive computer. Therefore, the dive ends with a long shallow drifting stop in the lagoon to offgas. The whole dive is an incredible thrill, with a variety of landscapes and multitudinous sharks and fish, and every time we did it, it was a little different. My only regret in the north pass was an elusive tiger shark on the last day: Vincent spotted it up ahead near Ali Baba and started finning like a madman (to get closer, I hasten to add: we are divers!) but by the time we had caught up with him, it had already vanished into the blue. I hope it will wait for my return trip to Fakarava.


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