French Polynesia Part II: Rangiroa
Part II: Unspoiled Nature, Welcome to Rangiroa
Words by Chelsea Yamase, Photos by Travis Burke
Dec. 4th I thought we would be used to the aerial perspective by now, but with eyes glued to windows we catch our first glimpses of Rangiroa or “Te Kokōta” as our plane begins to descend. The snaking outline of green stretches in a thin circular sliver far beyond what I can see even at this height. Fifty miles by 20 miles Rangiroa is the second largest atoll in the world and could easily fit the entire island of Tahiti in its lagoon. Tucked away from the stresses that accompany more developed areas, these reef systems are argued to be home to some of the best diving in the world with their steep ledges, schooling pelagic fish, and annual migration of stingrays.
Down a small coconut tree lined dirt road we bump along for a few minutes to reach our hotel at Kia Ora Resort. It's strange to drive down an island so narrow that you can see the open ocean on the left and calm lagoon on the right. There are no other islands to see on the horizon here, just blue stretching to the horizon, fitting for an island whose name means “immense sky”.
Time seems like a mirage here, distant and glimmering in the corner of your eye, but never quite demanding your attention. During the day we never leave the water, which only adds to our sense of disconnecting from the fast paced modern world. We scuba dive to 25 m where we ride a gentle current along a vibrant reef wall at the Tiputa pass. This spot in particular is known as a great one for drift diving as the tide causes noticeable daily shifts in the current going into and out of the lagoon. Visibility is superb - easily 100ft – allowing us to spot a rare tiger shark and humpheaded wrasse in the distance. The highlight of the day comes in the form of a face to face encounter with a huge school of barracuda, their pointed snouts and shimmering bodies darting inquisitively around me.
On our second to last day we decide to venture out even a bit further, taking a boat from Kia Ora Resort across the center of the atoll to one of the most famous features in the area called the Blue Lagoon. For nearly two hours our captain, a salty and entertaining man of the sea, navigates the swell with delicacy in our petit marara, special type of nimble Tahitian boat, literally meaning flying fish.
As the boat slows near the edge of the Blue Lagoon's barrier reef our eyes widen and then the excited shouts begin, “Sharks!”. Hundreds of small black tip reef sharks, and a few bulkier 6 foot lemon sharks make slow circles in the emerald waters around our boat. After approval from the captain, two of us slowly sink in to witness the spectacle from underwater. I have never seen anything like it. I am alert, but far from being scary it is exhilarating, mesmerizing. Their sleek bodies are beautiful as dancers flowing around the sandy channel.
We reluctantly get out of the water in order to look at the actual Blue Lagoon. A marvel unto itself the jade and turquoise waters are ringed by eight small coral islands. Wading through the knee deep water we spot more reef sharks - some no bigger than my forearm - swimming over the shallow coral bottom. It feels like we have teleported out of the real world into a forgotten paradise. Although I know others have come here before me, there is not another person for miles and no footprints sully the smooth white sand. A solitary wooden boat sits on the shore, no owner to be found, adding mystique to our already magical day.
That evening we watch as the sun sinks into the ocean. It sets just as we dock, extinguishing its orange glow in the waters off the horizon. I float on my back in the infinity pool under an inky sky full of stars in silent reflection of our day. How close I feel to the edge of the world. We were on an island on the edge of a lagoon within a lagoon in the middle of the largest ocean in the world. I am humbled by how nature creates such spaces. It feels good to be out here, outnumbered by nature and glad because of it.
Read Part III: The Island of Tahiti here