Thursday, January 12, 2017

Scuba Diving in Rangiroa


We landed in Rangiroa on Christmas Eve. Rangiroa is one of the largest atolls in the world - certainly the largest in French Polynesia - and even in midair from our turboprop plane it was impossible to see the far end of it. Shaped like a hollow rectangle, Rangiroa was formed when its volcano sank beneath the waves once upon a time. This monumental descent left in its wake a ring of coral that encircles a lagoon of unimaginably brilliant shades of blue, in essence carving out a bubble of paradise in the middle of the endless South Pacific ocean.

This thin strip of land that separates the two bodies of water, however, isn't continuous. It's broken in places by narrow valleys in the ocean floor. These create passes via which the water rushes in or out of the lagoon with the tides, arguably giving rise to the best conditions for diving with pelagics like great hammerhead sharks, tiger sharks, manta rays, eagle rays, and dolphins.


The dive center we had chosen to dive with was one of the more affordable ones on the island. Right off the bat, you could tell it was a very no-nonsense kind of establishment. It lay at the end of a road riddled with flooded potholes, hidden behind an exposed pile of rusty engine parts and nameless scraps. The dive center itself looked more like a store room than anything else. It was dark and damp, and a horde of mosquitoes seemed to live permanently in the shelves. The place was thick with the look and smell of adventure.

We had heard legendary things about the owner, who was purportedly the first to open a dive center in Rangiroa thirty-one years ago, and whom the other operators spoke about in something just shy of reverence. God of diving, someone said, no one knows this area better than He.


He, unfortunately, was away for the day, and whether it was because of this or not, our first dive was dreary. Some reef sharks circled in and out of our periphery, and there was a most interesting African pompano, but on the whole nothing thrilling of the sort Rangiroa is renowned for. Still, the next day looked promising, for the dive guides were satisfied with our capabilities and experience, and would be allowing us to go down to sixty metres (local regulations stipulate that PADI Advanced divers can go to 40m, Rescue divers to 50m, Dive Masters to 60m) into deco in search of the great hammerheads.

The next day came and went without fanfare. Rangiroa is a place that is All or Nothing, our guide said. Some days when the conditions are right everything shows up, and other days you may not see much at all. And the thing about Rangiroa is that if the pelagics don't show up, there's nothing much else worth writing home about - the coral reef isn't outstanding and there's not much macro life.


Then day three dawned, and we were halfway into our stay in Rangiroa. So far we'd gotten an unexpected glimpse of a hammerhead at fifteen metres and a few eagle rays had swooped by. Nothing had really blown our minds yet. But the atmosphere at the dive center was different that morning - it was hard to put a finger on it precisely - everyone seemed a little more upbeat and there was palpable energy in the air.

Our dive guide came up to us. Yves is back, he said. You will dive with him today. Then he gave us a smile that had all the unspoken suggestions of magic.

And magic - that's exactly what happened.


Our guide had this theatrical way of diving - he glided around with his arms outstretched, motioning as if pulling in the big stuff on an invisible rope. I told him once that I got a big kick out of watching him underwater, and he laughed. It doesn't always work, he admitted, But that one percent of the time it does, and a dolphin shows up right when I do this [and he did that arm motion again], everyone's amazed.

Yves' magic was different. His was a frenetic performance, born out of an intimate knowledge of the area and in part, I'd like to believe, something more mysterious. He whirled underwater; he would cast an arm out and - there! - a school of eagle rays would come silently into view, and with another throw of his arm - over there! -  a tiger shark would come nosing by.


I happened to glance at him after the huge tiger shark had disappeared back into the deep blue. He was hunched over, rubbing his hands together furiously, jerking and twitching in a peculiar way. Caught up in the rapture and thrill of the moment I half fancied to myself that he really did cast a spell over the ocean. (I kept my faith till the last dive, when we finally asked him about his ritual. It turns out he was mimicking a distressed animal to try and lure the sharks in.)

Yves' magic held up right to the end. "You want to see dolphins?" he asked, and we did, and it was the best possible way to round up the trip indeed.


1 comment:

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