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Paddles With Sharks
By Willie Williams, NOLS Instructor
© Peter McBride, National Geographic


Part 1
| Part 2 | Part 3

Sea kayaking in the Tuamotu lagoons is simply beautiful, even with all the sharks. It is a world of intimate awareness of the sea. The white coral sand beaches, azure lagoons and green coconut palms are the quintessential South Pacific landscape. The rich shades of blue water provide a backdrop for the vibrant tropical fish. “Paradise” is a wimpy description.

Seventy-eight tiny islands, or “atolls” make up the Tuamotu archipelago, which lies northeast of Tahiti, about 4,000 miles from the nearest continent. Atolls are rings of narrow coral reef forming a circle of small islands, barely above sea level, with a lagoon in the center. The lagoon usually has one or more “passes” into the deeper ocean outside. Strong currents make these passes potentially dangerous areas.

Here southern trade winds blow consistently, and large swells roll in from the southern ocean off Antarctica. An early European explorer once called the Tuamotus “The Dangerous Archipelago” because of all the hazards for sailing vessels. Captain Cook made the area famous by visiting a nearby neighbor island group, the Society islands, whose principal islands are Tahiti, Moorea and Bora-Bora. And Thor Heyerdahl, on his well-known 1947 “Kon Tiki” expedition, finally made landfall on the Tuamotus after 101 days at sea on a balsa wood raft. It is a wild and remote place to be traveling in a boat.

© Peter McBride,
National Geographic

The largest Tuamotu island, Rangiroa, is 40 miles long, 17 miles wide, and is the second largest coral atoll in the world. While it is the most developed island in the archipelago, it is still a beautiful and peaceful place.

Rangiroa, or “Rangi,” as the locals call it, was the first atoll we visited. Giggling softly in my scuba regulator, I slowly zen-breathed the sweet oxygen as I locked eyes with a grey reef shark lazily swimming parallel to me a few feet away. We stared at each other easily, respectfully, then he drifted back into the group of 50 plus other sharks, all pointed into the current. I watched wide-eyed as they swam that charismatic shark way, their bodies sculling slowly from side to side. A graceful shark ballet. I felt only excitement, connection, wonder, but no fear at all. We descended to the coral covered sea floor, a world of wild colors. Schools of barracuda circled in the hundreds. The 2- to 3-knot current quickly took us on to other walls and caves. Our depth reached 100 feet, my deepest dive. The surface appeared like a sky far above.

Another dive was a drift through Tiputa Pass, one of the top ten dive spots in the world. The water here is 79 degrees year around. I watched dolphins swimming by, circling up above us like sunbeams. The dolphins lept into the air and splashed down, back into our realm under the surface. Sea turtles let us hang next to them as they swam or chomped on coral. Spotted eagle rays winged by, each a bit smaller then the solo manta ray that glided by minutes later. I found myself slowly kicking in pace with a black-tipped reef shark ten feet away, trading glances from different-looking eyes, then playing with a free-swimming green moray eel.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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