Tahiti: Shark Dive in Rangiroa
published as the first article in the first issue of Conde Nast Traveler
Divers tend to develop a dissolute look. It's as though, like aging rock stars, they've grown weary of life's most intense moments. But in one diving spot two hundred miles northeast of Tahiti, on a spit of land called Rangiroa in the Tuamoto Islands (also known as the Dangerous Archipelago), the pro wears a look of macho nervousness as he prepares for today's dive. He chews his lip. He keeps clearing his throat. It's contagious: In rented tank and fins, I'm scared to death about imminently being shown what is arguably the world's best shark dive.
Amateur divers who are daft enough to want to partake of this lifetime thrill not only have to go halfway around the world to the South Pacific and then start hopping planes. They also have to put up with Polynesia, whose charm has decreased in inverse proportion to its popularity as the decade's "Dating Game" destination. No longer the innocent place where roosters peck at the feet of sleepy pirates (if they ever did), it is now loud, lewd, rude, and pricey. A twelve-dollar hamburger may be tossed at you with an insouciance only the French could have taught. And over-pretty. On such ultra-manicured islands as Bora Bora, skirted boys actually go around plucking the dead leaves off the breadfruit trees before they have a chance to fall and sully paradise. On the capital island of Tahiti even the flowers give off an air of conceit, as if over-photographed by honeymooners on their quest for the Perfect Vacation Spot. Once the pearl of the South Seas, Polynesia has become a punked-out Gaugin girl on a motorscooter, puttering by in high heels and a sour Gallic expression she mistakes for chic -- all the more sad because of how lovely she is without mascara.
But forget all that; in a very different part of French Polynesia sits Rangiroa, home of the shark dive. Rangiroa is an atoll, a lagoon enclosed by a perfectly flat circular reef so narrow you can stroll from one side to the other in ten minutes. Imagine a blinding white ring set in the middle of the green Pacific: That's Rangiroa. At the far end, thirty bungalows sit on the beach, their doors unlocked. You know at once it's the kind of place where an international assortment of guests sit on their porches silently taking notes on the sunrise. Reverent of the rising light, Dede the bartender sports white flowers in his beard as he concocts Bloods Marys to the accompaniment of the finest recorded French jazz in the South Pacific.
"International" means two things at such resorts, I learn: topless bathing and many cigarettes around the breakfast table. The only Yank in a guest pool of French, Italians, and South Americans, I am immediately ushered into a polyglot debate as to why this archipelago is called Dangerous. Dede claims it's because the reefs are so low and serene you don't see or hear them until you've shipwrecked (as has happened to hundreds of vessels since the archipelago was discovered by the Spanish in 1606 and annexed by the French in 1880). Isabella, a fashion model from Bologna, insists it's because such a lovely, deceptively calm corner of the world may seduce you, siren-like, never to return. But the diving pro, Eric, is the final authority: It's dangereux, he says, because of the two passes in the reef through which the tide rushes twice each day, flooding back and forth with a greater density of exotic fish than at Grand Cayman or the Great Barrier Reef. And where such fish abound, so too do sharks.
Ca va, I know all that. That's why I'm nervously wearing tank and fins. I have elected not to witness the sharks through a glass-bottomed boat where, from a safe seat, I'd have a visibility of ninety feet. No cage, either, nor special protective equipment; just me and my bathing suit versus the sharks. Down I go. "Mon dieu" is the last thing I hear before bubbles take over: It is the pro muttering through his mouthpiece. What prompts such an unjaded response is how loaded the depths are with fish: marbled sea bass, barracuda, huge bored Napoleons, all drifting in the tide along with me at eight miles per hour like a submarine Easter Parade. Eighty-five feet below, a vast manta ray flaps by in majestic silence -- the underwater equivalent of a science fiction mother ship.
And there they are, suddenly, materializing without warning, a dozen six-foot sharks circling me at arm's length. Gray reef sharks like these are not supposed to attack; the word is that if they take a chop at one of the fish too close to me, it would be a "mistake." Still, I fasten on their eyes. Circling and circling, they have the expressionless eyes of an eating machine, cold as death, each pupil as blank as a black gash in an ice cube. My eyes strain for dialogue. "Let's be reasonable," say mine, wide and pleading. "Zut," say theirs. In vain I search for a sign, a warning, but of course if there were such a thing it would be over even as it began, in a flash of steel-blue. Calm, sedate even, an attack would be sublimely impersonal, as dispassionate as a corporate takeover, an act of the purest professionalism. Absolutely, it is the scariest thing I've seen the eyes of my wife's divorce lawyer.
So intense an experience is it, in fact, that when Eric and I emerge thirty-five minutes later and are asked what the sharks' fins looked like, neither of us will even have noticed. We've spent all our energy eyeballing for mercy. It's 10 a.m. and I'm a basket case, emotionally drained; all I can do is doze in a hammock the rest of the day. As the afternoon passes I notice little things with renewed appreciation: how the oil glistens on my skin, how the beach is alive with crabs scurrying under the cover of shells -- the sort of things one notices after brushing too close to one's own mortality. By nightfall I've recovered enough to appreciate again the peace of the lagoon, so quiet it laps at the shore like a cat licking itself. Venus gleams over the water; the beach is lit discreetly with torches. As I sip my gin, schools of tiny fish come right to shore to nibble peaceably, then jump all at once and turn the surface to wet silver. No wonder the French colonized this part of the world. Their administrators were every bit as romantic as their Postimpressionist painters.
But wait -- I hear a soft roll of thunder far off. It's only thunder, but in the deceptively peaceful aftermath I realize at last the deeper truth by which this place is called Dangerous: not for any geologic formation nor for the red tooth of nature, but for something more sinister still, the ultimate evil, dissolute to the point of deadliness. Because right here, in the midst of all this beauty, just a few islands down the Tuamotos but close enough to send a shiver down my spine, this is where the French test their nuclear bombs.