Sailing the world's most stunning islands in French Polynesia
by Craig Tansley
Technically, the oceanic white-tip shark is the world's deadliest shark, and yet it draws so much less coverage than that alleged man-eater, The Great White (whose PR, admittedly, was managed by Steven Spielberg). It's been known to feed on shipwreck survivors in open ocean; in one notorious incident – the torpedoing of the USS Indianapolis at the closing stages of WWII – 800 American sailors were consumed. Jacques Cousteau called these "the most dangerous of all sharks".
I'm on board the Wind Spirit. It's a four-masted sailing ship that makes its merry way between the fabled and fanciful Society Islands of French Polynesia; an island group that includes the planet's most romanticised island destination, Bora Bora. It's 110 metres long, weighs 5700 tonnes and has 73 luxury staterooms, and a meal service that never quite seems to end. If I'm hungry at 3am, someone, somewhere, somehow will conjure up a feast that will tide me over, at least till dawn.
It seems unlikely then when I board the Wind Spirit in Papeete on a bright and breezeless Friday morning that our worlds might collide. Though, that's where the Wind Spirit differs from most other cruises: the Wind Spirit spruiks adventure as surely as it dishes out pina coladas. It drops its guests out of the sanctity of the warm, bubbly Jacuzzi beside the bar on the open-air top deck into an ocean teeming with creatures.
For the most part, these creatures will be playful dolphins and colourful fish and the odd inquisitive stingray. But play your cards right and they might include something far more exotic, like, say … a four-metre-long oceanic white-tip shark.
The first port-of-call on a seven-day voyage departing Tahiti for Bora Bora – stopping at five Society Islands along the way – is Moorea. At each stop, Wind Spirit offer a choice of shore and ocean excursions. How far into the big, blue yonder you'd like to go is up to you entirely. Or you could, of course, stay in the Jacuzzi.
I've chosen to ease myself into the Pacific slowly, beginning with a leisurely tender ride to find Moorea's resident dolphins with one of the world's leading dolphin experts, Dr Michael Poole.
Problem is there are no dolphins in Moorea's blue lagoon this morning, so Poole takes us out beyond the safety of the reef, exiting via a narrow pass in the coral. As we motor, a pod of short-finned pilot whales suddenly surface beside us with loud gasps of air, their backs arch like humpbacks as they set themselves to submerge again. Now the ocean's teeming with pilot whales; there's a pod of four just below us, while another 15 pilot whales are coming closer. "Oh wow, wow," Poole can't contain his excitement. "Who wants to get in the water with them?"
It's only as I'm about ready to enter the ocean that Poole notices the bite marks. A dorsal fin of a fully grown pilot whale protrudes over 30 centimetres above the surface; the fin he's pointing to is almost bitten off entirely. The flesh around the bite mark looks obscenely raw.
Poole tells me oceanic white-tip sharks have been attacking the pod, though just how long ago he says he really can't tell. He watches the pod for several minutes, carefully noting their behaviour (if they've only just been attacked, their behaviour will be more cautious, funnily enough) and scanning the surface of the inky-blue water for the outline of massive oceanic white tip sharks. "It's OK," he says, handing me a mask. "Just don't make a splash when you enter the water," he says quietly to me at the back of the boat, away from the other guests.
I'm the only volunteer for now – but this is such a rare opportunity to observe pilot whales in deep ocean. I ease myself into the water, pulling a mask across my face, staying so close to the Polynesian guide that I might be another sprawled tattoo on his back. "If you see a shark, don't panic," he tells me slowly, as we bob on the surface. "Don't kick, use your upper body to stay afloat. And just do what I do."
We swim slowly away from the safety of the tender. Underwater I see a pilot whale and her calf change course and swim towards us. They travel right beneath me, spinning under the water on their backs to get a better view of us. The mother's at least five metres long; the calf shadows her, never leaving her side for a moment.
We float on the surface as another pod comes past, and another. In a lifetime spent in and around the ocean, I've never had such a close view of such a huge sea creature in motion. As my fears of sharks start to subside ever so slowly, I force myself to steady my breath, and to try and remember every moment of what's happening beneath.
And then, just like that, I'm back within the warm, safe bubbles of the Jacuzzi beside the bar on the top deck, like nothing ever happened. Life on the Wind Spirit, I soon find, is like this. A day later, I'm free-diving for pearl shells in a becalmed lagoon off the island of Rai'tea with Bora Bora on the horizon – keeping the tiny treasures inside for a necklace – the next moment I'm filling my plate at a lunch buffet.
The ease in which I slip between very two different worlds – the pampered one aboard and the wild one just beneath the surface of the ocean – is both intoxicating, and a tad unnerving. But then, that's what appealed to me about this kind of voyage. I'm no fan of large cruise ships: I detest crowds, and line-ups at the lunch buffet, and regimented shore excursions with hundreds of fellow travellers (I cannot follow a guide with a flag).
But I love the convenience and the comfort of accommodation that floats along with me; one without hotel check-ins, and check-outs, and taxi rides to airports with short flights and long waits to reach islands you'll only visit for a day or two (travelling between the islands of French Polynesia can be a costly, complicated exercise).
But unless you charter your own yacht, you often have no choice but to travel on larger cruise ships. The Wind Spirit, however, manages to evoke the sense of reckless adventure you should have island-hopping between these magnifique Society Islands. The Wind Spirit sleeps a maximum of 148 guests (we have less than 90), and when we leave for excursions, the most on my tender at any time is 10. One day, as I'm snorkelling behind two gigantic manta rays in Bora Bora's world-famous lagoon – dodging barracudas and black-tip reef sharks – I'm doing so with just two other guests.
And could there be another way to really comprehend the beauty of these islands than from the back of a sail boat? On our fourth day at sea we steam into Bora Bora's lagoon at dawn. The sun rises above the island's twin extinct volcanoes, Mt Pahia and Mt Otemanu, while early morning mist drifts across coconut trees and white, sandy beaches. I doubt a traveller could find the kind of peaceful silence that arrives with dawn anywhere but on a boat in a still lagoon in Polynesia; the only noise I hear is the distant call of roosters, and I can just now detect the unmistakable waft of frangipani and Tiare Tahiti. Dawn on the Wind Spirit is my favourite time; as the regular early-risers gather for coffee and tea on the upper deck, swapping tales, or just keeping quiet and watching Polynesia ease itself into another sunny day.
The sunsets aren't half bad either, mind you, they're when we gather on the upper deck as the crew unfurl gigantic sails as the smoky colours of dusk soften the sharp volcanic lines of these drastically mountainous islands, and we set sail for the next island. The stars at night as we travel across the Pacific seem to move along with us, shooting right across the clear sky; only the Southern Cross seems lodged in place.
It's by the fifth night of our voyage – as we take tenders to an uninhabited small island in Bora Bora's lagoon for sunset drinks and an outdoor Polynesian banquet under all those stars – that I realise I haven't seen another tourist on this voyage; nor a single boat or hotel. These are all experiences we share with our fellow passengers alone, and by journey's end, there's a kinship among us you just can't have on bigger cruise liners.
An hour or so after we disembark in the South Pacific's biggest city, Papeete, I spot a group of fellow passengers on a street across from me. Touts are asking them to step inside T-shirt shops and cafes as they wait for the snarl of traffic to halt temporarily so they can cross the road. I think back to those precious nights at sea, when French Polynesia was ours to enjoy alone. And I wish we could return to the ship, to go back to our private world where each dawn had us in a new lagoon and each night gave us a star full of skies and a cabin never more than a flight of stairs away.
tahitinow.com.au or tahitinow.co.nz
Air Tahiti Nui offers three weekly one-stop flights from Australia to Papeete. airtahitinui.com.au or airtahitinui.co.nz
Windstar Cruises offer the seven-day Dreams Of Tahiti cruise year-round leaving from Tahiti and taking in the islands of Moorea, Ta'haa, Rai'tea, Bora Bora and Huahine from $4399 per person. windstarcruises.com
Craig Tansley was a guest of Windstar Cruises and Air Tahiti Nui.