The dolphins' acrobatics are so well known here that crowds gather to watch. I joined a group last April, gazing spellbound with others on a veranda suspended over the sea. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was being welcomed to the French Polynesian atoll of Rangiroa by its most famous residents, a school of dolphins that lives in the pass that separates the atoll's lagoon from the Pacific Ocean. I had arrived at Rangiroa (pronounced Rain-GHEE-ro-ah) just a few hours earlier, flying northeast about an hour from Tahiti to the Tuamotu Archipelago, a string of nearly 100 coral atolls.
Millions of years ago each was an island, but when the volcanoes that formed them became extinct and subsided, all that remained were these coral-encrusted islets rising a few feet above the water. Most are so small they look like dollops of sand strewn across the surface of the sea.
Rangiroa dwarfs the other atolls. Its hundreds of islets stretch more than 110 miles, encircling a deep lagoon. One of the largest atolls in the world, it is so big that the city of Los Angeles could nearly fit within its lagoon.
But it has little else in common with the City of Angels. Cars are few in Rangiroa—it has only about 10 miles of paved roads. Far from the traffic jams, pollution and edge-of-the-seat anxieties of daily life in a megalopolis, Rangiroa drifts in a sea of sublime simplicity.
"It's easy to live here," said Rangiroa resident Moana Estall, who spent several years in Tahiti. "If you want to eat, you go fishing. In Tahiti, if you want to eat you go to the market and buy fish, and it's expensive and not so good."
The atoll is almost unknown outside the scuba-diving community, which prizes it for its crystalline waters and abundant marine life. Its anonymity has preserved an authenticity that is disappearing in a South Seas world of faux realities.
A friend who was sailing the South Pacific told me years ago about Rangiroa. It sounded like a rainbow chaser's dream, so I tucked it away in my mind, hoping to visit one day. My chance came last spring, when I tacked it onto a trip to Tahiti and Bora-Bora. After visiting both, Rangi—its nickname—seemed like Paradise Found: a slow-paced haven for travelers who wonder what Polynesia was like before the hotel industry discovered it.
The atoll, like its sister island Tahiti 200 miles southwest, is a French territory, and most of its 2,500 residents speak French or Tahitian. Rangi's residents always have depended on fishing for their livelihood. Tourism has begun to augment their incomes, but it's still small scale.
Bora-Bora, less than half Rangiroa's size in area, has 1,000 hotel rooms. Rangi has about 160, with a range of accommodations from air-conditioned, over-the-water bungalows at $800 a night to guesthouses or rooms in private homes for about $100 daily. Most tourists arrive in summer, although the weather often is more pleasant in the fall, when hotel and airfare rates are lower.
I stayed at a small inn, Les Relais de Joséphine, paying $216 a night for an un-air-conditioned cottage with an extraordinary location overlooking Tiputa Pass and the twice-daily dolphin acrobatics show.
The morning after my arrival, I boarded a skiff with about a dozen other tourists and spent more than an hour bouncing through choppy waters to Lagon Bleu, or Blue Lagoon. (No, not the one made famous by Brooke Shields in the 1980 film. Blue Lagoons are as common on tropical islands as Main Streets are in the U.S.)
The tour boat driver stopped about 50 yards from a picturesque islet crowned by swaying palms. The lagoon was so clear that I had no trouble spotting three black-tip sharks circling near the boat. We would have to run a gantlet to get to the alluring white beach off the bow, but no one hesitated. I plowed ahead, wading through waist-deep water, keeping a wary eye on the three fins near me. There were 13 sets of legs and only three sharks. Not bad odds. Besides, the sharks were small.
Lagon Bleu, one of the most popular tourist excursions in Rangi, is a lagoon within a lagoon, a shallow turquoise pool carved into the reef on the northwestern edge of the main lagoon. It's ringed by motu, small islets, and offers myriad spots to snorkel. But most of us spent the morning crossing a sharp coral reef to l'île des oiseaux, a bird sanctuary a couple of miles north where hundreds of gulls and other seabirds nest.
The boat's crew used our absence to prepare a Polynesian-style lunch of grilled chicken and fish, rice, mango juice, corn and sweetbread cake. It was a refreshing change from the French food served in most of Rangi's hotel restaurants. We ate at tables shaded by coconut palms, their fronds rustling in the breeze. Cumulus clouds drifted across a blue sky, and frigate birds coasted overhead on currents of air. It was a perfect afternoon—almost. The problem? Being on an uninhabited island with a dozen people I didn't know.
Rangiroa is a honeymooner's dream. It has miles of empty beaches and hundreds of deserted motu, where, if you have a boat, you can play Robinson Crusoe. Still, I got to know my tour companions a bit better during the day. And our chumminess ratcheted up tenfold as we departed the lagoon in the afternoon. The crew had promised we'd see more sharks.
About 200 yards offshore, the bold among us were told to go overboard if we wanted an intimate encounter with them. We clung together on a line near the boat while the crew tossed leftover food into the water 15 feet away. The sea in front of us erupted in a dizzying scene of fins and ripping teeth and flashing bodies as the sharks descended for an afternoon meal.
I wished I had stayed onboard, but the frenzy was too compelling, and I had to look. I counted more than two dozen sharks of varying sizes; most were black-tips, with some lemon sharks mixed in. Both species have been known to attack humans, but they weren't interested in us with all that floating food.
Later, back at Joséphine's, the other guests and I swapped stories. My harrowing afternoon with the sharks didn't even place in the can-you-top-this competition. Most had "shot the pass," a dive touted as "the world's greatest adrenaline rush," in which divers and snorkelers are carried through Tiputa Pass in the tidal surge between the ocean and lagoon. They're surrounded by a superhighway of marine life: white, gray and black-tipped sharks, manta rays, hammerheads, hawksbill turtles, barracudas, sailfish and the dolphins who make the pass their home. The rip-current adventure is one reason Rangiroa ranks among the world's great dive destinations.