Polynesian Honeymooners Meet Sharks at Bora Bora

With its plentiful sunshine, it was the perfect honeymoon hideaway. Polynesian cuisine. Secluded coves on tiny coral islands. A school of sharks in a feeding frenzy.

If you've never thought of dorsal fins as the highlight of a romantic getaway, you have yet to discover Bora Bora.

It is the only place in the world where you can stand chest-deep in water, watching natives hand-feed black-tipped reef sharks only a few feet from your disbelieving eyes.

We are not talking about cages or nets, or some gimmick. Just you and more than a dozen sharks. Eyeball to eyeball. Or eyeball to camera, if you're smart. So close that you could just about touch one as it glides by, if you weren't so terrified.

The Polynesians call it a "shark feeding," and we discovered it quite by accident as part of one of the finest organized day trips my wife and I have ever experienced.

Range of Accommodations

The sole industry of the island appears to be tourism, and so the inhabitants specialize in hospitality. Bora Bora boasts fine hotels that offer accommodations ranging from garden rooms ($150 a night) to rooms built on piers out over the beautiful lagoon ($300 a night), as well as many hotels at less cost.

As for restaurants, the fish selection at Bloody Mary's was sensational (if you can tolerate the poor service), and Chez Christian was a splendid bistro and one of the most reasonably priced restaurants on the island. The dining room at our hotel was romantic and picturesque, but overpriced.

Our luckiest find in French Polynesia was a small French restaurant called the Blue Lagoon (formerly LaGuinguette). The owner/chef, Marcien Navarro, creates a friendly atmosphere and offers specialties of paella, Valenciana beef in Roquefort sauce and a stunning array of fresh fish including mahi mahi, carrengue, parrotfish and tuna. The price range for a full meal (including peach melba for dessert) was $18 to $25 per person.

Better still, Navarro offers what he calls his "special excursion," which turned out to be the highlight of our two-week stay.

The excursion is a full day of discovering Bora Bora by circumnavigating the island in a motorized Tahitian outrigger canoe called a pirogue. The captain of the excursion is Navarrao's 22-year-old son, Fabrice. The first mate chore alternates between Fabrice's 19-year-old sister, Florence, and his 20-year-old girlfriend, Augustine, who won the Miss Bora Bora title last year.

Headed for Coral Reef

Fabrice picked up six of us at our hotel and chauffeured us to the Blue Lagoon for a cup of Tahitian coffee before our 9:30 a.m. departure. Once aboard the outrigger, our captain asked if we were interested in seeing something called a "shark feeding." After some nervous glances around the canoe, we agreed and headed out to a coral reef a quarter-mile from shore. (We learned later that half the excursions choose not going anywhere near the sharks.)

At the reef, another canoe filled with a dozen excited tourists was anchoring in four feet of water. Fabrice invited us to jump in with our masks and snorkels to watch the sharks. He assured us that it was perfectly safe, and pointed out that such shark feedings have happened daily for three years.

As I slid over the side of the boat, Fabrice called a quick warning that I must leave my fins behind. He explained that fins excite the sharks. I complied, without bothering to ask how he knew.

About a dozen of us lined up in the water with our masks on, our cameras in hand and our hearts in our throats. Some of the group chose to stay in the canoes. Each of us grasped a cord strung between the two canoes to keep us from drifting in the light current.

Two young Tahitian men stood four feet in front of our line, one with a bucket of fish heads, the other as a lookout. The first Tahitian grasped a large fish head and swirled it in the water for several minutes. A four-foot gray shark with black-tipped fins appeared in the distance, approached the Tahitian and circled him right in front of us. The fish head was quickly withdrawn and held out of the water.

Company Arrives

The shark left. We breathed again. We hoped it was over and we could continue the tour.

The Tahitian repeated the swirling of the fish head in the clear water, inviting three sharks to approach this time. Then five. Then 10.

Our group was remarkably quiet.

The fish head was released and a dozen sharks up to six feet long bumped into each other and ripped it apart. They circled the young man continuously, their dorsal fins breaking the surface, as he alternately swirled fish heads in the water and tossed them to groups of hungry, frenzied sharks.

Our cameras snapped nonstop as the sharks circled their source of food and swept closely in front of our faces. The predators ignored our wall of 24 legs as if we were a barrier. They swam within feet of us. A couple of my photos were blurry because the sharks were too close for a clear focus.

The shark feed lasted just over 10 minutes and culminated when a clutch of fish heads was thrown away from our group toward the open sea. I had given up counting, but my wife counted 15 sharks that went after the big prize and, as we climbed safely back into the outriggers, headed out to deeper water.

We were speechless. We rested in the canoe for a while, savoring the exhilaration and marveling at the sleek beauty of the creatures we had encountered face-to-face.

Fed Other Fish

And that was only the start of our excursion. From there we swam at the reef, feeding schools of beautiful butterfly fish and Picasso fish, so named because their angular markings are reminiscent of a Picasso portrait. The fish ate benetiers (giant sea clams) from our hands. Fabrice and Florence took us to a deserted motu (coral island) for a catered picnic where he demonstrated the art of piercing coconuts with a spear and serving fresh milk and coconut meat.

After a quick nap in the sun, we motored to another motu where an outdoor aquarium was being built. We took to the water in a large fenced-off area where we had close looks at many types of tropical fish. Graceful giant rays glided by us and we played tag with a huge sea turtle for almost an hour.

While we weren't eating, drinking or cavorting with the marine life, Fabrice was motoring us leisurely all around Bora Bora, offering great views of the island and its reefs and motus .

At 4 p.m. we made our way back to the Blue Lagoon for happy hour and a special treat. Fabrice had videotaped portions of the excursion.

The cost of the day: $40 per person including all food, drinks, transportation and, yes, the sharks. And remember, tipping is forbidden in Tahiti.

It proved to be our single most exciting and enjoyable day in Tahiti. For reservations or personalized videotaping, contact Fabrice Navarro at the Blue Lagoon. Or for a shorter excursion with no lunch, contact Hotel Sofitel Marara, originator of the shark feeding, at B.P. 6, Bora Bora, French Polynesia.

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