Halima Ali gets closer than she expected with the marine life of Bora Bora on a diving trip to the Pacific island of Tahiti
“The sharks?” chuckles our boat captain Terry, with a huge mischievous grin. “They are this big,” he says, holding his hands a short distance apart. “And some about this big,” he adds, stretching his arms as far as they can go. He laughs again when met with our horrified expressions, the colour slowly draining from our faces. He seems to find our terror hilarious.
There had been a rapid change of events. Against a beautiful backdrop of overwater villas, beaches, palm trees and the most sparkling turquoise and cerulean waters you could ever imagine, I’d happily boarded the boat that morning on the small Pacific island of Bora Bora expecting a docile lagoon excursion, where we might spot some sea life, take pictures and soak up the sun while picnicking on a motu (islet).
Instead, Terry looks only too happy to inform us that we’ll be swimming with not only fish but also stingrays and sharks. And, of course, we’re heading straight to the deep end first — literally — beginning with the fiercest of them all.
As my seafaring companions hum the Jaws theme tune, discuss Steve Irwin’s death by stingray and joke about having cut themselves while shaving that morning, I nervously look around for a lifejacket as I can barely swim. There isn’t one.
I feel nauseous, partly because of seasickness but mostly through fear. Terry, meanwhile, seems to be having the time of his life. As the boat moves through the waters at high speed — occasionally catching a wave in the wrong spot and lifting us out of our seats before bringing us down with a bump — he strums away on a ukulele and sings his heart out, every so often using his elbows to turn the wheel.
We can barely hear him over the noise of the engine and the wind lashing our faces, but this doesn’t deter him. At one point he’s simply shouting the lyrics to Over The Rainbow. As I contemplate what I’m about to do, we pass paddle-boarders and kayakers who give a habitual wave as we zip by. The water, which changes colour depending on depth, was light blue when we first boarded, but is getting darker the further we travel.
Suddenly we come to a halt. “That man is praying before he goes out to sea,” says Terry, pointing at a tiny fishing boat in the distance before pausing for a minute in silence. When he’s done, the fisherman turns to give us a wave and is on his way. As are we.
When we arrive at our destination, we all peer over the edge looking for tell-tale fins. There are none. Instead, I can make out the blurry outline of masses of fish just below the surface. As everyone muddles about, fiddling with goggles that are too tight and flippers that are too big, I ask for a lifejacket and to my relief one is retrieved from the hull.
Taking the plunge
One by one the others get into the water while I hang back. With no one left, I ungracefully clamber on to the stern of the boat and try to get my huge flippers positioned correctly on the boarding ladder so that I can ease myself into the water slowly. “Wait, wait!” I tell Terry as he lingers, already submerged. I try to gee myself up, but his patience runs out and he gently pulls me in.
Swimming a little away from the boat, I’m told to look down into the dark blue sea. My ears immediately fill with water and I can hear only my rushed, panicked breathing as I look all the way to the seabed.
And then I see them, the fish swimming inches from my face. At first sight, they have black bodies with silvery white edges, but the more I look the more colours I notice. My breathing slows down. It’s surreal. I feel as if I’m watching something in 3D, as though they wouldn’t be real if I touched them.
Mesmerised by the wall of fish directly in front of me, I almost don’t see it at first. And then I do. The blacktip shark swimming below me. It looks far enough away, so I don’t panic — until, that is, I quickly spot a second, bigger, lemon shark a lot closer, moving from side to side as it glides through the water.
My ears fill with the familiar sound of my panicked breathing. I start to flap my arms and legs as I try to swim in a different direction and I head to the boat for safety.
I cling briefly to the ladder before forcing myself to swim back out, but whenever I glance down I see sharks. At times, I lift my head out of the water and look around at the seemingly empty ocean surrounding me, pretending to myself I don’t know what’s lurking beneath my flippers.
But slowly I start to relax. And before too long I find I’m almost enjoying counting sharks. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight… it goes on.
Feeding the fish
Our next stop, Coral Garden, couldn’t be more different. Here in the shallower lagoon, there are hoards of other boats and tourists in the water. With bread in my hand I get in, now feeling like a pro.
Here it feels as though there are an infinite number of fish of an impossible number of colours. I throw small bits of bread at them and they swarm around me, gently nudging my elbows. Leaving Terry sitting on the boat strumming his ukulele, I swim further away, trying to avoid the other snorkellers, and notice ‘I love Bora’ spelt out with rocks on the seabed.
Moving towards the coral reef, I see a man sitting on the sandy seabed lifting a huge rock in a display of strength. Another muscular Tahitian, with long dark hair trailing down his back and wearing a loincloth, does impressive spins underwater, showing off for the tourists. When I tire of the theatrics — and bumping into others — I make my way back to the boat and we head to our next stop.
In similarly shallow waters, we’re surrounded by stingrays. As Terry lifts them up and kisses their faces, we squeal with horror. The grey, diamond-shaped fish with their flattened bodies are clingy. They want to be around you, and worried about aggravating them, I realise I’m more afraid of them than I was of the sharks. I try to keep my eye on all of them, which is hard to do as they sit covered in sand before suddenly shaking off their camouflage and making a move.
Later on, after taking us close to a beach, Terry lowers the anchor and disappears among the trees in search of long leaves. Bringing back his wares, he sets about preparing lunch. On the bow, he peels and cuts grapefruit, cracks open the coconut that has been rolling around on deck since morning, and brings out a delicious home-baked coconut loaf, displaying it all on the palm fronds he has bound together.
My hands are sticky with salt water, but I eagerly tuck in as Terry starts the engine and takes us back to dry land — all the while belting out Stand By Me at the top of his voice.
This feature was published in ABTA Magazine and on CountryByCountry