BORA BORA, French Polynesia — 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.
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.