For most divers, one of the biggest thrills of the sport is encountering the creatures that we share the underwater world with. Many of the scuba destinations on this site are dedicated to the best places to see these creatures, and most of us are willing to travel long distances and pay a lot of money to come face-to-face with our favourites, whether that be sharks, mantas, turtles or dolphins. There is one very special place where it is possible to see all of these animals, perhaps even during the same dive. This place is called Rangiroa, and it is the world’s second largest atoll. Located in French Polynesia, Rangiroa means ‘long sky’ and is less than an hour’s flight from Tahiti. It may not have the best beaches in the South Pacific, but it certainly can boast some of the best diving thanks to its unique topography. Like all atolls, Rangiroa is a thin strip of land surrounded on both sides by plunging reef walls, encircling a lagoon that is connected to the open ocean by the Avatoru and Tiputa Passes. The lagoon is impressive in its own right, measuring a staggering 40 miles in length by 20 miles across.
Rangiroa’s two passes are the key to its unparalleled marine life, due to the strong incoming and outgoing currents that flow through them every six hours with the fluctuating tide. A veritable catalogue of species follow these currents in either direction, including giant shoals of trevally, tuna and barracuda, Napoleon wrasse, turtles, and the atoll’s resident population of common bottlenose dolphin. This dolphin pod has a reputation as one of the friendliest in the world, with individuals often allowing divers to come within touching distance of them. They are exceptionally inquisitive, and many visitors to Rangiroa report being accompanied by them throughout the dive. In the late afternoon and evenings, it is usually possible to watch them frolicking at the entrance to the Tiputa Pass from land. The real stars of Rangiroa diving however are the elasmobranchs: from the endlessly graceful mantas that ride the atoll’s currents, to squadrons of beautiful spotted eagle rays, to the incredible concentrations of sharks for which this destination is truly famous. It is possible to see a breathtaking array of shark species in Rangiroa’s waters, including grey reefs, silvertips, silkies, white and blacktips, nurse sharks, tiger sharks and great hammerheads.
One of the most spectacular sights that Rangiroa has to offer is the aggregation of several shark species that gathers at the entrance to the Tiputa Pass on the incoming tide. Hovering at around 50-60 metres, this phenomenon sees hundreds of sharks suspended motionless above the seafloor as they wait for the current to abate. Combined with typically unparalleled visibility, this spectacle provides a unique opportunity for divers to observe these incredible creatures in their natural habitat. During January and February, impressive numbers of stingrays gather in the Tiputa Pass, bringing with them the great hammerheads that predate upon them. It is not uncommon to be able to witness dozens of these rare sharks hunting during one dive, making Rangiroa a very special place indeed. Measuring up to 5 metres, an encounter with a great hammerhead is not one that is likely to be forgotten, and should be on every diver’s ultimate bucket list. From early September to mid-October, the atoll plays host to another of the ocean’s most spectacular inhabitants, offering visitors the chance to observe manta rays during their migration from the waters of French Polynesia to Hawaii.
The sheer magnitude of life found beneath Rangiroa’s waves is astounding, and you can never be sure what sights an hour spent in the impossible blueness of this underwater fantasyland may yield. From lightning-fast pelagics feasting on huge shoals of harried baitfish, to a shiver of a hundred circling sharks, the diving here is never anything less than breathtaking. The visibility is usually dizzyingly good, averaging around 40 metres. Sea temperatures hover between 26-28 degrees Celsius, and Rangiroa is diveable all year round. However, the conditions are not suited to beginner divers or those lacking in confidence, due to the strength of the currents around which the marine life here revolve. Near the Avatoru and Tiputa Passes, the ocean usually experiences moderate swell and strong currents reaching up to five knots. These currents are typically too forceful to swim against, and experience with drift diving is highly advisable before attempting to tackle Rangiroa diving. It is recommended that all divers carry with them an SMB in case of separation. Many of the dive sites have maximum depths of 30 metres or more, so an Advanced qualification or higher is required. In terms of topside weather considerations, Rangiroa’s rainy season runs from November to December, while July and August are the windiest months of the year.
Although the primary reason to visit Rangiroa is its spectacular diving, there are plenty of other activities on offer either for land days or to keep non-divers entertained. It is possible to observe the exquisite marine life either via snorkel or glass-bottom boat, while operators also offer parasailing and deep-sea fishing excursions. There are a range of well worthwhile day-trips that can be taken too, whether to the beautiful Blue Lagoon or to the pink sand shores of Les Sable Roses. There is something for everyone on Rangiroa, making it a truly perfect destination for divers and non-divers alike.
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Originally from England, I first learned to dive so that I could go cage diving with great whites off Guadalupe Island, Mexico, in 2008. From that first shark encounter onwards, I have been utterly hooked on the underwater world, and particularly on the issue of shark conservation. Whilst studying for my degree in London, I worked at London Aquarium, before going to Mozambique to research whale sharks off Tofo. I completed my PADI Instructor’s course while living in South Africa, and spent nine months teaching and guiding on Aliwal Shoal, where I set up a tiger shark ID project and began writing for the conservation organisation Shark Angels. In September last year, I set off on a thirteen month journey around South East Asia, Fiji and New Zealand, and am currently instructing in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo.
Photography website: www.jessvyvyanrobinsonphotography.com