Rangiroa – The largest atoll in the Tuamotus, famous for some of the best scuba diving in the world. It also has a treacherous entrance.
Météo-France Polynésie Française provides regular bulletins on marine weather, including swell heights and tides throughout the region. We’d refer to this information daily during our stay to determine the currents in/out of the atolls.
With a normal sea-level, passes into atolls can generally be entered at slack water – low or high tide – but when the swell is higher than usual, this excess water comes over the reef filling the atolls, with drainage only through the narrow passes. Therefore, arriving at slack water doesn’t always mean an easy transit into the lagoon; often you can be fighting against a 5kn current just to get into the atoll.
Our arrival at Passe Tiputa was after low tide in the morning so we were expecting an ingoing current. We followed the leads and managed to stay east of the turbulent water coming out of the atoll. Even on a supposed flood tide, we still had 3kn against us, our engine keeping us moving forward at around 3.5kn. Obviously much water inside the atoll trying to flow out.
The following day with a higher swell, and with more water flowing out of the narrow pass, we watched as boats struggled to enter on a flood tide, with 5kn current against them. The outflow only grew worse over the subsequent days, with Météo-France bulletins notifying of 4m swells coming up from the south and flooding the region. A strong outflow can mean a fast exit, but not always a pleasant one. The confused water and standing waves can cause vessels to flail and yaw, pitching and rolling as it navigates the turbulent current. The waves can knock the bow and push the boat sideways…not much fun.
We wanted to dive the pass, so each day we watched and waited, and waited, and waited for suitable conditions to attempt a dive in the Tiputa Pass. Wayne and Kevin (SY Kismet) each drove the dinghies out one day along the eastern bank, but conditions weren’t good enough to dive on our own.
The wind eased for a few days, but the swell was still around 2m outside – at least 1m higher than usual. Waiting for conditions to ease, we snorkelled on Motu Nuhi Nuhi along the Rangiroa Underwater Trail “The Aquarium” – loads of fish and healthy coral.
A couple of days later, we decided to see if a dive on the eastern bank was feasible, so we loaded the dinghies with our dive gear, donned our wetsuits and, joined by Kevin in his dinghy, we motored around to the pass. The eastern side of the pass is where the divers go, but this day no-one was out there. With our little dinghy and our 8hp outboard, no sooner had we rounded the corner, we were flowing very fast towards 1m standing waves! The timing was for an incoming tide, but the swell was causing an outflow of around 3kn. Wayne put the outboard into gear and with full throttle but we were going nowhere – the current stronger than our little motor! The only way out was to head diagonally towards the bank and get out of the current, not sideways otherwise we’d have no forward momentum and would drift into the huge waves. I knew we were in trouble when I saw the patrons of the nearby restaurant standing up and taking photos (I’m sure there’s footage of us on social media somewhere; just search for “Middle-aged couple attempt to dive Tiputa Pass in a small dinghy”). Eventually the dinghy began to gain ground, slowly. Kevin managed to motor his dinghy away from the current and eventually we got closer to the bank and away from the strong pull of the current. Phew!
The dive aborted, we dinghied to Motu Nuhi Nuhi and considered diving there, but with at least 2kn outflow there, and likely to be murky, we decided to call it a day.
A few days later, still watching the daily swell bulletins, which never quite eased, it was clear that the only way that I’d dive with dolphins at Rangiroa safely is to go with a dive group.
So, I booked a spot with The Six Passengers (they only take five divers and a dive-master, plus driver), and with 400hp had no problem driving through the pass to the outer reef. I used their SCUBA tanks and regs but I was more comfortable in my own fins, goggles and wetsuit.
By 8am the fast boat was speeding through the anchorage then out through the Tiputa Pass and to the east, dropping off on the outer reef wall into the deep blue. The water was choppy and there’s no way our little dinghy could’ve gone out there.
Visibility was extremely good and following the dive-master, the small group, including me and Kevin from SY Kismet, floated around 14m into the deep blue.
A huge photogenic Napoleon Wrasse swam by, plus a few Barracuda lurked in the shadows, but the main event didn’t happen until at least 35-40 minutes into the dive. A group of dolphins appeared and had quite an audience, as there were at least two other dive groups out there. The dolphins greeted the divers one by one; Kevin got some great footage of a dolphin, before it swam up to me. I rubbed my hand along its side and swam as fast as I could to keep up, but eventually the dolphin flicked his tail, slowly moving onto the next couple of people to greet. Other dolphins swam around us peacefully and stayed until we had to ascend. What a fantastic experience!
Back on shore; a little bit about facilities for cruisers at Rangiroa. The anchorage is just west of the Tiputa Pass and most yachts anchor here. To the east across the pass is the village of Tiputa, and to the west is Ohuto. About 8kms west passing the airport is the village of Avatoru and the wider Avatoru Pass.
Each village has a small church, or churches, as there are other denominations too. Avatoru is the main hub, with supermarkets, post office, police, and tourist accommodation, while Ohuto has accommodation, a couple of supermarkets, and a few restaurants, including Les relais de Josephine which has good views of the pass and serves up reasonably priced modest lunches, as well as local cuisine. You can hire a bike for around US$10 for the day and ride the flat road to Avatoru. Just up from the wharf are big bins to dump recyclables and garbage skips right next to the wharf.
A supply ship came during our stay and it wasn’t long before the produce filled the shelves, but it didn’t take long for these items to disappear just as quickly. Like the other atolls, baguettes can be bought first thing in the morning, and there may be some locally grown veggies (I managed to get 20 fresh eggs but you have to be quick). As this will be our last stop in the Tuamotus, we have enough produce to keep us going until we reach Tahiti where veggies should be plentiful.
In Tahiti we have to order the high-pressure hose for our watermaker. We haven’t filled our water tanks for over two weeks, but with squalls and downpours we’ve managed to catch enough to keep us going.
Reports from other cruisers already at Tahiti is that getting a berth or anchorage at Papeete is problematic as there are many long-term yachts filling up the mooring fields and marinas. Doesn’t leave too many options for transiting yachts so we will have to be creative when visiting.
Tahiti is 230nm southwest of Rangiroa and we’ll take a couple of days of slow sailing.