Love in the lagoon ... almost

By Jim Eagles

It was the perfect setting for romance. Kuokoa and I were side by side in the warm, clear waters of the Moorea lagoon, palm trees rustling overhead and hundreds of brightly coloured little fish swimming round our bellies.

My hands were gently stroking her soft, smooth skin and gradually our heads leaned together until they touched.

Suddenly Kuokoa turned, our eyes met, our lips parted, anything seemed possible ... and then, with a toss of the head and a roguish smile, the lissom body disappeared into the sea.

My dolphin romance was over before it had really begun, it seemed. But worse was to follow. First, I learned that Kuokoa means "Independence", obviously implying a wilful spirit, a view confirmed by the revelation that the scars on that slim body were lovebites from other dolphins.

Next I discovered that I had been romancing not a delightful Tahitian female but a 12-year-old male from Hawaii. And finally I had to sit and watch while the kiss I had thought was mine went instead to an Australian woman.

Later, trying to look as though I didn't care, I asked what the kiss was like. "It was okay," the Aussie said. "His lips are surprisingly soft. But his breath was pretty fishy."

Hmph. The whole thing was fishy if you ask me. But then the Intercontinental Resort in Moorea, where I was staying, is a very fishy place.

While you're there you'll find yourself getting up close and very personal with dolphins, turtles, stingrays and even an octopus, as well as seeing lots of beautiful tropical fish.

In addition to providing a base for the Moorea Dolphin Centre, where Kuokoa lives, the hotel houses a Sea Turtle Care Centre, where sick or injured green and hawksbill turtles are brought to be treated.

Most of the turtles are kept in their own section of the lagoon where humans aren't allowed to swim, but you can visit to learn about turtle biology, see them fed and watch turtles of all sizes gliding serenely around.

The largest is a big old hawksbill, whose encrusted green shell has earned him the name of Mossy, and he is an absolute poser.

Wander along empty-handed and he takes no notice. But turn up with a camera and I swear he instantly appears in front of you, circling through a range of poses and extending his head out of the water so you can capture his best profile.

A few turtles are in the resort's main swimming area, so if you go snorkelling there you have a good chance of seeing one ... though they don't usually hang around for a kiss.

Just off shore is the small island of Fareone - so small its name means "house of sand" - where the sea life is equally amazing.

Hang around on the beach and chances are you'll find some very large stingrays coming in to say hello.

This time I got friends with Julia - after my dolphin experience the name was comforting - who had lovely grey eyes and a soft forehead which was nice to stroke ... though the rest of her skin was a bit raspy and I was a little wary of her metre-long tail.

As luck would have it Julia's mouth was underneath her body and when I touched them her lips felt decidedly gummy so I didn't think a kiss was a good idea.

But when I went snorkelling around the coral off the island I was just about overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of her big sisters.

Evidently the big rays are used to being fed by scuba divers keen to take pictures of them so anyone with flippers and a mask looks like a very attractive meal ticket.

Suddenly finding yourself being courted by a couple of rays 1.5m wide and with tails maybe 2m long - and they look even bigger underwater - is quite ... exciting.

But for me an even bigger shock was to find myself being flirted with by Teina the octopus.

I don't know why - maybe it was watching Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea when I was young - but I've always felt nervous about things with lots of arms covered in suckers.

When I first saw her, Teina was safely crammed into a hole in the coral but soon after I arrived she came out and signalled her interest.

I have to admit I retreated rapidly - well, there were lots of beautiful multi-coloured fish I wanted to look at - but a guy from a nearby dive boat took up the challenge and tried to give the nubile young octopus a piece of fish.

However he was a bit nervous too, and didn't like to get too close so his offering was snapped by a few hundred opportunistic reef fish before Teina had a chance. Back on the beach Terry, who had earlier told me where to find the best diving, reckoned I had missed an opportunity with the octopus.

"You've got to put the fish right in her hole," he said. "Once she tastes it she'll come right out for more.

"She'll do anything for food. You can get her to sit on your head if you want."

Terry obviously knows what he's talking about. He persuaded the rays to hang around the beach by putting fish blood in the water. And he has also managed to train a frigate bird to take bits of fish from his hand.

But, bald though I may be, I'm not so keen to get a head covering that I'll go for an octopus.

Quite frankly, if I'm going to develop a relationship with a sea creature, I think I'd prefer a dolphin.

Kuokoa may have turned out to be unreliable, and to have fishy breath, but he and the three other dolphins at the Moorea Centre are beautiful and they do interact with humans to an extent I've never seen before.

As well as cuddling and kissing, the dolphins take people for rides, play jokes, let children feed them fish, show off their amazing swimming and jumping skills, ask to be tickled on the tummy, teach tricks - that's right, they train humans how to wave their flippers on cue - communicate by sound and gesture, and if you're really lucky provide a tour of the sea life in the lagoon.

Sure, I know that sort of behaviour makes some people uneasy, because it seems unnatural and the dolphins are not free to roam the oceans.

But these particular dolphins have been bred in captivity so I suspect they might miss human interaction and find it hard to survive in the wild.

And, anyway, I enjoyed the interaction and you get the impression the dolphins enjoy it too.

It's certainly hard to imagine anywhere a dolphin would like better than the lagoon at Moorea.

On one side, the jungle-clad island hills rise steeply out of the sea, soaring to magnificent rocky pinnacles with their heads in the clouds.

On the other, the swells of the mighty Pacific Ocean crash into the coral reef before sliding quietly into the tranquillity of the lagoon. And fish are everywhere.

If Kuokoa had been a female, and a bit older, and a bit less flighty, I'm sure we could have lived happily ever after in this little slice of paradise.

But perhaps I'm just deluding myself. Maybe I should stick to the traditional relationship between humans and marine animals. The Tahitian national dish of poisson cru - raw tuna - is superb. The freshwater shrimps are huge and tasty. And I'm rather partial to a grilled mahimahi steak.

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