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French Polynesia: Swimming with sharks and whiprays

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Our guide Taaroa (second from right), tourists and a very friendly ray. Photo / Jill Worrall
Our guide Taaroa (second from right), tourists and a very friendly ray. Photo / Jill Worrall

It is a perfect morning in paradise. The lagoon is a limpid azure blue. A school of small black fish is suspended like soft smudges above the coral under the bungalow deck. I'm tempted to plunge in with them but today there are bigger marine creatures to encounter.

We meet Taaroa, our guide, at the Hilton hotel. He has some arresting tattoos, a long pony tail and a strong American accent. Although he was born on one of French Polynesia's more isolated islands, he studied marine zoology in the States and qualified as a veterinary assistant specialising in marine mammals.

We board a small motorboat and cross the lagoon, skimming above outcrops of coral that are dotted across the blindingly white sand lagoon bottom. There's the occasional snorkeller too, flippering among the fish.

After we pick up an Aussie couple from the Intercontinental Taaroa turns the boat towards the reef.

We anchor on the lagoon side where a large vessel is already disgorging passengers into the chest-deep lagoon. Circling around them are about 15 black tip reef sharks and about 30 pink whiprays (members of the stingray family). I jump in and join them.

Taaroa explains that it was a friend of his who, about 15 years ago, began feeding the rays and thus created a new tourist venture for Moorea. Today feeding these creatures and the attendant sharks is forbidden. However, enticed just by the smell of herrings that Taaroa carries with him, the creatures still visit.

A ray about a metre across glides up to where I am standing in the water beside Taaroa. It slides up his chest and I have a close up of its bulging eyes.

Better still I am shown how to touch its "wings" on the top side - never underneath, which is snowy white.

The rays feel extraordinary - velvet soft and spongy. By diving underneath I get a great view of the dark slashes of their gills fluttering and the long tail waving gently.

Someone asks if the rays' stingers have been removed. Taaroa is adamant that's something they would never do. But he adds, rays only sting if they are defending themselves. It's an interesting exercise in human-marine creature trust to watch a ray's long whip-like tail drift past just centimetres from one's thigh.

Aussie Shane is a little more dubious about the sharks.

Black-tipped reef sharks have a reputation for biting swimmers and divers back in his home state of Western Australia but Taaroa says these sharks behave very differently here.

I believe him, put my mask and snorkel on and drift among the sharks that swim around us in lazy circles. We are right on the edge of a deep channel connecting the lagoon with the open sea and hanging around in the depths are schools of large silver fish.

Between them and the other sharks swims a much larger shark - with the magnifying effect of water it's difficult for me to measure but I reckon it's at least 1.5m long.

Back with my feet on the sand, the rays are still checking us out. I love the way they swim right up to me and are equally intrigued by the number of French women tourists who have got into the water but shriek every time a ray comes close.

While we stand amongst a graceful waft of rays, I ask Taaroa what he thinks of the dolphins being kept in captivity. I was surprised by his answer. He believes that as long as the animals are cared for properly having some animals in marine parks is essential.

"How else can we learn enough about them?" he asks.

"When we see them in the wild we cannot investigate properly their level of intelligence and behaviour."

We leave the rays and sharks to come ashore at one of a pair of motu (small islands) where we'll be having lunch.

While Taaroa and a friend barbecue fish and chicken for us I go snorkelling in the channel that separates the islands. There's an abundance of fish here, some of which are incredibly friendly swimming right up to my mask and peering at me earnestly. My favourite is a little fish with a pastel pink head and spearmint green and black striped body that swims along with me.

I'm in a happy marine daze when suddenly an unexpected movement catches my eye. I nearly jump out of my flippers when I spot a group of people standing on the seafloor, air bubbles streaming to the surface. It's a learn-to-scuba class but two are wearing giant diving helmets and look distinctly bug-eyed. Maybe they thought I was a portly shark coming in for the kill.

It really is astonishing the range of wildlife that inhabits these waters.

* Jill Worrall travelled to French Polynesia courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme, Air Tahiti Nui and stayed at the Moorea Pearl Resort and Spa.

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