A bobble-head dive helmet allows Megan Singleton to get up close and personal with the sealife.
I'm walking like an astronaut along the ocean floor, wearing a dive helmet while tropical fish flutter past my face. "Listen for the music," says Vincent, the long-haired surfy Frenchman who started this unique dive company, AquaBlue, on the tiny Tahitian island of Moorea about six years ago. By music he means the reassuring hiss of oxygen blowing down the yellow hose from the tank attached to the dive boat.
I climb down the ladder to about waist deep and his assistant Stefan uses a pulley to lower the heavy Russian headgear on to my shoulders. I hear the music, all right. It's loud and essentially comforting as Vincent motions for me to climb down the ladder and drift to the ocean floor about three metres below.
The helmet has a collar of padded fabric but I can put my hand inside it and arrange my hair at any time, Vincent explained when we anchored at this coral garden. The pressure of the air pumping into the helmet ensures the water stays out. Not being a physicist, this defies logic to me, but as my hair is wet from snorkelling just a few minutes earlier and hanging annoyingly in my face, I do it. Sure enough, I'm still breathing and no water has gushed in.
Vincent takes my hand and walks me across the ocean floor to wait for the next three who will descend the ladder and checks that my ears are okay. I swallow to pop them open, then give the A-okay hand signal divers use.
But I'm not okay with my walking. It's like one of those dreams where you can't seem to get a proper stride and everything is in slow motion. I look like a bobble-head doll and walk like an astronaut, kind of jumping, drifting sideways and floundering. Despite water making things weightless, this helmet is heavy enough to keep me on the white sand of the lagoon floor without a weight belt. I soon get used to this odd perspective of magnification and resign myself that I'm just not going to get anywhere very fast.
Once our party has assembled, we follow Vincent, in his scuba gear for ease of guiding, to a large rock and stand there to watch the show. He has a perforated canister full of pieces of fish and all of Neptune's creatures are after him, including two over-excited stingrays that we are encouraged to touch. He even grabs their tails showing just how safe they are.
Closer to shore, hordes of snorkellers on another tour are enjoying the ray-feeding. These big grey stingrays glide around hundreds of holiday-makers each day and there's never been an injury.
Moorea is Tahiti's most popular island for Kiwis. Only 35 minutes by ferry from Papeete, it's the closest lagoon to the mainland and is dotted with resorts, guest houses and self-catering pensions.
We're staying in an overwater bungalow at the Intercontinental Hotel. Our front door is off a coconut tree-studded pathway, and part of our lounge and our balcony hangs over the water. Earlier in the day I rented a snorkel, mask and fins from the activities centre (no charge for hotel guests) and jumped in to swim with the fish nibbling on the coral below. My husband threw pieces of baguette (even the fish eat French cuisine) and I tried to get them to eat out of my hands. Alas, they came close but were a little shy.
Three elderly dolphins also live in this part of the lagoon, which is fenced off as a sanctuary. One dolphin was trained by the US navy to do sonar studies and retired here. They are as tame as can be and get very excited when their trainers take visitors into the water to play. There's no ball, hoop or flames, just a bit of zooming back and forth and a spectacular leap in the air on command. They pose for photos lying on their backs and even cluck on command. It's amazing how a piece of dead fish can tempt a mammal to show off.
We rented a car and tootled around the island using a map that highlighted some of the sights. But it was the unmarked places we stumbled on that really made the trip special.
We visited expat American Laurel Samuela and her Tahitian husband James who does traditional tattooing. They run a single guest house on their property for those who want luxury without being surrounded by hotel guests. Across the road on the beach we met locals sitting waist-deep in the water cleaning fish. Children, dogs and seagulls hovered as we greeted each other with, "Ia Orana!"
That night, we ate at the Mayflower, a homely French restaurant along the main road. We got chatting with a table of locals and were invited to their home in Papeete for dinner two nights later. Roland and Annie were wonderful hosts. He is president of a society which speaks out for the victims of the Mururoa Atoll bomb testing and is invited to speak around the world on the subject. Annie was a cordon-bleu chef in Paris before owning a restaurant in California and now cooking for us. We sat outside in the balmy evening at their humble home on land Roland's grandfather owned and talked politics, rugby, food, and what it's like to dive in a bobble-head helmet.
Where to stay:
* Le Meridien at Papeete for at least one night to tie in with your flights. The resort has its own private beach, overwater bungalows, restaurant and pool surrounded by sand.
* Intercontinental Resort Moorea has garden bungalows and overwater bungalows. Three restaurants, a pool with a swim up bar and private beach. It's also the hub of many great excursions to the tiny motus.
* Te Nunoa Moorea is a guest house at Haapiti on the western side of the island. It is self-catering and across the road from the beach.
Where to eat:
* Snack Mahana: Turn left out of the Intercontinental and drive about 2km. It's a low-key garden restaurant with outstanding food. Try the breaded mahi mahi.
* The Mayflower: Turn right out of the Intercontinental and drive about 3km for delicious French cuisine. Get the concierge to make a reservation for you, as this place is popular.
* Legends Resort: Across the road from the Intercontinental. This is fine dining French cuisine on the hillside. During the day the views over the bungalows and coral reefs below are fabulous.
* Avis has a rental office at the ferry terminal at Moorea.
* Take the ferry from Papeete to Moorea. Roundtrip is about $30 and it'll take about half an hour.
* Air Tahiti Nui fly three times per week from Auckland to Papeete.
For more see tahitinow.co.nz.
Megan Singleton travelled to Tahiti courtesy of Air Tahiti Nui with assistance from Tahiti Tourism.