TAHITI: Swimming With Sharks in Bora Bora

Ukulele Serenade By Lagoon Service Guide in Bora Bora, Tahiti

Swimming With Sharks in Bora Bora, Tahiti

 

If you’ve ever dreamed of visiting the island of Bora Bora, this was the sort of day you probably fantasized about.

 

The sky was such a rich shade of blue it was almost indigo, with just a smattering of wispy white clouds to provide contrast. The dreamy watercolors of the island’s world-famous lagoon were equally dazzling, and clear enough that you could easily spot a swimming sea turtle from a hundred yards away.

 

When our Lagoon Service Bora Bora guide took out his ukulele and began softly strumming a romantic ballad as we slowly motored past pristine white beaches and palm-lined motu (islets) without another soul in sight, I began to understand why Mary had this Polynesian paradise at the top of her World Travel Bucket List for 15+ years.

 

Snorkeling with sharks in Bora Bora, Tahiti

Mary Reenacts Her Favorite Scene from Jaws

 

But that peaceful easy feeling didn’t last long. Although the ride was relaxing and almost absurdly picturesque, we were here for an adventure– namely, swimming with sharks in the shallow waters off Bora Bora’s coast.

 

We saw the first Blacktip Reef Sharks before our boat had even come to a complete stop. As the Captain worked to tie us off to an anchored buoy, a half-dozen or so of the 5-foot-long sharks swam in slow circles nearby, along with several Stingrays and a school of yellow-and-black-striped Sergeant Major fish.

 

Swimming with Sharks in Bora Bora, Tahiti

A Blacktip Reef Sharks Gives Me the Eye

 

Mary and I are such experienced snorkelers, we were already swimming around and filming shark close ups before our fellow travelers– a quiet older couple, a younger couple, and a high-maintenance family of three from New York (including a 10-year-old who seemed VERY unsure about this whole endeavor) – had even gotten into the water.

 

This wasn’t the first time we swam with sharks: I took my daughter to swim with Nurse Sharks in the Bahamas the summer she turned six, and Mary and I have snorkeled or dove with reef sharks in the Galapagos Islands, Panama and Caño Island, Costa Rica.

 

But there was something different about this experience I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It seemed as if more and more sharks began to show up after we arrived, until there were dozens of them all around us. And while they started off calm and curious, you could feel a gradual ramping up of their energy and intensity.

 

 

Our guide asked everyone to move over to one side of a rope stretched out between two buoys, which seemed odd since the sharks were swimming all around us. The water was shallow enough to stand up in, so what was the point of having us stand right by the rope?

 

As I fumbled to get into position and extend our 6-foot GoPro pole, I saw something flying through the air and landing in the water near the sharks out of the corner of my eye. They started going BONKERS, swimming back and forth at a feverish pace and bumping into my camera (which, thankfully, was six feet from my body) in their excitement.

 

I looked back over my shoulder, and it was then that I realized the cause of the commotion: Our guide was throwing dead fish bits into the water!

 

Swimming with Blacktip Reef Sharks in Bora Bora, Tahiti

Face to Face With a Friendly Shark

 

I was shocked, and my feelings were torn. On the one hand, the experience of being so close to a shark feeding frenzy was undoubtedly an adrenaline rush, and I knew the footage we were getting would be amazing.

 

But on the other hand, after nearly four years of managing Green Global Travel, I also knew it was wrong on so many levels to feed sharks.

 

Although reef sharks are generally harmless, feeding them teaches them to associate humans with food. There’s always the chance that a tourist could accidentally get bitten by an over-zealous shark in the heat of the moment. And the tour  offered no education about sharks or conservation: The focus was on the sheer spectacle of it all.

 

Feeding Rays in Bora Bora, Tahiti

Our Guide Grapples a Ray for Tourist Photo Ops

 

So I was already feeling a little awkward and uncomfortable before our guide began holding small pieces of fish underwater to attract the Stingrays that were swimming around, clearly hoping to get a piece of the action.

 

The little girl in our group, who had been screeching in fear off and on throughout the experience, began screaming as the guide pulled a Stingray to the top of the water near her father (on whose shoulders she was currently perched). Crying unbcontrollably, she begged her father to move away. So he stepped aside and let the other guests pose for photos with the Stingray on their backs.

 

When it was our turn, we politely declined, but didn’t explain why.

 

Moray Eel in Bora Bora, Tahiti

A Moray Eel Defends His Territory

 

As we made our way to a nearby coral reef for a second round of snorkeling, we asked our guide whether they had always handled the rays and fed the sharks in Bora Bora, or if it was done primarily to appease tourists.

 

“If people pay all this money for a tour and only see one or two sharks, they complain,” he explained. “All of our competitors do it, so the tourists expect it. If we don’t do it, we won’t make any money.”

 

How do you respond to that? Whose responsibility is it to make sustainable ecotourism choices: The Traveler? The Tour Operator? The Government?

 

Lagoon Service Bora Bora, Tahiti

Photo Provided by Lagoon Service Bora Bora

 

Ultimately, I believe it’s a combination of all three, but that we, as travelers, have to start by making smart choices that put financial pressure on tour operators and government organizations to regulate their tourism industry in a more sustainable fashion.

 

That being said, it’s not like I spoke up when it was happening. So I’m as guilty as anyone of supporting a business that should show more respect for the environment and help preserve it for future generations.

 

In the end, I have to confess that we had a great time with Lagoon Service Bora Bora (which also included an amazing lunch on one of the motu), despite the fact that my conscience made me feel guilty for doing so. I look back on our video footage now and it gets my pulse pounding. I just wish those fond memories weren’t tainted by the feeling that I did something that betrayed my core values.  –by Bret Love; photos & video by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett (except where otherwise noted)

 

Our trip to Tahiti was sponsored by Tahiti TourismBut we will never compromise our obligation to our readers. Our opinions remain our own. 

 

 

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TAHITI: Ruahatu Marine Sanctuary, Bora Bora

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  1. You work in such a “tough” industry. On the one hand, we need to experience nature and animals to appreciate them. That’s vital because I firmly believe that what we love, we protect. On the other hand, experiencing them may also harm them. It’s a real balancing act. It’s unfortunate that the tour company has the attitude that everyone else is doing it so that, and making money, justifies them doing so. They could have taken advantage of a more Eco-stance and used it to bring people in. I’m sure that many people would have opted for a company which didn’t lure the animals in but rather offered an opportunity to experience them in a safe, and kind way. Thank you for pointing it out … hopefully all who read your blog will learn from your experiences.
    Small Footprints recently posted..My Vegan Life – Picnics, Grilling, and the 4th of JulyMy Profile

  2. Interesting read. The same problem occurs with turtles – we have seen it here in Europe. The tourists want to see the turtles mating and laying eggs, but they don’t understand the impact their presence has. I have been known to get quite vocal upon occasion 🙂

    E x
    Elle recently posted..Mojo rojo recipeMy Profile

  3. I did this same exact tour many years ago, and struggled with these same feelings. It’s sad that more people think of themselves and getting the perfect picture rather than honoring the energy of these animals and letting them “be” in their natural habitat.
    Valen-This Way Paradise recently posted..Kathu Festival in PhuketMy Profile

  4. That Moray Eel looks really scary. Those things creep me right out. Either way this looks super fun but I think I would be a bit on edge being so close to those sharks and ray’s.

    My parents were just in Tahiti and did some snorkeling but nothing like this. I will have to remember to find this place and maybe get up enough courage to actually do it.
    Kevin | Guess This City recently posted..Swimming with pigs in the Exuma, BahamasMy Profile

  5. thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this, Bret. I often see boat operators “chumming” to attract fish, and I’m so torn, I think it’s a dangerous thing to associate humans with food, and I worry that the chumming will disrupt the food chain and the animals natural hunting. That said, I have a lot of sympathy for the fact that the tour operators are just trying to make a living in a competitive industry. It might be easy to demonize the tour operators as the ones in the wrong, but I think that, as tourists, we need to take a lot of the responsibility.
    Micki Kosman recently posted..How To Become A Professional Travel Blogger – Going ProMy Profile

  6. I have spent days in The Bora Bora lagoon snorkeling, out with a local by the name of Patrick who everyone knows there. He takes tourists out in his boat where they/me enter the water with the sharks and stingrays. Patrick does not feed or do anything to encourage these to congregate around the swimmers, sometimes they are there in large numbers, other times not many, its the luck of the draw. There was no environmental or any other concerns to worry about. Go and enjoy.

  7. I had a similar experience in Fiji and it ruined my snorkeling trip. We were also going on a tour to snorkel with sharks, but the guides would swim down and grab the reef sharks by the head and force them to the surface so people could touch them. Everyone crowded around the shark and I felt like I was the only person who stayed back and was shocked by what they were doing. The guides would also throw their anchors directly on top of the reef, which also made me cringe.
    Ashley recently posted..A Two Week Itinerary of Western AustraliaMy Profile

  8. Such a shame that a combination of expectations has led to the manipulation of the sharks.

    I think the largest problem amongst them is that when people pay thousands to travel somewhere to see something, they want what they paid their money for. It’s not right. Not everything in life is perfect, and if you can afford to travel to Bora Bora for anywhere else to see animals then you must have patience and time to let them come to you when they’re ready rather than forcing the issue.

  9. You do raise a very important point about sustainable ecotourism which undoubtedly is a rising concern. We agree, there should be changes that come about, not just with shark, but with other wildlife interactions.

    Aside from the feeding practices, it sounds and looked like an incredible experience (and that location is like being in paradise)! Thanks for the great read =)

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  11. Oh my god, well done for swimming so close to them !!! I am so obsessed and scared of sharks. When I am in the water I always feel like, a big jaw is going to appear from out of nowhere and take me in the deep blue. I know it is completely irrational and wrong to think like that but I cannot help it.

    When we were in the Maldives last november, I saw sharks for the first time (reef sharks no bigger than 2 metres I would say) and they could not have cared less about me. But still, I cannot say I was totally relaxed… I hope that with time and more dives, I will stop being so scared and start apreciate their beauties.

    They are beautiful creature and they must be protected and respected so I do hope the government in Bora Bora will regulate these activities. It is wrong to feed them like this because as you said they start associating us with food and this is how accidental bites happen.

    Soon my partner and I will be off to Indonesia and the Philipines, which are well known for their diving sites, so maybe we will see biggersharks, who knows…
    Sebastien recently posted..Maldives on a budgetMy Profile

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