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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 Tourism. But we will never compromise our obligation to our readers. Our opinions remain our own.
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