12/9/21: Taha’a Boat Tour – What Dreams are Made of!

Family and friends,
The full day Steven and I spent snorkeling with sharks and manta rays, being carried along in the swift-moving current before having hundreds of fish swarm us as they nibbled on a banana, eating a picnic lunch on a deserted motu, and touring a vanilla and a pearl farm as well as a rum distillery in far off Taha’a, French Polynesia last month has to be one of our best travel days ever. The entire day was what dreams of a vacation in the far-off South Pacific are made of!

Click here to read on our main blog or just continue below. https://bergersadventures8.blogspot.com/2022/01/12921-tahaa-boat-tour-what-dreams-are.html

Wishing all the best to you and your loved ones and to stay safe, Annie

Sunrise on Raiatea from our deck!

Steven waiting and waiting for us to be picked up for our daylong boat and snorkeling tour to Raiatea’s neighboring island of Taha’a!

The small harbor where our tour left from and …

The harbor from the water:

Our boatman, Jean:

Some of the homes on Raiatea that hadn’t been visible from the coastal road:

En route to the waterfront at Uturoa where another couple was being picked up, Jean told us that the origin of the town’s name meant ‘big ears.’ He added that we would be going to follow the sun all day long as we sailed toward Taha’a.

We found out that the bluer the water, the deeper it was. Jean estimated it was 50-60 meters deep at this point. 

In almost no time, we’d reached the idyllic turquoise-colored waters we’d become accustomed to seeing while on Huahine.

The other six participants on the tour were as thrilled as Steven and I were when Jean spotted the tortoise even though he told us that it was easy to see because of its dark color and it came up to breathe. 

The endless expanse of blue and turquoise-striped water was intoxicating to see!

When Jean’s eagle eyes spotted a school or shiver of sharks, he stopped the boat so we could watch them swim around the boat for ten minutes or so. The water was breathtakingly clear so we could see every detail of the lovely fish. BTW – I checked and learned they are neither amphibians or mammals. 

I read that the quiet island of Taha’a has little traffic and few tourists with most families commuting to their gardens on reef islets or to fishing spots or zipping over to Uturoa for shopping trips so cars aren’t really needed. 

A little later we stopped to snorkel in the open water, an experience Steven and I had been looking forward to doing since arriving in French Polynesia about a week earlier.

Before going overboard, Jean had warned us that there would be many sharks in the water and cautioned us not to make any sudden movements! He said the large ones were males and the small ones were female but, once we were in the water, it wasn’t as if we saw oodles of different-sized sharks at one time and therefore could figure out which was which.

I can tell you it was pretty sublime swimming with both sharks and then manta rays. Having the underwater camera work again after the previous day’s kayak ride made the snorkeling absolutely perfect as you can imagine.

Just inches from the manta ray!

Steven from a vantage point never seen before!

Looking at this photo again makes me wonder if the shark on the left was male and the other was female or was the the smaller one just a baby shark?!

If you’re wondering whether either of us was apprehensive of swimming with sharks, the answer is an unequivocal no as we figured Jean would never have put us in a dangerous position as long as we heeded his warnings.

I think this photo shows how excited I was having just snorkeled with sharks, manta rays, etc! Just make sure not to look at my hair, OK!

Jean took us to a nearby motu or reef islet where we had a blast just wandering around for a bit.

Just a while later, Jean took us to another snorkeling spot where the colors of the coral were simply stunning. Some of the coral was so large it was just inches from the top of the water. We had to be extremely careful not to touch the sharp coral but sometimes that proved to be impossible and a few cuts were the result.

The darker spots were the coral gardens.

I thought this type of coral looked so much like broccoli!

I think this was a needle-nose shark but am not absolutely sure.

In the very shallow water by the shore were a gazillion sea cucumbers. They looked like extremely ripe bananas!

A photo of another motu or islet:

I read that French Polynesia produced between 50 and 150 tons of ‘real’ vanilla each year with 200 produced in the banner year of 1949. Production remained high until 1966 when a steady decline occurred after producers left for steadier employment in Pape’ete related to nuclear testing. Taha’a is known as the vanilla island for its plantations that produce 70 percent of French Polynesia’s ‘black gold.’ 

Before our stop at a vanilla farm on Taha’a, I had no idea that the vanilla vine belonged to the orchid family. Brought in 1848 to Tahiti from Manila, the aromatic Vanilla tahitiensis type is grown from a mutation of Vanilla fragrans on small family plantations and has earned a worldwide reputation. 

I hadn’t realized that vanilla, the world’s most expensive spice after saffron, is used not just for cooking but also for cosmetics and perfumes. Most of the vanilla used in the US and Japan is synthetic.

The vanilla farm owner told our small group the vanilla flower only blooms in July and August for just three hours a day. Normally bees switch the pollen from the male flower to the female flower but here on Taha’a, however, the pollination is hand done because there are no bees. 

He explained that one vanilla flower stem becomes one vanilla pod. Most vanilla – 85-90 percent of the world’s production – comes from Madagascar but cyclones, dry seasons, and a fungus in 2017 have destroyed most of the crop.

Once the plants are hand-pollinated, they are harvested between April and June and the pods put out to dry for a couple of months on cloth and then covered in wood boxes until they sweat. They become thinner just as if they were on a diet, he said. What an exceptionally time-consuming process!

The Tahitian variety of vanilla is very soft; each bean is massaged to release the vanilla so softly that the capsules aren’t broken.

He explained that vanilla kept in bottles filled with liquor for five to ten years is extremely popular in France because it’s used in lots of pastries. 

Vanilla powder, we were advised, is extremely potent with a little going a long way. One teaspoon of liquid vanilla is equivalent to one quarter of powdered vanilla. This form, one that I’d never heard of before, is also used in baking, fruit salads, etc. It’s easier to use but doesn’t keep as long as vanilla pods.

After buying vanilla from other growers, forty percent of it is exported to Denmark and France. Madagascar vanilla is also called Bourbon vanilla because it was a former French colony. Vanilla pods in Madagascar are blanched in hot water for a few minutes and then put in covered wood boxes.

After the presentation, we then wandered around the garden where  we saw grapefruit growing. They were just normal-sized ones just like the ones we see here at home. I mention that because we’d seen super-sized grapefruit in the grocery stores that must have weighed a couple of pounds apiece.

Vanilla vines:

The souvenir store on the farm was of far greater interest to me than Steven, needless to say! One of the objects they sold was called tamanu which we heard is beneficial after an insect bite and sunburns.

The small package of vanilla pods cost $30 and the package of vanilla powder was $25 so too rich for my blood even though I am a huge baker.

Back to our boat:

Taha’a is the only Society Island where a yacht or cruise ship could be sailed right around inside the barrier reef. I read that its many anchorages and central location between the islands of Raiatea, Huahine, and Bora Bora make Taha’a a favorite of both cruisers and charterers.

Another magical motu!

As far as we knew, there were no over-water bungalows on Raiatea but we spotted lots on nearby Taha’a. The island has been kept off the beaten and tourist track both because of its lack of specific attractions and a lack of public transportation. That isolation has contributed to making the 5,000 Taha’a islanders wary of outsiders.

With no beaches on the main island, the string of motu on the northeast side of Taha’a have gorgeous white-sand beaches. Jean had arranged a great picnic for us on one of them.

More sea cucumbers:

While Jean prepared our lunch on the beach, the six of us walked around the motu but we had to very careful of falling coconuts as they would have packed a punch!

Dessert was mouthwatering fresh fruit.

Spending a couple of hours on this little tropical isle that we had all to ourselves was as close to perfect as life gets!

The highest point on Taha’a is 590-meter-high Mount Ohiri who got its name from Hiro, the god of thieves who was born here. 

When Jean told us our next stop was at a pearl farm, Steven and I both hoped that it would be more interesting than the farm we’d been on on the island of Huanhine a few days earlier. Tahitian pearls are one of the island’s most famous products but our first experience hadn’t been very positive.

This lovely Maori woman from Golden Bay on New Zealand’s South Island took Steven and me aside as we were the only English speakers in our group to tell us all about how cultured pearls are made. 

She explained that the pearl farm she worked for leased 98 hectares from the government. Where there were once 45 pearl farms on Raiatea and Taha’a, there were just three that remained now.

After one of the workers pulled up some oysters, the woman opened up one of the oysters for us to look at it. She explained that 300 oysters are harvested a day once they are two years old.

She introduced us to the Chinese man who was employed as the farm’s grafter who surgically implants, with dental instruments, a small bead that has been dipped into a liquid antibiotic into the oyster’s gonad or reproductive organ that will ultimately become a cultured pearl. 

While chatting with us, he was able to graft oodles of oysters with nary a pause, completing a mind-numbing 300 a day! Each of the oysters could be grafted three times.

Another employee then poked a hole at the top of the oyster so a piece of filament could be tied through it and then attached to the net before being placed in the water. I think the woman said the entire process from when the oysters are taken out of the water, pried open by the grafter and the bead inserted, the hole punched, filament strung and attached to the net, can only take an hour or the oyster is damaged.

The stop at the pearl farm of course included the requisite shop where beautiful pearl jewelry of all types was sold at what were very reasonable prices. A good friend in Denver had asked me to buy her a pair of pearl drop earrings and a pearl charm for her bracelet so I had great fun spending her money!

How I wish in hindsight I had spent a little more time and bought some of the beautiful Tahitian pearl jewelry for myself or our daughters. I did look at jewelry stores once we returned to Tahiti but the prices and selection were both poor compared to this small pearl farm.  The experience at the Iaorana pearl farm was a delight from the beginning to the end, thanks to the Maori woman’s patient and attentive tutelage.

Our next stop of the day was surprisingly at the Pari Pari Rum Distillery as I had had no idea rum was produced in the islands.

The woman explained the distillery’s still had been designed in 2016.

Four hundred litres of sugar cane produced just one liter of 80 percent alcohol after distillation.

Free samples of different types of rum were offered to all of us but I declined as rum isn’t my drink of choice. Steven tried some but wasn’t enamored. There was a good selection of soaps, though, so I purchased some of those instead. 

Even as engrossing as the pearl farm and the mildly interesting distillery had been, both of us were happy to be back on the water again. Jean told us these overwater bungalows cost a staggering $2500 per night!

Our third snorkeling stop of the day was very close to the resort. Jean stopped in a shallow spot so we could walk from one end of a motu until the other end. Jean told us that there was a great current on the end of the motu that would mean all we’d have to do is simply get in the water and allow the current to pull us along.

Unfortunately, my underwater camera bit the dust once and for all on the walk on the motu so I have no photos to capture some of the funnest times I can remember having when we were just carried along by the current and didn’t have to swim at all! Jean had made sure to tell us to keep three to four meters apart, and not to try and stop or stand up because the current would upend us. Thank goodness we listened to him because the current was really strong!

When we were in a calmer stretch of water, Jean then tore off some minuscule bits of banana and threw them in the water. Immediately, hundreds of tiny fish were attracted to the banana. He gave us each a chance to hold the peeled banana and have fish nibble it just inches away from us. Can you just imagine the photos I could have taken of those fish if my camera had still been working?!

When Jean pointed out the school, we wondered how kids could possibly concentrate on any school subject with views as mesmerizing as these!

It was late in the day as we returned toward the dark waters of Raiatea.

In the distance was Raiatea’s Yacht Club on the outskirts of Uturoa. 

Back at Uturoa’s tiny port for the last time to drop off one of the couples:

I don’t think Raiatea had ever looked so beautiful in the several days we’d been there as it did as we approached the dock where we’d started the day.

As Steven and I reflected that night on our three snorkeling stops and even the visits to the vanilla and pearl farms and the rum distillery, we both agreed the day was the stuff that dreams were made of. Never before that day had we thought we’d ever be lucky enough to swim with sharks and manta rays in French Polynesia!

Next post: On to Bora Bora, surely the most famous island in all of the South Pacific.
Posted on January 15th, 2022, from our home west of Denver as the threat of catching omicron is hitting uncomfortably close to home. It started after my doctor had blinders on two days ago when I saw him for a bad cold and he was 100 percent sure I had the virus. As I suspected I tested negative and still have no relief for the cold! Then I got an email today from the gym advising me that someone in my daily water aerobics class had come down with Covid. I sure hope omicron stays far away from you and your loved ones. 

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5 thoughts on “12/9/21: Taha’a Boat Tour – What Dreams are Made of!

  1. What a fabulous tour! I’m glad you got to experience swimming and snorkeling with sharks and rays – those were my highlights from eight years on our boat as well. Your “needle sharks” are just called “needle fish,” I believe. Definitely not sharks.

    When we sailed in French Polynesia for two years, we always anchored behind the reefs, close to the shores in what’s called the “lagoons” of the South Pacific. Yes, the Tahitian pearls are best bought on the smaller islands and pearl farms. The island of Tahiti is expensive for stuff like that.

    We often traded home-baked goods and household items for fresh fruit and vegetables, or “imperfect” pearls. And, we did buy some beautiful black pearls as gifts and for me. No regrets there. 🙂

    I’m really psyched you snorkeled in this clear of water with all the tropical fish and other creatures. That’s what I miss the most about our watery lifestyle.

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  2. What a wonderful day! The highlight for me would definitely be swimming with the manta rays – I’m so glad your camera held out long enough for you to photograph them 🙂 The beaches look so beautiful too, and all the views of the islands from out at sea. But I guess the kids in the school just take them for granted 😆

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  3. Ah now you’re REALLY settling in to enjoying this trip – no wonder you describe it as a perfect day, everything sounds and looks fabulous. I knew so little about vanilla production before reading this post. And those sea cucumbers – we saw loads of those in Croatia and reckoned that if they were bigger they would be the stuff of nightmares! Horrible things!

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  4. What a trip, Annie & Steven! You’ve gone to a part of the world most people only dream of. With all that gorgeous scenery and underwater life, you’d never want to leave. I must admit that my favorite phrase is “shiver of sharks.” I didn’t know that animal collective term and I love it. Thanks for the smile. ~Terri

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