Marine Encounters in French Polynesia

Black tip shark in azure water, French Polynesia

French Polynesia covers a vast area in the South Pacific with 5 island groups spreading over more than 2000 kilometers. People often compare it to the size of Europe. Unlike the wide diversity of land animals in Colombia and Panama, French Polynesia has only a few and they’re primarily domesticated. The real action is in the water. In our year there, we had amazing marine encounters in French Polynesia. This post features our best videos and tips of where to spot marine life from The Marquesas to the Society Islands.

Fun with Marine Animals

One of the highlights of living on a sailboat traveling around the world is getting up close with marine animals. After over four years on board, spotting these animals in their natural habitat still gives us a thrill! Turtles, sharks, and dolphins have been regular sights since the beginning, and rays and whales are more common since we’ve hit the Pacific. The South Pacific, so far, seems more untouched than much of the Caribbean. We love spotting marine life in French Polynesia just as much as everywhere else and here are some highlights.

Diving in Hapatoni, Tahauta Island, Marquesas

We dove off our boat in Hapatoni, marveling at the variety of life just below the surface. On these relaxing dives, we saw healthy corals and many different fish including scorpion fish, which we haven’t seen since Bonaire. We spotted a couple of eels, but the highlight for all of us was the huge octopus Brian caught on video! It sadly hid in a crevice after Brian filmed it flying across the coral.

Octopus in Hopatoni, Moorea

Dolphins in French Polynesia

Some of our favorite marine encounters in French Polynesia were with dolphins. From Marquesas to Tuamotus and Society Islands, dolphins are everywhere!

friendly bottle nose dolphin on a dive, marine encounters in French Polynesia
Friendly bottlenose dolphin in the pass in Rangiroa
Hapatoni Bay, Marquesas

In Marquesas, the place to spend time with dolphins is Hapatoni Bay in our beloved Tahuata. Friendly pods of dolphins frequent the anchorage, especially in the mornings. One such morning, we dinghied around the bay with the dolphins jumping in our bow. When we slowed down, they got bored and swam off, so we used a lot of gas to keep them entertained.

spinner dolphin leaping in Tahuata, one of our favorite marine encounters in French Polynesia
Spinner dolphin in full leap in Tahuata

Even after we went back to the boat, the huge pod of spinner dolphins kept playing in the bay. It’s a magical spot: no wonder cruisers in French Polynesia love Hapatoni!

Dolphins play off the bow of our dinghy in Hapatoni Bay
Cooks Bay, Moorea

The marine life is one of the best things about Moorea, including the fun dolphins in Cooks Bay. Again, you want to be an early riser to catch them as the pods play while we have our morning coffee in our cockpit. Waking up to paddle or dinghy alongside dolphins, or watch them from the boat, is one of the simple pleasures of liveaboard life.

Dolphins in the pass in Rangiroa

The main reason we went to Rangiroa was to see the dolphins, but it’s not the only reason to visit this motu. This is one place where you are likely to encounter a dolphin while on a dive. While we often see dolphins above water, they don’t often stick around while we’re in the water, but these bottlenose dolphins are curious. We went in knowing there was a good chance this would happen, but we still felt lucky when a dolphin swam around our group while we were diving in Rangiroa.

Friendly bottlenose dolphin in Rangiroa, Tuamotus, French Polynesia

You can also see the dolphins jumping and surfing the waves in the pass in the late afternoon. There’s a park for people to sit and watch them, and a restaurant with a great view.

Mantas in Marquesas

The water in The Marquesas is not like the clear Tuamotus’ lagoons. The bays are deep, and the water is dark and full of particles. It turns out, the particles are plankton, the main source of food for manta rays. These guys eat it non-stop. Since mantas love the food in the water in The Marquesas, they’re common there. Which makes it the perfect place to see manta rays.

The first time we were in Tahuata we had a memorable encounter with mantas, night diving with these incredible creatures.

Night dive with mantas in Marquesas

Mantas are all over the Marquesas, just keep your eyes open! Big mantas swam in the bay in Fatu Hiva, and I swam with with a few of them in Nuku Hiva, and they came as close as before. Mantas are so alien looking, but they are interested in us and not dangerous, so I am now comfortable with them. It’s incredible to spend time floating in the water with these cool creatures.

Manta Ray off our boat in Fatu Hiva Marquesas

We also dove with mantas in Fakarava and saw them floating around our boat in Makemo, so they live in The Tuamotus, but aren’t as common.

Whales in Moorea

Humpback whale season runs from July to October, so we were fortunate to visit Moorea at the peak of the season. Seeing these gentle giants is one of our most memorable marine encounters in French Polynesia. The mothers birth their babies in this season, and come into the safety and protection of Moorea’s lagoon to raise their young until they are old enough to venture out to the open ocean. And Moorea takes their safety seriously. All the tours respect certain distances from the whales, and we followed suit. We didn’t get in the water with them, although that is an option if you book a tour. We simply watched from our boat, or got into our dinghy and kept as far away or farther than the tour boats. And it was enough. These creatures are magnificent, especially when they breach the water.

Whale sighting in Moorea

Sharks

In Fakarava

We’ve seen sharks in Moorea, Tahiti, and across the shallow lagoons of The Tuamotus, but Fakarava is the hot spot. Some of our best marine encounters in French Polynesia were in or near Fakarava’s south pass. With multiple species of sharks surrounding us, diving here was a dream. Non-divers can easily spot the sharks snorkeling, from a boat, or even the shore.

Most dives in Fakarava feature sharks!
Elsewhere

Another great place to see sharks is Moorea, especially in the shallows. We often saw little reef sharks swimming around while sitting on restaurant patios near Cooks and Opunohu Bay.

Black tip reef shark

Turtles in Moorea

There’s one dive site, just outside the reef next to the channel of Opunohu Bay in Moorea, where the turtles congregate. They sit and blend into the coral, so you have to keep looking or you’ll pass them by, but they are everywhere once you start spotting them. We dove there in September and again in March, so they don’t seem to have a season like the whales.

Turtle on a dive in Moorea

Sting Rays

We saw sting rays more frequently in the Society Islands including on dives in Tahiti, and in bays in Bora Bora.

sting ray, marine life in Moorea
Sting ray in Sting ray bay, Moorea

Additionally, many islands have “Sting ray bays” including Moorea and Bora Bora. If you go, keep looking!

Now that we’ve moved on from French Polynesia after our year cruising there, it’s nice to look back at these memorable marine encounters. It reminds me how incredibly lucky I am to be here on our boat. If you ever have a chance to visit even a small part of this remote but lovely corner of the planet, do it.

What’s your best marine encounter and what’s on your bucket list? Share in the comments.

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Author: Mel

Living aboard a sailboat, scuba diver, cat parent, cyclist, blogger, love the water and exploring new places.

9 thoughts on “Marine Encounters in French Polynesia”

  1. Incredible, Mel and Brian! We will be in St. Croix, Christiansted in a week if you all are around. ­čÖé Love you!

    1. Have a great time, Gab! Hope there’s no hurricane activity. We are in another ocean many miles away. Maybe another time.

  2. We definitely want to visit French Polynesia. And would plan to head underwater to enjoy all the great marine encounters. This is high on our scuba diving list. I love the variety in the marine life you saw.

  3. I really loved seeing the videos of all the marine animals you saw. Loved the octopus and the manta ray the most! Such a cool experience.

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