Drop Zone - Dive and Surf Tahiti
The relatively flat but colorful reef, occasionally broken by deeper, darker canyons a little larger than shoulder width, seems to surge back and forth beneath me. Other than the familiar, rhythmic Darth Vader-like sound of the regulator behind my head, there was a strangely soothing, but very out of place, periodic rumbling - the result of the wave action that had nearly sent me tumbling as I tried to keep my flippered legs from scraping into the reef just inches below. In my life, I have done some strange and extreme things, but I never thought I would be scuba diving at Teahupo'o.
Got a Crush on You
Pronounced "Cho-po," this particular reef gives rise to one of the most-feared and revered waves on the planet. The brute force of the Pacific Ocean swells in from the southwest and collides with the shallow reef fringing the French Polynesian island of Tahiti, resulting in a wave that looks as if the entire ocean is folding over onto itself. It isn't the size from trough to crest that is particularly notable (although waves are occasionally witnessed in excess of 20 feet in height), but the thickness of the falling lip and power of the resulting explosion that cause most normal surfers to forgo riding one. Every photo starring "Chopes" in a surf magazine (and they are published regularly) accentuates the fear factor by highlighting the mutant aspect of the wave in all its heaving, life-threatening glory. For that reason, I've shown up with a healthy dose of respect and a plan to do whatever it takes to stay as far from that shallow reef as possible.
Of course, what the banzai-surfer photos don't show is that in between swells, the waves can be small and even downright playful here. And it's come under the scrutiny of Drop Zone, an upcoming TV show that will document the lifestyle and action involved in the perfectly complementary activities of surfing and diving. Since I find myself on a shoot for the show, I am despite my better judgment skimming along that particular fear-inducing reef in scuba gear, following the producer's direction to "get the shot" of both a surfer and diver in the same frame.
Kids, don't try this at home.
When the waves pick up a little, I paddle out on my surfboard and overcome some of the fear until the swell picks up a lot, and I become one of the "normal" (read "sane and rational") surfers content to watch the action from the safety of the channel. Not even the pressure of rolling cameras is enough to make me want to potentially sacrifice my life to this coral reef. My co-stars, professional surfers and certified divers Alex Gray and Cheyne Magnusson, are, however, all over it. They repeatedly charge into the massive waves, stand tall as the lip folds over them, and then they come spitting out into the calmness of the channel to our supportive hoots and cheers. They had both been diving with me in the lineup the previous day, an experience they enjoyed and regretted regretted because, while tackling the large waves, it's sometimes better not to know just how sharp and jagged the reef is just a few feet below.
Rays and Sharks
As the salt water settles once again, we transition to the isle of Moorea, trading the home-stay, mosquito-net-over-cot lifestyle for poolside umbrella drinks and crisp white sheets on king-size beds. We're also trading our surfboards for masks and snorkels. Regardless of the plush upgrade, the trade does not downsize the danger factor, at least not in everyone's opinion. To the boys, even the precarious surfing we had been doing seemed much safer than what's on the menu today: interacting with a colony of the same type of stingray that killed Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter. In a fit of laughter Cheyne pushes Alex overboard, sure he will be attacked by the excessively large variety of common, sand-lurking critters that surfers usually fear. Alex, underwater and unprotected, instinctively springs into karate stance to hold off the imminent danger, but eventually breaks into giggles as the soft rays harmlessly nuzzle up to him.
I jump overboard under my own power, eagerly. Since getting certified not even a full two years ago, I have become somewhat obsessed with those lurking creatures creatures I'd once viewed as all menace and sting while seated on my surfboard. At first content to simply admire the sea life from a new vantage point, I've now progressed to needing to interact with them. The rays are perfect partners, beautifully graceful creatures and as playful as puppies. Completely tuning out the presence of the cameras, we dive and swim in a nonchoreographed underwater ballet, looping and twirling together on the edge of a sandy drop-off. It is a peak moment of the trip for me. I feel totally connected not one ounce of fear.
Then there are the sharks. Diving overboard and descending through a pack of circling blacktips does not seem like the sort of experience one should willingly seek. We comment on the fact that if a boat pulled up to a surf spot, circling sharks would end any thought of getting into the water. But for some reason, wearing dive gear changes everything. Dropping to the bottom on our first dive, the three of us are anything but ideal photo subjects. We swim around frantically, chasing 8-foot lemon sharks, which excites me particularly, as they are the first sharks with clearly visible teeth I have encountered underwater. We mostly ignore the photographers, too distracted by the plethora of life, much to their consternation.
We are later chastised at the surface. Those in charge remind us that we are "talent" in a television show, not kids in a playground, and we need to "look at the camera, not the critter!" As our dive count increases, this becomes slightly easier, but it is still difficult to be sure of exactly how to interact with the unblinking lens. As pro surfers, Cheyne, Alex and I are all accustomed to being filmed, but on scuba we are not able to talk to the videographers, so the challenge is more difficult. We all deal with it in our own way. Cheyne, an obsessed spear fisherman, is admittedly a little unsure how to occupy himself underwater without spearing something. To him, every fish looks like potential sashimi. He eventually resigns himself to mess with Alex, who has completely exhausted every underwater pose he can think of. Then they decide to become the dive buddies from hell, knocking each other's regulators out, pulling off masks and generally getting in touch with their inner 5-year-old. (Kids, did we say not to try this at home?) As the lone bikini-wearing female, my job is simply to focus on long, slow kicks with straight legs while doing the whole "swim back and forth in front of the camera" routine, preferably with a critter in the background.
Upping the Ante
Fortunately for the photographers, our initial fascination with watching the sharks is redirected toward the challenge of positioning, so that the shark will pass at the appropriate distance between the cameras and us. The gray sharks are more-willing subjects, being much more curiously aggressive, but still never seem quite close enough. At the conclusion of every dive, the divemasters empty the tube of fish heads and bait used to attract the live entertainment. Then the sharks swarm in a feeding frenzy and actually look like the Hollywood image of sharks, rather than the mostly friendly, underwater pit bulls that had been orbiting previously. By the time the action occurs, however, most of us are running out of bottom time and watching from high above at a safety stop. Realizing this is "the shot," the producers task the divemasters to release the bait earlier in the next dive in order to capture the feeding action with "talent" in the frame but, hopefully, not in a shark's maw.
On our next dive, when I see the divemaster heading for the tube of bait, I follow him and position myself about an arm's length away; my arms were thoughtfully folded close to my chest. As the sharks dart in and out between us, I am in awe. One blacktip circles around and charges me at eye level to the point that I think it just might head-butt me right in the mask, but then it turns at the last possible second. Then the divemaster holds a big chunk of tuna in his bare hand and one overly zealous shark takes an accidental nibble of finger along with his breakfast of fish. It is only a tiny flesh wound, not even stitch-worthy, but hey a shark bite is a shark bite. Strangely, I feel a tinge of jealousy.
I'm unsure of the type of pathology that would lead one to consider it cool to be bitten by a shark, but somehow I'm there. I realize that, of the most likely ways to go as a result of my lifestyle plane crash, drowning in big surf or shark bite I would prefer the latter. I feel that it would make me "one" with the shark, and however crazy it seems, that thought is strangely appealing. Afterward, Alex and Cheyne both listen thoughtfully to this line of reasoning before deciding in unison that I am nuts.
One thing we all do agree upon is that it is one of the best trips of our lives. We have been combining our two passions, surfing and diving, in one incredible trip. We can't wait for the opportunity to do it again.
Air Tahiti Nui
Aquatica Dive Center
Bathys Diving Polynesia
Eleuthera Plongee Tahiti
Bora Bora Lagoon Resort & Spa
Pearl Resorts & Spa
TOPdive/Sheraton Hotel Tahiti