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A blacktip reef shark swam right below me for several moments, cruising over a technicolor collection of coral near Rangiroa’s Tiputa Pass.
By that time, I had already lost track of how many sharks I’d seen during the extended snorkeling session, an offshore excursion led by the activities staff at Hotel Kia Ora Resort & Spa. Six of us had followed our guide over the side of a small motorboat about 30 minutes earlier, trailing behind him in the gentle current while swimming over an ever-shallower reef.
Not long after getting into the warm Pacific, I spotted a 3-foot nurse shark, tucked in close to the reef below, and I was thrilled to see the creature in such clear water and so near to me. Moments later, I spotted my first blacktip, patrolling over the corals much closer to the surface. Next, it was a nearly 3-foot whitetip shark, zipping below me on its way to more important business. Many more shark sightings followed, each accompanied by the thrill of seeing such graceful creatures so close and noting how completely disinterested they were in me.
There was certainly a great deal more to enjoy in the inviting Rangiroa lagoon — we later swam near sea turtles and a beautiful array of intricate, vibrant coral formations. There were also heaps of brightly colored fish; some swam right up to my mask to look me straight in the eye. Later on, I saw grouchy-looking eels and an otherworldly zebra fish, decked out in a colorful collection of spikes while holed up in a delicate cavern of coral.
“Rangiroa is the second-largest atoll in the world,” said Gerard Garcia, general manager for Hotel Kia Ora. “The water in the lagoon and in the ocean are extremely rich in marine life. Jacques Cousteau said [during a Rangiroa visit] that he has never seen so many fish in his life.”
One of the destination’s underwater highlights is a large swath of coral reef, just a short boat ride from Hotel Kia Ora and right near Tiputa Pass, commonly referred to as the “aquarium,” where our group encountered strikingly clear water and a rich array of pastel coral formations, gobs of colorful fish and even a large eagle ray, along with — you guessed it — several more reef sharks.
“The ecosystem attracts fish of all sizes, which in turn attract larger sea animals, such as dolphins, sharks, sailfish and marlin,” Garcia said of Rangiroa’s sprawling inner lagoon. “Divers come from all around the world to swim and experience these creatures up close. Rangiroa is one of the only places on Earth where dolphins will come up to the divers in open waters only to play.”
Although our group didn’t see any dolphins while snorkeling, we were treated to quite a show onboard the boat while in the chaotic channel currents of Tiputa Pass, where several wild bottlenose dolphins were playing in the waves. A number of them swam right next to the boat, close enough to reach out and touch, and many jumped entirely out of the water right beside us over and over again.
Garcia says that Hotel Kia Ora attracts a great many avid scuba divers hoping to interact with the South Pacific’s rich diversity of sea creatures, but folks can also learn to dive during a stay. The resort property features a diverse collection of 60 luxurious villas and bungalows, including overwater options on the lagoon along with sprawling, inland accommodations home to their own private pools; outdoor tubs and showers; and spacious, walled-in outdoor decks and dining areas.
Home to an excellent restaurant, full-service spa and fitness center, Hotel Kia Ora attracts a large number of honeymooners, many of whom are looking to simply relax on the white-sand beach or near the infinity pool, according to Garcia. But with so much to see in the lagoon, even those traveling to Rangiroa for romance should plan to do at least a little underwater snorkeling or diving.
“There are not many places in the world where you can swim with an 18-foot hammerhead shark or pet dolphins in the wild,” Garcia said. “Divers have also swum with marlins, sailfish and even tiger sharks, which is unheard of anywhere else in the world.”
Along with the two-hour Tiputa Pass drift-snorkeling excursion that I joined during my recent visit, Hotel Kia Ora offers guests full-day outings — for an additional fee — that travel out to Rangiroa’s Blue Lagoon or Pink Sand Beach. The trips require longer boat journeys and feature gourmet meals prepared on-site, along with more snorkeling and scuba-diving options at the stunning, remote settings. There’s also a chance to see reef sharks feed, Garcia says.
“Just before heading back to the hotel, the captain will feed the blacktip reef sharks by the boat,” Garcia said. “Guests can expect to see about 100 of them, and if they want, they can jump in the water during the feeding.”