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    My dive buddy was kicking along behind like a minnow following a whale. I bolted after them, kicking hard to catch up. Pulling alongside, I snapped photos as quickly as my strobes could recycle (and sometimes faster). The manta’s wingtip swept up and down within inches of my lens. He was out for a leisurely stroll and I was finning as hard as I could to keep pace. Finally, after nearly draining my cylinder, I had to back off. Still panting, I watched the manta disappear into the blue, amazed at the graceful beauty of this enormous creature.
    And that was just my second dive.

    If you were to sit down and invent the perfect tropical island paradise, the perfect diving destination and the perfect romantic getaway, this is what you would come up with: a high, central mountain peak with a dramatic profile, lush vegetation covering the hills, a profusion of colorful flowers, friendly locals, the melodic lilt of spoken French, perfectly white sand beaches and a large lagoon filled with crystal clear water and hordes of brightly colored tropical fish.

    LEFT: A young girl tempts a gathering of butterflyfish with a morsel hidden in her hand.
    RIGHT: Friendly stingrays gather on the sandflats in the shallow water of the lagoon.

    When it came time for my wife and I to plan a romantic second honeymoon, the choice of destinations was easy. We wanted exotic and spectacular, and Bora Bora is both. Many have called it the most beautiful island in the world. As our plane circled on its approach to the airstrip, I could see why. Surrounded by a barrier reef dotted with sandy little barrier islands called motus, Bora Bora’s lagoon displays nearly every shade of blue imaginable, from the aquamarine of deep channels to the speckled azure of coral gardens to the glimmering turquoise of sand flats. I was practically salivating as I stared down into the clear, inviting waters. The island’s jagged central peak of volcanic basalt juts up from the middle of this picture postcard scene like some great Polynesian god.

    Picture this: You wake up in the morning to the gentle lapping of water under your bed. You rise, pull on a swimsuit, step out the door of your bungalow, and dive into the warm water of the lagoon. After a refreshing swim, you rinse off and dress, just in time for room service to pull up in a boat with your breakfast of fresh island fruits, juice, coffee and croissants. In the evening, after a sumptuous meal laden with tropical delights, you sit on your deck, cocktail in hand, and watch the sun disappear in a blaze of fiery color over the Pacific.

    For those on a budget or just looking for a more rustic atmosphere, a hut nestled in the palm trees along the beach, is the perfect romantic getaway.
    Most of Bora Bora’s resorts feature bungalows placed over shallow water, connected by walkways to each other and to the beach, like a string of pearls. Such luxury doesn’t come cheap, of course, but there are also less expensive ways to experience the same warm, clear water and the same island ambiance. “Pensions” (bed-and-breakfast accommodations) offer rooms and bungalows on the beach for a fraction of the over-water price. Most of these are at Matira Point, a finger of white sand at the southern end of the island that is the center of Bora Bora’s tourist life. The water is only a few steps away from your door, and the beach is perfect for strolling and people watching, or just for soaking up the sun. For some of the best snorkeling in the world, grab your gear and take a short walk to Rofau Bay or the coral gardens off the Hotel Bora Bora.

    Along the way, you’re bound to get hungry. This is a French territory, after all, and when it comes to food, the French don’t scrimp. Add a Polynesian flavor to haute cuisine and you end up with a place unlike any other. I don’t know exactly how a restaurant in the middle of the South Pacific, a million miles from anywhere, can become world renown, but Bloody Mary’s has. On our way in, we glanced over the guest list: a big wooden sign painted with the name of just about every Hollywood star since the ’60s. Inside the restaurant, palm fronds cover the ceiling and sand covers the floor. Flowers are everywhere. The menu is an ice-filled, table-sized basin piled with fillets of fish, beef and chicken. You point out the one you want, and it goes on the grill.

    Polynesian nighttime reverie—half moon suspended over a motu (small islet) off the island of Tahiti.
    RIGHT Top: Tahitian warriors in traditional dress.
    RIGHT: A fiery aggregation of soft corals.
    Good food and a relaxing environment, of course, are key ingredients for romance. When my wife and I head to the tropics, though, the water is always the main attraction. One of the wonderful things about Bora Bora’s lagoon is the way the water moves through it. Waves from far-off storms in the Southern Ocean pound the outer reef, sending millions of gallons of water pouring into the lagoon. That water has to go somewhere, so it flows around the central island and out the main pass, the channel through the reef that allows boats to enter the lagoon. This constant flushing keeps the lagoon clean and clear. However, when the waves are large and the volume of water large, the current generated by the flow can be substantial.

    Our first exposure to this was a drift dive on the reef between Toopua Iti Motu and Matira. Starting on the sand flat just behind the reef, we coasted at a healthy clip past big stingrays lounging on the bottom. As we entered the reef, I pulled in behind a big coral head to get out of the current and take a closer look at the marine life. Or vice versa. A curious, bright yellow trumpetfish cruised up to me, seemingly oblivious to the current. Shoals of Saddle and Long-nosed Butterflyfish and Convict Tangs swarmed around my mask, blocking my view. A pair of Emperor Angelfish flitted in and out of a nook in the coral, and an orange-lined triggerfish stuck his head out and eyed me warily.

    Finally, I cut loose and drifted back out into the current, which swept me past the shallow end of the reef and into a deep channel. I hung in space, suspended in gin-clear water, while coral heads drifted by on one side and two Eagle Rays fanned over the sand 50 feet below. It was better than flying. On a calmer day, we headed back to the same reef for a more leisurely look. Before that, though, we went searching for Mantas. The old guide books still list the channel at Toopua Iti as the “Manta Pit,” but in actual fact the Mantas are now feeding on the other side of the island, in the channel through Mahuao Reef, between the Meridian Hotel and Tuiahora Point. We made several dives there, and we swam with Mantas on every one. On some days there were eight rays banking around the coral heads like a squadron of stealth fighters.

    On our last afternoon, after a great day of diving and gorging ourselves on luscious tropical fruits, we took a boat over to a deserted motu. We crossed to the ocean side of the island and walked on the coral- littered beach, just the two of us, with no sign of humanity anywhere. The warm South Pacific sun beat on our shoulders and the gentle trade winds blew through our hair. What could be more romantic than that?

    Elemental Passions in the Blue World of the Shark: Moorea

    Text by Ty Sawyer

    For divers off Moorea, the clear waters of the lagoon are never far away.
    Photo/Ty Sawyer
    Approaching the sharp profiles of Moorea by ferry from Tahiti, it occurred to me that the mere presence of this island has an uncanny ability to stir the heart. The lagoon surrounding Moorea is equally intoxicating. The colors are precise shades of blue, crystalline, inspiring, and they seemed to urge my wife and I to dive in even before the ferry docked.

    The heartstopping and intoxicating beauty above the water on Moorea.
    Photo/Philippe Bacchet
    We picked up the rental car and drove to our accommodations under a sunset that would fill even the most hardened heart with a revelation of romance. Arriving after dark, our bungalows appeared to float atop the reflected expanse of the Southern Cross and the heavens that surround it. Not a whisper of wind crumpled the mirrored surface of the lagoon, and we watched the night pass nestled in silence. The next day we traveled over the 80°F waters to Tiki Point. Famous for its shark feedings, this is Moorea’s heart-jolting welcome cocktail for divers from around the world. Before the boat dropped anchor, sharks had gathered, slowly undulating through the translucent water.

    After our descent, the wrangler began to hand feed the 20 to 30 sharks that had gathered: Black-tips, White-tips and even a 12-foot Lemon Shark. They appeared from the far horizons of visibility, the scent of breakfast pounding hard on their senses. For a full 30 minutes they feasted, bustling for space with hoards of Blue-striped Snappers, Moorish Idols and myriad other reef tropicals, in flashes of color and sharp teeth.

    The sharks were our constant companions here, showing up on the periphery of every dive. In between were jovial Napoleon Wrasses, moray eels that prowled the reef during daylight, stingrays, eagle rays and more types of trigger and butterflyfish than the mind could absorb.

    Between dives we explored the secluded coves, deserted sand beaches and cascading waterfalls that punctuate the mystical hush of the lushly forested terrain. During our nighttime walks down the beach we happily fell under the spell of the Polynesian moon. Moorea has been called the Island of Love. And after experiencing such a blissful and exhilarating corner of the world, it’s hard to imagine it in any other context.

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