Tahiti's aquatic treasures
Yachting is all about having experiences of a lifetime – and that is made possible by dive guides like Yannis Sainte-Pé, who use a lifetime of experience to open up new worlds and new wonders to guests.
There is more to yachting than sitting on the aft deck sipping Champagne. The experiences that yachting facilitates, from mind-blowing wildlife encounters to pure adrenaline-filled get-away-from-it-all adventure, is what a growing contingency of owners and charter guests are fully embracing. For those wanting to cruise remote regions that offer life-affirming experiences and outrageous natural beauty, French Polynesia has it all.
Located in the heart of the South Pacific Ocean – an eight-hour flight from both America’s west coast and Australia’s east – the 121 islands spread across five archipelagos cover a stretch of ocean roughly the size of Europe. They span the destination dive sites of the Tuamotus and Marquesas, to the Gambier islands, known for their sustainably farmed Tahitian black pearls. More than two-thirds of the population of French Polynesia lives on Tahiti, and the island’s capital, Papeete, is the jumping off point for superyachts cruising the area.
Explorer yachts Arctic P, Hanse Explorer and Suri were a regular sight last summer, while sailing yachts Q and Farfalla, as well as new charter yacht on the block Wanderlust, are among those basing themselves in the region for summer 2023. They’re drawn by the wild topography, indigenous culture and balmy 30-degree waters that team with life thanks to conservation efforts by the government and local communities.
Eyos Photo: Stein Retzlaff
Eyos Photo: Stein Retzlaff
Temporary fishing bans help to ensure the waters remain home to the largest marine sanctuary in the world, with whales, sea turtles, rays and more than 20 species of shark. For French-born Yannis Saint-Pé of Tahiti Dive Management, which partners with superyachts to provide diving and whale watching expeditions, French Polynesia has not only become his home, but a new way of life. “I arrived in Tahiti in 1991 to complete my military service,” he says. “I was a sports teacher in the army but in French Polynesia I discovered scuba diving. When my military service finished, I decided to stay.”
More than 30 years on, Saint-Pé is a full-time dive instructor and knowledgeable Polynesian guide. Whether leading hikes high into the forest-canopied peaks or taking guests on drift dives through the Ceran Pass, he navigates the area like the back of his hand. Guests of all ages and abilities take to the water with Saint-Pé, some even gaining their dive certification under his care. On occasion, he partners with experiential travel companies and expedition yachts such as Hanse Explorer, which has one of the best diving centres on water.
“Aside from the accessibility, convenience and comfort of diving with a yacht, the clear guest benefits are the safety and service,” says Saint-Pé. “Aboard Hanse, the diving equipment is regularly updated, includes a BAUER Nitrox membrane compressor for a fully autonomous setup, and all the gear is taken care of on the guests’ behalf, before and after the dive. All that’s left to do is step from tender to yacht to warm sauna. It’s bliss.”
Saint-Pé’s introduction to yachting came in 1999 aboard 30-metre Camper & Nicholsons sailing yacht Aile Blanche. “The captain came to the dive centre where I was working looking for a dive guide. At the time I didn’t speak much English, but luckily he spoke good French. He asked me to go aboard and meet the owner to explain what I could do. I spent two days with the family leading them on dives. That was when I knew I wanted to pursue opportunities in yachting.”
A month aboard sailing yacht Shamoun followed, whose owner also has 63-metre sailing yacht Athos. Since then, Saint-Pé has worked with more than 100 motor and sailing yachts, as well as film production teams and underwater photographers who come to experience and capture the remarkable beauty of the islands, their coral gardens and reefs. “All of the yachts that come to French Polynesia head for the Tuamotus to dive Rangiroa and Te Kokōta, two of the largest atolls where impressive congregations of sharks and other pelagic marine life are commonplace,” he says. “I worked with one American owner for 10 years who always came with his yacht for intensive diving, up to three dives a day. He never stepped foot on land.”
Increasingly, however, yachts spend time in the lesser-known Society Islands, an archipelago that includes the lofty islands of Moorea, Huahine, Raiatea, Taha’a and Bora Bora. The islands have retained an essence of early Polynesia, putting an authentic spin on traditional island hopping by yacht. And off the coast of Tahiti is where the humpback whales come to breed. The recent uptick in the number of humpbacks that migrate from Antarctica’s frigid waters to Tahiti’s nutrient-rich breeding grounds has made swimming with whales a number one activity for superyachts. It’s heavily regulated and boats require a whale watching permit. Saint-Pé’s 10-metre dive boat can be chartered alongside a superyacht as a chase boat and comes equipped with a permit and a team of professional guides who advise guests on the correct approach and behaviour when in the water with a mother and her calf. “When I arrived 32 years ago, there were barely any whales in the area – maybe one or two sightings in a season – but with the end of commercial whaling, numbers have steadily increased and it’s incredible how many we now spot each year,” he says.
Equipped with snorkels and fins (the bubbles made from diving tanks scare the whales), guests quietly take to the water approaching as one group. The opportunity to be in the water with a playful baby humpback that’s breaching, tail slapping and barrel rolling while its 40-foot mother keeps a watchful eye nearby is, for most people, one of the top life experiences going.
French Polynesia’s diverse marine ecosystem is like nowhere else on Earth, while it’s “motus” – small sandy isles lined with lush palm trees – are ideal for beach barbecues. For yacht owners looking to find a new green and pleasant land, few places compare – and the experiences delivered by people like Saint-Pé are not only incomparable, they confer an incomparable connection and respect for the wonder and fragility of our oceans and its island nations.