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Welcome to … Shark City!!

Spent a couple great days on Rangiroa, one of my favorite stopping-off points in Polynesia, in part because of the fun, small adventures we had here exactly seven years ago, with kayaks. I know it was seven years ago because I can remember sitting in the linoleum-floored great room of Pensione Glorine, watching grainy black-and-white images of the WTC towers crashing down, one year after.

Photo, Pete McBride

Photo, Pete McBride

A lot has changed since, though the lagoon here stays much the same: Huge. Fifty miles by twenty miles. Then we paddled across it, around it, camping on its sand motus, convening with hermit crabs, luxuriating by simply laying back in the sand and watching the frigates soar on the thermals above. My travel partners then have remained so; Pete McBride and John Armstrong were with me in Antarctica last year, Alex Nicks and I have made several films together since, sadly Willie Williams – who looked after our logistics and always knew exactly where we were on the map – is somewhere soaring on thermals of his own, hopefully with a view of his own special paradise.

Every time I come to Rangiroa I look for my friend Ugo, a local guide and raconteur; usually without luck, since he’s often out exploring the far corners of the big lagoon. Today I’m lucky and find him pulling his wooden boat, the Oviri, up to the cement dock. I first met Ugo in 2001, a very unsettling meeting since while I waited on the sand beach for him – with his wife – Ugo had gone missing. For twenty-four hours no one knew where he was, other than he had taken two fishermen out in his boat.

When he finally showed up, he blamed it on a recalcitrant engine … and big winds. “When I finally got the engine to start, the winds were so strong we couldn’t even try to come back. So I tipped the boat on its side on the shore, used it for protection, and we stayed that way all night. It was nothing!”

Then, and several times since, Ugo has taken me to his secret garden, so to speak. Here’s how I wrote it then:

“C’mon friends, follow me, c’mon, meet my pets,” Ugo shouts, tossing another chunk of bloody bonito into the quintessentially-cobalt South Pacific. “The heads, that’s what they like best.” A gentle big-man, smelling of gasoline and sun block, his solid, sun-browned body quakes with excitement as he dips his hands repeatedly into the white plastic bucket of fish-parts resting on the back of his 40-foot cutter “Oviri” – Tahitian for “Wild” – bobbing in rough seas.

With each handful of chum come more carcharinus melanopterus – black-tip sharks – two dozen, three dozen, 50, 100, 200, so thick it’s impossible to count them, to separate them, for all their swarming and churning just below the surface. With hands like catcher’s mitts Ugo pulls off his clear plastic sandals, replaces them with swim fins, and reaches for his mask and snorkel.

“They’re waiting for us,” he shouts as he jumps smack into the midst of the swarm. He is so positive – so convincing that there is nothing to worry about, being inches from the snapping choppers of eight-foot long, 400-pound sharks even as he continues to toss them bloody fish parts, despite that he’s missing part of a thumb for having gotten “lazy” during one such feeding – that I follow. When I open my eyes, four-feet below the sun-sparkled surface, there are literally hundreds of big sharks circling. Me.

“Look, down there,” shouts Ugo when we surface. “Lemons! Big ones! WELCOME, MY FRIEND, TO SHARK CITY!”

Ugo is a true man of the sea. He has three boats and a simple beachside house on the lagoon of Rangiroa, the world’s second-largest coral reef atoll and the best known of the 78-atoll Tuamotu chain north of Tahiti. His father was a local hotelier. Ugo, 36, speaks good surfer’s English because half his life ago his father handed him a check for $30,000 and a plane ticket to San Francisco. “Go to UC-Berkeley, get an education, learn English,” was his directive. He followed orders . . . but only halfway. Days after arriving in the U.S. he discovered Half Moon Bay, bought a board and made surfer friends. Two years into his scam – complete with phonied “reports” from school – the gig was up. His punishment? Live, and live off the sea, on this beautiful spit of coral-and-sand-and-rubble here in the dead center of the South Pacific.

“Not so bad,” Ugo laughs. From the back of the “Oviri” Ugo continues to play. Baiting a 50-pound baby black-tip with a fish head tied to a plasticized line he pulls it, thrashing, into the air. The struggle lasts 30 seconds before the shark opens its mouth – wide, exposing a long line of fine, sharp teeth – lets go and swims off.

Flicking pieces of bait off his forehead with a giant finger, Ugo grins, his smile as wide as the shark’s mouth. “This, my friends, is paradise! No?”

Today, Ugo reports the sharks are growing in number. “And now I have a lemon shark nearly as big as my boat! We should go see it! Now!!!”

Sacred Wanderings, Huahine-style

HUAHINE – It’s been unusually gray in Paradise for the past couple days, windy and rain swept, especially so here on the remote edge of the Leeward or Society Islands of Polynesia. I said the other day that I find Moorea to be the most beautiful island in Polynesia … but Huahine gives it a run for the money on one front: If its peaks are not as stark or dramatic, they are still tall and lush, its greatest advantage is far fewer people. The reality is that for all its paradisiacal beauty, Moorea is a bedroom community to Tahiti, its solitary ring road thick with traffic in the early morning and late afternoon as commuters rush to and from the fast ferry to the big island. Here on Huahine you get a similar lush, green beauty with ten percent of the people. One hundred miles northwest of Tahiti it’s out of the way, hard to get to … perfect if you are, like me, always looking for escape.

River eel, on a schoolyard window

River eel, on a schoolyard window

Home to a plethora of ancient Polynesian Maraes (ceremonial temples) carefully preserved and reconstructed along the shoreline of its main village of Fare, in the 1800s this was mostly a whaling port. Today it’s home to eight small villages; in Fare a ferry boat has arrived to carry its school children back to boarding school on Raritea.

Following a mostly grown-over road to the coast I trace the island’s southern shoreline, paralleling deep coconut palm forests, in search of a couple very different sites: An abandoned hotel wiped out a decade ago by cyclone and a river said to be overflowing with “sacred” Tahitian river eels. I am only successful at finding the latter, and that thanks to an old woman in a red-flowered dress at the last house, at the end of the beach.

After a couple hours of a gentle walk along the coast – the local dirt red and healthy, the jungle dense and wet – I’d run into a dead end and she was there, sitting in her yard on a metal chair surrounded by a half-dozen languorous tabby cats, almost as if she’d been planted there to give directions to lost wanderers. She knew of the hotel (“everything in it was made by hand, and beautiful,” she said, “but now the only thing left are a few cement slabs”). In broken French and using her hands she indicated I was “two mountains and a lagoon away” from finding it.

The eels were easier and she pointed me in the right direction. Three to six feet long, with fins along their side which locals cal “ears” and eyes a translucent cold blue, they are found only on Huahine, Tahiti and Moorea. Their sacredness comes from legend, which says they are the product of a union between an eel and a Tahitian maiden. I find them swirling in the eddy of a narrow, black river, pointed out to me by a half dozen locals who are feeding them “sacred mackerel” from “sacred cans” found at a nearby “sacred market.” Two hundred years ago this was a center for Polynesian culture; today it is still very emblematic, “sacred” obviously having taken on very twenty-first century definition.