I am staring at the eighty-pound helmet that will encapsulate my head: Will it be as weightless underwater as I am told? And the stingrays are on my mind too: One killed the Australian diver and conservationist Steve Irwin. I am only partially reassured when our guide says that if a ray–a shark-related fish–comes near us, it’s because it wants to, but… “Don’t scare it!” Anyway, there is no time to mull over this: I am the first off the boat for my maiden “helmet dive.”
Cruising on the M/S Paul Gauguin in the Society Islands of French Polynesia
That morning, our ship – built for shallow waters — had anchored in Moorea, where jagged mountains rise from the green and blue waters of a lagoon teeming with sea life. Regent’s Seven Seas “Tahiti cruise” begins and ends in the capital of French Polynesia, Papeete, on Tahiti.
The itinerary includes Moorea, Bora Bora, Raiatea, Taha’a, and Tahiti. These so-called Society Islands are one of five archipelagos of French Polynesia, and are themselves divided between the Windward and Leeward Islands based on their position within the trade winds.
Once in Moorea, six of us transferred by van to the Intercontinental Moorea Resort & Spa where we met the Aquablue Helmet Dive crew. During the ten-minute boat ride to their diving spot on the lagoon, Aquablue-owner Vincent briefed us on safety and answered questions assisted by Jeff, a professional cameraman and diver.
In Your Bucket Because…
- It is accessible to almost everyone, including non-swimmers and six-year old children.
- It is a fascinating experience — especially interacting with the stingrays.
- Good for water-fans and families.
The Descent to the Ocean Floor
Here I go… stepping down the ladder until I am chest-deep in the water so that Vincent can guide the helmet onto my shoulders. While he assists me for the 16-foot descent, I wonder if water might seep under the helmet (I remember my infamous attempt at clearing my mask during my one-and-only scuba diving initiation). I try to relax: It helps that I am not strapped to a bunch of equipment. In fact, I have no respirator and no oxygen tank. Instead, a flexible tube feeds compressed air inside my “breathing bubble” (to replenish my oxygen supply and purge CO2 buildup).
I am immersed! The helmet feels light and my face is dry (the pressure of the water has trapped air inside the helmet). Vincent – who wears scuba equipment — secures my footing onto the lagoon floor, and I follow his instruction: Go to the side, kneel and wait for the group.
Vincent signals that we move forward: easier “said” than done. The heavy helmet keeps me grounded, I feel like an astronaut as my foot slowly rises and my arms barely propel me. I look at my diving companions: A whimsical scene of ambling creatures with helmets that remind me of the one worn by Tintin in Hergé’s book Explorers on the Moon. In fact, when Vincent started Aquablue, in 1998, his idea was to take certified divers back to History with authentic Russian helmets. When non-initiated divers asked about “the walk,” he got the modern yellow helmets we are wearing. They work like the diving bells of the past, but make the activity accessible to more people.
After a while, we all surrender to slow motion while vibrant fish with fancy shapes and stunning markings glide by. Some even check out my faceplate. Then, a colorful “flock” of them gather, literally taking my breath away for a few seconds, until I see that it’s the feeding tube held by Vincent that spawns the frenzy. The fish follows me when it’s my turn to hold the tube.
I barely see my hand on the tube until some grey “flying saucer” emerges from the fishy crowd and clears the way: a stingray. I can’t check my husband’s reaction: The helmet only allows frontal vision. As I turn my whole body to look round — surprise! — I meet two more of them. I am captivated by their undulating and baby-soft pectoral fins that gently brush my arm. But, when they start meandering around my legs, cat-style, I freeze at the thought of the long tail with the serrated — and poisonous – barb (unlike in manta rays). And I don’t dare move my foot when one of them decides to rest on my neoprene bootie. Vincent signals that it’s OK, and eventually engages into a playful choreography with the ray, which is rewarded with a treat – we see its mouth underneath its white belly.
A Natural Aquarium for Future Generations
Finally relaxed, I observe mounds of coral heads, scare a moray eel back into its rocky hole, and enjoy Creation’s natural aquarium. I see a Spotted Box fish speckled like dice, an almost cubically colored Picasso fish, a camouflaged Rock fish, and fluttering anemones. And I find myself wondering about the future and preservation of this valuable asset of the Society Islands: With tourism and development, will these lagoons and thousands of motus (islets) remain pristine?
After 30 minutes, we regroup for a last snapshot. Is it the same stingray that I feel laying again on my bootie? I can’t tell, but Vicent’s feeding tube does its trick, and I am the last underwater walker to go up the ladder.
- Although this activity does not require “resort dive” basic training, it is subjected to the same medical restrictions. In doubt, a diagnosis “Fit to Dive” is available from the m/s Paul Gauguin physician ($40).
- Claustrophobia-prone people might reconsider, yet surfacing is less than a minute away. Pregnant women should not do this activity.
- Wear practical water activity clothing — Booties recommended.
- Aquablue Helmet Dive tour ($80) – DVD of your dive ($35) with Tahitian music and footage of the lagoon sea life.
- I did this trip as a shore excursion on Regent’s Paul Gaugin; Princess cruises also offers underwater-walking excursions in French Polynesia. These excursions can also be booked via dive shops in Moorea and Bora Bora.
- Note: Images courtesy Aquablue Helmet Dive photographers.