Situated between Australia and South America, the island of Bora Bora forms part of French Polynesia.
Famous for its offshore luxury resorts, colorful corals, and white sand beach, it’s been voted the most photographic place on earth.
It’s not only the vistas you see above the ocean’s surface that will take your breath away either. Underwater, it’s teeming with marine life.
This tropical paradise is home to numerous marine animals, from colorful fish to manta rays and sea snakes.
The coral ecosystems also attract several shark species. As a result, shark populations flourish in French Polynesian waters, where they’ve been protected since 2012.
It’s over ten years since French Polynesia banned shark fishing and established its 1.5 million square mile shark sanctuary.
Initially, the mako shark was excluded from the ban, but the parameters have since been adjusted to protect the mako and the 20 or so other shark species that frequent the South Pacific Ocean.
Most sharks in Bora Bora are non-dangerous, and shark feeding tours are one of the most popular tourist attractions.
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- What Sharks are in Bora Bora?
- Six Common Sharks In Bora Bora
- Have there been any Shark Attacks in Bora Bora?
- Bora Bora Shark Feeding
- Bora Bora Shark Diving
- Is it Safe to Swim with Sharks in Bora Bora?
What Sharks are in Bora Bora?
While the Western world perceives sharks as dangerous maneaters, the French Polynesians have been living in harmony with them for centuries.
For the ancient Mā’ohi people, “Sharks represented a protective icon in which the kind spirit of a family ancestor was reincarnated.”
This attitude has helped to protect sharks in Bora Bora and supported the tourist industry that has grown up around their presence.
Snorkel tours and jet ski safaris take visitors to a range of dive sites where they can familiarise themselves with the most common shark species.
Fortunately, these sharks are mostly harmless to humans, and the most dangerous shark species, like the great white and bull sharks, are rarely found in the area.
Six Common Sharks In Bora Bora
#1 Blacktip Reef Sharks
Blacktip reef sharks are the most common of the world’s five reef shark species and play a vital role in our ocean’s ecosystems.
Eating a variety of lagoon species, they help to manage the populations of herbivorous fish and prevent them from stripping life-supporting algae from the region’s colorful coral gardens.
Blacktip reef sharks are comparatively small at around five feet long and generally non-aggressive.
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However, they are usually quite timid around humans but will perform a threat display if provoked.
Although some blacktip sharks migrate to cooler waters during the summer, those in the Bora Bora region tend to stay close to home, “sticking to a home range of about ¼ of a square mile (0.6 square Km) for most of the year.”
Adults may leave the area to mate and give birth, although they don’t have to stray far with nurseries throughout the shallow waters around Bora Bora.
#2 Sickle-fin Lemon Sharks
Sickle-fin Lemon sharks are pretty sluggish creatures that are generally harmless. However, if they feel they’re under attack, they will defend themselves “persistently and vigorously.”
As we discovered earlier, Lemon sharks are also attracted to shiny items like jewelry and watches, so if you want to avoid a potentially deadly shark attack, you should leave your valuables behind when swimming, snorkeling, or diving in Bora Bora.
Although protected in French Polynesia, the sickle-fin Lemon shark faces growing fishing pressure in other areas.
Like blacktip reef sharks, lemon sharks tend to stay close to their home range, rarely straying more than a couple of kilometers from their habitat.
This puts them at risk of overharvesting, especially in regions where they’re targeted for shark fin soup and other delicacies.
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The slow reproductive rate of the sickle-fin Lemon shark makes it difficult for diminished populations to recover, especially when their natural habitat is also under threat.
Sickle-fin Lemon sharks frequent shallow waters less than 300 feet deep and are often found on coral reefs, mangrove swamps, and in sandy-bottomed lagoons like the one at Bora Bora.
#3 Oceanic Whitetip Shark
Sightings of Oceanic whitetip sharks have been “steadily increasing” over the past few years. Whether this is due to a growing population or more people entering the pelagic zone is difficult to say.
The Oceanic whitetip has a ferocious reputation, even in French Polynesia, where sharks are revered and respected.
Curious and bold, it will happily approach and investigate humans closely. On occasions like those experienced in 2019, it may even attack, although such incidents are rare.
The local Tahitian name for the Oceanic whitetip is “parata” – a name that was also given to the “the fierce warriors” of the Tuamotu islands who were famous for their sudden and violent attacks.
The whitetip attacks similarly but prefers bony fish and fast-moving pelagic species to humans.
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Although protected in French Polynesia, elsewhere, the population of oceanic whitetips is plagued by commercial fishing operations.
Whitetips have long been targeted for their fins and are frequently caught in commercial fishing gear.
This puts increasing pressure on the world’s population of whitetips with a slow reproductive rate that they struggle to recover.
A female whitetip only reaches sexual maturity at between six to nine years of age and has a gestation period of between 10 and 12 months.
#4 Shortfin Mako Shark
When French Polynesia first established its moratorium on shark fishing and finning in 2006, it excluded mako sharks in an attempt to “win over local fishing interests.”
In 2012, they reassessed the situation and decided to protect this high-speed predator along with the rest of the sharks in Bora Bora.
When the ban was announced, Tekau Frere, a technical adviser to French Polynesia’s environment minister, wrote that the decision reflected the “sharks’ ecological, economic and cultural significance.”
Shortfin Mako sharks are highly migratory, traveling up to 12,000 miles a year. There are found throughout the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, where they travel at speeds of over 50 kph.
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Although it’s an aggressive predator, there have only been three attacks attributed to mako sharks, none of which were fatal.
IT’ is nevertheless considered a dangerous species that should be approached with caution.
#5 Hammerhead Sharks
Unlike the blacktip reef shark, the hammerhead frequents the passes and lagoons of Bora Bora, rather than its colorful coral gardens.
You may be lucky enough to encounter schooling scalloped hammerhead sharks in the deeper seas just outside the lagoon or even the occasional great hammerhead.
Hammerheads are surprisingly agile given the size of their hammer-shaped heads, or cephafoils, and can reach speeds of up to 32 kph.
This takes its toll on the animal, however, causing it to spend most of its time swimming rolled on its side. This reduces drag by around 10% compared with traditional upright swimming.
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The diet of the hammerhead shark varies from species to species. Smaller hammerheads, like the bonnethead, tend to focus on crustaceans, while the larger species, like the scalloped and great, prey on a wide range of fish and cephalopods, as well as occasional sea birds and turtles.
#6 Gray Sharks
Similar to blacktip sharks, gray sharks also prefer the barrier reef and tropical coral reefs to the sandy habitat of the lagoon.
Lacking the distinctive black markings on the dorsal fin, they are easy to distinguish from blacktip sharks.
Gray reef sharks are also slightly larger, at around 6 feet long, and more aggressive than the blacktips.
Despite being “considered one of the more aggressive sharks,” only eight gray shark attacks have been recorded, and only one of those was fatal.
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Like blacktip sharks, gray sharks will perform a threat display if cornered. This involves raising its snout and arching its back while depressing the pectoral fins.
A gray shark behaving in this manner should be treated with extreme caution as it may well decide to “deliver a quick bite prior to retreating.”
Have there been any Shark Attacks in Bora Bora?
Shark attacks are extremely rare despite the high number of sharks in Bora Bora’s green lagoons and inshore waters.
One of the most recent incidents occurred in 2015 and involved a nine-year-old boy who was holding a piece of dead fish in his hand.
The child was on one of the island’s popular shark feeding tours at the time of the attack and sustained a nasty bite to the hand.
The boy was airlifted to Taaone Hospital in Tahiti, where surgeons repaired the damage.
A couple of years earlier, in 2013, a Canadian tourist was bitten on the arm while scuba diving on the outer reef of Tapu.
The area is one of Bora Bora’s top dive sites, especially for those wanting to see lemon sharks and blacktips.
Witnesses to the attack believe the shark was “attracted by the diver’s watch” and injured him accidentally as it sought to remove the shiny item it probably mistook for a fish.
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Scuba diving is one of the most dangerous activities in French Polynesia where, according to a study performed in 2005, “scuba divers were involved in the majority (46 percent) of 54 recorded shark attacks and bites.”
In nearly all of these instances, the divers were involved in shark feeding activities that appear to “have worked as a stimulus on sharks.”
That wasn’t the case a couple of years ago when a French tourist was attacked by an Oceanic Whitetip shark off the coast of Tahiti.
The snorkeling tour she was on was a highly professional operation that puts no bait in the water and whose” biggest concern is not to upset the whales.”
The 35-year-old woman was the victim of an unprovoked shark attack that Gavin Naylor, the Program Director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, described as a “freak accident.”
The shark attacked ferociously, ripping into the woman’s chest and arms and severing both hands in the process.
The woman lost a lot of blood but survived the attack thanks to the first aid administered at the scene.
Bora Bora Shark Feeding
Although shark feeding tours are among Bora Bora’s top tourist attractions, they’re surrounded by controversy.
When done properly, advocates of the practice say feeding sharks can be completely safe and raise awareness about sharks’ behavior and habitat.
On the other, experts fear such practices may change the behavior of sharks, encouraging them to associate the presence of divers with a potential meal.
Making it all the more problematic are the French Polynesian laws designed to protect sharks.
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Introduced to combat the population decline caused by the growing fishing pressure, they were extended to prohibit all shark fishing and shark feeding “in the lagoon, in the passes and within a radius of 1km of any pass.”
While feeding sharks may be banned, interacting with them is still acceptable, and some shark diving operations have no qualms about getting up close and personal.
Some even hold onto the dorsal fins of passing lemon sharks as they dive towards the sea bed and frolic in the warm temperate oceans.
Bora Bora Shark Diving
If you can drag yourself away from the pristine beaches for long enough, you can enjoy shark diving operations throughout the archipelago of Society Islands.
This is where Bora Bora lies, huddled within the western island group known as the Leeward Islands.
Some operations, like the Moana Tour Experience run by Toa Boat, take you out into the turquoise waters of the Bora Bora lagoon.
Floating on a double-deck pontoon boat, you can see all kinds of marine creatures and tropical coral reefs.
Don your snorkel and goggles, and you can get a closer look at sea urchins and gentle stingrays, as well as reef sharks and tropical fish.
There are more challenging experiences available for adrenaline seekers who want to get closer to the wild animals of French Polynesia.
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A stingray safari will take you into vibrant coral gardens where stingrays and sharks coast along the barrier reef hunting sea snakes, bony fish, and crustaceans.
If you prefer something a little faster, join a jet ski safari and discover every nook and cranny of Bora Bora’s pristine lagoon.
Is it Safe to Swim with Sharks in Bora Bora?
Between 250,000 and 300,000 people visit the French Polynesian islands every year, and yet there hasn’t been a shark attack in the area for nearly three years.
These statistics prove just how safe it is to swim with sharks in Bora Bora.
Although you’re unlikely to see iconic species like the whale shark, you will get more than your fair share of shark interactions.
The waters around Bora Bora are teeming with life. Blacktip sharks dominate the colorful corals, while more dangerous species like the Oceanic whitetip are more commonly found in deep water areas.
Shark fishing has been banned in French Polynesia for the past decade, and shark populations are beginning to recover.
Although your chances of seeing hammerhead sharks remain slim, Bora Bora should be high up on your bucket list if you’ve ever dreamt of diving with blacktips.
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Swimming with sharks in Bora Bora is a generally safe experience, especially if you avoid those operators that encourage feeding the sharks.
This controversial practice was banned in the area in 1997 after a number of mishaps in nearby Moorea caused concern.
Nevertheless, shark attacks in Bora Bora remain extremely rare, and you can still dive and snorkel with sharks in French Polynesia even if feeding them isn’t on the menu.
Nicky is a British adventurer and animal lover who spends her time exploring the natural world and writing about her experiences. Whether on horseback, underwater, running, hiking or just standing with a fishing rod in hand, she embraces everything her adopted home of South Africa has to offer.