Black and yellow angelfish with extravagant top fins cut diagonal lines across our path in two and threes, graceful and aloof. Neon parrotfish bulled through coral alleys clouded by butterflyfish. Red rockfish darted into the shadows and stared.
When one of us saw something big, we’d surface and shout at the other.
My wife cornered an octopus that tried to hide by changing color, and occasionally we saw a little reef shark in the distance. The water was cool, silent and lit by moving beams of sunlight.
Eventually, we’d return to lie on an empty beach.
By Wednesday we were red bronze and squinting at the ocean as the sun went down. A breeze caught the branches of an old tree, and the elegant French tourists and their grandchildren murmured beneath the sound of waves crashing on the reef and the radio in the bar next to the pool. Silhouettes moved back and forth on the beach. A man and a boy rowed past on a paddleboard, rippling the fiery sheet of glass the lagoon had become in the stillness.
Moving to Moorea
If you drew a straight line from the middle of Australia to Peru, French Polynesia is pretty much exactly at the midpoint. It’s part of the French Republic and feels European, except that it’s on tropical islands that are thousands of miles from the nearest continent. TV ads were for vacations in Indonesia, and ESPN showed replays of rugby games. We met Australian liquor salesmen trying to expand their territory, a cruise ship full of elderly Japanese tourists, and French students visiting relatives.
Noisy and bustling, the island of Tahiti is “the summit of a mountain submerged,” as the painter Gauguin put it, a straightforward landscape and the commercial and government hub of the territory. But Moorea, 10 miles to the northwest across the Sea of the Moons, is mysterious, its mountains shards of green wrapped at the top in cloud. Bora Bora — flat, pristine and expensive — is 150 miles farther.
On Thursday, we took a day trip to Moorea by ferry and rented a car. Shaped a little like a heart (don’t think for a minute this was lost on us) with two bays on the north coast, the island has a ring of sharp mountains around a valley of orange, avocado and grapefruit groves and pineapple fields. It was quiet.
Along the west coast we saw cattle grazing and rolled through neighborhoods with grass streets where old Frenchmen cut their lawns.
We stopped at a narrow beach where four women sat with cutting boards and buckets of wet leaves, cleaning parrotfish and tossing guts into the clear shallows. Green rollers pounded the reef a mile out. A dozen stingrays and a little shark drifted in the water, competing with a half-dozen seagulls for the spoils.
“It’s not dangereux,” called one of the women in her best English, as we stood there dumbstruck, two shamefully unilingual honeymooners from a landlocked place.
One of the women walked a toddler into the water to show us it was safe. The rays fled from the child’s feet, kicking up sand as they pivoted, their tails wagging like erect bull whips as they shot away.
See? Not dangereux.
The other three women hardly looked up, and absently tossed fish guts into the air for seagulls to snatch.
Later, we drove to the island’s east side, where we lay on towels and watched white ships crawl across the horizon to Papeete.
We decided to move to Moorea for the rest of the honeymoon.
Show of culture on the beach