I Hitched a Ride On a Cargo Ship to Scuba Dive in Remote South Pacific Islands

Aranui 5 was one of the few cruise ships that kept sailing during COVID-19

Woman looking at Aranui 5 ship

Suzie Dundas

As most dedicated scuba divers know, what's exciting about scuba diving isn’t just what you see underwater—it’s where you get in the water. As an avid diver, I was thrilled when I learned that scuba diving is possible near Hiva Oa, on the Marquesas Islands. The Marquesas are one of French Polynesia’s five island chains and the most remote; it’s a three-hour flight from Tahiti to Nuka Hiva, the administrative capital of the Marquesas. 

You can’t fly within 24 hours after diving, though, so I decided to plan my Tahitian dive trip another way—on the Aranui 5, a half-tourist, half-cargo ship that makes regular runs to the Marquesas Islands. 

The Aranui 5 sets sail from the island of Tahiti, making nine stops over the course of its 13-day voyage: Bora Bora, two islands in the Tuamotu chain (Fakarava and Rangiroa), and six of the inhabited islands of the Marquesas. While the front of the ship carries cargo like frozen foods, vehicles, electronics, and even horses to the islands, the stern is akin to a small cruise ship. My room had a private balcony, the staff are multilingual and very friendly, and all meals are served with red and white wine and finished with gourmet pastries from the French-trained pastry chef.

Because the islands are so remote, anything that can’t fit on a small plane has to be delivered via the Aranui 5. That means the Aranui 5 was one of the few cruise ships in the world that never stopped sailing during the recent pandemic. Another supply ship is available, but it only sails when it has enough cargo to justify the trip, which can leave Marquesans waiting months for vital supplies like building materials.

While the Aranui is unloading at the port each day, cruise guests are treated to excursions, all of which are included with the price of the ticket. I was able to tour the studio of French renegade artist Paul Gauguin and take a 10-mile hike through the purple-flower-covered mountains of rugged Fatu Hiva, among other activities.

Scuba diver with sharks in Fakarava

Suzie Dundas

But the best part of the Aranui is that it’s an adventure cruise, and that means guests can personalize their adventures. Not surprisingly, I focused on spending my time underwater. While other cruisers opted for beach days or ATV tours of the mountains, I strapped on my dive gear and dived with sea turtles in Tahiti, saw the famous “Wall of Sharks” on the island of Fakarava, had a dolphin swim alongside me for most of my dive in Rangiroa’s Tiputi Pass, and went below the surface in Tahuata, swimming along the rocky, stingray-filled walls. I also added dives ahead of time in Moorea, a small island connected to Tahiti by the 30-minute long Aremiti Ferry.

The Aranui staff arranged my dives in each location with local dive operator Top Dive. That meant I was never late for my dives, never late returning to the Aranui, and I only needed to pay and show my dive certifications once. Since Top Dive was my primary operator, they knew my gear sizes and had my rental set-ups ready the moment I walked into the dive shops.

Some other guests on the Aranui also scuba dived, which helped me meet other people even though I was traveling alone. Never once did I feel limited by the other divers; in fact, Top Dive often split the group to allow those of us interested in more challenging dives to visit a different spot than those who wanted a more mellow experience. I can definitely say that my dives in French Polynesia were some of the best I’ve ever done, with shark sightings on every dive. And since the Aranui's last stop is Bora Bora, guests have the option of departing a day early to spend extra time diving in Bora Bora's world-famous lagoon. I didn't opt for that, but after spending a day there, I would definitely choose that option were I to do the trip again.

Luxurious rooms on the Aranui 5 aren’t cheap at $5,300 per person in a double stateroom, though it does include all food, wine with meals, lodging, and daily excursions (diving has an additional cost.) However, if you’re traveling with a group of diving friends, the bunk room is surprisingly cheaper than you’d expect, costing about $3,400 a person for all 13 days. If you're planning a similar trip, you can book a multi-dive package from Top Dive, which you can use between Top Dive's shops (except on Tahuata; that's with Marquesas Diving.)

Tahiti is about seven hours flying from both Los Angeles and San Francisco on Air Tahiti and United Airlines, respectively.