Off the usual South Pacific cruising paths, New Caledonia offers unsurpassed snorkeling and diving in the world’s largest lagoon, and a lively indigenous culture. The owner of the 164-foot (50-meter) motoryacht Mary Jean, who spent time there earlier this year, takes us on a diving journey around this little-known but incredible territory.
Story Christelle Holler Photos Rodolphe Holler
Most people probably don’t know where to find Nouméa on a map, but it’s the capital of New Caledonia and it’s where our charter yacht Mary Jean pulls into port. New Caledonia is a French overseas territory located near New Zealand, Australia, Fiji and Vanuatu, but its treasures are largely unsung.
Sometimes called the “little Paris of the South Pacific,” Nouméa boasts European feel, thanks to the heavy French influence. As the ship prepares for the next leg of our journey, we visit the shops and enjoy fine dining at the local restaurants. We even have time to play a round of golf on the par-72 course near downtown.
As enticing as Nouméa’s charms are, sightseeing is not our primary goal on this visit. We are here to discover the underwater wonders of the world’s largest lagoon. Our guide for our planned diving expeditions is Rodolphe Holler of Tahiti Private Expeditions and we follow him up to Amédée island for a refresher dive. Only 14 miles north of Nouméa, the beautiful white-sand beach and peaceful surrounding lagoon are perfectly suited for divers of all skill levels. This tiny island also holds a lighthouse, known as Le Phare Amédée, that was built by France in 1865.
After brushing up on our SCUBA skills, we dive the nearby wreck of the Dieppoise before moving on to more adventurous areas. Once a 164-foot French navy ship, this impressive wreck now attracts thousands of tropical fish that scurry about as we swim along the ship’s corridors. A couple of friendly, striped sea snakes even come to greet us toward the end of the dive, an unexpected and exciting encounter.
Back on board, Mary Jean heads to the famous and popular Isle of Pines in the south lagoon. This scenic area is peppered with tiny flat islets covered with coconut trees, a perfect setting for picnics. There’s not a soul in sight with the exception of the indigenous birds nesting here.
A couple of our friends hop onto the yacht’s Jet Skis and slalom around huge coral heads before the yacht points her bow toward Prony Bay. We anchor for the night in the sheltered Baie du Carénage or Refit Bay; it draws its name from the first explorers who used this protected spot to repair their wooden boats in the 1700s. Beautiful and lush hills surround Mary Jean and the scene is simply peaceful. The crew sets up our open-sea swimming pool near the swim platform while we look forward to what Rodolphe says will be an unforgettable dive the following morning.
Before this trip, no one on board had ever heard of Prony’s needles. Now we’re all anticipating seeing them first-hand. Despite pleasant weather, the water is slightly murky when we first dive in and the descent triggers a strange level of excitement. Seemingly out of nowhere, the water clears and all of a sudden, we are staring at a huge pinnacle with long underwater needles. Starting as deep as 115 feet below the surface, these limestone stalagmites have formed over the centuries in a spot where an underground freshwater spring meets the lagoon’s saltwater.
At dusk, Mary Jean arrives at Isle of Pines and settles on the island’s north side in Oro Bay, close to the dive spots in Gadji Bay. In the morning, we travel to the nearby village to meet with their chief. He greets us in the thatched-roof community house where important discussions and ceremonies usually take place and, in respect to Melanesian tradition, we offer him tobacco and a small amount of money wrapped in a local cloth. Like the Australian Aborigines, the New Caledonian Kanaks arrived from Vanuatu more than 3,500 years ago. Despite colonialism and missionaries, they remain very close to ancient traditions. They are fascinating people and it is a great opportunity to try and understand their culture and a way of life so different from our own.
After our meeting with the chief, we dive in the bay where the reef is healthy and colorful. Huge sea fans, coral heads and a wide selection of tropical fish create a gorgeous natural aquarium. While some of us enjoyed the underwater ecosystems, others relax at Le Méridien, the island’s lone luxury resort. We meet up in the afternoon for a hike through the lush and fragrant tropical forest and refresh with a snorkeling trip in a freshwater grotto. Grotte de la Troisième features nice stalactites and snorkeling, and Rodolphe provided the expertise and knowledge that showed us the best of the area while keeping us out of trouble.
That evening we sate our appetite with a feast of freshly caught jackfish and, at sunset, we lift anchor and cruise overnight to the Loyalty Islands, 140 miles away. This archipelago, where we’ll spend the rest of our trip, comprises the islands of Ouvéa, Lifou and Maré. Local tribes prohibit all water activities in Maré, so we cross instead to Ouvéa and Lifou. Ouvéa is an atoll with about half of its surface already submerged. That doesn’t make the location any less remarkable. The endless white and pink sand beach becomes even more spectacular when the setting sun colors both the fluffy white clouds and the sparkling sand. The lagoon reflects the sky like a mirror as Kanak children play on the beach with their dogs. It seems at once unreal and perfectly genuine.
Local laws set by the village chief prohibit water skiing, kite boarding and Jet Skiing, but snorkeling and diving are more than welcome. During our stay we go on the quest for the tiny and very shy pygmy seahorse. As small as a fingernail and an expert in camouflage, this creature blends with the coral. While we don’t spot one, we do find a beautiful array of coral and countless species of fish.
The provisions flown from Nouméa for the rest of our trip arrive just before we head to Lifou, our last stop. Once we arrive, Mary Jean anchors close to the scenic and sheltered Joking Cliffs. Rodolphe takes the time to pay a visit to the local tribe to ask permission to dive in the area. This custom is even more important in the Loyalty Islands than elsewhere in New Caledonia. Luckily, permission is granted because this island—which is as large as Grand Bahama Island—offers up the most beautiful dive yet. We marvel at the magnificent bumphead parrotfish, spot hundreds of small tropical fish, swim through natural underwater tunnels and arches, glide over colorful and diverse macro life like huge seafans, coral heads, soft coral and even play with manta rays, tuna and a few sharks.
Mary Jean has taken us to amazing places and along the way we met so many incredible people. When we finally begin the long trip home we leave feeling privileged to have experienced such secluded and pristine waters. I have to say, if New Caledonia is not heaven, then it must be very close.
Superyachts in New Caledonia
An average of 30 yachts visit the area every year, and while diving is often the trip’s main focus, there are many other possible activities. Aside from numerous water sports, visitors can enjoy quad biking, 4-wheel-drive tours, horseback-riding and park visits. The Parc Provincial de la Rivière Bleue, in the southern region of the main island, offers a beautiful drive along a half-submerged forest and the opportunity to see amazing wildlife, including the native cagou, an almost flightless bird that serves as the symbol of New Caledonia. Local culture includes the opportunity to spend time with the local stockmen known as the “cowboys” of the southwestern Pacific.
Chartering MY Mary Jean
Mary Jean. now for sale, is available for charter. With six guest cabins including a large, comfortable master suite, a couple of large main salons, many water toys and a modern dive area and gear, she is suited for either exploration or a relaxing family cruise. The yacht was built in 1981 and totally refitted in 2010. Mary Jean is headed back to the United States and then to the Caribbean. For more information on her itinerary, visit yachtmaryjean.com or contact your charter broker.
Fact file: New Caledonia
• As this is a French overseas territory, the same visa requirements apply as in France.
• The archipelago has more than 250,000 inhabitants—45 percent of the population is Melanesian; the rest are French families who have been living there for generations or recent immigrants, mostly from France and French Polynesia.
• Airlines flying into Nouméa include Qantas, Air France, Air New Zealand, Air Calédonie, Air Austral and Air Vanuatu.
• There are two marinas in Nouméa with capacity for superyachts: Port Sud and Port Moselle.
• There are no specific regulations for navigation nor need for permits.
• The islands have no refit facilities.
• Local superyacht support is available via Nouméa Yacht Services nys22S@hotmail.com (noumeayachtservices.com) or contact: Hervé Moal and Chloé Morin; ph.: (+687) 24 01 23 ; fax: (+687) 24 01 23 ; GSM: (+687) 79 56 01 or (+687) 98 94 17
• Suggested reading: The Rocket Guide to New Caledonia is an excellent source of information for captains.