THE TUAMOTU, LAGOONS AND COCONUT TREES
Suspended between the sky and the sea, the Tuamotu atolls are today synonymous with escape and paradise. And for visitors looking for an complete change of scenery and fabulous lagoons, these islands are the perfect location! Long considered dangerous for its low altitude islands, currents, reefs awash, and narrow passes. sailing in to the Tuamotu waters is indeed a delicate procedure with many obstacles to overcome before entering the magical turquoise lagoons! Today, however, with airline transportation, one can very easily reach many of these previously inaccessible rings of coral.
In Polynesian mythology, one legend tells the story of the god Tukerai who shook the sea, and is said to have scattered the string of 78 motu (islets) of the archipelago over 800,000 km² of ocean, with only 880 km² of land. The historic past of the Tuamotu is still unclear. The atolls could have been colonized from Tahiti and the Marquesas around 1000 AD, but the precise origin of the inhabitants and the settlement periods are not entirely clear.
In 1521 Magellan sailed through the maze of awash islands and reached Pukapuka, the first Pacific atoll discovered by Europeans! They were mapped by the Portuguese Quiros in 1605, and the Tuamotu islands were later named the “Dangerous Archipelago” by Bougainville because of the many shipwrecks caused by reefs. Between 1770 and 1810, almost thirty vessels crashed on these treacherous coral reefs! It took nearly three centuries for navigators to list all of the 78 atolls that make up the archipelago, none of them having spent much time among these islands that held no economic interest. For a long time, the archipelago was called Pa’umotu (“Low Islands”) and since the middle of the last century, the Tahitian name “Tuamotu” has prevailed.
With large coconut plantations, established from the 19th Century onwards, the economy of this archipelago is largely based on copra cultivation (copra is shipped to Tahiti for the manufacture of coconut oil). The cultivation of the black pearl has profoundly changed the Paumotu way of life. The Tuamotu Islands are now a must-see destination for all lovers of water sports with many activities on offer, including scuba diving in Rangiroa and Fakarava.
It took explorers and sailors nearly three centuries to list all the 78 atolls that make up the Tuamotu Archipelago.
In Tahitian, Rangiroa is also called Ra’iroa, meaning “immense sky” and for good reason. With a circumference of 280 km around a lagoon that is 77 km long and 26 km wide, it is the largest atoll of Polynesia. It is also the second largest in the world by the size of its lagoon, and could contain all of Tahiti and its peninsula! Located about 350 km northeast of the island of Tahiti, Rangiroa consists of nearly 250 islets separated by hōā, shallow channels between the ocean and the lagoon, with two passes in and out of the lagoon at Tiputa and Avatoru. Around the passes are gathered most of the 2500 inhabitants and key infrastructure such as the airport, wharfs and hotel facilities. While Rangiroa was spotted in 1616 by Dutch navigators Le Maire and Schoutter, traces of settlement and pre-European civilizations that managed to thrive on this atoll are still present in the form of relics such as marae. Much later, the first Europeans to settle there permanently were Catholic missionaries, in around 1860. Today tourism, copra harvesting and fishing are the main activities of Rangiroa, which is also renowned for its rich marine life, and world-renowned diving sites.
Fakarava, 488 km northeast of Tahiti, is an immense atoll (Tuamotu’s second in size): 60 km long and 25 km wide. Two passes provide access to the ocean, among which the Ngārue pass, the largest in Polynesia is home to most of the 800 inhabitants. A small minority of the population settled in the tiny village of Tetāmanu in the far south. Life is organized around the lagoon, with its lavish seabed. Since 2006, Fakarava, along with its six neighbouring atolls (Taiaro, Tōau, Aratika, Kauehi, Nīau and Rāraka), has been part of a UNESCO “biosphere reserve”, due to its abundance of rare flora and a fauna including hunting kingfisher, Tuamotu palms, squills and sea cicadas. The designation is part of an international sustainable development project, combining the search for harmony between human activities and nature conservation. The main resources of the island are pearl farming, fishing, copra and tourism.
Located 210 km northeast of Tahiti, this island has a special “at the edge of the world” atmosphere. Only accessible by sea, it reveals itself, like a fortress standing on the ocean and discovering Makatea aboard the ship Aranui 5 is a revelation. Following an exodus of people in the 20th century this raised atoll now has only 94 inhabitants, who remain on the island they love to continue its special story. This began at the end of the 19th century when large quantities of phosphate were discovered on the atoll and lead to Makatea’s unique industrial destiny in Polynesia. The island, forgotten up until then by the modern world, was equipped with schools, a cinema, religious centres, and various industrial installations, including a metal pier of 100 m and even a railway that is, still today, a silent testimonial to the singular history of the island.
437 km away from Tahiti, Anaa has a magnificent coral ring that emits an oval jade coloured translucent and shallow lagoon, making it one of the most perfect atolls in the Pacific. Eleven small motu, with no passes and marked by the presence of feo, coral blocks emerges up to 3m high. It is home to just a 1000 people, mostly living in Tukuhora. Aranui passengers will enjoy a few days of quiet, happy and timeless life on the island en route to Pitcairn.