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November, 2015

Passage Note #83 - Marquesas Islands: Ua Huka

Ua Huka Island

Population 600


“Look up above you”, Chuck said when we had finished dropping the hook in the narrow fjord of Vaipee, also called the Invisible Bay.  We had heard that Ua Huka was known as the “Island of Wild Horses” and there they were as if on cue, a group of them grazing at the edge of the tall cliff above our heads, silhouetted against the clear blue sky.

Ua Huka in the northern Marquesas - home of wild horses and a rare bird -  was the last inhabited island left for us to visit. It is so off the beaten track that it is reported that only 10% of sailing vessels in the Marquesas ever come here.  Maybe that’s because it only has three anchorages that are notorious for being either so rolly that they are untenable or present major difficulties in getting ashore due to rocky beaches and heavy surf breaks.

We had wanted to visit Ua Huka earlier when we left Ua Pou, having a good angle of sail to get there since it was the easternmost island in the northern group.  But conditions hadn’t been right.  Even if we had been able to sail to the island with good winds, the swell was from the southern direction and others had gotten there but were unable to stay or get ashore.  So we waited for a better window which occurred when we were anchored in Anaho Bay on the north side of Nuku Hiva.  Leaving in company with svMaluhia on Oct. 29, we had the best sail we ever had in the Marquesas - in NE winds with probably the flattest, most unconfused seas we had yet experienced here.  It continued for the two of us right up until we approached close to the island which seemed to generate its own peculiar weather and we hit some squalls and stronger winds on the nose.

After a 7 hour sail, we anchored near the southwestern point in Haavei Bay which was a little more than an open roadstead, at the mouth of a pretty valley with a sandy beach and a few houses peeking out behind a coconut grove. Kim and I snorkeled along the south side but the turbidity made visibility almost nil. It was a bit rolly but comfortable enough to stay overnight.  In our vista off the stern was the flat outline of Motu Teuaua or Ile aux Oiseaux (Bird Island) and the adjacent higher outcropping of Motu Hemeni.  Motu means “islet”.  Even from the distance we could hear the clamor of thousands of sea birds - sooty terns (kavekas in Marquesan)  - and see them flying about their nesting places, filling the sky like a swarm of aerial ants.

The next day as we approached Bird Island on Jacaranda to inspect it closer and entered into the loud tumult of screaming birds, we could see the narrow sea ledge and rope from which the locals access the bird nests a few specified times a year to collect eggs which they regard as a delicacy.   Motu Hemeni is off-limits as a protective bird reserve.  As we rounded the rocky point, we found ourselves in the midst of a large family of at least 15 mantas feeding on the surface, with large mouths open and outstretched skimming the water for plankton.

Vaipee is the main village out of the three that exist on the island, the other two being Hane and Hokatu. Vaipee extends along one road that leads back into the valley from the harbor. Ua Huka is known for having the best wood carvers in the Marquesas.  The small church is modest but indeed the wood carvings inside were exquisite, as were the artisan objects for sale in various craft houses in the other villages.  We attended Sunday morning mass to hear the singing in this wonderful setting and were not disappointed.  Near the mayor’s office and school was a small museum that lived up to its reputation as one of the best in the archipelago - it contained many original stone and carved artifacts, jewelry, seashells, replica of a house, and large models of sculpted canoes.

On a Saturday, we approached a pension on the road - Chez Alex Scallamera - and arranged a car tour with Melanie.  We left the walled valley and headed to the Arboretum, a unique botanical garden where a wide variety of plant species are diligently cultivated.   Many are used to restore the environment that has been destroyed due to wild goats and horses, an archipelago-wide problem.  There are over 200 kinds of citrus fruit, some of which we sampled.

The Arboretum is also a great place for birdwatching and we were hoping to get a glimpse of the “most beautiful bird in the Marquesas” - the rare and endangered Ultramarine Lorikeet found only on Ua Huka.  Or should we say only LEFT on Ua Huka. This is because Ua Huka is the only island in the Marquesas that is free of the black rat - in fact it is one of only two islands in all of French Polynesia that is rid of this destructive pest.  Careful precautions are taken - no garbage from any vessel is allowed to be offloaded and educational placards are prominently posted.  As a result birdlife is more diverse and abundant and damage to the copra harvest is avoided (you may have noticed in some of our photographs that there is a metal band around the middle of the trunks of coconut palms - these are rat guards to deter them from climbing the trees to eat the nuts).  Well, we were marginally successful in seeing the elusive bird!!  We spotted a pair in a banana tree that flew away in a streak of bright blue just as we approached to capture a photo.  

Leaving the verdant arboretum, the landscape gave way from a lush green valley to a broad arid plateau along the sea where the airport was located; the island’s large tohua (ceremonial space) sat on a windblown hill above the road.   Horses abounded in the tall grass on all sides of us.

The seaside road suddenly dipped down from the plateau to the village of Hane where we visited a craft center/marine museum near the sand beach which featured traditional designs of the pirogue (outrigger canoe or va’a). Lonely Planet states: “Experts believe that the first Polynesian settlement on the Marquesas was here, tucked away in a bay protected on the east by the impressive Motu Hane.” 

The neighboring village of Hokatu is “so mellow. And very scenic: about 3 km east of Hane, it lies in a sheltered bay edged with a pebble beach pounded by frothy azure seas and offers direct views of imposing sugar-loafed Motu Hane.”  We stopped to see more wooden carvings in a craft house and peeked in the windows of a locked beachside museum filled with photographs and reproductions of petroglyphs found on the island.  The real deal - Vaikivi petroglyphs of an outrigger canoe, human face, octopus and geometric designs - are found inland in an archeological site near an ancient volcanic caldera, an all day hiking or horseback riding excursion which we did not do.

Driving the 13 km from Hokatu back to Vaipaee, Melanie dropped us off at the open air community center on the beach by the Vaipaee River where a Bingo game was in full swing.  We bought abundant chow mein lunches from the women in the kitchen in one end of the building and sat down to watch the Ua Huka Saturday activities.  Arriving on the quay to take Maluhia’s dinghy (with wheels) down the ramp to return to our boats, we saw fishermen cleaning their catch and boys gleefully jumping into the water from an abandoned concrete stairway.

Anchoring was a bit tricky in the narrow harbor and we had trouble getting our stern anchor to bite. We even swapped our 22 lb. Danforth for Maluhia’s Fortress 37 but still had trouble with the slick bottom.  Between us and the shore was a shallow mooring field for the local fishing fleet.   One night around midnight Chuck awoke and looked outside to see a bright green fishing boat 2 feet away from us off our beam.  At first groggy impression, we thought we had dragged anchor and drifted back into the mooring field close to the beach.  Then we realized we had not moved but the local fishing boat was adrift.  Chuck and Dave hopped in Maluhia’s dinghy (ours was on deck and unlaunched) and reattached the renegade boat to another mooring.  Someone on the beach the next day thanked us for rescuing it but the owner came and went past us in the boat without a word. We reanchored further out where the holding was better.

After four days in Ua Huka, we sailed south to Hiva Oa where we planned to get a good spot in the small harbor of Atuona early - ahead of the crowd - in preparation for attending the Matava’a, the Marquesan Cultural Festival on December 16.  In addition, Chuck and I were leaving the boat under Maluhia’s watchful eye and flying to the US for 2 weeks for our annual Thanksgiving family gathering in late November. 

We were excited to catch a small tuna on the way!  Only the second fish we have been successful in catching since we have been here!!!  Fishing in the Marquesas has been very disappointing....we are usually empty handed with an occasional lost lure. This is certainly not like Mexico where we had fresh fish for dinner every night.  We only eat open water fish like tuna, wahoo, and mahi mahi because of the presence of ciguatera, a neurotoxin found in tropical reef fish.

Thematic Post: Marquesan Birds


“Serious birdwatchers rate the Marquesas as a top birding hot spot in Polynesia” states our Lonely Planet guide.  If that’s true, then the rest of Polynesia is pretty bleak. True there are a few rare endemic species and lots of introduced birds.  But when you are out hiking and hear a disturbance underbrush and get excited to see a Marquesan creature or bird, it is most likely to be a wild chicken.

MORE PHOTOS: In the "Photo Gallery" for Passage Note #83

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