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September, 2016

Passage Note #87 - Geologic Time and Life in the Tuamotus

Experiencing a Sense of Geologic Time 

The slow evolution of landscapes is an immensely abstract concept that we can hardly visualize.  Being in the Tuamotus changes that - you get a real sense of the march of geologic time right before your eyes. For here once stood high majestic volcanic mountains like those we had just left in the Marquesas. All that remains of that grandeur now is the barely discernible Tuamotu atolls. Gone are the peaks and the valleys and the waterfalls; the passes into the lagoon mark where the river mouths once flowed.  Everything has been leveled  - an apocalyptic scenario created by the inexorabilities of time. It’s not hard to imagine their total disappearance - a final retreat, sinking back into their watery origins once again.  The fate of the Marquesas looms large.  Connect the dots of this island life cycle and you travel through the ages.

The modern theory of atoll formation, called “subsidence”, was formulated by Charles Darwin as a result of his observations in the Tuamotus during the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle in 1835-1836. His theory was later expanded by James Dwight Dana and Reginald Daly and, interestingly enough, verified through preparatory drilling studies for atomic bomb testing in the South Pacific in 1947.

Here is the basic sequence:

  1. An oceanic volcanic mountain is born, rising from the sea floor in a fiery explosion. (Tonga; island expansion in the Galapagos or Hawaii)

  2. The volcano becomes inactive and is colonized by reef-building coral. (Marquesas). A fringing coral reef begins to form around the island to a maximum depth of 200 meters.  Beyond that, the coral does not have enough light to survive.  At the same time, as the magma chamber is depleted, the island slowly sinks - or subsides - under its own weight.  

  3. As the volcano sinks into the ocean, constantly eroded by torrential tropical downpours, the coral proliferates, continues to build, and forms a barrier reef with a lagoon between the island and the reef (Tahiti, Bora Bora).

  4. Eventually the volcano completely disappears below the sea and what remains of the mountain is an underwater basalt platform covered with a thick calcareous crust - an atoll composed of low coral islets in a ring with a lagoon in the center (Tuamotus)

  5. It is entirely possible these atolls will totally vanish one day, consumed by the sea.   Minerva reef is only visible above the surface of the sea during low tide.   Scientists warn sea-level rise is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity from climate change.  This has already been the recent fate of at least five reef islands in the remote Solomon Islands which have been lost completely to rising seas.

Watch a beautiful video explaining the process called The Birth of an Atoll.

The sequence of atoll formation in photos:

Life in the Tuamotus


“Life in the atolls (for native Puamotu) is equal parts harsh and paradisiacal” (Lonely Planet). 


The Tuamotus were so isolated and resource-poor that they were deemed uninhabited and uninhabitable by the early European explorers. Imagine Bougainville’s astonishment at the sudden appearance of people moving about the thick vegetation. Arriving in 1767,  he posed the question “Who will tell me how they have been transported to this place and what links them to other human beings?”  The scientific expedition of Wilkes (American, 1838-42), expressing a  “benevolent but condescending impression of the natives”, nevertheless recorded important early observations of a people already in transition from European contact and the influences of Christianity.  In 1888, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about a new found appreciation for the Puamotus and described the island culture as “feisty and hard working.”  “Later anthropologists became interested in the strong cultural values and resourceful practices that allowed its people to survive in such a hostile environment. Ironically, as the tools to understand and appreciate that culture’s richness increased, the way of life archeologists were interested in studying quickly began to disappear.”

So how did they survive?  A major source of information comes from the Paumotu’s rich oral tradition - “from the telling of ghost stories or sea stories, which has allowed the culture to live on even though material artifacts have disintegrated.”  Anthropologist Kenneth Emory, who visited the islands in 1930 and again in 1970,  concludes it was the Paumotus’ knowledge of boat building, long-distance travel, food preservation and usage that allowed populations to sustain themselves. He says the Paumotus were known for “enriching their culture with myths and legends, songs and chants, and long marae ceremonies. There are few archeological sites in the Tuamotus, a fact which can be attributed to their strong oral culture and lesser material culture.

Today it is estimated that there are 15,000 Paumotus, only half of which reside in their French Polynesian homeland archipelago of 77 atolls (48 of which are inhabited).  In 1955 a Swedish anthropologist remarked that “they live very simply with a kind of peace (that) stems from the fact that the people have no material anxieties and no other object in life than just to live" (B. Danielsson).  This carefree aspect of life may not be so true today and perhaps accounts for the fact that the other half of the population has migrated to Tahiti.

A short history: “ Pearl diving (divers often reaching 30 meters) and mother-of-pearl production both enjoyed a golden age around 1850.  Christian missionaries established coconut palm plantations for copra production in the 1870’s, and by 1900 copra represented 40% of the total exports of the colony. From 1911 until 1966, phosphate mining on Makatea was the principal export activity not only for the Tuamotus but for all of French Polynesia.  The population of other islands began to decline dramatically in the 1960’s as copra production fell away and plastic buttons killed off the mother-of-pearl button business.  In the 1970’s, when airstrips were built on many of the islands, the population decline was slowed and the group’s economic prospects began to brighten.  The expensive flights back to Tahiti carried not only suntanned tourists but loads of fresh reef fish for the busy markets of Papeete.

The 1970’s brought more far less congenial employment when France’s Centre d’Experimenttion du Pacifique (CEP) took over the central atoll of Hao and began to test nuclear weapons on the western atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa. Between 1966 and 1996, a confirmed 181 nuclear bombs, reaching up to 2 kilotons were set off. These atolls remain off limits to this day. Pearl farming and cultivation began in the 1980’s and the atolls flourished with wealth and reverse migration from the late 1990’s until around 2003 when pearl prices began to plummet.”(Lonely Planet)

Nowadays Paumotus live principally on fishing, copra cultivation, pearl farming and some tourism.  With a few exceptions, most atolls of the archipelago are still fairly remote and isolated - there are only 26 airstrips.  The Tuamotus are less affected by packaged tourism than the Society Islands.   A modest tourism infrastructure is found on a few of the larger atolls like Rangiroa, Fakarava, Tikehau and Manihi which are recreational scuba diving and snorkeling destinations.  The Paumotus are, like most Polynesians, known for their hospitality, and although there are no available accommodations to rent on many of the smaller island, locals will often share their lodgings with travelers. 

The environment remains extremely limited in both land and resources: hardly anything grows in the poor sandy soil so there’s little fruits and vegetables.  Now, as through history, the main foods eaten in the Tuamotu atolls are fish, tridachna clams, land crabs, pandanus fruit and coconuts; turtles which were once a staple are currently protected. They ate more pandanus than other Polynesians and used every part of the tropical plant, often preserving and storing fruit for long periods of time.   Oyster meat is readily available on the atolls that produce pearls.   Due to such limited food sources, Paumotus rely heavily on imported food like bread, rice and canned goods. Because of this dependence on imports, many islands have few resources to spare for travelers. The visit of just one cruise ship leaves the island scrambling for resources as they wait for the next supply boat.  We were at one atoll where the supply ship had been delayed for at least a week and there was no beer left on the entire island creating a little edginess in the village.   The only drinking water is individually collected from the rain. The roofs of most houses drain directly into a large black plastic cistern.

 A small village (or maybe two) of no more than a hundred or so inhabitants exists on most of the 26 inhabited atolls and they are low-key with little infrastructure - one or two one-kilometer long roads (usually crushed coral tracks), an elementary school, a beautifully adorned church (mostly Catholic with some Mormon and evangelicals), and maybe a small store or two that is replenished with basic provisions when the supply ship from Tahiti arrives once every week…or two…or three.  The whitewashed walls of the homes on the Tuamotu islands are typically decorated with "tifaifai" cushions, shell necklaces and abundant shell art work.  Surprisingly, some homes have lovely gardens of flowering shrubs and trees and they use pearl floats cut in half as planters.  People get around on either bicycles or in small boats.  The French Government subsidizes them with the provision of  large docks and quays, solar powered lighting and satellite dishes.

We often came across crude huts dotted here and there, used seasonally for fishermen or copra harvesters, when we explored empty motus.

They speak two languages: Paumotu and French (the latter taught in village elementary schools). Children go to the larger islands like Makemo for secondary school and to Tahiti to attend university.

An interesting anecdote: In Emory’s notes from 1975, he described the character traits of the Puamotu, saying they were a lively and cheerful bunch, they played games and they were adventurers. He wrote, “The Paumotus were and are extremely fond of games, sports, and amusements, covered under the term makeva”. Paumotu amusements included juggling balls made of coconut or pandanus leaf, and “manipulation of string figures, accompanied by chants”. There are accounts describing how they sang and danced often, using drums and a type of trumpet.  When we were in Tahiti in July of 2017 for the Heiva, we attended the traditional athletic competitions called Tu'aro Ma'ohi.  One game, throwing a handmade spear into a coconut target on a pole some distance away, seemed to always be won by a team from the Tuamotus.  I was told by a Puamotu that the same atoll wins every year because “what else did they have to do but practice all year long?”.

Cruiser Life in the Tuamotus - Never a Dull Moment

What’s there to do in the Tuamotus?  Diving and snorkeling and snorkeling and diving, especially with the thousands of sharks.  Here you have to get used to being around them (especially black tipped reef sharks) because they are a part of daily Tuamotu life; still it can be a little unnerving the first time you jump into the water with them swimming around the boat. We spent much time snorkeling the bommies and drift diving the legendary passes,  known for large schools of sharks and pelagics. The colorful aquarium fish, marine creatures and gardens of coral were of an incredible variety; from the giant Napoleon Wrasse to the smallest nudibranch the underwater life was outstanding.  In the tropical Pacific, underwater diversity increases as you go west.

We spent many pleasant days reefwalking, exploring the motus, birdwatching, scavenging for crabs and drinking coconuts, and shelling....lots and lots of great shelling, especially for cowries.  We even spent time looking to make our fortunes by finding ambergris, the holy grail of beachcombers.  Ambergis, a waxlike substance from the intestines of the sperm whale, is rare but has been found washed up on the shore.   Used in perfume manufacture, it is extremely expensive and is worth big money - a small lump found in Wales was worth $6,000.   It was rumored that friends had found some so we kept a sharp look out.

We visited pearl farms and learned about the process of grafting and cultivating famous Tahitian black pearls. Beach barbeques in the evening were a popular social activity and some of our cruiser friends took advantage of the winds to kiteboard and windsurf. Surfing was good at a few of the atolls in the passes. Mornings brought yoga on the beach.

It was fun to meet the Paumotu people in their villages and in their homes on scattered motus - reinforcing the friendly and generous tradition of Polynesia that we have been experiencing in our travels so far.  They always had big smiles for you and invited you in on no pretense or expectation for anything in return.  

Every atoll seemed much the same yet each had its own distinct character.  We were able to visit 7 atolls in six months, from May until October 2016, and we wished we had seen more.  Join us as we visit seven of them one by one:  Raroia, Tahanea, Fakarava, Toau, Apataki, Ahe, and Tikehau.

MORE PHOTOS: In the "Photo Gallery" for Passage Note #87

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