Travels in Tahiti

The harbor in Tetiaroa appeared deserted. Although there are a few residents (Brando’s son and the singer Michael Jackson are said to own homes here), and a new hotel is slated to open in 2008, the atoll is largely uninhabited. After a short ride from the catamaran in a small inflatable Zodiac, we landed on the shore. The white sand beach was pristine, stretching unbroken (except for the occasional coconut palm) for what seemed like miles. I stood for a moment—listening to the calm waves lapping the shore, looking out across the placid turquoise waters of the lagoon to where an islet of white sand and towering green palms rested like a mirage on the horizon—and could hardly believe that a place this beautiful could exist. It was like standing in the middle of a postcard. This was what the shore of a pacific atoll would have looked like to the first European explorers, and the first Polynesian settlers before that—deserted and tranquil, inhabited only by wildlife.

     The wildlife in question were mostly seabirds and hermit crabs (some of which were actually juvenile coconut crabs, which also appropriate gastropod shells as shelters, very much like their hermit crab cousins). Across the lagoon from Motu Rimatiai (the islet on which we landed) is Motu Tahuna Rahi, known as “the island of birds.” Joined by our fellow eco-tourists from the catamaran, we waded out across the waist-deep lagoon to view the bird colony. As our tour guide lectured on in rapid French, we gingerly tried to step around the numerous small gray sea cucumbers (concombres du mer), for which the shallow waters of the lagoon are a favorite hangout.

     Motu Tahuna Rahi is currently a nature reserve for seabirds, and is one of the few protected bird sanctuaries in the Society Islands. It is home to a variety of bird species, including brown and red-footed boobies, frigatebirds, gannets, noddies, long-tailed tropicbirds, and a number of species of terns. These migratory seabirds use the motu as a nesting island, where they lay eggs and raise their young.

     Different species of birds nest in different parts of the islet. We saw mostly frigatebirds, noddies, and terns. The bird watching was spectacular—numerous species, and plenty of cute baby chicks to be seen. On one tree branch not far above ground level was the large nest of a red-footed booby, inhabited by a single fluffy white chick. The boobies apparently lay only one or two eggs, and typically raise only a single offspring to adulthood each season. The feisty little terns seemed to have the most personality, guarding their eggs and eyeing us ‘intruders’ with what seemed like a disgruntled look. The very large, noisy flock of them, flapping their wings at us to go away, was vaguely reminiscent of a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” (the thought passed fleetingly that perhaps I should have stayed on shore with the less wildlife-inclined, but luckily the terns stayed put).

     On the other side of the islet the lagoon was calmer, and so transparent that several stingrays were clearly visible lolling on the sandy bottom. They may look lazy, but they can be lightning-fast—a fact attested to by my three lovely photos of sand clouds. After wading back to Motu Rimatiai from the bird island, we ate a picnic lunch under a shady palm tree, and stayed for the remainder of the afternoon, exploring the shoreline and the crystal-clear waters of the lagoon. The sun beat down as it typically does in the tropics (despite the fact that this was June, the beginning of winter in the southern hemisphere), but a cool breeze kept the temperature pleasant.

     Part of the beach was composed of gray coral rock, a reminder of how the island was formed. When Charles Darwin arrived in French Polynesia in 1835 (during the voyage of HMS Beagle), similar atolls, as well as high islands like Tahiti, helped to crystallize his theory of how coral islands form. (Interestingly, he had never seen a coral island when he first formulated his theory, while still traveling in South America at the beginning of the voyage.) Darwin concluded that high islands and atolls were different stages in a single process, which begins with an undersea volcano that eventually emerges above sea level to form a volcanic island. Eventually, the volcano becomes extinct, and the island begins to sink back into the ocean. As this occurs, the distance between the shoreline and the fringing reefs around the island increases, until the island disappears beneath the sea. Meanwhile, the reef itself eventually breaks the surface, forming a ring of land—an atoll—surrounding an empty lagoon where the central island formerly stood. Darwin’s theory has since been proven correct, and every now and then we get to see the process unfold (such as when the brand-new volcanic island of Surtsey broke the surface of the Atlantic near Iceland in 1963, although it has since disappeared again beneath the waves). High islands like Tahiti and Moorea represent a later step in the process, while Bora Bora (with its wide lagoon and central high island) is still further along. Atolls like Tetiaroa and the Tuamotus form the last step.

     Returning to Tahiti aboard the catamaran, we sat on the deck, enjoying the breeze and the Polynesian sunset. Behind us, the towering peaks of Moorea were silhouetted against the sky, while ahead Tahiti stretched across the horizon, aglow in the last rays of sun. Just as it all must have looked, I thought to myself, to the early European explorers, and the Polynesian settlers arriving in their war canoes, and the first living things that floated here, on rafts of vegetation, to a solitary rock of basalt newly emerged above the sea.


Jennifer A. Lane is currently working toward her doctorate in Biology at City University of New York/The American Museum of Natural History, studying evolutionary relationships of fossil sharks. She earned a master’s degree in Geoscience from  Pennsylvania State University in 2001. Lane enjoys nature travel, and writing articles on eco-tourism.

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