If the Marquesas Islands were the land of plenty, then the Tuamotus are the land of none. There’s certainly more beauty in this place than some have ever witnessed, but…it has my braining spinning. Nothing seems to grow here and there are few economic opportunities. There's so much to take in, to consider, to contemplate that I’m having trouble putting thoughts to words, to paper. Let me try to explain.
In geological formation alone the Tuamotus are like nothing I have ever seen; land without elevation that isn’t exactly land but rather a ring of coral that has risen above the sea, or better stated the land in the middle has sunk. Frequently these rings have a gap in the rim or a “pass” through which boats can travel into the lagoon. The water within is calmer and better for anchoring. Throughout these lagoons lie hazards known as “bommies” to boaters. “Bommies” are coral spires that grow up from the ocean floor; some small and some as tall as 90 feet, and they create challenges during travel and perhaps even more when anchoring.
Due to the number of atolls in the Tuamotus (77) and the vastness of the lagoons not all of these “bommies” are charted. So the technique most boaters use is to have a crew member stand on the bow and point out upcoming hazards to the helmsmen as they progress slowly. When you’re doing this its best to have the sun at your back to brighten the water.
The water doesn’t need much encouragement to brighten though. The coral and light-colored sand at the bottom turn everything a lovely shade of turquoise, and with little swell to disturb the ocean floor the visibility is like nothing I have ever seen. And the fish, oh the fish. So many species, varieties, and sizes. The coral and clams and other sea creatures are a reason for daily underwater exploration. In this place, we’ve even become accustomed (not comfortable) to swimming along side several species of sharks.
A common activity for water lovers in the Tuamotus is drift dive/snorkel the passes. In other words, to get dropped off by your dinghy at the mouth of the pass, on an incoming tide, and allow the current to carry you through. You feel a bit like you are on a conveyor belt; just float and watch it all pass by.
There is very little land activity here due to the sheer lack of land. Most of the land that exists is unfriendly, jagged, petrified coral. One recent experience I had when sorting vegetables on the boat was coming across some potatoes that still had traces of dirt. The smell of dirt was like the scent of flowers because it was so rare in this rocky landscape. It's the little things:)
And then there’s the remoteness of this place! Find it on a map, zoom out, look where it is. I would say that this is as remote as I have ever felt in my life. This says something because I have spent time at a small base camp in the mountains of Antarctica. Perhaps it’s because despite the remote location of the Tuamotus, people live here and they survive here, with very little. Fish, pearls, and coconuts are the only things that seem to grow natively.
There are supply ships that come occasionally but they don’t seem to bring or take away much of anything. A trip to the market a few days after the arrival of a supply ship in Makemo showed a scarce display of potatoes and onions on the shelves. Refrigeration is lacking too, so much of what is available in the market is on the shelves not the refrigerators; this includes butter (which is actually quite good), eggs, milk, and cheese.
There doesn’t seem to be a landfill either. So… trash must either be burned or sent away on the supply ship (when there’s room). We had a disheartening experiencing one afternoon when we made the 10 minute walk from the inside of the atoll to the outside, the ocean side. Trash, mostly plastics, lined the shoreline. It makes me want to grab a bag and start picking it up. Except some of this trash is in the form of big barrels. Where was I going to take it? Discouraging. This is why I push myself to consume less and produce as little trash as we can. Because what is going to happen to it? There’s nothing like showing up in a remote port and stepping off your boat with a welcoming bag of trash. Ughh!
And then there are my thoughts on tourism, on us. What do all of us “cruisers” bring, if anything. Sure, we spend a bit of money but really there isn’t much to buy and honestly many cruisers are cheap and things here are expensive….so…
You have to realize that boater tourism is relatively new to this area, like in the last 20 years new. Back before GPS, the Tuamotus were known as The Dangerous Archipelago and only the bravest of mariners visited the remote atolls. Crew members would have to constantly be on the lookout, and since there isn’t any elevation the atolls difficult to see for more than about 1-2 miles away. And what about at night? Even with all of today's technology entering the atolls is tricky business.
So given this new ‘boom’ in tourism, how do locals feel? It's tough to determine. The people of French Polynesia are generous people. They give to their families and communities openly. We have been treated kindly by everyone we meet, and I hope they feel the same about us.
We spent 9 weeks in the Tuamotus; 1 week in Makemo, 1 week in Tahanea, and a whopping 7 weeks in Fakarava. By the end, we were ready to move on to the Societies for a few luxuries like better produce, some hiking, and new experiences, but we certainly loved our time in the Tuamotus and will hold a special place for these atolls in our hearts. And…. I will forever be ruined for snorkeling since nothing could ever compare to the many amazing days we spent in these turquoise waters!