If the Marquesas Islands are the land of plenty, then the Tuamotus are the land of none. That doesn't seem fair to say. 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.
Geologically, the Tuamotus are like nothing I've ever seen; land without elevation that isn’t exactly land but rather a ring of coral that has risen above the sea. Frequently, these rings have a gap in the rim, a pass, through which boats can travel into the lagoon. The water within is calmer and better for anchoring. But throughout these lagoons lie hazards known as bommies. Bommies are coral spires that grow upward from the ocean floor, some small and some as tall as 90 feet. These bommies create challenges during travel and 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. The technique most boaters use is to have a crew member stand on the bow and point out upcoming hazards to the helmsmen. It's 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 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 to swimming along side several species of sharks.
A common activity for water lovers in the Tuamotus is drift diving the passes. Divers get dropped off by a dinghy at the mouth of the pass on an incoming tide. Then they allow the current to carry them inward. It feels a bit like being on a conveyor belt; just float and watch it all pass by.
There is very little land-based activity in the Tuamotus due to the sheer lack of land. And any land that does exist is unfriendly, jagged, petrified coral. A rare scent of soil, say on a potato, can smell as sweet as a flower.
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. Perhaps even more remote than the time I spent at a small base camp in the mountains of Antarctica. I think the reason for this is that 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. There is little to no refrigeration on these atolls. So, you'll find things like butter, milk, and cheese on the shelves. The packaging enables a long shelf life, and it's tastier than it sounds.
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 experience 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 made me want to grab a bag and start picking it up. Except, where was I going to take it? It was discouraging. Experiences like this, push me to be less of a consumer and to be conscience of how much trash I am producing. After all, what's going to happen to it? There’s nothing like showing up in a remote port with a welcoming bag of trash. Ughh!
And then, there are my thoughts on tourism, on us. What do we as “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. Before GPS, the Tuamotus were known as The Dangerous Archipelago, and only the bravest mariners visited these remote atolls. The lack of elevation makes the atolls challenging to see from a distance. Even with all of today's technology, entering the atolls is tricky business. And it's darn near impossible at night.
So given this new ‘boom’ in tourism, how do locals feel? It's tough to determine. The people of French Polynesia are generous. We've 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. We certainly loved our time in the Tuamotus and will hold a special place for these atolls in our hearts. I will forever be ruined for snorkeling because nothing will ever live up to the many amazing days we spent in these turquoise waters!