Monthly Archives: January 2013


– Taveuni, Vanua Levu, and Oavlau

The MS Caledonian Sky at anchor in Fiji.

The MS Caledonian Sky at anchor in Fiji.

Our ship passed right through the middle of a tropical depression and as a consequence, we missed all of our stops in Nuie and Tonga.  However, I was lucky enough to visit three of Fiji’s gorgeous islands.  Perhaps signaling a change in the weather, bottlenose dolphins joined us to bow ride as we came closer to the densely vegetated island of Taveuni on our first day in Fiji.  Fiji is part of Melanesia and not Polynesia, and this is reflected in the wildlife with terrestrial creatures like fruit bats appearing, and in the culture and appearance of the people here.  Taveuni is a volcanic island that is still considered active.  The last eruption was in 1550, but there have been 58 major eruptions there over the past 1,000 years.

I had the opportunity to hike in the Bouma Heritage Park and by the time we set foot on the island in the morning, it was already very hot and humid.  Local kids were swimming to cool down near where we landed our zodiacs.  After an hour-long drive in an old bus along a coastal road through pretty villages, over small streams and past big, old hardwood trees and mangroves – always with a view of the tall, jagged green mountains in the distance – our group of hikers arrived at the Bouma National Park.  This is home to the three waterfalls of the Tavoro River.  It was an easy walk to the first waterfall with its large fresh water pool for swimming and playing in the falls.  Local families were splashing around in the falls and even fishing in the pools.  I continued on to the second waterfall up some steep steps and through the thick forest to a plateau overlooking the forest and facing out to sea far below.  Eventually I could hear the waterfall thundering away in the background and went for a swim in the second pool as the water tumbled down from above, beating me clean of the sweat and dust of the day.

The beautiful view in Bouma Heritage Park on Taveuni

The beautiful view in Bouma Heritage Park on Taveuni

Hiking in the Bouma Heritage Park on Taveuni, Fiji

Hiking in the Bouma Heritage Park on Taveuni, Fiji

In the afternoon we snorkeled off the tiny island of Korolevu.  The corals weren’t as healthy as some we’ve seen over the previous days, but we spotted colourful soft corals, anemones, clownfish and sea snakes.  As you move to the west throughout the South Pacific Ocean you come closer to an area known as the Coral Triangle.  This loose geographic regional, around most of northern Papua New Guinea and much of Indonesia, has the most astounding biodiversity of reef fish, invertebrates and corals on the planet.  True to form, the further west we’ve come on our voyage, the better the biodiversity and variety of life on the reef have become.

Overnight we cruised 56 nautical miles to the biggest island in Fiji; Vanua Levu. The Caledonian Sky anchored just outside the pretty port town of Savusavu where several yachts were anchored at the local yacht club along with a small seaplane.

Savusavu is a bustling town populated by both Fijians and some of the many Indians living in Fiji.  The town is full of general stores with names like, “Pots and Things” and market stalls selling fresh produce and delicious smelling Indian spices.  In addition to Savusavu, we visited a traditional Fijian village called Naidi Village.  Almost 300 people live in the village and they welcomed us with warm smiles and Fijian equivalents of lei made with large leaves and pretty flowers woven together.

The people of Naidi live a traditional life with their own village chief, a Turaga ni Koro (village headman) and a number of elders.  After a formal welcome and prayer from the chief, a few of us took part in the customary Kava ceremony before we were invited to explore the village.  The villagers had set up small demonstration areas where they showed us how they husk coconuts and use dried palm leaves to weaves mats, fans and roofing.  We also enjoyed some impromptu singing of Sunday school songs in the church by the village children and discovered one small home that was busily preparing a feast in an underground oven.

A traditional kava ceremony in Naidi Village

A traditional kava ceremony in Naidi Village

Overnight we sailed a short distance to the town of Levuka on Ovalau Island; once the capital of Fiji.  Established by European colonists in the early 1800s, Levuka was built at the foot of steep tropical hills around a small harbour.  The town became a stopping off point for whalers in the South Pacific and eventually the quaint colonial streets became crowded with cheap hotels and bars.  Consequently it lost status as the country’s capital in 1882 and is now a sleepy town that seems trapped in the past.  One of my favorite things in Levuka was to see the local library/museum still using an old-fashioned card-filing system.  The remains of a Masonic temple were another interesting feature of the town.  The building was the casualty of an arson attack by local people who were suspicious of what took place there.

The old whaling town of Oavlau.

The old whaling town of Oavlau.

Tavau Library with old-fashioned card filing system

Levuka Library with old-fashioned card filing system

For our last afternoon in Fiji and the South Pacific, we snorkeled on a fringing reef encircling the island.  We saw several white-tipped reef sharks and a school of small reef squid gliding along near the surface.  Both are signs of a healthy reef and good biodiversity.

I will miss the warmth of the South Pacific waters and its people.  I would like to learn more about how climate change is affecting these islands.  Through a few brief conversations I had with a islanders here and there, it sounds like the dry seasons are colder and drier, and the wet seasons are hotter than they’ve ever been in the last couple of decades.  Cycles of rain and extremes in temperature appear to be changing and evidence of sea level rise is everywhere, especially on the low atolls of places like the Tuamotus.  I hope to return here in 2014 to learn more and talk with more people throughout Oceania.


Thanks to Judith Black for some great information about Fiji.



The Cook Islands

The Cook Islands are named after Captain James Cook who first sighted Manuae (Hervey Island) in 1773.  The first settlers of the islands were Polynesians who arrived about 1200 years ago from the Society Islands.  Our first stop was an island called Atiu and right away I liked the feeling of these islands with their Polynesian heritage and British and New Zealand modern political connections.

Aitu, South End Beach

As we drove our zodiacs into the small harbor inside the coral reef, two young women in traditional long, bright colored dresses stood high above us up on either side of the harbor wall blowing conch shells in welcome.  At the jetty, musicians were beating hollowed-out drums called pate and a Cook Island warrior challenged each group of visitors we landed ashore.  This custom can be an intimidating experience thanks to the warrior’s menacing frame, traditional red and black-feathered headdress and tall spear, but in today’s world, it’s thankfully nothing more than a tradition.

There are no buses on Atiu, so we all rode in the back of 4×4 pick-up trucks fitted with wooden plank benches for seating.  As our vehicles roamed the island we passed lush green jungle growing on this raised coral platform, and areas planted with coffee, taro, and the usual bananas and coconuts.   Aitu_Coconut Farm

We got to taste some of the local fruits and baked goods later when the islanders presented us with a feast they had clearly taken much time and care to prepare.  We each received a fresh coconut with a straw in it to quench our thirst and after traditional dancing and a prayer of thanks we were each given a basket woven from coconut palms and lined with banana leaves to use as plates as heaping platters of food were uncovered.  We enjoyed fresh, sweet pineapple, juicy watermelon, ripe papayas, crisp starfruit, Malayan apples, baked breadfruit, and chunks of freshly cut coconut.  There were also rolled crêpes, tiny sweet pancakes with jam, fried plantains and bananas, and homemade coconut cakes.Aitu_Dancers

After leaving Atiu and it’s friendly people, we tried to land on the uninhabited island of Takutea, but after patrolling up and down the edge of the reef in our zodiacs it was clear that the swell was too big for us to find a safe passage to shore.  The Captain turned our ship back and we steamed on to Aitutaki for our next stop in the Cook Islands.

Aitutaki has one of the most beautiful shallow, blue lagoons I’ve ever seen and we had a chance to snorkel in its crystal clear waters.  I found two octopus, which is unusual in the middle of the day and I was thrilled to find a couple of tables underwater covered in chicken wire that were being used to grow fragments of coral for reef replanting and restoration.  The lagoon itself is 12 by 15 kilometers with scattered sand bars, coral ridges and small coconut covered islands.  We visited a small island called Tapuaetai, which translates to ‘One Foot Island.’  The lagoon water gently lapped at the shores of a fine white sand beach lined with tall coconut palms.  It looked just like a photo postcard.  Gorgeous.Aitutaki_Lagoon

Later in the day, our Captain steered in a northwesterly direction away from Aitutaki for our third and final Cook Island destination.  Overnight we covered 203 nautical miles to the remote atoll of Palmerston.  The atoll has an intriguing history associated with the arrival of William Marsters and his first wife in 1863.  He later took two more wives and together they all lived on the island married to the same man.  Each wife lived in a separate part of the atoll with her children.  Today, those three areas of the island have become three small settlements inhabited by the descendants of Marsters’ 23 children.   Over the years there have been several family feuds and the islanders eventually wrote their own set of rules to establish harmony and discipline on the island.  Today, roughly 45 people from the Marsters clan live on the atoll with a nurse and teachers who are employed from New Zealand.

The main street on Palmerston

The main street on Palmerston

Palmerston is a flat island surrounded by a reef that has been heavily fished over the years, so unfortunately there were not many reef fish to be found.  We arrived on the island’s white sand beach, covered in tiny hermit crabs, and were welcomed by the Deputy Mayor, Bill Marsters.  The villagers then sang a prayer of worship and welcome.  It was a sedate religious situation compared to the bright, colorful, dance-filled welcomes we’d become used to throughout the voyage.  After this greeting we were shown around the island by some of the school children.  The paths through the atoll are well cared for and lined with logs and greenery.  For an atoll, there was also a dense woodland created by tightly packed coconut palms and breadfruit trees.  I picked limes, drank coconuts with a straw and chewed on sugar cane that some of the kids collected for me.  It’s hard to imagine living on an island with only 40 other people, all of whom are vaguely related to you, but the kids seemed really happy and excited to talk with us so it was a good visit.

A typical homestead on Palmerston

A typical homestead on Palmerston

Given a chance, I would definitely make my way back to the Cook Islands to spend more time here and explore more of the islands.

Traditional canoe being stored on Aitu

Traditional canoe being stored on Aitu



The Society Islands

– Tahiti, Raiatea, Taha’a, Bora Bora

Our first stop in the Society Islands was the main town of Papeete, Tahiti. Tahiti is the largest of the French Polynesian islands and Papeete is home to more than 80,000 people. The name Papeete translates from Polynesian to English as ‘water basket’ and the name may have come from a freshwater spring behind the current Territorial Assembly building where early Polynesians gathered water.  People-watching in Papeete was fascinating with the blend of Polynesian and French cultures both influenced by the modern world as was evidenced by the appearance of the first MacDonald’s I’ve seen since leaving home.

A gorgeous sunset over the volcanic island of Moorea in the Society Islands of French Polynesia

A gorgeous sunset over the volcanic island of Moorea in the Society Islands of French Polynesia

We left Tahiti en route to explore the rest of the Society Islands right at sunset.  As we passed the neighbouring island of Moorea, the sky was stunning with a brilliant sunset against the silhouette of the jagged peaks of this high island.

Overnight we covered 119 nautical miles to Ra’iatea and Taha’a in the Leeward Islands, or Iles Sous-le-Vent (Islands Under the Wind).  The two volcanic islands share the same lagoon and are estimated to be between 7-8 million years old.  Ra’iatea is the second largest island in French Polynesia after Tahiti and is regarded as the hub of ancient Polynesia.  It is believed that people migrated from here to places like Hawaii and Aoteroa (New Zealand).  Today Ra’iatea is home to approximately 12,000 inhabitants living in tidy houses, in pretty towns and villages around the 171 square kilometer island.

We landed in Uturoa, a small town that has received significant investment to encourage tourism.  We explored a new central market with small stalls, shops, fresh fruit and crafts for sale.  The island itself is lush and green with a flat coastal road circling all the way around the high peaks in the center.  The highlight of touring around the island was seeing a sacred marae, or ceremonial site.   This flat, football field sized marae is partially covered with Banyan trees and is believed to date back to 900 A.D.  The most prominent features were areas where ceremonial food was prepared and ceremonies like human sacrifices took place.  Rather than making a sacrifice of enemies, as was the case in other parts of Polynesia, here at Taputapuatea, the early Polynesians used to fight one-another for the honour of being the human sacrifice.  They believed this would secure them the highest place in the after-life.  Today, Ra’iatea has a nice, mellow, friendly vibe and everyone I passed raised a hand to wave a greeting.  It was by far my favorite of the Society Islands that we visited.

These girls were hanging out by the side of the road and waving to the cars and scooters passing.

These girls were hanging out by the side of the road and waving to the cars and scooters passing.

After leaving Ra’iatea, we steamed around the neighbouring island of Taha’a about 20 miles away.  Taha’a is the only one of the Society Islands with enough space between the island and the coral reef to circumnavigate the island inside the lagoon.  It is slightly smaller and less populated than it’s neighbor and is also often simply referred to as ‘Vanilla Island’ because so many vanilla orchids are raised there.

The vanilla produced throughout French Polynesia is Vanilla tahitensis, a favorite of pastry chefs around the world thanks to its sweet floral flavor.  It is seldom grown as a crop on a large scale, but rather on small, uneven, forested plots.  The vanilla vine grows propped against the base of scrawny support trees.  Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world because raising it is a time intensive process.  Each flower has to be hand pollinated at just the right time and the beans have to be individually harvested as they ripen.  Today, 70-80% of the vanilla exported from French Polynesia comes from Taha’a.Raiatea

From Taha’a we steamed to Bora Bora, probably the best known of the Society Islands as a high-priced destination for many of the world’s rich and famous.  The volcanic island is home to approximately 9,000 people, one-third of whom live in the main town of Vaitape.  The island has an international airport that was established during World War II when 4,500 US troops descended on Bora Bora after being shaken by the events of December 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor.  As we travelled around the island the roads were lined with bright hibiscus, frangipani and Tiare Tahiti (the national flower of French Polynesia) as well as breadfruit, banana and mango trees all bearing very ripe fruit.  I collected some ripe mangoes from the side of the road to enjoy later on the ship.

Later on we snorkeled at the public beach of Matira Bay and enjoyed seeing butterflyfish, chromis, damselfish, Picasso triggerfish, small rays and one huge moray eel.  From the Society Islands we push on to reach the Cook Islands, but that’s a story for another day!

Motu is the local name for a little island inside a lagoon.  This one is just big enough for a few palm trees.

Motu is the local name for a little island inside a lagoon. This one is just big enough for a few palm trees.

Thanks to Judith Black for some great information about the Society Islands.


The Tuamotus, French Polynesia


A narrow man-made cut through the coral reef surrounding one of the Tuamotu atolls. We had to drive our zodiacs through this cut timing the entrance and exit with the large breaking waves just outside the reef.

Seventy of the world’s 425 atolls can be found in the Tuamotus archipelago in French Polynesia.  The satellite map of the islands looks a little like you are looking down at a cereal bowl holding some Cheerios floating in blue milk.  The whole archipelago is about the same size as Western Europe, but there is only about 850 km2 of land.  The inland seas inside these atolls are massive.  I had no understanding of the sheer size of these islands until I was inside an atoll and couldn’t see land on the other side of the lagoon.  The atolls sit on a huge sub-marine ridge surrounded by up to 5000 meters of deep water.  Imagine running a 5K straight down to the bottom of the ocean – that’s pretty deep.


Serving up raw giant clam with coconut and lime. Love the biodegradable plates!


Our welcoming committee in the Tuamotus

The islands themselves are true atolls built of coral and coralline algae that cap the tops of submerged volcanoes and most of the islands are only a few meters above sea level.  They are flat, skinny and round, and are dominated by the ocean surrounding them and the lagoons inside them.  The people of the islands make a living by raising coconut palms and harvesting the coconuts for a product called copra.  Copra is essentially dried coconut meat that can be processed later to extract coconut oil, which is then used in all kinds of foods and agricultural products like food for horses.  The culture is heavily Polynesian and each island we visited greeted us with a lei of fresh flowers, nuts and ribbons, or shells.  They played guitars and ukuleles and danced the hula for us in different styles depending on the island.  The people speak both French and their own Polynesian dialect.


Cooking octopus over a coconut husk fire

I enjoyed trying all kinds of local foods that were spread out for us in the Tuamotus.  In the last week I’ve eaten coconut breads, the raw abductor mussel of a giant clam in coconut sauce with lime (delicious — like a big fresh scallop), octopus tentacle that was cooked on an open fire of coconut husks until it was blackened and then all the black burn stuff on the outside was beaten off with a big wooden mallet (a bit chewy and smoky), raw fish marinated in lime known as ceviche (also delicious), and fruits including papaya, mango, yellow watermelon, pineapple, and something like a lychee but bigger.   And of course lots and lots of coconut as this is the main food source and product on these islands.  I drank coconut milk out of a green coconut, ate white coconut meat from a mature coconut – delicious with a little lime on it – and had shredded coconut squeezed through a clean white cloth to make milk that was drizzled on everything else.  The islanders always served us our food on clean green leaves instead of paper of plastic plates.  Their serving platters were also made of woven coconut palm fronds.  I loved seeing the totally natural serving plates and platters – no plastic and no waste!

Besides the food, the snorkeling in and outside of these atolls has been very good.  The highlight has been seeing lots and lots of sharks.  In December of 2012, French Polynesia made history by banning shark fishing in the country’s exclusive economic zone that includes about 1.5 million miles2 of ocean.  This doubles the area already protected for sharks around the globe.  Scientists estimate 73 million sharks are killed each year around the world in the shark fin trade.  It’s an appalling trade and one third of all sharks in the world are now threatened with extinction because of it.  The sharks’ fins are harvested to make soup that is very popular in Asia.  When I travelled through Southeast Asia last year I saw signs selling shark fins and shark fin soup everywhere I went, which brought me close to tears.  So, it was fantastic to see some healthy young reef sharks in the water including black tip, white tip and gray reef sharks.  They are harmless to swimmers and it was a privilege to see so many apex predators in the wild.