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.
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.
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.