10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Tahiti

Located in the South Pacific, Tahiti is thought of by many as a prime vacation destination. But what do you actually know about these islands? To test your Tahitian knowledge, here are 10 things you probably didn’t know.

1. The official languages of the country are both Tahitian and French. However, English is also widely spoken on most of the islands.

2. What is commonly known as “Tahiti” or “The Islands of Tahiti” is officially categorized as an Overseas Country of France, with its own government overseeing all international decisions on behalf of French Polynesia.

3. There are 118 islands and atolls spread out over five archipelagos.

4. Most Polynesians believe the mythical island of Hawaiki, today known as Raiatea, rose from the bottom of the ocean and was the beginning of all life on Earth.

5. The over-water bungalow was invented in the islands of Tahiti 45 years ago.

6. On Fakarava, there is a church called Jean de la Croix made completely of coral.

7. The Islands of Tahiti is the only country in the world to have a winery, Vin du Tahiti, on a coral atoll.

8. The word “tattoo” originated in French Polynesia. The legend of Tohu, the god of tattoo, talks about painting all the fish in the ocean and showing their vibrant colors and designs. In Polynesian culture, tattoos are thought to be signs of beauty, and were ceremoniously applied to the body as a celebration of adolescence in earlier times.

9. Mount Temehani on the island of Raiatea is home to the Tiare Apetahi flower. This flower will not grow anywhere else in the world, despite botanists having tried to replant it for centuries.

10. The Tahitian alphabet contains only 13 letters.

For a more visual idea of Tahiti’s lesser-known side, check out the gallery below.

[flickr image via Michael R. Perry]

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Teahupo’o: the world’s ‘heaviest’ surfing wave



Teahupo’o
, site of a legendary surfer break on the French Polynesian island of Tahiti, has developed quite the reputation among big-wave surfers. Due to a shallow coral reef just off shore, waves here tend break as massive, chunky walls of water, a phenomenon that has earned Teahupo’o the distinction as the “heaviest” wave in the world.

The video above, filmed at Teahupo’o, offers a first-hand view from the ocean of what it’s like to ride the massive swells of this epic surf spot. Set to an ethereal soundtrack, the video follows surfers as they brave one of the biggest surfing days at Teahupo’o in recent memory, riding crushing “fists” of ocean that grow and collapse, threatening to swallow them whole at any minute. Sit back, click the play button, and let yourself be mesmerized by these awesome feats of athleticism.



Surfers in Tahiti ride waves so big they cancel contest

For those who don’t know very much about the world of pro surfing, it isn’t very often that a professional contest gets cancelled because the surf is actually too big. That’s exactly what happened in Tahiti, however, when a massive swell generated by hurricane force winds in the southern latitudes rendered the surf too powerful for any human to possibly paddle in to.

With the 2011 Billabong Pro Tahiti on hold due to the exceptional surf conditions, many of the world’s top surfers instead opted to whip into the aquatic monsters via tow-lines attached to the back of jet skis. In case you’re unfamiliar with the sport of tow-surfing, this video should be a nice little introduction.

Taking place on the ridiculously shallow reefbreak known as Teahupoo (or simply “Chopes” to those in the know), the spot is renowned for having a wave shape that more resembles a dark, bulbous pit of death than a casual, inviting day at the beach. It’s the same place where Laird Hamilton in August, 2000 rode the wave that forever changed big wave surfing history.

While the contest has since resumed, this is a glimpse into the types of days that professional big wave surfers consistently travel across the globe attempting to conquer.

Fishing in the French Polynesian waters

Fakarava Atoll, the Tuamotus, French Polynesia – Maru’s 16-foot, plywood fishing boat, steered by one metal rod coming straight out of the floorboards in his left hand and accelerated by another rod held tightly in his right hand, hugs the eastern edge of Passe Garuae. One of only two passes accessing the atoll’s thirty-six-by-twenty-one mile lagoon, twice day big water rushes either in or out and navigation requires years of experience.

As we try to edge our way out onto the South Pacific for a day of fishing, currents at the heart of the pass are running out at about seven knots, creating what appear to be standing riptides. If we were anywhere near the center, we’d most likely be cart wheeled by the fast-moving water and big waves.

Maru, a 46-year-old native of Fakarava – the Tuamotus’ second-largest atoll – has driven boats through here thousands of time, so far without incident. I’m hoping his luck stays.

Despite a population of about 700 on this remote atoll 150 miles north and east of Tahiti, there are surprisingly few people making a living off fishing. It’s not because there aren’t fish, but because the big industry here – black pearls-has become more lucrative and in some respects easier. Though the boom in the growing of black pearls has weakened the industry a bit in recent years by flooding the market – every Polynesian with access to the ocean wants in on the business – it doesn’t require risking life and limb on the open ocean everyday.

Maru tells me he prefers this life than the more intensive routine of seeding oysters and monitoring them for more than a year and a half, hoping they’ll produce pearls. His days are routine, leaving from the docks of Fakarava’s one town around six and returning by two or three in the afternoon. His catch provides the bulk of the fresh fish for the atoll’s residents. This day he’ll take a dozen big mahi-mahi, spearing them from his boat while simultaneously steering and accelerating. He surveys for signs of a small school – watching for the big fish to break the surface – and then chases them down, tiring them. It requires a skill-set few Westerners can imagine: Steering, accelerating, scouting and spearing, all with only two hands.He is a man of few words, especially when intent on the catch. But after he pulls in his last fish of the morning he admits that he feels “more alive” when he’s out on the sea. Today the ocean is nearly glassy-calm, though there are days when it is not quite so paradise-like. Gray skies and big winds do visit this corner of French Polynesia, though he admits they are rare.

Fishing for jacks or sharks inside the big lagoon is an option, but for the big, wild fish – bonito, yellow-fin tuna, mahi-mahi, barracuda or paru, a large red perch – the ocean is the place.

My real curiosity with Maru is if there are plenty of fish here in this part of the Pacific or if numbers are decreasing. Since he fishes six days a week, he’s the best source on the atoll and assures me there are plenty of fish in his ocean and that he catches as much as he wants, on any day.

The biggest pressure here is not what the locals take from the sea though; it is the pressure of illegal fishing by big boats from China, Japan, Europe and even South America. A 200-mile EEZ protects all of French Polynesia’s 130 islands and the territory has agreements with some fishing fleets to allow quotas on yellow-fin tuna catches. But last year a Spanish trawler with motor trouble was towed into the Marquesan island of Nuka Hiva, loaded with illegally caught fish. A Venezuelan boat was fined $635,000 and its captain jailed for a month recently for taking at least 80 tons of tuna over a few weeks in the same waters.

The beautiful, seemingly trouble-free waters that surround us this day are emblematic of a global ocean dilemma. While there are plenty of international and local laws on the books to protect against poaching and illegal fishing, enforcement is very difficult. The 130 islands of Polynesia cover just 1,622 square miles of land but the territory includes nearly 1 million square miles of ocean. With a small Navy, supported by tax-dollars from France, surveying all that blue is a difficult task.

To Maru, such concerns seem to come from another world. His focus is pretty narrow, mostly on tomorrow, maybe the end of the week. He says he rarely sees signs of international fishermen – though they are out there, all around – and brags that on any given day he can fill his bright-red boat with big, colorful fish. The trickier challenge for him is that the market is not what it used to be.

“It used to be that everything I caught was sold in Fakarava,” he says, after successfully navigating against still-outgoing currents in the pass and into the lagoon. “Now, because we get so much food flown in or by cargo boat from Tahiti, there are less people buying.” He often ends up freezing part of his catch and selling it to bigger boats heading back to Tahiti.

“It’s easier when I sell everything to my neighbors,” he says. “But wherever the fish sell, I’m happy.”

The coral reefs of Bora Bora

Bora Bora, Society Islands, French Polynesia – I dove in the beautiful lagoon that surrounds the tall island to have a first hand look at how the coral reef is doing in this South Pacific resort island. The report is not good.

Descending to ninety feet it was immediately clear that the reef has been hammered in the past few years. I’ve come here every year for the past decade and have seen incredible change.

I spent most of the morning observing the still-growing reef system just ten to thirty feet below the surface. Although the waters are warm and magnificently clear an invasive predators and natural disaster have both taken big tolls.

Populations of acanthaster — more popularly known as the Crown of Thorns starfish – mysteriously arrived in Polynesia in 2006. No one is sure exactly how they got here or where they originated, though invasive species are well known for hitching rides on cargo ships and jumping off far from home. Here in the shallows surrounding Bora Bora – as they have done to reefs on nearby Moorea, Raiatea-Tahaa, Huahine and Maupiti – the predatory starfish have eaten, thus killed, hundreds of acres of coral.

The natural disaster occurred in February 2010, when Cyclone Oli whipped the nearby seas to a froth of eighteen to twenty-one feet, pouring over the protective reef and across the lagoon. The impact on the corals was devastating, as deep as 100 feet below the surface.

At twenty feet below, the coral was ripped off at its base and forever destroyed. Rather than coral, today much of the shallows of the lagoon floor are covered instead of by a fine pale yellow algae mat. The deeper you dive, the less destruction you see, but the powerful storm – the first cyclone to hit here in fourteen years — still managed to break, mangle and kill coral. The only slight upside is that it was also hard on the starfish population.My dive corresponded with having just read a new report from the D.C.-based World Resource Institute – “Reefs at Risk Revisited” – which suggests that 75 percent of the world’s coral reefs are currently threatened by local and global pressures. It blames climate change, including warming seas and ocean acidification, but points fingers primarily at human pressures, primarily overfishing, coastal development and pollution. Hurricanes and invasive starfish are not mentioned.

Around the globe more than 275 million people live in the direct vicinity (within 18 miles) of coral reefs. In more than 100 countries and territories reefs protect over 93,000 miles of shoreline, helping defend coastal communities and infrastructure against storms and erosion.

The reef encircling Bora Bora helps protect the island from typical weather and seas. Human pressure on the reef and lagoon come from development: Thirteen big hotels are built either on the mainland or one of its several big motus. In the past decade the human population has swelled to 9,000, thanks to tourism. But the twin pressures of more building and more people is having a direct impact on the very thing – its amazing natural beauty – that attracts visitors in the first place.

My morning dive led me to a conversation in the late afternoon with French-German marine biologist Denis Schneider. Despite his mainland birth, Schneider has been an island-rat most of his adult life. He guesses he spend 30 hours a week – five hours a day, six days a week – in the ocean. He only occasionally wears shoes. His company – Espcae Bleu – works to rebuild reefs in Indonesia, the Maldives and Bora Bora.

“The three biggest problems for the reef here – before the starfish arrived – were people, especially fishermen and their motors, the Red tide which warms the water and kills the coral, and hurricanes.” He and his team have taken on the unenviable attempt to clear out the venomous starfish. “Touch a sea urchin and the sting will last for a few minutes,” he says. “Brush your skin against a Crown of Thorns and it will sting for months.” The solution to ridding the lagoon of the starfish is injecting them one by one, using giant hypodermic needles, with a chemical solution that kills them. (He changes the subject when I ask what impact the chemicals may have on the lagoon ….)

To try and resuscitate reefs, especially near the hotels, Schneider and compatriots from the Maryland-based Global Coral Reef Alliance, build unique domes out of rebar which they flip over and sink to the lagoon floor. The metal rusts very quickly and the chicken-wire mesh covering it is soon grown over by calcium-rich marine life. Coral is transplanted onto the faux reef and within a year it is nearly completely covered with colorful, living coral. They’ve dubbed the patented system Biorock and its trick to growing coral on the super-structure fast is that the underwater structure is “electrified.” To encourage fast-growing coral a low voltage current courses through the metal structure, usually created from solar, wind or tidal sources. .

“What we are building are really ‘boosters’ for the reefs, growing three to five times faster than normal coral,” says Schneider. “In some cases 20 times faster. “

The Biorock system is just one of a variety of man-made attempts being made around the world to encourage new coral growth, including concrete forms and, around the coast of the U.S., purposely dumped buses, tanks and aging military boats.

“The reality in Bora Bora is that the island, like all in Polynesia, is sinking. Slowly, very slowly. But in 70,000 years the island will be gone and all that will remain will be the reef surrounding the lagoon. I wish we could come back then and see how the coral has done.”

[flickr image via Jon Rawlinson]