Tikehau of the Tuamotus

On the small French Polynesian atoll of Tikehau, I discover a ringworld of life adapted to the extremes of the South Pacific.

For mom, who painted our world with island color.

Tikehau Fishing Boat

A fishing boat is moored in a waterway between two motus near a small fishing camp and Tuheieva Pass, the only navigable entrance to the Tikehau lagoon.

I

am traveling with my wife and son to Tikehau, an atoll in French Polynesia’s Tuamotu Archipelago. We are now 200 miles north of Tahiti, and with my face up against the airplane window, I can start to see some of the 79 atoll islands appear below.

In science fiction, there is the concept of the wheel-shaped space station - a large, artificial band, rotating in space. Many popular science fiction stories, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, contain some variant of these circular space stations. The most fully realized is Larry Niven’s Ringworld, a novel which imagined a massive abandoned circular artifact, rotating through space.

I cannot help but to think of these atolls, thin bands of exposed coral, each forming a ring of land around deep and protected blue-water lagoons, as ringworlds. Thinking about outer space, out here in the middle of the South Pacific, is not such a stretch. Of all the places on Earth, nowhere are the distances so vast, the sense of isolation so intense.

Draw a triangle from New Zealand to Hawaii to Easter Island, and you draw the largest place in the world—the Polynesian Triangle is ten million square miles, the largest place in the world colonized by a single people. And yet, almost all of those miles are open ocean. The thousand islands in this triangle are just specks, like dim stars beyond the Milky Way on a black night.

Tikehau Atoll Map

Tikehau, one of 79 coral atolls that makes up the Tuamotu archipelago. Copic marker map by Erik Gauger, for Notes from the Road.

All terrestrial life—the coconut trees, the crabs, the native plants, the skinks and the birds, and, when populated, the native Tuamotuan people who have lived on these islands for 1300 years, live on that thin band of palm-laden exposed coral.

Tikehau is one of the smaller of the populated South Pacific ringworlds, and it has only one navigable entrance to the Pacific. Almost all of the five-hundred residents live on the main village island, Tuherahera, although a small number of homes, fishing cabins, farms and lodges appear between the palms of distant islets, or motus.

Like a ringworld, nobody lives in the empty middle. 

Or so I thought. 

The lagoon is filled with hundreds of almost-islets, mounts that don’t quite break the surface. But exposed islets exist there too. In the center of the lagoon is a tiny motu, too small to even house a single palm tree. At its center is a thicket of shrubs, home to numerous seabirds. On a raised platform is an abandoned and roofless building. This was once a pearl factory, built to cultivate pearls before it was understood that the acidity of Tikehau’s lagoon was unsuitable to high-quality pearls.

When visiting this motu with a boat captain Denis Grosmaire and my son, the captain mentions that a young couple once decided to inhabit this building after the pearl prospectors gave up on it. 

How could anyone live on such a tiny island, I thought? I wanted to answer that question, because, in a way, that helps answer the question of how anyone can live in the Tuamotus at all—vast and lonely ringworlds, so harsh in the bright, humid sunlight, places without arable soil, livestock or movie theaters. I was lucky then, to talk with the man who lived at the abandoned pearl factory island—in the middle of Tikehau’s ringworld. 

Abandoned Pearl Factory in the Tikehau Lagoon

The abandoned pearl factory in the Tikehau lagoon, where Heinere and Noémie lived for two years.

Interview with Heinere: the Abandoned Pearl Factory

Erik: When did you decide to live on the Pearl Factory motu?

In 1999, I met my girlfriend, who was living in Tahiti. I had been going back and forth between Tikehau and Tahiti, to see her because she was still a student.

In 2002, she passed her baccalaureate, and I asked her if she would like to move to Tikehau, although I was still living with my parents. She explained that she went to college because she wanted employment, and there is no work in Tikehau. She wanted to be financially independent, and ‘living with your parents is out of the question.’

At the time, she was only 18, but she fiercely wanted independence.

I told her, why don’t you just come out and stay with my parents for a few days, on a vacation. Get a feel for life on our atoll.

She agreed to spend a few days with my parents—but everything quickly degenerated. My parents treated her badly, mocking her. In their eyes, she was a young urban girl from the big island of Tahiti, who couldn’t adapt to our way of life as fishermen and coconut copra farmers. 

I did not defend her. It was the mistake of my life.

Polynesian Fish

Photo provided by Heinere and Noémie from their two year stay at the abandoned pearl factory.

To me, I felt that my parents were honest and fair. So, I thought, maybe my girlfriend is telling me nonsense! She decided then to return to Tahiti as soon as possible, and never come back. It was impossible for me to join her because I worked as a sailor for a diving center.

One day, I suggested that she join me again in Tikehau, but somewhere far away from the village. I crossed my fingers and prayed to heaven for her to come. Now, I remembered everything she said about financial independence, a house for just the two of us.

When she arrived in Tikehau, I took her out to the village pier, and then out by boat to a small motu in the lagoon, where an abandoned pearl factory sat, complete with a pontoon dock.

I sat her down, and she asked, ‘What are we doing here?’

I said, ‘I’m taking you to this island to ask for your sincere forgiveness. I did not know how to listen to you, I did not defend you when you needed my support. I regret not having been able to act sooner. Forgive me.’

And there, she turned around facing the sunset without a word. I watched her from behind being determined to make her happy and me too.

Before the sun set completely, I said to her, ‘Make a wish!’

She closed her eyes and I remember her whispering something like: ‘My wish is to live here, far from the village. To be able to contemplate the beauty of the landscape without being disturbed. To savor the sunrise and the sunset every day. To take advantage of all the good things that the lagoon gives us. The things that it offers like the fish and the giant clams.’

I heard her wish but acted like I didn't expect anything. So she spent the weekend with me and then she returned home to Tahiti.

It was then that I took my life into my own hands. At this point, I knew what I wanted, which was to live with her forever. This must be the end of those round trips! I finally understood what an independent life meant to her. Just her and me, with no help from anyone, no orders from anyone. To live our life the way we want.

Polynesian Fish

I decided to conduct a little research on who owned this little motu pearl factory island. I found the owners and asked if they could rent me this place.

With mocking laughter, the owners said, ‘Heinere, what are you thinking? What do you find so appealing on this isolated motu? It is not made for young couples like you. There's nothing interesting there! It's unlivable. It is difficult to get anywhere from there.’

But what I didn't tell them is that Noémie, my girlfriend, saw the possibility in the place. She was able to find something beautiful here, and she understood that it was a place where thriving was possible—she admired the beauty that God created.

The owners relented and gave me permission to live there. Overjoyed, I asked Noémie to come back to Tikehau. She flew out again, and again I took her to the pier, and this same little island.

Arriving there she said to me, ‘Here again?’

So I said, ‘You will be able to contemplate the beauty of this landscape while admiring the sunrise and sunset every day from today. Because, it is our home now.’

And this was the moment we decided to live on this motu.

I returned with her to Tahiti because now I had plans to buy the necessary equipment to live on the motu: an oven, freezer, refrigerator, washing machine, mattress, kitchen utensils, linens, dishes, mattress, box spring, and a generator to have electricity on site.

The house was completely remodeled. We had made it a cheerful place. I saw the happiness in Noémie's eyes.

Erik: Because Noémie grew up in Tahiti, were there times when she was less comfortable in the lagoon?

Heinere: For a young girl who had lived in Tahiti, she has adapted very well to our new life on the motu. One thing that she quickly discovered was that for a shower, there was just a bucket in the bathroom. First you had to fill the bucket with water. And when bathing, you only had the contents of the bucket to work with. We relied on rainwater from the one basin on the island. That bucket was how we saved water - no waste.

The electricity is also not on every hour of the day. When we woke before dawn, we used candles to light up the house.

Erik: How did you prepare meals?

To prepare the evening meal, Noémie was already starting to cook before sunset. Around this time, I would start the generator, so we could keep the freezer cool. After dinner, Noémie did the laundry using our washing machine.

While waiting for the machine to turn, we quietly clear our table and enjoy watching television. Noémie is intelligent, she easily adapted to our daily lives.

 

Polynesian Fish

Photo provided by Heinere and Noémie from their two year stay at the abandoned pearl factory.

Erik: Were there ways your experiences on two very different islands gave you different skills?

The difference between our two skills was our strength.

For example, I would cook exclusively the local meals I grew up with in Tikehau. I would cook grilled fish on a piece of sheet metal, ipo made from flour, sugar and coconut milk, boiled taro, po'ē made from coconut milk, cornstarch and banana, po'ē mautini, which is a po'ē made from pumpkin, grilled lobster and coconut bread made from flour, coconut water, coconut milk and coconut flesh.

While Noémie, knows and eats the local cuisine, she never cooked it, and her cooking was more typical of Tahiti. She would make spaghetti Bolognese, all sorts of sauces to accompany the fish and lobster such as vanilla sauce and pepper sauce. She would make mixed salads with different dressing sauces, pancakes, cakes, cookies, brioches, pancakes, and even Cantonese dishes like chow mein, beef sautéed with vegetables.

Erik: How was the night on the island?  

We were lulled by the sound of the waves at night, after a hectic and tiring day. No need for an antidepressant tablet or a tablet to facilitate falling asleep to sleep.

Erik: Has the motu ever created a feeling of isolation or loneliness or even claustrophobia?  

We chose this motu precisely to isolate ourselves. We didn't have this lonely feeling because it corresponded exactly to what we were looking for.

The village is full of inhabitants, there is a grocery store, an infirmary, a town hall, an airport. Everything you need to live peacefully.

But while we lived at the motu, it was necessary to stock up regularly. We had very little contact with the villagers. Apart from when we were working, we were courteous to people, but that's it, no more, no less.

It was the best thing I did for us. It was wonderful. We were on our little cloud. We lived our life as a couple to the fullest. Then I realized I was ready for a baby. 

But Noémie explained, ‘I understand this desire to have a child. We have a house, okay. But I don't have a job. I also want to be able to participate in the needs of the house, of our baby. This is how I see life. Take it or leave it.’

So I went to the maitre d' of a nearby hotel if he might be looking for a waitress or bartender. Indeed, he was, and I was very happy to tell to Noémie the good news that she will have a job. 

Polynesian Fish

After taking a job as a waitress, she said, "Yes, I have a job thanks to your efforts. I am grateful to you. We are young, it’s time to take advantage of our savings to travel, to have fun. It’s time to start to put money aside for our future child so that he's got clothes and lots of other things."

She wasn't wrong, she was much more mature for her age.

So we take full advantage of our life together. And without thinking about the baby anymore, but Noémie became pregnant a year later. I was overwhelmed with happiness.

She was two months pregnant when she lost a lot of blood, she no longer had the symptoms of a pregnant woman. Her grandmother, who was with us at the time, automatically lowered herself to the ground to look for something in the pool of blood.

At the time, we didn't really understand what she was doing. A minute later, she handed us in the hollow of her palm, something that looked like a small bean.

Noémie, in shock, quickly understood that she had lost the baby. We buried the fetus and said a little prayer and our last farewell. I saw Noémie's suffering.

It was a mixture of sadness and hope at the same time. We visited a doctor in Tahiti, who had noticed something else—there was a small point under this bleeding which puzzled him. 

A week later, we went back to the doctor. He discovered that instead of the small point it formed a small bean. Twins were expected but only one survived. Joy returned to Noémie's heart.  

Two months before our child was born, we decided to leave the motu, because living there would never be suitable for a child.

What I remember since we lived on this motu, is that we discovered each other as we went along. We have taken the time to plan what we really want to do with our lives. We made the most of what we could with what we had on hand.

We depended on both of us without having to be accountable to others.

It is on this motu that we chose the first name of our child, Manatea, which translates as, ‘Infinite power’. It was magic, our best memories are from this motu.

The Tikehau Lagoon

Shallow water near the Tuheiava Pass.

Jelly in the Lagoon

I am sitting under the shade with Jane, and I see something in the water moving toward us. We approach the railing, and I say, “shark!”, but then I course-correct, “sea turtle!” and then, “barracuda!”

It’s none of those things. Although by this point, I am stomping through our room, looking for my snorkeling mask. When I descend down the ladder into the lagoon, Jane the whole time telling me to be smart, to be careful, I plop down into the water and this thing is already passing me, moving like a satellite through the turquoise flats.

Immediately, I know I have to assess my own safety. 

In St. Lucia twenty years ago, Jane and I snorkeled in a beautiful and narrow patch of reef near the island’s twin pitons. I had been snorkeling most of my life, but Jane wasn’t as comfortable in the water. Within minutes of our first snorkel, I dove down, perhaps six or eight feet underwater, and there was this jellyfish that was unlike anything I had ever seen. It was moving fast, and not, in any way meandering with the current. I sensed it was dangerous. I also sensed that It knew we were there, and then before even a breath, Jane was yelping, and I knew that the animal had intentionally targeted her, and then we were on the beach, and there was this honeymooner couple coming to our aid, and they were pale and the newlywed husband was saying, “You have to pee on her!” 

I had been married to Jane for four days and I was not going to pee on her.

The jellyfish that stung her was from a family of the most deadly on Earth—the box jellyfish.These jellies, known as sea wasps in the Antilles, deliver potent venom—the targets of their Indo-Pacific relatives, even when human, sometimes die. 

What I remember is that this jellyfish acted as if it could see us. Somehow, it felt provoked, maybe by Jane’s thrashing flippers, and it pursued her.

Box jellyfish are unique among the family in that they have actual eyes, from retina to cornea. These twenty-four eyes allow them to see not only light and dark, but more specific objects. They use sight to travel and defend and survive.

Luckily, I didn’t pee on Jane on our fourth day of marriage, and we made it far enough along to take our son out on the Oregon coast on a rare sunny January day.

The Oregon coast in winter has a different feel to it than in summer. Sand recedes from the beaches, and there is this barren and somber quality. Trees buried beneath the sand from seasons ago become exposed . Bald eagles and ravens scour the dunes.

This season, By-the-Wind Sailors, a type of jellyfish, have overtaken the beaches. By-the-wind jellies are small, the diameter of an avocado seed. Their bodies are translucent, colored an otherworldly bluish-purplish. They are shaped like an organic sailboat, and they use this flapping sail to coast along the surface of the Pacific. They travel in dense flotillas that number in the trillions, at the whims of the winds - accidental drifters. Sometimes, after strong winter gales, these jellies wash up on Pacific Northwest beaches, painting the beach in lavender.

As we drive up the beach, looking for an isolated spot to build a sandcastle and take in some cold weather sun, I can feel a thick goo wrapping around my tires, a thick mixture of days-old By-the-Wind Sailors and sand. 

We found a quiet place on the beach to spend a few hours, ignoring the faint wretched smell of millions of dead jellyfish. When we return home later that evening, I powerwash the lavender goo off my wheels, leaning in to spray the wheel wells.

What I hadn’t realized is that much of the goo was already affixed and drying on the undercarriage, forming a consistency much like burnt raspberry jam. The Jeep undercarriage must have had an inch of thick hardened paste in all its crevices.

The next morning, my office, which sits above the garage, smelled faintly of putrid seafood. I left the garage door open that day, but I would have no idea that the intense smells of jellyfish material would get worse over the next several months -each morning my office greeted me with an increasingly rancid smell. I found any opportunity to take my son out, looking for large Portland rain puddles, splashing through them over and over again, hoping to rid the Jeep of goo. Eight months later, I noted the first day my office didn’t smell like a fish market.

Mosaic Jellyfish (Thysanostoma thysanura) in Tikehau Lagoon

A Mosaic Jellyfish (Thysanostoma thysanura) travels through the Tikehau lagoon.

If I have a weary relationship with jellyfish, I am well aware of it now, as I descend into the water to find a fast-moving jellyfish, with a one-foot circumference purple and apricot exumbrella, and long, rope-like tentacles. The massive beast, pumping through the flats, is two-feet long. It’s mass is roughly twenty times that of the sea wasp.

I know that I am looking at something that is unusual or even unknown in these waters. It acts more like something from open pelagic waters; it’s voyaging somewhere far away, as if it is in orbit.

I also sense that its toxicity could be fatal. I am wary at first, but as I follow it, my courage picks up as I recognize the limits of its movements, the absence of currents which could fling me towards its tentacles, and the absence of intent that I recognized in the Box Jelly that stung Jane.

As I follow alongside it, traveling through a reef of coral heads, I begin to see that it is aware of its surroundings. It knows there are coral heads in front of it. It knows I am there. It is navigating! It is wayfinding!

But how? I know this is not a Box Jelly, so it can’t see as it has no true eyes. That’s when I notice that some twenty small fish are surrounding the jelly, swimming in a formation from port to starboard. Seeing these fish circling this jellyfish is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life. There is an elegance to the way they comfortably traverse the purple and pumpkin globe. And it makes sense that fish would accompany a large jellyfish—it is the perfect protected transport—allowing the species to travel across oceans free of danger. 

But here is where it gets weird. As the jellyfish and I approach a coral head, I see the fish looking forward, then moving to port in an act that appears to communicate a direction to the jellyfish. Is this really happening? Are tiny fish able to act as the eyes for this creature?

Little is known about this species, the Mosaic Jellyfish, Thysanostoma thysanura. It is seen so rarely in its range throughout the Indo-Pacific that divers who’ve seen it say they’ve only seen one. The way it's moving makes it feel as though its going somewhere far away. It’s just passing through these waters, off to Bali or Mindanao or the Seychelles. Will its crew stay with it the entire way, spiraling through the abyss?

Tikehau Fishing Village

Fishing village near Tuheiava Pass, the atoll's only navigable waterway between the open Pacific and the lagoon.

Paddling the Uninhabited Motus

How did people even get here, to the remote Tuamotus? And why did they stay? And how did they survive?

This question is very much on my mind as Kellan and I set off for a half day paddle along the ring of the lagoon, where we intend to stop and explore several uninhabited motus. 

I grew up following the unraveling of the mystery of Polynesian navigation—I considered it, along with the dazzling-long migration routes of people to the Caribbean—the greatest of all human stories. Beyond almost all comprehension is the fact that we now know that the single greatest human voyage may have begun from, and ended up in, the Tuamotus.

For most of my life, this information would have been impossible to come by. If I always wanted to know, how was Oceania settled?, I was greeted with articles, citations and breaking news doused with European and American conjectures, riddled with names like Captain James Cook and Thor Heyerdahl. For most of my life, historians and anthropologists of Polynesia and Oceania debated the central thesis of the twentieth century—that Oceania was populated accidentally, by people drifting off course on vessels incapable of navigation.

It wasn’t that this wild, non-scientific speculation that guided some inquiry and many media reports into the settling of Oceania drowned my interest in the subject, it was more that I wanted to visualize the answers without the context of these external influences. I loved reading about Captain James Cook, but when I read about Polynesian voyaging, I wanted to be able to visualize it without these outsider filters.


Polynesian Fish

In the book, Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia by Christina Thompson, my lifelong frustration was answered. Thompson set out to write the book I would have wanted to read— how the navigators of the Pacific accomplished their voyages; the technology, the skills, the knowledge. But in the process, she discovered that the history of Oceania—the big questions— are unknowable, lost to history, and that the partial puzzle we’ve constructed of the Oceanic past are due to these diverse players, even if sometimes they were wrong or racist or drunk with desire for personal glory or fame. You cannot separate the history of Oceania from James Cook, because therein lies the slim source material of its documented past.

You can’t separate the history of Oceania from Thor Heyerdahl and the others who proposed the drift theories, because even if their ideas were wrong, the popularity of their ideas were counterbalanced by a surge of new challenges to them—particularly as the people of Polynesia sought pride and understanding of their own history. Today, even if the big questions will never be answered, the fragments have been stitched together.

Today, for the first time in my life, I can reasonably imagine the settlement of Oceania without thinking about a British naval coat.

Seventy-thousand years ago, southeast Asia was a very different place. Sea levels were lower, making land masses larger. A variety of human species, not just modern homo sapiens, had already begun to populate this part of the world. 

Many lived inland, hunters and gatherers and proto-farmers, but yet others were coastal, and these were the people who relied more on the ocean for their sustenance.

And it wasn’t just modern humans who were colonizing the islands. Tiny ancestors of homo sapiens, the three-and-a-half foot tall Homo floresiensis, were tool-users who crossed oceans to populate the islands of Indonesia and beyond.

How our ancestors and their cousins began to populate that region of the world will never be known. It’s possible that these initial crossings were the accidental voyages of castaways in small canoes set adrift in a storm, or refuges forced off a mainland, fleeing an enemy or a famine. We will never even know what their rafts or vessels looked like. But I can’t help but to imagine those Homo floresiensis hobbits with paddles and small dugout canoes, paddling in the open sea.

There was great diversity even among the modern humans moving out into Oceania. Australia was populated by one of the very first waves of people to exit Africa, but other islands were being populated by the ancestors of southeast Asian people. Through linguistics, rather than through archeology, we have a rough sense of the dispersal of people from the Southeast Asian islands, like Borneo, Sumatra and Java and Taiwan, into the Indian Ocean, and into the archipelagos of Melanesia, and then onward, to the small dots of Micronesia, and then into the vastness of the South Pacific—Polynesia, and Hawaii and Rapa Nui and New Zealand.

Polynesia’s mountainous Society Islands - Tahiti, Bora Bora and Moorea for example, were populated by 1,000 A.D., and, as part of an era of swift Oceanic discovery, the Tuamotus were likely populated shortly after.

We have fragments of evidence that point to the types of vessels that first landed on these islands—actually, the animated Disney film, Moana, does a fantastic job of presenting many of the possible Polynesian vessels. Moana spends much of the film in a small single-hulled outrigger, and later in a larger double-hulled outrigger known as a wa’a kaulua. Towards the end of the film, we see several dozen larger trans-Oceanic vessels, which are based on different presumed and possible vessel types.

In Moana, we see a Polynesian navigator spot a small white bird—that small white bird is a White Tern, and every day, it goes out to sea to catch fish in the ocean near the islands where it roosts. And each evening, the White Tern heads back home.

Moana's navigator spots the tern in the evening headed in a particular direction. He knows immediately that he is within close range of land, knowing that this bird never wanders too far from land, and always returns home in the evening. Actually, birds, which are distributed throughout the South Pacific, can give navigators loads of information about their whereabouts.

When we set out in the pelagic birding boat in Oregon, everybody knows which birds you will see first, based on how many miles out to see the boat has traveled. Some birds don't appear you've hit the abyss - sixty miles out.

We couldn’t really speculate about the importance of birds in Polynesian navigation until the first crew of the experimental Hawaiian voyaging canoe, Hōkūleʻa, sought to prove that ancient Polynesians indeed could navigate the Pacific. The problem was, back then in the 1970’s, there was apparently nobody left in the world, and certainly nobody in Hawaii, who understood traditional Pacific navigation.


White Tern flying over Tikehau

White Terns are ethereal symbols of the South Pacific. But they are also considered to be likely tools of Oceania's navigators: a White Tern in flight in the evening was a bright arrow pointing toward an island.

Their answer came in the form of a man from the Caroline Islands, Mau Piailug, a master Pacific wayfinder, who through oral tradition had learned the closely held secrets of ancient Micronesian navigation. Mau became the master wayfinder of the Hōkūleʻa, teaching the crew, and the world. The Hōkūleʻa consistently showed the world that navigating from one island chain to the next was consistently achievable. Eventually, Hōkūleʻa circumnavigated the globe using only Micronesian techniques, proving that intentional voyaging in the Pacific was more than just possible.

It was Mau, probably more than anyone, who showed the world that birds, fish, swells, and especially stars, could be used to navigate precisely through a water world in a wayfinding system completely foreign to those of the old world continents.

But as the Hōkūleʻa continued to teach and train Polynesians these wayfinding techniques, the world of science would make the biggest breakthroughs in the mysteries of Oceania.

In the 2010’s, we started to learn more about the settling of the Pacific as geneticists studied the DNA of the domesticated animals of the Pacific islands. Chickens in particular, which along with pigs, dogs, rats and dozens of Southeast Asian crops, held keys to the story of the Pacific. Chickens were brought to every inhabited island, and they began to tell a story about where islands were colonized from, and when.

But only in the past couple years has the DNA evidence exploded. Now, through the DNA of Polynesians and other people of Oceania, we can trace fairly accurately the story of when and where people came from, like a breadcrumb trail.

And this is where Tikehau and the Tuamotus come in, because DNA evidence of people in the Americas contains traces of Tuamotu DNA—allowing geneticists the ability to see that people from the Tuamotus intermingled with people in South America —4,200 miles away.

Then, even more remarkably, geneticists have found that the DNA of South Americans later showed up in Tuamotuan DNA. The nail on Thor Heyerdahl’s controversial contention, that an ancient race of white people from the Americas drifted to Polynesia, was pounded in place. 


Bristle-thighed Curlew on Tikehau

A Bristle-thighed Curlew, newly arrives in Tikehau after a 4,000 mile journey from the Seward Peninsula in northwestern Alaska.

This means, almost beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the people of the Tuamotus made at least one 4,200 mile voyage to the Americas, settled in and made children with South Americans, and then voyaged back to the Tuamotus — almost certainly made in a double-hulled canoe similar to the Hōkūleʻa. A feat of navigation without metal tools or nails, without compasses or sextents, was not only possible but prolific and successful throughout the Pacific, and was practiced again and again. 

Underneath our kayaks are schools of mullets, heads of coral, the occasional sea turtle or blacktip reef shark. Ahead of us are sandy islets and forested motus—mini-self-contained jungles. This multicolored lagoon world is majestically vivid—I could grow old with a paddle in my hand.

Perhaps paddling among remote motus creates a good frame of reference to think about life in the Tuamotus long ago, but the blistering sun has its own demands. Despite our sun hats and long-sleeved sun-shirts and reef-safe sunscreen, this half-day voyage will incapacite us for the next three days. Fifteen minutes of sun exposure is all it takes here.

If you grow up here in the Tuamotus, you have a different frame of reference about land and sea. Here, your life is almost by definition played out largely on the water. So that long arc of exploration that began 70,000 years ago may be remarkable, but there is something about being here, paddling in a kayak, that informs me about why people chose to live here, and thrive here, which is not an easy thing for those of us who grew up in a mainland. 

When I set out to interview Heinere, I was expecting a survival story. But his replies belied the fact that I just couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that living on a tiny island is not a matter of survival for someone who spent his whole life thriving on a slightly less tiny island.

The people who inhabited the Tuamotus were descended from people who lived on successively tinier and tinier islands and atolls over the course of thousands of years. By then, those people in all their learning and technology and oral traditions, everything they knew was this water world. Perhaps the mountainous, Hawaii-like Society Islands were more foreign to the people—all that land—than these tiny Tuamotuan atolls. If your ancestral history is the Bismarck Islands, the Solomon Islands, the Fijian Islands, Nauru, the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu, then your world and everything you know is a water world. Arriving in these atolls must have been seen as a bounty of life, teaming with aquatic sustenance.

We arrive at the first motu. I pull my kayak up on the beach and head straight for the jungle, expecting Kellan to be following my footsteps into the shade.


Polynesian Fish

I turn around and he’s already plunked himself in the water, kicking about. Why would you want to snorkel here, I thought? Between many of the motus is often a column of azure water—it moves like a river, always in the same direction out into the lagoon. I follow his lead, descending down into this riverine channel. The undersea world here is exquisite, even if it is a shallow and small place. 

We continue this practice as we follow the chain of motus. Each new islet brings a new riverine channel, a new snorkeling heaven with new species of exquisitely colored fish. Tikehau is probably best known for Jacques Cousteau’s depiction of it as the lagoon that contained the greatest sheer numbers and diversity of fish in all of Polynesia.

Many of the larger fish species, the butterflyfishes and angelfishes and parrotfishes of the larger reefs in the lagoon are already familiar to me. But in these shallow pools of water, there are smaller fish I had never seen before. Sometimes, they are only an inch long, but up close you can see their reds and whites and blacks and blues.

Diversity is a hard concept to sell to the world—we use polar bears and frogs and jungles to depict its importance. We use rare birds, on the verge of extinction, to plea with the world the value of it. 

But there is nowhere on Earth that summarizes biodiversity better than these Indo-Pacific reefs, where a rainbow of color and a mosaic of shapes literally swirls around you. I could grow old slipping into the water, to be with these little fish, in all their color. 

When we reach our fifth atoll of the morning, Kellan immediately slips into the water. A few minutes later, he pulls off his mask, shouting, “sea urchin!” and later showing off a shell. Seeing him alive in the outdoors reminds me of one of my own memories as a teenager. Our family vacations to the Bahamas had changed when our older brother had gone to become an adult, and was less often able to join us. Without the adventurous guidance of our older brother, my younger brother and I resorted to long hours snorkeling along the edge of the seagrass. There, for hours each day, we would find rocks and sunken logs and swim to a specific location, adding them to a large pile. As the pile would get larger with each day of our vacation, we would find that it would attract more and more new denizens.

The joy of six hours of work was to find, the next morning, that new crabs, anchovies and juvenile coral reef fish had moved in. We were building a castle in the water, but it was a beacon, inviting new citizens.

One day, I looked under a rock of our castle and saw something I had only seen in pictures — a tiny black and white fish, not more than 8 centimeters in length. Its fins were elongated in a way that made it look like an elegant alien creature. I was looking at a juvenile Jack-knifefish. It was the first time that I realized that snorkeling along the shore, rather than diving or snorkeling at larger reefs, held just as many chances for discovery and joy. In fact, unaided snorkeling had no bounds—you have all day, you can go in any direction, and find surprises unknown in the deepwater reefs. 

Watching Kellan kicking his way along the shore makes me want him to be able to know a seven hour snorkeling day. That idea, that gift that my parents gave to me and is so rare and unknowable today—that idea that in the outdoors, seven simple hours of joy under the sun is the magic of life.


Tikehau Coral Reef

Shallow-water corals abound along the entire inner ring of the Tikehau lagoon.

The Terrestrial Fauna and Flora of the Tikehau Atoll

I had done my homework.

For the past six months, I had been trying to learn about the terrestrial life of the Tuamotus - the life that exists on the rocks, beaches and particularly the tropical moist forests of the motus. I had studied the small motu where we would stay on Google Earth, and I knew that while the hotel and its operations took up much of the island, the back half was mostly a wooded area, with a few small trails. 

I tried to learn the plants of the island, and the land crabs, and even the insects. I had also brushed up on the birds reported in Tikehau. Like many other places on Earth, Tikehau has a total number of reported bird species, and the species count is very low. You could say that the Tuamotus have some of the fewest bird species of anywhere on Earth.

Actually, you could say that all of French Polynesia, in all its 1,200 mile length and 121 islands, has very few birds. Only 108 bird species have ever been seen in these islands. Most of these are seabirds, many of which are known from other places like Mexico, Peru or Hawaii. 

Tikehau Vegetation: Eudistoma caeruleum Vine

Eudistoma caeruleum vine, spreading across the Pacific side of Tikehau motus.

For comparison, in the birdiest parts of Costa Rica, individual parks or lodges may have bird species counts of over 500. And yet the entire Tikehau atoll has yielded only 25. 

Bear with me for a moment, and let’s forget all the birds that are seabirds and shorebirds and waders, because these birds are ocean-dwellers, and many are migratory or pelagic. In other words, they aren’t terrestrial land-dwellers. Tikehau, then, has only three land-dwelling birds. Atoll Fruit-Dove, Tuamotu Reed-Warbler and Blue Lorikeet. So, if you discount the ocean-dwelling birds, Tikehau has one of the tiniest bird counts on Earth! 

Why does Tikehau, and all the Tuamotus have such a low bird count? They have tropical moist forests, freshwater marshes, endless beaches and rocky coral heads. Similar habitat in Colombia or Panama would be crawling with birds.

I openly wondered whether I could increase Tikehau’s bird count from 25 to 26, maybe by seeing a shorebird that had gone unnoticed. One thing is for certain - if I move the needle on Tikehau’s bird count, it would have to be at sea. The forest is fixed.

As I venture out into the forest of the small motu, I know there will be no terrestrial birds, because all three of the species require a different habitat than what this motu has to offer. Such birds would exist in parts of the atoll with more landmass or freshwater.

How lovely, a place without birds! 

Mottled Snake-eyed Skink

Mottled Snake-eyed Skink (Cryptoblepharus poecilopleurus) resting on a palm.

As I step into the forest, I notice that none of the knee-high plants had been trammeled. Nobody has walked here for weeks. This is a pattern I see wherever I go. People tend to stay put. They travel 5,000 miles to the most distant place, and when they get there, they don’t have the curiosity to walk five minutes?

Being without land birds, I can walk through this forest and pay attention to everything else. I am exhausted from travel, and it’s stifling hot, and getting dark, and I am aware I have already left my wife and son for the woods, but I begin to look under leaves and scan the trunks of the trees, and, then, right there in front of me, something enormous glides from one dense set of trees, across the untrammeled path, and into dense cover. It - it was a bird, but that’s impossible. It was large and with a long ornamented tail and dense brown patterns. It felt almost like those large Squirrel Cuckoos of Latin America, or even those Lizard-cuckoos of the Caribbean.

Tikehau Flowers

Dispatched flowers land on the leaf of a native plant.

Obviously, such a bird does not exist in the South Pacific! Obviously, I am tired and delirious, and false sightings are common in birding. In a brief sighting, the mind invents details - hopefulness convinces you that something common is its rare cousin.

But did my mind invent such a specific and exotic thing—something completely incongruous to this environment? I am awake, I haven’t had a drink - this is not some dream. 

I find Jane and Kellan at the bar. It was enormous, I tell them! It was like something from a deep jungle! I explain.

I find a small bird book near the bar (bird books of the Pacific are slender volumes), and I thumb through it to behold an extravagant, large bird - it’s a Long-tailed Koel, a type of Cuckoo related to the Lizard-cuckoos of the Caribbean. It breeds in New Zealand, where it lays its eggs in other bird nests, and tricks the mother to its raise its young. Then it disperses widely into the most remote islands of the South Pacific. To get to Tikehau from the South Island of New Zealand, this individual flew at least 3,300 miles.

Thin-shelled Rock Crab (Grapsus tenicrustatus)

Thin-shelled Rock Crab (Grapsus tenuicrustatus) on an uninhabited Tikehau motu.

I had never come across this cuckoo because it’s just not expected here, and so I increased the total Tikehau land dweller bird count from 3 to 4!

Over the next several days, I will spend time on the back half of the motu, finding all the plants, land crabs, beetles, katydids, spiders and dragonflies I can find. 

Like with the birds, there is a very distinct lack of diversity. Two spider species! One beetle! Four or five trees! Two skinks! One native gecko! No butterflies!

So why is this? Why is there so little diversity on this little motu? It turns out there is a neat way to sum that question up. The Theory of Island Biogreography, proposed by ecologist Robert MacArthur and renowned entomologist Edward O Wilson in the 1960s, and popularized in the natural history travelogue The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen, the theory holds that the farther away an island is from a mainland, and the smaller its size, the smaller its diversity.

More technically, the theory states that there is a equilibrium which exists between species that immigrate to an island, and species that go extinct on that island. But that equilibrium trends down the farther you are from a mainland, and the smaller the island.

Quammen describes the likely fate of any species that happens to drift to a small, distant island: "Its evolutionary adaptability is largely gone. Ecologically, it has become moribund. Sheer chance, among other factors, is working against it. The toilet of its destiny has been flushed."

Tikehau, and all of the Tuamotus, with their very small land areas and their extensive island, are a great place to see the theory up close: you can more or less find all the observable animals and plants of the island in a few short walks.

My sighting of the cuckoo on my first day in Tikehau was such a run of luck, that I almost instantly gave up on my quest to find a Blue Lorikeet, which I had already more or less confirmed no longer exist in Tikehau.

Blue Lorikeets, a deep blue and white parrot-like bird whose rarity and beauty make them an iconic symbol of French Polynesia, are known to exist on only 8 French Polynesian islands, including Tikehau. The last official sighting of the bird on Tikehau was in 1984.

Before our visit, I had decided to try to contact locals in Tikehau to see if I could confirm whether they persisted here. I also worked through any ornithologists, birders, and even naturalist guides in Tahiti, to see if they could connect me with someone who might have seen a Blue Lorikeet on Tikehau. I surmised that their most likely location would be the main island of Tuhererara, with its bounty of palm forests.


 

Tikehau Motu

An uninhabited motu in the northwest of Tikehau atoll.

The one small shop on our motu sells pearls and souvenirs, and is adorned with paintings of Blue Lorikeets. I enter the shop and try to feel the owner out for her reasons for her Blue Lorikeet paintings.

“Here on Tikehau? No, there are no Blue Lorikeets here,” she says in a French accent.

“But there used to be, in the 1980s,” I explain.

She doesn’t seem to believe me, although her love for the birds is abundant.

“I reached out to a lot of people in Tikehau,” I explained. “One man even offered to enquire around the village for me. He told me he had lived in the village most of his life, but had never seen or heard of the bird.”

 

 

Walking to the pier at Tuherahera, capital village of Tikehau

Most people living in Tikehau are concentrated on Motu Tuherehera, which hosts the airport, school, three grocery stores and City Hall.

“They would not live on the main island,” she explains, “because there are too many people there. I would think that if there were any left, they would be out on one of the uninhabited motus.” She gestured to the northeast, the area in Tikehau’s ring that contains miles of uninhabited land.

“I’ve given up trying to find them anyway,” I explain.

Days later, we are at the airport, preparing to leave the island. While my family waits inside the open-air airport, I roam around the outside, overjoyed to finally find a butterfly - a Pea Blue - flittering along the road. 

I hear airplane noise in the distance, and turn around to confirm that our airplane is about to land. But instead, I see a forest of palms beyond the runway, and in the upper canopy are eight medium-sized, blue-colored birds.

Blue Lorikeets, flocking through the canopy.

 

Explore more in Oceania


On the small French Polynesian atoll of Tikehau, I discover a ringworld of life adapted to the extremes of the South Pacific.

In Kauai, I discover a dark cloud hanging over the local coral reefs, one that is all too familiar.

Illustrations, sketches and notes from my travels to the island of Kauai.

My Moleskine journal sketches from the north shore of Kauai Island in Hawaii.

Moleskine Journal Sketches and notes from the Tuamoto Archipelago and the Society Islands.