Tag Archives: South Pacific

Bluestripe seaperch, seen while snorkeling at Taha'a Island, in the South Pacific. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Coral Garden Drift Snorkel

The weather was perfect, warm, and sunny with a little breeze. I was on the island of Taha’a and ready to spend a day snorkeling in the South Pacific. Back home, I had prepared myself by swimming a mile five mornings a week for many years. I had snorkeled in different places in the world, yet I had never done a Coral Garden Drift. I signed up with a local outfitter for a partial day excursion. Our group of 10 adults, a French-born guide, and a Taha’a assistant went off in a motorized boat for a wet landing on an uninhabited islet on the west coast of Taha’a.

We were given a quick briefing of what to do on this drift. We walked along a rough shoreline path to a causeway separating the sea from the lagoon. There we took off our footwear and put on our fins. Our guide took a hibiscus leaf from a tree and wet it in the water, then rubbed it in her hands, making a soapy mixture. We each did the same thing: we washed our googles with this soapy leaf mixture and then rinsed them in the seawater. This was a local method used to keep goggles from fogging up.

Several times, our guide emphasized that we were to wait on the rocky shore and then proceed in single file to the area of the drift. One older woman was determined to do it her way and went out and both the guide and the assistant had to grab her and bring her back to shore!

One by one, we slowly walked out into the channel of this under water river while grabbing hold of the big rocks, so as not to lose our balance, and hung on as the current tried to pull us along the drift. The idea was to follow this current or drift between the coral into the lagoon, perhaps a mile in distance.

Acantaster, seen while snorkeling at Taha'a Island, in the South Pacific. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Acantaster, seen while snorkeling at Taha’a Island, in the South Pacific. Photo by Madelyn Given.

I prepared myself by watching a couple of people ahead of me. I aimed for where the guide pointed and tried as I might: no amount of swimming seemed to matter. The current there was that strong! I was thrust into this fast flowing path and all I saw was what was below the water. Coral and fish passed me as I moved quicker than I could manage. Some coral was so close I tried not to smash into it as I went by; finally, the flow was slower and I could swim enough to direct myself between the large beds of coral reaching almost to the surface. I swam to shore.

The guide pointed to the older woman who earlier had disregarded her directions and then needed assistance. She told her to wait here. The older woman wanted to go again, but that didn’t happen. A few others elected to stay and wait.

Our small group put on our footwear that had been carried back by the assistant, and off we went on the path back to the causeway by the sea. On the way, I wondered if I was making a mistake to go the second time. This time, I wanted to enjoy this beautiful underwater spectacle of fish and many types of coral, and now I knew what to expect. I put on my fins and goggles and carefully worked my way to the channel. I let go of the rocks and zoomed off again at the same speed as the first time, but I took in more of the underwater scenery which was breathtaking at every turn of the drift. One by one, our small group came to shore. I was more relaxed and a bit more confident the second time. I shared what I saw and learned to identify a bird wassaia fish with a long green snout and green stripe.

This adventure was not without its dangers. There was no way of avoiding the coral if you accidentally got too close, as the force of the current was strong at the very beginning. On days when the water is rough, people can not even attempt this type of snorkeling.

I had had good luck so far, so I decided to go again when the guide offered us another chance. I believed this time I would absorb more pleasure from the beauty, with less fear of the thrust of the current, which was by no means a gentle drift.

Our small group walked back on the same rough path, took off our shoes, and put on our gear. One by one, we entered the channel, as carefully and slowly as before. On my turn I faced towards the lagoon, dove into the fast flowing water, and off I went. Once snorkeling, I was oblivious to all sights and sounds except what was underwater. I was careful not to touch any coral—some was almost up to the surface level. Once the current flowed out into the lagoon, it slowed down and I took time to swim about the lagoon, looking to identify more types of beautiful tropical fish.

As I came to shore without mishap, I had a big smile on my face. Once we were on board the little motorboat, I thought of the experience as a wild ride at an amusement park—only in nature, more colorful, underwater, and each time different. The water was warm and clear and the lagoon was not terribly deep. We were the only people there, so it was a memorable experience. It was a different type of snorkeling adventure and one to remember.

(posted March 22, 2016)

Taha’a, Society Islands, in the South Pacific. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Taha’a, Society Islands

After sailing at sea again, this time from the Cook Islands, we reached Taha’a, a small island with only 4,470 inhabitants. Taha’a was a pawn in struggles for many years between fierce rulers of Bora Bora and Raiatea. It was known as the center for fire walking ceremonies. I didn’t see any sign of fire walking but I did enjoy learning the history and culture of the natives. In 1822 it came under French control and it is enclosed within the same barrier reef as the larger island of Raitea. Near the boat launch, the local mamas and papas sell their trinkets. It is a quiet place and a great place for snorkeling, with beaches on the beautiful motus along the northern reef edge.

For a lifetime, a person dreams of paradise on this earth: to be on Taha’a, on a private Mota Mahana, sunbathing, swimming, and relaxing. I took a kayak out around the lagoon: the water was so clear it was easy to see sand sharks, turtles, string rays, and many colorful fish. I tried out paddleboarding, being careful not to fall on top of the sharp coral everywhere. After water exercise, I walked along the beach, and under a grove of palm trees was a big basket of large coconuts, with a small machete lying on top. With one strong wack you could crack open a coconut and drink the juice. The coconuts were so big and the milk so sweet.

It was there on Mota Mahana that I noticed the physically fit young men covered with tattoos. The practice of tattooing existed here for hundreds of years. The word tatau means hitting repeatedly. Captain Cook wrote about it on his trip to the nearby Marquesas. Later, the tradition of tattooing became popular with sailors. Meanwhile, missionaries here on the Pacific Islands converted the locals to Christianity and tattooing was forbidden. There was no written language in the Polynesian culture so they used tattooing as a way of expressing their identity and culture such as sex, social status, rank, and family clan. It was used to protect against evil spirits, and it was a rite of passage for teenagers to adulthood. Tatooing came back in the 1980s, and I saw quite a few people who were heavily tattooed with symbols from their native culture.

It was fun to watch the natives dance and sing and then to try out their instruments. One day I had a parima dance class on slow Polynesian dance steps. The key to success is how to swivel the hips. Their lifetime family heritage and daily routine made it look so easy, but to a foreigner it was quite a laughable experience to try for the first time!

It was hot, humid, and sunny, so most of each day was spent staying cool. Water activities, especially swimming in the lagoon, were most pleasant. Taha’a is a beautiful place. It was a truly wonderful experience to go there, even for a short time.

(posted March 15, 2016)

The glorious South Pacific needs to be protected and preserved. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Guardians of the South Pacific

At the same time as the World Summit Meeting on Global Warming in Paris in December 2015, John Hay was on board our boat talking about environmental issues in the South Pacific. His concerns were especially in relation to climate variability and change. When asked why he wasn’t in Paris for this major summit meeting, he said he thought he could do more being with the populace.

He is a believer in Paul Hawken’s assertion: “If you look at the science about what is happening on Earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this Earth and the lives of the poor and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.” I was impressed by his knowledge, his deep, honest concern, his commitment to solving our Earth’s environmental problems, and his down-to-earth patient way with people.

John Hay is an Adjunct Professor at the University of the South Pacific and New Zealand and involved in many world environmental programs. It was great to meet him, up close and personal, while in the Cook Islands. I live so far from this part of the world and we hear so little about what is happening here I am happy there is a concern to save this part of the world still left somewhat in good shape.

About the same time period, I met Mark Eddows, an anthropologist and archaeologist who has been living and working in this area since 1987. I learned a lot about the South Pacific Islands from Mark. He has headed projects on the Cook Islands, French Polynesia, and the Marquises. When I was on the islands of Rarotonga, Aitutaki, Mo’orea, and Taha’a, I went to several of the historic sites he had excavated. He did studies on the atolls of Teti’aroa. This island was bought by Marlon Brando during the filming of Mutiny on the Bounty in the 1960s. It is near Tahiti and is a reserve for marine life and native sea birds.

Mark explained that he found almost 100 sites of ancient maras, archery platforms, dance pavements, and habitation sites. He mentioned that this island was the pleasure island of ancient chiefs, where only the highest ranked Ma’ohi men and women could visit. The Brando island is an eco-friendly concept where guest contributions fund various research projects to preserve, protect, and educate at Teti’aroa.

It was great to listen to Mark Eddows tell about Captain James Cook and the Mutiny on the Bounty. Mark’s studies of Bligh and the original journals give you the Tahiti perspective, which is different than the famous movie. One of the most spectacular views of the South Pacific was on Mo’orea, at Belvedere Lookout Point: from there, I could see both Opunohu and Cook’s Bay, where so much of the history happened.

This resort on Mo’orea incorporates fish and coral nurseries into the lagoons. Photo by Madelyn Given.

This resort on Mo’orea incorporates fish and coral nurseries into the lagoons. Photo by Madelyn Given.

A few days later, I was on Bora Bora and I met Denis Schneida, an environmentalist heading Espace Bleu, which was created in 1997 to protect the islands of French Polynesia. Besides increasing world awareness about environmental issues in this region, he began development of fish and coral nurseries in hotels and resorts. I went to one on Mo’orea. It is part of the landscape throughout the lagoon, where the stilted bungalows make up part of this luxurious resort.

It is one thing to travel, but a step beyond is to learn first-hand what is happening to our environment and who is protecting it. I returned home reenergized to do just a little more to save our Earth and make it a better place.

(posted March 8, 2016)