Environment

It’s impossible to talk about the French Polynesian landscape without sounding clichéd. From the lush slopes of the high islands to the white-sand, palm-ruffled atolls with lagoons bluer than well, anything, this is the place that stereotypical ideals of paradise come from.

The Land

French Polynesia’s 118 islands are scattered over an expanse of the Pacific Ocean stretching more than 2000km – an area about the size of Western Europe. Still, the islands and atolls make up a total land mass of barely 3500 sq km (less than one-third the size of the US state of Connecticut). Five archipelagos, the Society, Tuamotu, Marquesas, Austral and Gambier, divide the country into distinct geological and cultural areas.

High islands – think Tahiti, Mo’orea and Bora Bora – are essentially mountains rising out of the ocean that are often encircled by a barrier reef. A protected, shallow lagoon, with that flashy blue colour of postcards and brochure fame, is formed by the reef.

An atoll is a ring of old barrier reef that surrounds a now-sunken high island. Over time the reef was built up and mini-islands called motu were formed. These motu, which encircle the lagoon, reach a maximum height of 6m and are usually covered in low bushes and coconut palms. Motu are separated by shallow hoa (channels) that link the inner lagoon to the ocean. A hoa that’s deep enough for boats to pass through is called a ‘pass’.

Wildlife

The bulk of the Pacific’s fauna originated in Asia/Melanesia and spread east; the further east you travel, the less varied it becomes. Don’t come looking for wildlife safaris here, unless they’re underwater.

Land Animals

Basically, any fauna that couldn’t swim, float or fly to French Polynesia has been introduced. The first Polynesians, knowing they would be settling new lands, brought pigs, chickens and dogs in their canoes. They also brought geckos and the small Polynesian rat, probably as stowaways.

Europeans introduced horses and goats, which can be found around the islands, but are most present in the Marquesas Islands where they often roam free. A few more types of rats and birds have also been introduced, often to negative effect on the environment. Birds that have been brought in, such as the Indian Myna, aggressively compete for food and territory, which has led to the extinction of many French Polynesian endemic species. Meanwhile the European rat has devastated local bird populations by feasting on their eggs.

The endemic birdlife of French Polynesia is as fragile as it is fabulous. Of the 29 land species, 12 are introduced and have driven many local species to near extinction. The 27 species of sea birds, including terns, noddies, frigates and boobies, make French Polynesia one of the richest tropical areas for marine species.

Creepy Crawlies

You’ll surely see plenty of bugs – mosquitoes are omnipresent and nono, a nearly invisible biting fly, are fierce. The only real land shark is the centipede, which can grow up to 20cm long and has venom-injecting fangs that can cause swelling and pain for several hours. It’s best to shake out towels, clothes and shoes just in case.

Sea Animals

Any dismay about the lack of animal diversity on land is quickly made up for by the quantity of underwater species – it’s all here.

Large Fauna

At the top of the food chain, sharks are found in healthy numbers throughout the islands. Blacktip and whitetip reef sharks are the most common and pose little danger. More aggressive and sometimes unnervingly curious, the grey reef shark is common in the Tuamotus. Large sleeper or nurse sharks, distinguished by their broad head and oversized dorsal fins and tail, look daunting but generally keep to themselves on the bottom of channels and sandy banks.

Other large creatures you are likely to encounter are graceful manta rays; smaller, spotted leopard rays; stingrays; and moray eels. Five of the seven species of sea turtle (all endangered) make their home in French Polynesia, but you’re most likely to see the green and hawksbill turtles, which often come to feed in the lagoons.

Between July and October, humpback whales can be seen primarily off the shores of Tahiti, Mo’orea and Rurutu. There are actually at least 24 species of whale that pass through French Polynesia, but startlingly few species other than the humpbacks are ever observed. Dolphins can be seen year-round, especially spinner dolphins. Electra dolphins are a major attraction around Nuku Hiva, where they gather in groups of several hundred, a phenomenon seen nowhere else in the world.

Fish, Shells & Crabs

Hundreds of species of fish of all colours, shapes and sizes flutter about the reefs. Lobsters, slipper lobsters and crabs are found on the outer slopes of reefs or the bottom of caves and cliffs. Black-lipped pearl oysters and pahua (giant clams) are found on reefs inside the lagoons. Porcelain and cat-eye kauri are valued by collectors, but as shells are so scarce in French Polynesia, it is not advised to take any living shells.

The comedians of the islands are hermit crabs. They are very fashion-conscious and will quickly swap their old shells for prettier ones; they act tough and threaten to pinch you, and will try to eat your sandwich off your picnic blanket if you’re not careful. In the Tuamotus the enormous and impressively colourful kaveu (coconut crab) feeds at night and is prized for its coconut-flavoured flesh. Tupa (land crabs) are found on all of the islands and have a penchant for getting squashed by cars.

Plants

Before human habitation, the variety of vegetation was limited to the seeds and spores that could travel by means of wind, sea or bird droppings. Polynesians brought uru (breadfruit), coconut, taro and bananas, and early missionaries introduced sugar cane, cotton, pineapples, citrus fruits, coffee, vegetables and other staples. Over the years, botanists and enthusiasts have brought in various tropical plant species, which have thrived in the favourable climate. Today, visitors will encounter all of the sumptuousness of a tropical paradise: papayas, star fruit, mangos, avocados, guavas, pomelos and rambutan grow among birds of paradise, hibiscus and allamanda.

The tiare, a small, white, fragrant gardenia, is the symbol of French Polynesia. The significance of this flower runs deep. It is the first thing visitors are offered on arrival at Faa’a airport, it is used in many traditional medicines, it’s used as a perfume and it is the classic flower to string as a hei (flower crown or necklace) or wear behind your ear.

The uru tree was the lifeline of ancient islanders, who used the bark for tapa (paperlike cloth), the trunk for canoes, the roots and leaves for medicine, and of course the fruit was the dietary staple. Taro, a root vegetable, is the secondary staple; the leaves of yellow taro resemble spinach when cooked, and this is called fafa.

The atolls are a stark contrast to the lush high islands. Made up primarily of sand and coral rock, the land lacks the minerals to support much vegetation. Coconut palms and an endemic shrub, the small-leafed, red-barked miki miki, dominate the landscape. Adding grace and much-needed shade to the atolls is the grand kahaia tree with its large, glossy leaves and fragrant white flowers.

Environmental Issues

Atolls and high islands are ecologically fragile, but French Polynesia has been slow to implement environmental protection. Despite a limited number of ‘green’ establishments that are springing up, and the rigorous requirements of public buildings and hotels to blend in with the landscape, pollution is steadily chipping away at the picture of paradise.

Although there are many low-lying atolls in French Polynesia, the effects of climate change, including rising sea levels, have so far been minimal. Higher water temperatures are one of the biggest threats to the health of the country’s coral reefs and, during El Niño years in particular, huge amounts of coral die, which affects the entire ecosystem.

Protection of Flora & Fauna

Marine reserves in French Polynesia in the past have been few; BellinScillyghausen (remote islands in the Leeward group of Society Islands) and eight small areas within Mo’orea’s lagoon are the only ones that have been protected long-term by the country itself. Fakarava and its surrounding atolls (Aratika, Toau, Kauehi, Niau, Raraka and Taiaro) are a Unesco biosphere reserve. This is changing, however, with the likelihood of the creation of a 1 million sq km reserve around the Austral Islands; it's expected that this will become a reality by 2020. Another 700,000 sq km area around the Marquesas Islands is hoped to be protected by 2017.

The only terrestrial reserves are the Marquesan Nature Reserves, which include the remote uninhabited islands of Motu One, Hatutu, Eiao and Motane. Several species are protected and there are limits placed on the fishing of some fish and crustaceans. Unfortunately, fish continue to be caught indiscriminately and shells are still collected. Although turtles are highly protected, they continue to be poached for their meat and their shells.

Water Hazards

  • Cone shells have a deadly poisonous stinger that protrudes from the hole at the cone’s bottom.
  • Pencil urchins live in crevices by day and dot the reefs at night – watch your feet, as stepping on the spikes can cause extreme pain. Urinating on the wounds can soothe them.
  • Stonefish are French Polynesia’s biggest, most prolific shallow-water hazard, yet are so well camouflaged they’re nearly impossible to see; if you get stung, apply heat immediately and head for the hospital. Wearing plastic, waterproof sandals provides the best protection.

Nuclear Leftovers

The environmental repercussions of French nuclear testing are still hotly debated. It was confirmed in 1999 that Moruroa and Fangataufa were fissured by tests and that radioactivity has been allowed to escape from cracks in the atolls’ coral cones. Evidence has been found of low-level activity in certain areas of the Gambiers, but long-ranging conclusive evidence has yet to come forth. Travellers can rest assured that any radiation threat (which was only ever present in remote areas of the Tuamotu and Gambier Archipelagos) has long since passed.

Sidebar: 1

For information about French Polynesia’s birdlife, check out www.manu.pf, the official site of SOP Manu, the Tahitian organisation for the protection of bird species.

Sidebar: Coconut

The Tahitian language has at least seven words for the coconut; each describes a different stage of the nut’s maturity.

Sidebar: Common Deep-Sea Fish

  • tuna
  • mahimahi (dorado)
  • bonito
  • wahoo
  • swordfish

Islander Life

If French Polynesia had a national slogan it might be haere maru (take it slow). It’s hard not to reduce your speed several notches out here. With one road encircling most islands, you’ll often get caught driving behind an old pick-up truck at 50km/h with no chance of passing, the internet takes an eternity (if it works at all) and it seems holidays shut all the shops every week or so. Yet, somehow, everything works out.

Gender Bender

You’ll find that some women serving food in restaurants or working in hotels or boutiques aren’t actually women at all. Mahu, males who are raised as girls and continue to live their lives as women, were present when Europeans first arrived on the islands. Although the missionaries attempted to halt this ‘unnatural crime’, nowadays mahu are an accepted part of the community. In today’s lingo, another category of mahu, called raerae, refers to more flamboyant transvestites. These people face more discrimination than their mahu counterparts, who act more like very effeminate men.

It remains unclear whether this practice has a sexual or social origin, but it is generally assumed to be the latter, as mahu don’t necessarily have sex with men. Raerae, however, do prefer men.

The Heiva

Each year for a month, from late June to late July, islanders from all of the archipelagos join together for a full program of festivities in Pape’ete (Tahiti), and on some of the other islands. The emphasis is on traditional-dance contests (both professional and amateur) and singing competitions, but there is a huge range of other activities on offer. Craft-making demonstrations include niau (woven coconut-palm leaves) and tapa (paperlike cloth) and a stone-carving competition. There’s a procession of floral floats, a vote for Miss Heiva and Mr Heiva, a funfair, fireworks, fire walking and tattoo displays. Meanwhile, there’s an outrigger-canoe race and traditional-sports competitions.

Reservations for the evening dance contests can be made from May onwards at the kiosk at Pl Toata in Pape’ete. You can also enquire at the tourist office. Official dates can be found on the Tahiti Tourisme website (www.tahiti-tourisme.com). The evening will set you back between 1000 CFP and 4000 CFP. Dance performances take place at Pape’ete’s Toata Amphitheatre.

Monoi

What can’t monoi do? This local concoction, made from coconut oil and tiare (fragrant gardenia, and the national flower), is deliciously perfumed with sandalwood, vanilla, coconut or jasmine. It’s used liberally as hair oil, ointment, sunscreen and even mosquito repellent. It costs from 400 CFP to 800 CFP a bottle, is great on the skin after a day of sizzling in the sun and makes a great gift (although it does solidify in cooler climates).

Family & Multiculturalism

The traditional Tahitian family is an open-armed force that is the country’s backbone. Although modern girls are increasingly less likely to stay home and have baby after baby, an accidental pregnancy is considered more of a blessing than a hindrance, and babies are passed along to another eager, infant-loving family member. Faamu (adopted children) are not thought of as different to blood brothers and sisters, although the birth mother, and occasionally the father, sometimes remains a peripheral part of the child’s life. Once a child is in a family, he or she is in no way obligated to stay; children move about to aunties, uncles and grandparents as they wish.

This family web is vitally important to an individual. When people first meet, the conversation usually starts with questions about family and most people are able to find a common relative between themselves within minutes. This accomplished, they are ‘cousins’ and fast friends.

But it’s not all roses in what appears to be such a warm, fuzzy family framework. Domestic violence and incest are prevalent. This is closely connected with high rates of alcoholism. The government has launched numerous programs addressing these issues but little progress has been made.

The majority of the population claims to be Polynesian (although most have some other ethnicity in the mix), 12% of the population is Chinese and the rest is European. Racial tension is rare but does exist. A few insults exist for each race, although they are usually only uttered on drunken binges or in schoolyards. Outward displays of racism are usually from Polynesians to French, while the more insidious kind goes from the French to the Polynesians. The Chinese generally try to stay out of it.

Sport

The national sport is, without dispute, va’a (pirogue, or outrigger-canoe) racing. You can admire the pirogue teams training on any lagoon, and if you’re around in late October or early November, you can catch the Hawaiki Nui canoe race.

During the Heiva and a few scattered cultural festivals, Polynesians pull some interesting traditional sports out of their hats, including amoraa ofae (rock lifting), patia fa (javelin throwing), fruit-bearing races and coconut-husking competitions.

Surfing was an ancient Tahitian sport. The Billabong Pro international surf competition, held every August at the nearly mythically scary wave at Teahupoo on Tahiti Iti, brings worldwide coverage to Tahitian surfing.

Hawaiki Nui Canoe Race

The sporting spectacular that has French Polynesians glued to their TV sets and talking passionately about favourites and challengers is a canoe race. The three-day, four-island Hawaiki Nui va’a (pirogue, or outrigger-canoe) race pits around 60 of the islands’ best pirogue teams against each other and against anyone brave enough from overseas.

The 116km race, held in late October or early November, starts on Huahine, heads across the open sea to Ra’iatea, then to Taha’a and then finally on to Bora Bora.

Check out www.hawaikinuivaa.pf (in French) for more details.

Religion

Historically, Polynesians were polytheistic, worshipping atua (gods) who were surrounded by a pantheon of secondary gods. The main gods were Ta’aroa (god of creation), Tu (man god), Tane (god of craftsmen), ‘Oro (god of war) and Hiro (god of thieves and sailors).

The arrival of Protestant missionaries at the end of the 18th century, followed soon after by the Catholics, marked the suppression of traditional religious beliefs. The missionaries changed the religious and cultural landscape forever, and today French Polynesia has a surprising number and variety of churches relative to its population. This includes a few takes on Mormonism, but around half of the population is Protestant and 30% are Catholic.

A few pre-Christian rituals and superstitions still exist alongside Christianity. Christian Polynesians continue to respect and fear ancient tapu (taboo) sites, and nothing would persuade a Polynesian to move a tiki (sacred statue) or marae (traditional temple) stone. On occasion, a tahua (faith healer or priest) is still consulted, and raau tahiti (traditional herbal medicine) is making a comeback – there's a vendor or two selling cures at the Pape'ete Central Market.

Arts

The zealous work of the missionaries managed to rid the existing Polynesian art and culture of many of its symbols and practices. Among other things, temples and carvings were destroyed, and tattooing and dancing were banned. Fortunately, some traditions survived this period, and in recent years there has been a revival of Polynesian culture.

Dance

Tahitian dance is not just a tourist attraction, it’s a vibrant expression of Maohi (Polynesian) culture. The dances that visitors see are not created for tourists – they are authentic performances that take months of rehearsals and are based on rigorously standardised choreography depicting specific legends. In this land of oral traditions, dance is not merely an aesthetic medium but also a means of preserving the memory of the past.

Tahitian dance is taught in the schools from a young age and those who become serious about it (and there are many) can continue on in a local troupe or at private dance schools. These schools and troupes foster a lot of community since the dancers end up spending from three to 20 hours together per week practicing the choreography and hand crafting their elaborate costumes from local foliage.

Many luxury hotels offer quality dance shows about twice a week. On Tahiti and Mo’orea they are performed by semiprofessional groups and range from small groups dancing to piped-in music (in the worst cases) to theatrical extravaganzas with live orchestras. These shows include a buffet and are open to all.

Music

Traditional Polynesian music, usually performed as an accompaniment to dance, is heard reverberating across the islands. Ukuleles and percussion instruments dominate, and the music is structured by a fast-paced and complex drum beat. Sunday himene (hymns) at churches feature wonderful harmonies.

Drums are the Maohi instruments par excellence and the most common is the toere, a cylindrical, hollowed-out piece of wood with a narrow slit down its length. String instruments are of European origin, though the ukulele (mini guitar with four strings), comes by way of Hawaii.

Modern Polynesian music by local artists is the blaring soundtrack to everyday life, whether it’s in a bus, at a cafe or on the radio – some groups also perform in hotels and bars. This music ranges from rock to folksy ballads usually accompanied by a guitar or ukulele. A current popular local group (highly recommended) that you may see playing on Tahiti and Mo'orea is called Pepena.

Sculpture, Woodcarving & Tapa

Traditionally, the best sculptures and woodcarvings have come out of the Marquesas, where fine tiki, bowls, mortars and pestles, spears and clubs are carved from rosewood, tou (dark, hard-grained wood) or stone. You can find these pieces in the market of Pape’ete, as well as gift shops around the islands, but the best deals are had in the Marquesas themselves.

Some woodwork sold in French Polynesia is actually made elsewhere (usually Indonesia), so if you see several of the same item, chances are it wasn’t made in the country. Ask around to ensure you are getting the real thing.

Traditionally made throughout the Pacific, tapa (paperlike cloth) is a nonwoven fabric made from the bark of uru (breadfruit), banyan or aute (paper mulberry) trees. It was the semidisposable clothing fabric of pre-European Polynesia. Finished pieces are dyed with the sap of various plants or decorated with traditional artwork. Today, designs are sometimes just drawn on with ink.

Plaiting & Basketwork

Baskets and hats, and the panels used for roofing and the walls of houses, are made by women. Coconut-palm leaves are used for the more rough-and-ready woven work, while pandanus leaves or thin strips of bamboo are used for finer hats, bags and mats, which are often decorated with flowers or shells. Some of the finest work comes from the Australs.

Flowers & Shells

Flowers are omnipresent in French Polynesia. When you arrive at the airport, you’ll be presented with a tiare (Tahiti’s national flower) to sniff as you brave the customs queues. Both men and women tuck a tiare or other flower behind their ear in the world’s most simple yet graceful gesture of physical adornment. Traditionally, a flower behind the left ear meant you were taken or married, while a blossom tucked behind your right ear meant you were available; while Tahitians love to tell tourists about this practice, in reality no one will try and deduce your relationship status in this way.

Hei (flower crowns or necklaces) are given as gifts on arrival while shell necklaces are given on departure.

Tattoos

Since the early 1980s, tattooing has enjoyed a strong revival, becoming one of the most expressive and vibrant vehicles of Polynesian culture.

Modern tattooing is completely for the sake of style or beautification; in ancient times it was a highly socially significant and sophisticated art. It was a symbol of community or clan membership and geographic origin; it was also an initiation rite, a symbol of social status and an aesthetic adornment that played a part in the seduction process. Finally, tattooing served to intimidate: in the Marquesas, warriors tattooed their faces to make themselves look terrifying.

Today, you’ll find talented tattoo artists throughout the islands who will be happy to create an unforgettable souvenir on your skin.

Sidebar: 1

Go to www.maisondelaculture.pf (Maison de la Culture, in French) for information on upcoming and past performances, exhibitions and all things cultural.

Sidebar: 2

Warning! At a local dance performance, prepare to shake your hips: tourists are often asked up to the stage to dance once the show is over.

Sidebar: 3

Polynesians are great believers in tupapau (ghosts) and most people will have a good story to tell about the supernatural if you ask them.

Sidebar: Recommended Listening

  • Bobby Dreamy
  • Te Ava Piti Ukulele riffs
  • Angelo Neuffer Poetic
  • Ester Tefana Ukulele mood
  • Tapuarii Laughlin Modern classics
  • Fenua Traditional-techno fusion
  • Trio Kikiriri Synth/ukulele

Sidebar: Types of Dance

  • Otea Fast hip action
  • Aparima Free-flowing, graceful
  • Hivinau Inspired by anchor hoisting
  • Paoa Seated legend recitation
  • Fire dance Juggling flaming torches

Islander Etiquette

  • Greet women with a kiss on each cheek, or a handshake if professional.
  • Men greet men with a handshake.
  • Men can greet good friends or relatives with cheek kisses.
  • Do eat Tahitian food with your fingers.
  • Do take your shoes off before entering a home.
  • Don’t tip unless there’s a sign or the service was exceptional.