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.