Elise et les iles de la Polynésie

1 October 2014
by Elise


Did you know that grass produces flowers? That bougainvillea flowers are not really flowers? That frangipani, multicolored hibiscus, and even the famous Tiare Tahiti did not originate in French Polynesia?

These previously accepted notions deserve some explanation. First, here are some fundamentals to remember or to learn: Flowers stem from flowering plants, otherwise known as angiosperms by botanists. Conifers, ferns, mosses and other lichens do not actually possess flowers. Flowers constitute a major advancement in the evolution of plants since they assemble all the reproductive organs to allow many species an interaction with animals and/or insects for pollination (stamens are the male part and the pistil is the female part). Usually, plants that are pollinated by animals (birds, bats, or insects such as bees) produce the most beautiful flowers that people notice and admire due to their colors, shapes, and perfumes. The presence of nectar also determines which types of pollinating animals they attract. Further, other flowering plants that have adopted alternate strategies for pollination, such as through the wind (called anemophily), have not developed remarkable flowers attractive to animals or humans. These include most grasses (such as Poaceae) and sedges (Cyperaceae) that many people mistakenly believe do not produce flowers


Conversely, some organs often perceived to be flowers, are not. Relatively common in a French Polynesian landscape, the bougainvillea is a typical example, since its modified leaves, called bracts by botanists, harbor bright colors typical of the genus Bougainvillea. Its flowers are small and yellowish and colored leaves keep them hidden at the ends of branches. The same applies to the Wild Poinsettia (Euphorbia cyathophora) whose bracts are richly brocaded in red, so its green flowers go unnoticed… French Polynesia, notably Tahiti and the other Society Islands, is renowned for its luxurious vegetation and the presence of flowers all year long. This reputation is due not only to the abundance of flowers in Tahiti, but also to their rarity in temperate countries from where most foreign visitors arrive. Indeed, the climate of the Society Islands is considered moist tropical. Although the annual cycle is split between a rather hot and humid season and a rather cool and dry season, temperatures and rainfall throughout the year are very favorable to the development of vegetation and flowering. On the other hand, in Europe, North America, Japan, New Zealand, or Southern Australia, the climate is much more temperate with a distinct cold season in which temperatures often fall below freezing. Rainfall is either scantier or unevenly distributed throughout the year, two very limiting factors for the growth of vegetation and blooms during much of the year. Moreover, the flora of temperate countries is largely comprised of flowering plants pollinated by the wind, and therefore do not produce flowers that attract animals, or that humans consider spectacular, much unlike French Polynesia, where species in which the wind disperses the pollen are uncommon


One must not forget that most of the flowers that visitors to French Polynesian islands notice belong to species introduced by man. They were selected because of their large, colorful flowers and vastly fragrant perfume. Indeed, French Polynesians are astute gardeners who love plants and new ideas. They have successively introduced and acclimatized hundreds of ornamental plants for more than a hundred years, copying Western botanists from the 19th to early 20th centuries, such as the famous work of Harrison Smith, who developed the Botanical Gardens at Papeari in Tahiti, now named after him. The abundance of species and cultivars (a plant variety that has been produced or maintained in cultivation by selective breeding), such as hibiscus (Hibiscus spp.), frangipani (Plumeria spp.), bougainvillea (Bougainvillea spp.), anthurium plants (Anthurium spp.), birds of paradise (Heliconia spp.), jasmine (Jasminum spp.) or even the ixora shrubs (Ixora spp.) are evidence of this desire for flowers and novelties. Thus, flowers that are admired today in French Polynesian gardens are essentially plants that have been introduced since the time of European contact and the arrival of explorers in the late 18th century. Botanists call these plants the modern introductions


However, it hasn’t always been this way. In fact, many plants cultivated in gardens or close to the fare (Tahitian word for house) provided flowers for necklaces or crowns, or to be simply worn in the hair or behind an ear. The two most commonly known species, the Tiare Tahiti (Gardenia taitensis) and the local red hibiscus, or ‘aute (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) are still largely cultivated for their decorative qualities, yet many visitors are not aware that they have always been used for medicinal purposes. Surprisingly, although these two plants are typical symbols of French Polynesia, they did not originate here! They are among about 80 other plants species that comprise Polynesian introductions. They were integrated into the flora of different islands during Polynesian migrations that took place between the end of the first millennium and the end of the 18th century. Most of these species consist of intentional introductions of useful plants (food, medicines, dyes, and fiber crops), while others are unintentional (sticky seeds, seeds hidden in the soil or on other vegetation or animals). Hence, it is possible to classify them as Polynesian weeds (which do not necessarily lack purpose). Tiare Tahiti is therefore not endemic (a term that classifies a plant as native and particular to a given biogeographic region, and often restricted to a specific area) to Tahiti or French Polynesia

Tiare Tahiti consists of a species introduced by early Polynesians starting from its original site on raised limestone formations in Vanuatu, as well as in Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa. Its Latin name, Gardenia taitensis, indicates the place where botanists first observed the flower, and where it is the most cultivated in the world, including among several cultivars. Another local plant with large tubular flowers of a whitish to yellowish color and having a pleasant fragrance still puzzles botanists. Indeed, the pua is a native tree (native meaning not introduced by man) that can be often seen in the Tahitian mountains in its wild form (Fagraea berteroana var. berteroana). It is disseminated by fruit-eating birds (frugivores). However, there is a cultivated form at a low altitude with larger flowers that are even more heavily perfumed, called pua no’ano’a (Fagraea longituba). This could be a modern introduction cultivar or one that Polynesians introduced via Samoa or Tonga, where this tree is highly valued and cultivated


Tahitian forests have hidden treasures that are both decorative and cultural, and that deserve to be showcased during this era in which flora is becoming homogenized from one island to another, from one country to another, from one continent to another. Indeed, beyond preconceived notions about tiny flowers with minimal coloring or perfume, some native or endemic species present undeniable decorative potential, as well as possessing a botanical history or traditional usage that adds to their cultural depth. The genus Ixora, with its 20 to 25 shrubs endemic to French Polynesia, grows in all types of environments (raised atolls, dry forests, moist forests, and cloud forests), and would be a viable candidate. Polynesian ixora flowers are usually very fragrant in comparison to introduced species, and their colors vary from the purest whites to the most intense pinks. Coastal species may be preferred for low altitudes, coastal plains, or for relatively dry low slopes, such as the beach morning glory, or pohue tatahi (Ipomoea pes-caprae subsp. brasiliensis). There are also several varieties of sea lettuce or naupata (Scaevola taccada), some of which produce white or purple flowers, or wild jasmine or tafifi (Jasminum didymum). There is the climbing plant tutae pua’a (Mucuna gigantea and M. sloanei), which has stinging pods containing beautiful seeds, or even the pandanus or fara (Pandanus tectorius) of which only the male plants produce very fragrant and imposing white inflorescences called hinano

Throughout the valleys or wetter areas, or at higher elevations, the motu’u shrub (Melastoma denticulatum), native cousin of the invasive Miconia (Miconia calvescens), can be tested in addition to the pua mentioned earlier. Also, there is the herbaceous maupo (Dianella adenanthera) that produces bluish-purple berries, the Tahitian blueberry ‘opu’opu (Vaccinium cereum) with its edible fruit, or the delicate fuchsia (Fuchsia cyrtandroides) that is endemic to Tahiti and very isolated from its closest cousins in New Zealand and South America. Thus, we can only hope that the 21st century brings the return of local, specific, and endemic flowers to line the sides of the roads and embellish French Polynesian gardens.

This would reflect the uniqueness of Tahiti and the French Polynesian islands, while reconnecting the population through plants that are common or unique, aesthetic or historic, useful or part of a cultural and natural legacy


17 February 2013
by Elise
Comments Off on The MARINE MAMMALS of French Polynesia

The MARINE MAMMALS of French Polynesia

Since 2002 when they officially became a “sanctuary” for MARINE MAMMALS, the waters of French Polynesia have been home to over twenty species of these animals. In this vast ocean, whales and dolphins roam in total freedom, preserved and protected.

Humpback whale


First, you should be reminded that WHALES and DOLPHINS are part of the cetacean species, a term derived from the Greek “ketos”, meaning “big fish”.

But despite the origin of their name, whales are mammals! Thus, they breastfeed their young. Some species even have a few hairs left over from their terrestrial ancestors. WHALES and DOLPHINS are born, live and die in the water. Also note that unlike fish, their caudal fin (flukes) is horizontal. They have one or two vents called blowholes, located at the top of their heads, visible when they come to breathe at the surface. The 90 species of these cetaceans that are known to this day have colonized all the world’s oceans, most of the seas and even some rivers. They are divided into two main groups: the Baleen Whales and the Toothed Whales.


The BALEEN WHALES are so named because of suspended horny blades in their upper jaw. These blades act as filters, and let them swallow large amounts of food. These animals, which have two blowholes, are mostly migratory: they migrate between their feeding grounds and their breeding grounds. Six species have been observed in Polynesian waters, most famously, the HUMPBACK WHALE.

Humpback whale2


Observed in Polynesia between June and November, the HUMPBACK WHALE is named for the small bump on which its dorsal fin is located. Often spectacular, it regularly brings out its flukes above water before diving. Females are larger than males, and can reach 13 to 15 meters in length and weigh up to 40 tons. During their stay in our islands, they give birth and nurse their calves without feeding themselves. They may then lose a third of their weight! Males sing powerful songs, perhaps to mark their territory and attract the females they escort for a few hours or days. Then they leave for the waters of the Antarctic, where the Polynesian whales feed during the austral summer.


The TOOTHED WHALES, which have a single fluke, are well represented in Polynesia. We observe three distinct families: SPERM WHALES, BEAKED WHALES and even DOLPHINS. In English all cetaceans over 4-meter long (including DOLPHINS) and the ELECTRA DOLPHIN are called “WHALES“. Observed occasionally in the Polynesian waters, SPERM WHALES can measure up 18 meters in length and weigh 50 tons. It is an animal of legend. A pelagic whale, i.e. living in the open sea, it seldom approaches the coast.


The SPERM WHALE is recognizable by its large brown and wrinkled body mass, its huge rectangular head can measure up to a third the size of his body. To feed, it is capable of diving down to depths of 3,000 meters and stays a half hour without breathing! The females and their calves gather in the Polynesian latitudes, while large males travel long distances to feed in the rich waters of the sub-Antarctic and temperate latitudes.

There are two other Polynesian species of SPERM WHALES, present but difficult to observe, the PYGMY SPERM WHALE and the DWARF SPERM WHALE. With a length of 2 to 3.5 meters, they can be seen in calm weather, when they come up to breathe at the surface: they then look like floating tree trunks.


Despite their name, BEAKED WHALES are actually TOOTHED WHALES. Two species are regularly observed in Polynesia, the BLAINVILLE’S BEAKED WHALE and CUVIER’S BEAKED WHALE. Discrete when at the surface and little known, these animals, 4 to 7 meters in length, have a light brown body dotted with scars and topped with a small eccentric dorsal fin. Adult males have two prominent teeth on their lower jaw, the females have none.


Eleven species of DOLPHINS share the waters of the Polynesian archipelagos. Among them, the SHORT-FINNED PILOT WHALE, a big BLACK ROUND-HEADED DOLPHIN usually seen in groups of 40-60 individuals. It can be spotted at the surface with its wide and often crooked dorsal fin. Generally curious about boats, it sometimes even sticks its head above water.

The ELECTRA DOLPHIN or MELON-HEADED WHALE is abundant in the Marquesas where groups of several hundred individuals can be seen near the coast. Recognizable by its dark body, its rounded head and its pointed snout lined with white lips, it is a little-known dolphin.

The BOTTLENOSE DOLPHIN is very accessible in the northwest and in the center of the Tuamotu islands, where it dwells around the atolls’ coastal fringe, the access to passes and the lagoons.

Bottlenose dolphins

The ROUGH-TOOTHED DOLPHIN has a dark back, a pinkish-white belly and sides dotted with round spots. Its flattened head and its sharp beak give it a strange look. Demonstrative and often curious around boats, it travels regularly with other species.

Rough-toothed dolphin

The PANTROPICAL SPOTTED DOLPHIN and the SPINNER DOLPHIN are the smallest Polynesian cetaceans. The SPOTTED DOLPHIN is abundant in the Marquesas, but rare in other archipelagos. The LONG-BEAKED SPINNER DOLPHIN is often seen around the Society Islands, where groups of 30-60 individuals come to rest every day around the passes and in the bays and lagoons. Both species are known for their spectacular jumps.

Spinner dolphins


The distribution and the abundance of cetaceans depend on the riches of nutrients in their habitats, the surface of their territory, the depth of the ocean floor and some local characteristics that give a picture of the various presence areas.

Thus, the archipelagos of the Austral and Tuamotu-Gambier islands host HUMPBACK WHALES during their season, and also low densities of SPERM WHALES and BEAKED WHALES. The northwest and the center of the Tuamotu Archipelago have been colonized by BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS, visible near the coast.

The Society Archipelago is home to a good diversity of species with the remarkable presence of SPINNER DOLPHINS, BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS, ELECTRA DOLPHINS, BEAKED WHALES, PILOT WHALES and HUMPBACK WHALES during their season.

In the Marquesas, the very rich waters are sheltering, namely, SPOTTED DOLPHIN, ELECTRA DOLPHINS, BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS and PILOT WHALES. Other species such as RISSO’S DOLPHINS prefer the open ocean and are rarely observed. Finally some, such as KILLER WHALES, FALSE KILLER WHALES or FIN WHALES are seldom seen and/or are seasonal animals.

Risso's dolphins


Strangely, stories about the ancient presence of HUMPBACK WHALES in Polynesian waters are absent. The early whaler boats, which stopped in Tahiti during their long hunting campaigns at sea used to capture large SPERM WHALES in the Marquesas. It is also in the Marquesas that we find ancient myths about hunting DOLPHINS to ride them as a mount. Precious objects made from whales’ teeth were once worn by chiefs and their families.

Until the 1970s, on Ua Pou, small species of DOLPHINS (KUMIA or KOHIO) were hunted. As to hunting HUMPBACK WHALES, it developed sporadically in the Austral islands with the arrival of European whalers in the late 19th century. But be reassured, the last whale was killed there in 1957, i.e. over 55 years ago.


Observing CETACEANS in the wild is an unforgettable experience accessible to everyone. In calm weather, it is easy to spot a blow, a whirlpool, as many clues betraying their presence. Since 1992, “whale watching” tours can approach Polynesian CETACEANS in their element. Unfortunately, an excess of whale watching tours can also harm WHALES, as they are a source of disturbance and stress.

It is therefore important to learn about the species encountered, animal behavior and regulations to ensure satisfactory observation and minimum inconvenience. Here are some simple rules: never cut in front of a CETACEAN, obstruct it, circle around it, try to touch it, separate a mother from her calf, shout or bang on the boat. Despite their reputation, do not forget that WHALES and DOLPHINS are wild and powerful animals. Misunderstanding their behavior, activities or social groups structure can result in unpleasant surprises.


The marine mammal sanctuary of Polynesia was officially created on May 13, 2002 through the work of Franco-American marine mammal specialist, Dr. Michael Poole, who for 25 years dedicated his life to the study of Polynesian CETACEANS. This 4.8 million km2 sanctuary is the largest in the world in size in one single ocean! The principle of a Wildlife sanctuary is to preserve the natural life of animal populations, and to allow them to continue to live their lives free from human activities.

This is the same purpose pursued by GEMM (Study Group on Marine Mammals). In this vast sanctuary, unique at the planet’s scale, WHALES and DOLPHINS can now move freely, and be protected and respected. This is a true “paradise” for these animals, and a great opportunity for people to come and meet this precious wildlife.


26 January 2013
by Elise
Comments Off on TUBUAI, the island of contrasts

TUBUAI, the island of contrasts

At the heart of the Austral Islands, this place off the beaten paths, offers to its visitors to discover the many faces of Polynesian beauty. Between emerald green and azure blue, between plains and mountains, culture and nature, past and present, an unforgettable journey.

From the island of Tahiti, a few dozen minutes by plane are required to fly to the Austral Islands, which are, perhaps, the least known of the country’s five Archipelagos, but they reserve some great surprises for you. Stretching over 850 kilometers and located on each side of the Tropic of Capricorn, between the 20th and 30th parallel, the five islands that compose it offer all the charms of Polynesia with the appeal of the high islands and the beauty of lagoons.


Note that the Australs, the southern boundary of French Polynesia, are the last islands in the Pacific region before… Antarctica, which is at the edge of the world near the 70th parallel. Between the two, is the south Pacific Basin, with no land! a great distance and a long journey, that however, the humpback whales do not hesitate to travel all the way from Antarctic waters during the southern winter (July August and September) to hibernate in the archipelago’s warmer waters. Here, in this “outpost” on the ocean, six thousand three hundred Polynesians live, representing barely 3% of the country’s population. These islanders have a distinct cultural identity and their own language, the reo Tuha’a Pae, which is still spoken currently.

They are spread over five islands: Rurutu, Rimatara, Raivavae, Rapa, and, of course, Tubuai. At first glance, Tubuai appears like a beautiful oval with shades of green, fringed by a spectacular azure band, in fact it is its lagoon; it is particularly wide, large and beautiful. The whole thing looks like it was delicately placed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, as if it had appeared from nowhere. A striking vision and an incentive to set foot on this 45 km2 piece of land.


An exceptional environment

Tubuai, or rather Tupa’i, its real Polynesian name, was probably inhabited around the year one thousand, a time when the great Polynesian settlements were taking place in all the islands forming the present French Polynesia. Unfortunately, little data let us know more about the conditions and the exact dates of their arrival on this land so untouched by human presence. Nevertheless, the newcomers developed a complex society, very structured, very infused with religion and perfectly adapted to its environment. Dotting the island, the remains of mara’e – sacred places – and the knowledge passed down orally through generations, attest to this past today.

Much later, in 1767, explorer Samuel Wallis observed for the first time the presence of the island. But the “discovery”, by Europeans, is to be credited to the famous captain cook. During his third Pacific voyage, he approached the island in August 1777. Then after the explorers, the first missionaries, in this case the Protestants of the London Missionary Society arrived 40 years later, to this end of the world to tackle the conversion of the islanders,. The “culture shock”, to use an anachronism, had dramatic consequences as it did in many other areas in the south Pacific. Among them was the appearance of diseases unknown to the islanders, but also the introduction of alcohol. While early explorers had counted, about 3,000 people on Tubuai in the late 18th century, only 300 remained a few years later. The traditional pre-European society collapsed under the weight of depopulation and the abandonment of old believes, which used to be a strong social bond. Then the island knew the same fate as its Polynesian neighbors and passed under French protectorate in 1842, before being annexed in June 1880. But with the entry into the 20th century, the population has been gradually recovering and what some thought was lost forever has been revived: traditions, histories, languages etc.

Today, with 2,000 inhabitants, Tubuai is one of the most densely populated islands of the archipelago. It is the administrative center and therefore benefits from many facilities and services brought up by that legal status. Agriculture is the dominant activity of the island. With large flat surfaces, the topography lends itself very well to it, a rarity in our islands. a generous land, a just as generous large lagoon and a more temperate climate therefore make of Tubuai a beautiful garden of Eden to explore and to discover. Be aware however, that the climate may surprise the visitor who will have to plan to bring warm clothes, especially during the period June to September. But nonetheless be reassured, Antarctica is still very far away … and this particular climate, slightly cooler (average temperatures between 20 and 25° c throughout the year), is the most invigorating and conducive for activities such as hiking! Tourism is growing on the island, which has strong assets including an exceptional environment and also the riches of its historical sites. Pleasant hikes in the environment and the discovery of the culture are waiting for those who will head south to the austral islands and Tubuai!


Between Land and Sea

Visitors, from the top of this mountain, can contemplate all of Tubuai and its history! At 422 meters above sea level, mount Taita’a, the island’s highest summit, offers to those who braved its slopes, a 360-degree view of the island. a panorama among the most beautiful in the country, which rewards the efforts of the climb. Looking for the best view, the hiker must squeeze through a maze of large blocks of volcanic rocks with sharp edges. These blocks are reminders of the island’s genesis, which like all the islands of French Polynesia, Tubuai is an ancient volcano. Ten to twelve million years ago, it emerged from the ocean floor before becoming extinct. Then it was shaped over time to its current appearance: a quiet island, surrounded by a large coral reef separating the ocean and the lagoon.

Like an open book, this beautiful story unfolds to the hiker’s eyes. To the West, you can admire the mountain known as the “laying man”, culminating at 424 meters with mount hanareho. Shaped like a beautiful semicircle, it also reveals its volcanic origins, as these are the remains of a smaller volcano, which was active 9 million years before. But it’s time to get back home and hike through the little trail that follows the ridgeline between mount Taita’a and mount Panee, its nearest neighbor.


The “Big Green”

In several areas, the narrow trail plunges into abundant vegetation and one progress between two vegetal walls. Shrubs, mosses, lichens, and ferns of spectacular dimensions and strange shapes abound. The tropical sun has difficulty shining through this vegetation. A dive into “The Big green”, far from the usual clichés and images of Polynesia, evokes more an Amazonian, if not a prehistoric forest. Yet the other Polynesia is not far. Taking advantage of an opening through the foliage, it reappears. Eastward you can see the vast lagoon and the motu, these islets of coral sand. One can easily imagine the sun, the white sand, the coconut trees, the clear water … another world, another universe in such a small island … Then looking to the west, two large perfectly flat surfaces appear, a rare sight in our islands. They are not plains but marshes: Matavahi and Mihiura. They constitute one of the great peculiarities of the island, one of its riches with its specific flora.


Fertile Lands

After hiking through dreamlike sights, the return is done at a lower level, back on land, but not just any land. The island is often presented as one of “storehouse” of French Polynesia. Its particular topography is marked by the presence of plains; its soil and temperate climate are very favorable factors for agriculture. A garden by the ocean, where potatoes, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, lettuce, watermelon, and of course, taro are grown in abundance. The taro’s tuber, which particularly appreciates the wetlands and, of which the austral archipelago has made its specialty. It is a plant rich in nutrients, but whose cultivation is a difficult task, as it can hardly be mechanized. Agricultural products are consumed locally, but they are also shipped by boat, 650 km further north to the Society Islands, where more than 75% of the population live and therefore provides the largest quantity of consumers. As one can imagine, the organization of such a circuit is not a simple thing, but so are the constraints of insularity.




Several hundred hectares have thus been developed on the island by the Tupua’i, as the inhabitants of the island call themselves. Almost every family has its own “domain”. As a result, and unlike on many Polynesian islands, the houses are not clustered but dispersed. No village then, but rather small groups of homes.

This landscape is pleasant to go through and you feel immersed in it as you tour the island along the beautiful cross-country road linking Mataura and Mahu through the heart of the island. Many roads run through the plains and foothills to service these fields. Again, getting immersed in this landscape is another change of scenery, with tractors plowing the ground, to reveal black soil that one can guess is fertile, and where cultivations take the shape of rows of plants. Cows and horses graze here and there… The visitor could imagine that he had been suddenly transported to the farmlands of Europe or of North America. But banana trees planted along the fields and roads and impressive litchis quickly bring you back to tropical latitudes.


Witnesses of the Past

In pre-European traditional society, the island was apparently of particular importance as evidenced by numerous remains of marae, sacred places acting as links between the human world and the vast world of the Polynesian gods. They were the sites of highly codified, sometimes sacred, ceremonies, but they also related to life events such as births, tattooing and rites of passages in the different stages of life. Traditional society was highly ritualized as evidenced in many places in the island and especially those of Taahuaia with the marae hano and the marae haarii. The latter features an impressive stone where the island’s royal families used to follow a very specific ritual. After birth, they cut the umbilical cords of newborns. Take the time to go in search of these places, which are living testimonies of the old society.


Enchanting Beaches

Note that the coastline of the island – a rarity – consists in a long quasi-continuous beach and therefore particularly conducive to pleasant swimming. Here on these many beaches, shaded by trees, is an impressive palette of colors. The sand here has colors that are not found anywhere else: yellow, pink, orange etc. a real enchantment. But other than aesthetic contemplation and pleasant moments of relaxation, the lagoon is also a key element in the life of the population with the natural resources it provides. The lagoon of Tubuai is particularly known for its abundance of giant clams (Tridacna maxima by its scientific name). A coveted resource but that Tupua’i makes sure to preserve. more surprisingly, the island’s ambition is to become a center for the practice of Kite surfing, one of the newest sports which consists in being towed on a small board by a large kite. a sport, whose popularity is growing all over the world. With its vast lagoon and its steady winds, this bet may not be as foolish as it may seem. Moreover, many windsurfers and kite surfer are already coming to indulge in their passion in this most pleasant environment.


Motu “One”, the Beginning

But the discovery of the island would not be complete without a visit to an amazing and a little unreal place, “motu one” (pronounce onay), name given to a small sandbar, crossed by water level coral, leaning against the coral reef facing Mataura. Of this fragile islet of white sand and in the fading late afternoon light, Tubuai, which is dubbed the “green” island, appears in all of its splendor. a few clouds cling to its heights and one discover all the nuances of colors created by the various vegetation. Human presence with its houses and homes is lost in this greenery. A sight as serene and relaxed as a first morning of the world.

Tubuai: the impossible refuge of the Bounty mutineers

Of the Bounty mutiny in the late 18th century, probably the most famous mutiny in maritime history, we often remember only the names of the two main protagonists: the hated captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian, his rebellious second lieutenant. The adventure has been widely popularized in numerous books and especially in four film adaptations. In contrast, little is known of the role played by the island of Tubuai and its inhabitants. Let’s remember that when the mutiny took place, Captain Bligh was on a mission to Tahiti on the HMS Bounty to bring back breadfruit trees, uru in Tahitian. The English, who had spotted this plant during the voyages of Captain James cook, wanted to acclimatize them in the Caribbean and make it a cheap food for slaves. On April 28, 1789 on the way back after a stay of more than six months on the island of Tahiti, part of the crew rebelled. Bligh was abandoned on a longboat with a crew of men who were still loyal to his authority. Knowing the unenviable fate reserved by the British admiralty to all mutineers – i.e., hanging – their leader, Fletcher Christian, decided to find a safer “hideout” for the ship and the men than the island of Tahiti. He decided on Tubuai, an isolated and less known island. He landed there the first time on May 24, 1789, but he quickly had to face the islanders’ hostility. In the battle that ensued, 12 islanders are said to have been killed by the Bounty’s guns and cannons. All they had to fight them were stones and spears! The location of this first battle, facing the pass Te ara moana, remains in history as the “Bloody Bay”. It is located at Mataura, near the current airport.


After returning to Tahiti, the Bounty made a second attempt to settle in Tubuai a month later, on June 23, 1789, the mutineers persisted as they were fully aware of the abundant resources of the island. They brought with them food, cattle, and also gifts to try to reconcile with the inhabitants of the island. But misunderstandings grew even faster than the mutineers could perceive the intricacy of the society of the island, with its hierarchy, its customs, and its complex and specific rules, a society far from the stereotype of the “savage” that was in fact rooted in the minds of the Europeans at the time.

As a symbol of this misunderstanding and of that gap, the mutineers began the construction of a gigantic fort in what is now the coast of Taahuaia. The fortress was impressive with its sides a hundred meters long, surrounded by a moat fed by the water of the lagoon and a drawbridge. The ship and its threatening guns were elements of the defense of the whole thing. Coexistence did not last long and relations soured up to a great battle were more than 60 people on the island died, decimated again by the Englishmen’s modern weapons.

Finally, on September 17, 1789, the mutineers left the island that had now become hostile to them and abandoned the fortress. some of them then decided to sail even further east to take refuge on the tiny volcanic island of Pitcairn, at the end of the known world, beyond the reach of the vengeance of the English navy and also far away from the Tahitian “paradise”.

Of this unlikely encounter between two worlds and of these events, hardly any visible traces remain today. On the beautiful white sand beach of Taahuaia, the site of what was Fort George, only the memories and stories of his battles remain in the collective memory of the island.

21 November 2012
by Elise
1 Comment

TARO, King of the Roots

More than just a vegetable, TARO today is an essential ingredient to any Polynesian meal. Brought in Polynesia from Asia by the first human inhabitants of the islands, TARO has become one of the major staples of the Polynesian triangle. Anyone visiting Polynesia should absolutely give it a try…

From traditional dishes to inspired modern cuisine, TARO is fundamental to Polynesian cuisine. Called “the king of the roots”, it is certain that TARO cultivation is among the most ancient practices in this culture.

A tuber of the Aracee family, the plant has a large root that can be colored from light purple to yellow; the long stems and leaves are a deep emerald green. The vegetable is starchy but poor in protein and is what could be called an island potato – but one with a tropical scent and softness. The leaves of certain species resemble spinach and are sometimes called “Polynesian spinach”.

In the Tahitian language the name TARO is given to the entire plant, its root, stem and leaves, but it is also used to refer only to the root. The stem on its own is called “fafa” and the leaves “pota”. These are useful distinctions since the TARO is such a versatile vegetable – we can eat it all.

About 500 years after Christ, the first Polynesians brought this useful vegetable with them along with other plants with plans of planting them on the land they hoped to find. These gifted navigators were also botanical experts.

From what is today French Polynesia, TARO spread out across the Polynesian triangle, in particular to New-Zealand, Samoa and Fiji, but also as far as Papua New Guinea.

The evidence of a high number of TARO plantations found through archaeological surveys in the Austral and Marquesas Islands shows that the culture has depended on this base starch for a very long time. In the Tuamotu and Gambier Islands where the soil is made up of almost entirely sand, TARO cultivation was extremely labor intensive and required digging deep pits and importing rich soils from bird nesting areas. At the beginning of the 20th century when cargo ships began to frequent these areas, TARO cultivation waned and islanders simply had it shipped to them from Tahiti.

Today the most important fruit and vegetable producing Islands in the country are the high Islands of the Marquesas and Austral Islands.

Today, Polynesian Islands produce 29 different species of TARO. The most popular is planted year round on most Polynesian Islands. There are also several types of wild species that are found mostly on the mountainsides of high Islands.

Each species has its own Tahitian name, which goes to show how important the vegetable is to the culture.

The hot and humid climate of Polynesia is perfect for TARO cultivation – which is perhaps another reason why the vegetable has always been such an important staple in the Islands. TARO is planted in either in swampy land or in dry areas with good irrigation systems, in holes approximately 30 centimeters deep. Once planted, the root reproduces on its own thanks to climbing stems that grow from above the ground and plant themselves several centimeters away from the mother plant. Once mature, each root can measure up to 20 centimeters in circumference and weigh up to five kilos!

Easy to cultivate, TARO is an essential economic resource in this country, 638 tons were produced in 2006. Most of the production is consumed locally and sold in supermarkets, local markets and at stands on the side of the road. While TARO is produced on a grand scale on large plantations in the Marquesas, Austral and Society Islands, many families also keep a TARO patch for their own needs. In their vegetable plantation TARO is harvested year round. This allows the families to feed themselves and then sell off the rest. In the Austral Islands, TARO is a particularly important resource. The humid climate is much cooler than the rest of the country and is even better for cultivation. In these Islands, TARO holds and even more important role in the lives of the Islanders than in the other archipelagos. The Tahitian food is not Tahitian without this essential root!

Most of the time the vegetable is bought in its entirety. Once it’s peeled and the stem and leaves have been trimmed off, the rose or yellow colored root part is boiled. Some types are boiled longer than others depending on how hard they are. Often a pinch of salt and sugar are added to the water for flavor.

TARO of course plays a part in feasts prepared in the traditional Tahitian earth oven. It is cut into slices then cooked to accompany all sorts of meat and fish dishes. “Popoi” is a very ancient method of preparing the root and involves mashing it and then letting it ferment – in this way it can last for months or even years. There is a story about a foreign sailor who was lost at sea near the Marquesas and was saved because of this recipe.

This legend is a local way to talk about the high nutritional value of TARO, which is a great source of pride for locals. Some Polynesians will tell you how great warriors always ate TARO before battles. The Marquesans are said to have been stronger than the Paumotu (inhabitants of the Tuamotu) because they had greater supplies of TARO. Today, outrigger canoe teams will eat TARO the night before a competition to build strength.

TARO has not been pushed out of the Polynesian diet by fast food. Instead, it is adapted. French fried TARO, with a slightly sweet taste is hugely popular.

In modern cuisine and with chefs the world over, TARO is beginning to find its way into “haute cuisine”. Mashed, in soups or in fritters, TARO is something new and different to most tastes outside of Polynesia.

From Tahiti to New Caledonia recipes are being created and everyone seems to have a special one: TARO slides with honey, grenadine TARO and more. At the Sunday table, TARO still has many tasty years ahead.