First port of call in French Polynesia

© François Aurat / Fondation Tara Expéditions

30 September 2016

At the beginning of this week, Tara left the Gambier Islands, the most easterly archipelago of Polynesia. In addition to completing the sampling protocols, the few days spent around the small mountainous islands enabled the crew to get a first glimpse of French Polynesia’s beauty and experience the kindness of its inhabitants.

As on every Pacific island along the schooner’s route, 3 sites were studied in the Gambier Archipelago, with dives to collect samples of coral, fish and plankton. To be as close as possible to the collection sites, the vessel had to sail the full length and breadth of the large lagoon surrounding the archipelago. After an initial mooring in a small cove in Taravai, the second largest island of the archipelago, Tara anchored near Akamaru’s shore, an island harboring a single village composed of 10 families living around a church. Finally, the schooner completed this stopover docked in the village of Rikitea, the largest of the Gambier Islands.

 

credits-yann-chavance-panorama-gambier-1-1From Mount Duff, overlooking the village of Rikitea, stunning views of coral reefs and pearl farms along the coast © Yann Chavance / Tara Expeditions Foundation

 

This winding route between the different islands, motivated by scientific imperatives, was an opportunity for the crew to enjoy an overview of the Gambier archipelago. Far from others French Polynesian islands (Tahiti is 1,700 km away) and served by a single weekly flight, the archipelago’s stunning beauty remains inaccessible to most tourists. Few people can admire the incredible contrasts of these small islands, where white sand beaches and coconut trees give way to coniferous forests on the mountainside. To complete the picture, several small churches (and even a cathedral!) dot the amazing landscape.

 

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The coral team gets ready to dive to collect samples © François Aurat / Tara Expeditions Foundation

 

After collecting samples, Tara’s crew spent 2 days in Rikitea to meet the locals. About 120 children visited the schooner, listening carefully to scientists on the rear deck and sailors in the mess room. In the evening, at a conference in the town hall, the crew presented the research conducted aboard the vessel in the Pacific Ocean, as well as previous missions, including Tara Oceans. Tara had previously anchored in 2011 in the waters of the Gambier Islands to study coral reefs. It was therefore natural that the scientific team present the findings of this first visit: the discovery of 2 new species of coral, previously unknown. One has been named Echinophyllia tarae with reference to the schooner.

 

credits-yann-chavance-visites-gambier-1-1Dozens of visitors and school children visited the schooner while Tara was docked in Rikitea © Yann Chavance / Tara Expeditions Foundation

 

Besides the conference, exchanges between the crew and the Gambier Islands’ inhabitants continued in a more informal way through chance encounters. Just walking down the streets, we enjoyed the hospitality and simplicity of discussions with the Polynesians. Coming across someone often means stopping for a few minutes to chat, talk about life aboard Tara or the islanders’ concerns. Friendly exchanges sometimes led to an invitation to visit a pearl farm or a gift of some fresh fruit. The 5 scientists who caught their return flight here, and the 11 Taranauts remaining on board to reach Tahiti in a few days, could not have dreamed of a better welcome in French Polynesia.

Yann Chavance

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