Diving to new depths in French Polynesia

On the beguiling islands of French Polynesia, a new generation is on a mission to define its identity, whether carved in stone or inked on skin.

Rangiroa’s Blue Lagoon.

Photograph by Sarah Marshall
By Sarah Marshall
Published 19 Feb 2023, 08:00 GMT

Swivelling their hips to the furious beat of pahu drums, dancers whirl like dust devils across a sandy stage erected on the beach. An audience watches, mesmerised, as the music grows louder and movements become faster, until the scene becomes a blur of floaty, floral fabrics, swishing, grassy fronds and cascading, velveteen petals. 

Slowing the tempo, a new troupe emerges to the gentle strumming of a ukulele, sweeping their arms upwards in a motion mimicking the peaks and troughs of Pacific Ocean waves. Wearing garlands of jasmine draped around their necks and delicate frangipani flowers tucked behind their ears, these women on the atoll of Rangiroa are the very picture of Polynesian paradise, an image that’s attracted countless curious explorers and travellers to these distant shores.

Launched in September 2022, the Farerei Haga Rangiroa is the newest addition to a calendar of festivals held to celebrate the culture and traditions of French Polynesia. Gathering talents from the Tuamotu Archipelago and further afield, evening dance shows are part of the energetic, six-day programme, featuring coconut-shelling, va’a (outrigger canoe) racing and lifting stones weighing as much as 160kg — an impressive feat that once served as a competition to win the hand of a chief’s daughter. 

Dressed in beach shirts and board shorts, dignitaries sing prayers inside an arena made of fishing nets and oyster shells. Attired equally casually, the country’s president speaks enthusiastically of a future when more cruise ships will arrive, as an ocean liner on the horizon serendipitously blasts its horn.

Left: Top:

A dancer performs at the Farerei Haga Rangiroa festival.

Right: Bottom:

Necklaces made from seeds are sold by artisans from the Mahakatau Heipani co-operative at a craft market on Tahuata island.

photographs by Sarah Marshall

For decades, these mysterious, beguiling islands have featured on wistful travel posters. Drawing comparisons with the mythical Bali Ha’i romanticised in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 Broadway musical South Pacific, places like Tahiti and Bora Bora evoke exotic images of a special island ‘where the sky meets the sea’. Sitting within the Polynesian Triangle, an area located between Hawaii, New Zealand and Rapa Nui (Easter Island), French Polynesia is made up of more than 100 islands and atolls — a landmass equal in area to Paris and London combined, scattered across open ocean the size of Europe. Up to 4,350 miles away from its nearest neighbours, Chile and Australia, the French overseas territory is unfathomably remote.

A string of 240 islets snaking around a lagoon washed by both wild (Moana-uri) and peaceful (Moana-tea) oceans, Rangiroa — an hour’s flight from international entry point Papeete, on Tahiti — is the world’s second-largest atoll. From above, the main island is a sliver of land, with only one road. And although the Farerei festival provided a good excuse to visit, I’m more interested in discovering what happens 
upon the waves.

Fried fish and coconut bread served on palm plates at a barbecue picnic on a sandbank ...

Fried fish and coconut bread served on palm plates at a barbecue picnic on a sandbank in the Blue Lagoon.

Photograph by Sarah Marshall

The morning after the week-long festivities cease, dawn bursts through the open windows of my wood and coral cabin at Le Coconut Lodge. Caught in the morning breeze, white linen curtains billow like the sails of a galleon at full mast. Offering me a baguette as fine as any baked in a Parisian boulangerie, manager Audrey Clement gleefully raises her arms in praise of the fine weather for my trip to the Blue Lagoon, a postcard-perfect natural pool almost irreconcilable with the swollen ocean all around.

Like most French Polynesians, my boat captain, Ismael Tixier (from Kaimana Excursions), doesn’t speak much English, so we settle into a rhythm of gestures, sign language and emphatic head nods for the day ahead. Motoring into stomach-flipping swells, it takes an hour to reach the aquatic oasis, where we wade through warm, shallow water to reach a barbecue site on the beach, floating our cool box with a palm-leaf handle. 

While Ismael prepares lunch, I paddle close to shore, sidestepping squelchy sea cucumbers and surprising sleeping stingrays as they wriggle free from their sandy camouflage. Keeping a cautious distance, baby nurse sharks dart through shallow pools, disappearing with a whip of their tails as soon as they sense any movement. Once our meal of mahi mahi fish and coconut bread is ready, Ismael shows me how to weave a plate from palm leaves, and we sit listening to nesting terns as they whistle like the wind. “Thank you, mama, for teaching me how to weave,” he declares, proud of both his craftmanship and one of the few English phrases he’s learned by heart.

Boatman Ismael Tixier was taught how to weave palms by his mother.

Boatman Ismael Tixier was taught how to weave palms by his mother.

Photograph by Sarah Marshall

Although the peaceful waters are pleasant, it’s rougher waves that attract the most exciting wildlife. Heading back, we stop at the Tiputa Pass, a straight linking the Rangiroa lagoon to the open ocean that passes through the island’s two main villages, Tiputa and Avatoru. Bottlenose dolphins famously surf the foam and froth, attracting boatloads of tourists eager to join in the fun. I spot a resident pod; horizons rise and dip like a seesaw as we follow the marine gymnasts, which glide across the broiling surface with the ease of skimming stones.

Observing from above is exhilarating but swimming alongside these animals is another experience altogether. “Divers were the first tourists to visit these islands,” French instructor Marco Mouton tells me the following day when we meet at The 6 Passengers dive centre, next door to Le Coconut Lodge. Hammerheads, manta rays and dolphins can all be encountered at the Tiputa Pass, where dives are more like safaris than the typical scuba explorations through coral gardens and along reef walls. “Once we descend,” instructs Marco, “we wait patiently to see what comes along.”

Marquesan dive instructor Humu Kaimuko is a master spearfisher.

Marquesan dive instructor Humu Kaimuko is a master spearfisher.

Photograph by Sarah Marshall

Getting into the water is a struggle. With only 20 dives under my belt, I’m terrified by the ocean’s irascible temper as she sweeps our rigid inflatable boat from side to side like a toddler tossing toys from its pram. From the moment we backward-roll off the craft, I cling tightly to Marco’s arm until we reach a drop-off and hang in the water, nothing above us and nothing below.

“There’s only one spot to really visit,” Marco had told me earlier. “It’s the same place, but it’s always different.” Mirroring the swells above us at the surface, life underwater never stays still. At first, I hear clicking, a melodic, syrupy form of Morse code and a sign that dolphins are close by. And then she appears, her beak pointing in my direction, a calf tucked into the curve of her belly. In one of those rare, wonderful moments when seconds last an eternity, the four of us are motionless, vertically poised, suspended in the deep, never-ending blue.

I paddle close to shore, sidestepping squelchy sea cucumbers and surprising sleeping stingrays as they wriggle free from their sandy camouflage. Baby nurse sharks dart through shallow pools, disappearing with a whip of their tails as soon as they sense any movement.

Boatman Ismael Tixier feeds leftover fish to greater crested terns at Rangiroa’s Blue Lagoon.

Photograph by Sarah Marshall

The true meaning of tattoos

Unsurprisingly, dolphins are a favourite tattoo design for tourists eager to ink a souvenir of their stay in French Polynesia. Renowned artist Patu Mamatui recalls receiving hundreds of requests for images of marine creatures during the early days of his career. “That’s what people could see around them,” he explains, when we meet at his studio in Papeete, French Polynesia’s capital, in Tahiti. 

When I arrive, Patu is deep in concentration as he works on his human canvas, an athletic French dancer laid out on a table below a dazzling strip light. Having distanced himself from superficial textbook tattoos, his designs reach into the origins of Polynesian culture. 

Up until 30 years ago, indelible body art was banned in the islands, despite dating back almost 2,000 years to when the first settlers arrived. The church was to blame, Patu tells me. From the 1800s, Catholic and Protestant missionaries declared the practice of tattooing barbaric, denouncing any interference with God’s creation. Those who came from the earth should return in the same form, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

“I first connected with the heritage of my ancestors at art school,” says Patu, a spiritual thinker who also studies ancient chanting. Praising an oral tradition that’s always powered communication in this part of the world, he adds: “You can read books, but the real passion comes from spoken words and language. It’s another dimension; you become the ancestor in this moment in time.”

A tool for storytelling, tattoos express an individual’s identity, from their family roots right up until the present day. Polynesians would commonly cover their bodies and even faces in striking black patterns, a tradition Patu is faithfully following. Pulling up his T-shirt to reveal folds of soft flesh, he guides me though key inkings as if he were sharing the manuscript for a memoir, literally laying himself bare. Pointing to his navel, he explains why everything begins with the po, the belly button. “This is a bond, our cocoon. It’s a reminder of the universe and creation. The belly was my first connection to my ancestor; when the cord was cut, I was put on the land.”

As Patu speaks, electric needles whir and hum in the studio upstairs. The eyes inked on his chest, he continues, are for protection, while a series of zigzags represents rocks, and four stars in the wind symbolise direction. “I think I have about another 100 hours to be done,” he says, pointing out the few remaining blank patches of skin. Invigorated by the power each design gives him, he admits it’s an addiction he’ll never give up. “It’s my mana,” he declares.

Understood throughout the Polynesian Triangle, ‘mana’ has many meanings today. It’s a life force, a spirit, an energy, bestowed on people, places, statues and stones. Rather than a source of power, it’s a manifestation; a force field of protection that’s nurtured throughout an individual’s life — through dancing, singing and, of course, tattoos.

Although Patu was born, bred and “will die” in Tahiti, his island is rapidly changing. Shopping centres, fast food restaurants and resorts have been shaped by Western influences, but one of French Polynesia’s five island groups — a three-hour flight across open ocean by propeller plane — retains a strong connection with the past. It’s there I’m headed next.

Marquesan dive instructor Humu Kaimuko has tattooed his body with Polynesian symbols telling the story of his life.

Photograph by Sarah Marshall

Islands with ancient allure

An archipelago of 12 volcanic outcrops, largely covered in fertile, emerald peaks, the Marquesas Islands are as idyllic and enchanting as Patu and his cohorts describe. On Hiva Oa, waves roll into curving, coconut palm-fringed bays, waterfalls cascade from mountain folds where mango and grapefruit trees sprout from clefts, and wild horses roam. When Félicienne  Mataohu Heitaa and her family opened their Pension Temetiu Village guesthouse 30 years ago, there was nothing. Even now, the high street in main village Atuona only has a couple of shops, selling essential items; in a place where nature provides everything, there’s simply no need to buy anything.

One of the earliest Europeans to eulogise these idyllic islands was French artist Paul Gaugin, who arrived here in 1901, seeking a studio in the tropics and an escape from modern life. His grave in a hillside cemetery, close to Belgian singer and fellow émigré  Jacques Brel, has become a tourist attraction. His true legacy, though, is a series of paintings featuring muscular women with ebony hair and mysterious, red-caped sorcerers, along with writings criticising colonialism and the church.

Considered a maverick by many of the staunchly conservative families on Hiva Oa, dive instructor Humu Kaimuko, who runs Marquises Diving with his family, expresses similar opinions, rejecting formal religion to instead reconnect with his past. Raised by his grandmother, who’s now 98 and still agile enough to perform the deeply spiritual and traditional haka manu (an energetic dance imitating sea birds fishing in the ocean), he’s always had a fascination with his ancestors.

Tall, lean and muscular, he resembles the strong, formidable Polynesians who unnerved early Spanish conquistadors and inspired Gauguin’s awestruck flurry of brush strokes.

Speaking to me about his ancestral culture as we head out on a dive, his eyes bulge with infectious enthusiasm. Describing an early inking at the age of 11 as a learning process, he completed his first proper, meaningful tattoo when he was 28. “I used one of my grandfather’s bones,” he says proudly, pointing to a design on his right leg. “It took from 6pm to 6am because I wanted to do it the spiritual way, at night.” A thick band of ink around his hips features symbols representing his wife, family and the sea. An open book revealing his life story, he says: “I want this for my sons to read.”

There are no reefs to dive around Hiva Oa, but Humu loves the open ocean, where manta rays and humpback whales gather to feed on plankton. Slowly descending along a sloping seabed, I soon find myself below a roof of flapping sails — mantas the size of small boats drift gracefully in the underwater breeze.

Sadly, laments Humu when we’re back at the surface, many Marquesan children are frightened of “marine monsters”. Increasingly detached from their surroundings, they’re afraid of even simple things like swimming in the sea or sleeping in the dark. “But the night has always been our friend,” he adds, referring to historic fishing trips that would always take place after sunset. “In our language, the word for ‘live’ breaks downs to mean ‘the night’ and ‘move’ — so we are, and have always been, the people who move at night.”

Blaming religion for instilling fear into people, Humu looks upwards. “The church wants people to believe in a god who’s in the sky above; I believe the power is with our ancestors, with people. But if they’re not confident in themselves with nature; they won’t believe in what they have.”

Teahupo’o, a lakefront village set against the mountainous interior of Tahiti Iti.

Photograph by Getty Images

As an introduction to Marquesan culture, Humu and his wife, Raita, invite me on a boat trip to neighbouring Tahuata island, where we visit a group of artisans from the Mahakatau Heipani co-operative, selling nasal flutes, horns and rosewood paddles. It’s 17 September, a special day commemorating the return of artefacts stolen by French archaeologists, and several men have laid garlands around a monument recalling the event.

“I have goosebumps,” shudders Raita, flooded with emotion as she reflects on the significance of such a homecoming. An 
English teacher, who tells me she’ll one day make the bold move to tattoo her face, she’s shunned Western religion in favour of resurrecting her spiritual roots — even though, she admits, her family has been ostracised by the conservative Christian community. “Tiki 
is coming, I tell you. If they erase our language or take our sculptures, he’ll come through music, through song. He’ll find another way,” she says. 

Represented by many statues scattered in forests across the Marquesas Islands, Tiki is a stocky figure with wide, gawping eyes and arms resting on his belly. Neither a spirit nor a deity, he’s a manifestation of earthly ancestors, a vector for their power passed down through generations; a connection between past and present and a link between today and tomorrow. Although dozens of Tiki remain hidden in caves, mountain niches and below canopies of Caribbean pine, there are several key sites where the faithful can revere the spirit on Hiva Oa.
A tour guide, tattoo artist and dancer, Felicienne’s son, Tepoeaotiu, from my guesthouse, offers to take me to see some of these sights. One of the many young people who look up to local heroes Humu and Patu, he wears a string of pigs’ teeth dangling around his neck and walks barefoot over rocks and gravel to connect with the land.

Each Tiki we see has its own expression and style: grand, reclining, crowned or smiling. One even has its head severed; an attempt by missionaries to exert control.

At Tohua Upeke, in the Ta’a Oa valley, spindly palms and thick ferns surround a neat arena of lichen-encrusted rocks with several paepae platforms (stone surfaces used for meetings) and a grassy plaza used for dancing and gatherings. Tepoea invites me to place my hands on a magnetic rock at the centre of a ceremonial site. The Te Pito o Te Henua (‘the universe’s naval’), he says, is a “mana battery”. Warm to the touch, the rock radiates the sun’s energy, but I suspect its true power comes from the many hands placed here over the years.

Belonging to one of the biggest families on Hiva Oa, Tepoea’s ancestors likely visited this sacred place. “When our mother traced back our genealogy, it was like a banyan tree,” he laughs, referring to the many tangled strands of a dynasty firmly rooted in this island.

It reminds me of a conversation I’d had days earlier with Humu, on the topic of cultural appropriation and travellers seeking a shortcut to spiritual enlightenment. “I believe people should go back to their own ancestors first,” Humu had told me. “But that’s the problem,” I’d replied. “Most of us don’t even know our roots.”

In a world of displaced populations and diluted cultures, it’s rare to find someone who can trace their origins and has a clear idea of where they came from and where they belong. 

Whether carved into stone, inked on flesh or embedded in their souls, a new generation of Polynesians is on a mission to define their identity by asking questions and seeking answers. These islanders may be thousands of miles from the rest of the world, yet they are so much closer than any of us to finding truth.

Left: Top:

Tour guide Tepoeaotiu Heitaa leads travellers to the L’ipona archaeological site on Hiva Oa, filled with Tiki statues.

Right: Bottom:

Tepoeaotiu Heitaa, a tour guide, dancer and tattoo artist, crouches beside the Smiling Tiki on Hiva Oa island.

photographs by Sarah Marshall

Getting there & around
Papeete, in Tahiti, is the international entry point into French Polynesia. Although there are no direct flights from the UK, Air Tahiti Nui and Air France fly from Paris via Los Angeles.
Average flight time: 25h.
Domestic flights between islands are operated by Air Tahiti. Journeys take an hour to Rangiroa and three hours to Hiva Oa, both departing from Papeete.
The best way to explore Rangiroa is by bike, available at most guesthouses. A car is needed on Hiva Oa, although excursions can be booked via lodges.

When to go
May to October is the best time to visit, as it’s dry and warm (21-27C). The rainy season is from November to April, although downpours are short and days sunny (25-35C). It’s possible to dive year-round; humpback whales appear from August to October, hammerhead sharks from December to March and manta rays between June and October.

Where to stay
Te Moana Tahiti Resort, Papeete. From £256, B&B.
Le Coconut Lodge, Rangiroa. From £204, B&B.
Pension Temetiu Village, Hiva Oa. From £84, B&B.

How to do it
Original Travel has a 12-night trip to Tahiti, Rangiroa and Hiva Oa from £6,780 per person, including B&B and half-board accommodation, transfers, several tours and flights from Paris to Tahiti. The trip includes return travel by Eurostar to Paris, where you’ll spend one night before flying. Air Tahiti Nui fly to Tahiti from Paris from £1,370.60 return, including taxes.

Published in the March 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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