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vendredi 2 mai 2014

The Tuamotu Archipelago

The symbol of the dream islands

Among the 118 islands of French Polynesia, 78 are atolls and make up the whole Archipelago of the Tuamotu-Gambier.

An atoll is the oldest geological shape of the volcanic islands. It results at the same time, from the formation of a coral reef, surrounding an extinct volcano and combined phenomena of erosion of the volcanic cone and its collapse on itself. So there’s left only a ring of coral enclosing a lagoon left. It may be open or closed depending on whether or not there are passes.

On the other hand, there are Hoa (water passages through the motu) which allow the movement of water during tides. 

Among the 78 islands of The Tuamotu-Gambier, 76 are atolls. The closed Archipelago of Gambier and Makatea Island make an exception to this rule.

The Tuamotu Archipelago: a rosary of pearls…
By the number of its islands, such as by the maritime area occupied, the Tuamotu Archipelago is by far the most important of French Polynesia. 

Cartographic reality of the Tuamotu Archipelago
As a huge barrier between the Society Islands and the Archipelago of the Marquesas, Tuamotu stretch over 1,800km long and 600 wide, from north-east to south-east. They cover an area of 800,000 km2.

In the census of 2007, there were 18,317 inhabitants throughout Tuamotu-Gambier, among which 3,384 on the only Rangiroa Atoll.

From the largest of these atolls, Rangiroa, the lagoon of which (second of the world) could contain the whole island of Tahiti, to the smallest ones that are uninhabited as much as inaccessible, it’s a recognizable pattern: the feeling of being entered a postcard…

In Tuamotu, truth is often stranger than fiction and dream
Lagoons with unforgettable colors lined by white beaches, and protected from the sun by the inescapable coconut palms, seabed incredibly rich in natural resources (animal and plant), bird species, many of which are endemic…

And most importantly, a wonderful people whose only kindness equals simplicity.

History and Tuamotu
The origin of the settlement of the Tuamotu is due, it seems, to relatively recent immigrants from the Marquesas Islands, probably in the sixteenth century and after they would have been made livable by the introduction of coconut.

Until 1854, the archipelago is named Pomotu, which means “Subservient Islands”. At that date, the French government changed it to Toamotu (“Distant Islands”) and became Tuamotu.

Now known by sailors as the archipelago of “Low Islands”, it has been also called for a long time the “Dangerous Archipelago” or the same as the “Bad Sea”…

It’s on 24 January 1521 that Ferdinand Magellan discovers Puka Puka. It’s about the first atoll of the Pacific Ocean of being unearthed by the Europeans.

A few years later, following the road that lead to Tahiti, Louis Antoine de Bougainville ventures successfully, but not without dismays, into this fantastic maze of islands.

But we must wait nearly three hundred years, on September 6th, 1839, to be precise, before being discovered and focused on the card, the last Paumotu* atoll. It’s the atoll of Ahe, discovered by the explorer and American naval officer Charles Wilkes.

It’s in 1844 that the Tuamotu Archipelago became a French protectorate. Its annexation to the French Republic is official in 1880.

Coconut grove on the Atoll of Rangiroa.
The isolation of atolls, their poverty and especially the danger of their waters and passes allowed them to get somewhere safe in their lagoons and to be protected from the large eddies of human history.

The economy in these atolls of heaven
Life is hard on the Tuamotu atolls: fresh water is very scarce, and there is a need to collect the rain to get something to drink.

The Paumotu people have long lived exclusively from fishing and about of all the wealth of the coconuts, until the French industry is interested by the nacre of oysters of the Tuamotu, which was long the raw material for the manufacture of buttons.

he hard work of copra
It’s only in the 1970s that these oysters are raised for their unique-colored pearls. The pearl becomes the main economic resource of the archipelago.

The tourism, meanwhile, develops only on the last twenty years, severely handicapped by the scarcity of regular means of communication. However, the beauty and richness of the dive sites are a particularly popular destination for lovers, and there are more and more diving-clubs, well equipped in a number of atolls like Rangiroa or Tikehau
Ocean side from a range of Tikehau Atoll
A trip to the Tuamotu should be earned, but it always leaves lasting memories. A stay at the Tuamotu is, for many, the journey of a lifetime…

An article of Julien Gué
Translated from French by Monak

*Paumotu, adj.: Everything about Tuamotu Islands

Copyright Julien Gué. Ask for the author’s agreement before any reproduction of the text or the images on Internet or traditional press.

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