French Polynesia

Tetiaroa: sampling a little piece of paradise

Tetiaroa is an atoll I never expected to visit. Privately owned by Marlon Brando, this island hosts an interesting mix of hotel guests (paying €3000-4000 per night to stay in luxurious beachside villas), staff, and researchers. Upon becoming enamored with the island’s beauty and later purchasing it, part of Marlon Brando’s vision was to preserve and showcase its natural resources as well as facilitate scientific investigations. As such, the Tetiaroa Society was born, and an ecostation was constructed to provide logistical support for visiting researchers like us.

But why Tetiaroa? Let me back up a bit. First off, why is the Baseline Caribbean team in the Pacific? The short answer is that we can use similar sampling techniques to answer interesting ecological questions about the histories of coral reef communities across wide gradients of reef health, oceanographic conditions, and human settlement histories. Sharks are also much more abundant on many islands in the Pacific than in the Caribbean, making it more feasible to retrieve high-resolution chronologies of predator assemblages over space and time. In other words, we can get more bang for our buck, or more denticles in smaller samples. It’s a win-win situation.

Within the Pacific, French Polynesia is an ideal study system for several reasons. Here, sharks are ecologically important, revered in Polynesian culture, and help bolster tourism. French Polynesia was also recently designated a shark sanctuary. Within French Polynesia, the islands have different human settlement histories and are known – at least anecdotally – to have varying numbers of sharks. First, we can leverage this gradient to quantify how shark abundance and diversity differ spatially across islands. Second, we can explore temporal patterns of shark abundance and diversity in parallel with the diverse human histories of each island. For this study, we decided to collect samples from Moorea, Tetiaroa, and Rangiroa, which span this gradient and are easily accessible.

Tetiaroa is geographically close to Moorea and Tahiti (Society Islands), which have high population densities and human histories stretching back at least 1000 years. Tetiaroa is a bit different. While it was discovered by the Polynesians around the same time as the other Society Islands, it did not host permanent human settlements until centuries later. In its early history, it was visited infrequently and its resources were exploited at low intensities by people inhabiting the other Society Islands. Even later, its resident population was much smaller than that on Moorea or Tahiti, and it was used as a retreat by Polynesian royalty in the 19th century. Today, there are no permanent residents, and half of the reef and lagoon has been set aside as a marine reserve.

This brings us to the other day, when we departed Moorea to begin our journey to Tetiaroa. We were originally scheduled to take a boat from Tahiti. However, the bad weather that plagued our sampling efforts on Moorea struck again. We received an email two days before our trip informing us that the boat was cancelled but that we might be able to take a plane instead. Our plans were turned upside-down as we waited in suspense. Would we actually make it out there after so much preparation, or would our plans be thwarted?

The evening before we were supposed to depart, I received another email confirming that a flight was indeed available. The catch was that we had a luggage allowance of 10kg each total. We started scrambling to get everything packed. What would stay on Moorea until the end of the trip? What did we absolutely need in Tetiaroa? What would we leave in Tahiti and take with us to Rangiroa? I currently have personal items scattered across three islands as I write this blog post. With all our sampling gear and SCUBA equipment combined, we really only had room for a t-shirt, a bathing suit, and a toothbrush. Talk about traveling light! Even then, we were over the weight limit. Luckily, they let it slide.

Air Tetiaroa does not fly out of the regular domestic terminal at the Papeete airport. They have their own private building and security, and they serve fancy juices for free in the waiting area. We indulged in a small piece of this luxury that we could otherwise never dream of affording.

The flight was only 20 minutes, but it provided a breathtaking view of Tetiaroa. Yesterday, the wind had been too strong for the plane to land. Today, we were in luck. The Twin Otter plane was wavering back and forth as we approached the tiny runway for the final descent. Even seconds before contacting the pavement, it felt like we were undulating in the wind. Despite these rough conditions, kudos to the pilots for a solid and safe landing. We had made it!

We were greeted with strong winds and a downpour. This would be a continuing trend during our days on Tetiaroa. But more on that later.

[to be continued]