Cruising rarely visited islands in French Polynesia

It's an ill wind and it's not blowing any good. An unseasonal high-pressure system has spiraled from Antarctica, cartwheeled across the Tuamotu Archipelago and brought our ship, National Geographic Orion, to Tahanea atoll in search of smooth waters.

Thousands of years ago Polynesian navigators crossed these same waters, sailing from Samoa and Tonga in their double-hulled canoes to settle the Society Islands, Hawaii, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and Aotearoa (New Zealand). Genetic research indicates these seafaring Polynesians originated in Taiwan about 5200 years ago.

"This large scale migration was one of the greatest maritime achievements in human history," says Tom Ritchie, senior naturalist with Lindblad Expeditions. "Each new island they settled was the equivalent of us trying to reach Mars."

While most passengers have retired to their cabins a few have gathered on the NG Orion's bow, absorbed by the vastness of the night sky. With the lights turned off, the Milky Way floats just out of reach, a million pinpricks in a purple shawl. 

"Close your eyes and feel the roll of the deck, the splash of waves, the direction of the breeze," says Ritchie, during his talk on celestial navigation. "The Polynesians used the stars, sun, currents, birds and even clouds to navigate the 165 million square kilometre expanse of Pacific Ocean".

Since leaving Tahiti two days  ago we've gained sense of the magnitude of the Pacific Ocean – the largest of the Earth's oceanic divisions - and the remoteness of the Tuamotu Islands. Part of French Polynesia the Tuamotus are composed of 80 islands and atolls stretching across an area as large as Western Europe. 

It was here between 1966 and 1996 that France conducted almost 200 nuclear tests. The thrill of seeing places I've only read about balanced is by the sorrow that comes from learning that the "controlled explosions" are still causing cancer and health issues today. "Tahiti was exposed to 500 times the legal limit of plutonium," says Ritchie. "Even Greenland sharks still carry radiation from the fallout."

It's day three when we navigate a narrow channel to enter the deep lagoon of the uninhabited Tahanea atoll. From the bridge we watch Captain Tim Cashman negotiate the unchartered waters in true expedition style. While the early Polynesians relied on a 32-point mental compass, the NG Orion's military-grade sonar and shallow hull bring us safely where few ships venture.  

With an ice-strengthened hull, stabilisers and fleet of 14 Zodiacs, the 102-passenger  ship was purpose built for expedition travel. Designed with luxury as well as function in mind, the public areas - including a lounge and bar, library, outdoor buffet and dining room (with a menu designed by Australian chef Serge Dansereau of The Bathers' Pavilion) - are spacious and modern. The 53 cabins are elegantly appointed, including several with balconies. As a bonus, Lindblad Expeditions are partners with National Geographic, an alliance that rewards both the environment and passengers.

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We spend the morning snorkelling inside Tahanea's glassy lagoon; a blue wilderness of stag corals and parrotfish, of reef sharks and marbled groupers. On land we spot not one, but three bristle-thighed curlews, a migratory bird so rare that naturalist Santiago Imberti logs the sighting into eBird, an app developed by Cornell University. "This is where Lindblad guests become citizen scientists," says Imberti. "We are travelling in an area so remote even research scientists rarely visit."

Overnight we cruise further east, arriving at Marokau atoll by midday, another coral speck offering sheltered waters. Stepping from our Zodiacs we are met by what seems to be the entire population of the small village of just 44 inhabitants, all waving, smiling and handing out coconuts as a welcome gift. 

In an age where flights and cruise ships seem to have traversed every corner of the globe we find we are the first visitors the island has ever received. And not only that, it seems we have brought much-needed rain to this community in dire need of fresh drinking water.

Turns out an ill wind can blow some good after all.

TRIP NOTES

Kerry van der Jagt was a guest of Lindblad Expeditions.

MORE

traveller.com.au/french-polynesia

FLY

Air New Zealand operates flights from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Auckland and then on to Papeete. See airnewzealand.com.au 

CRUISE

Lindblad Expeditions offers a 20-day Tahiti to Easter Island: Tales of the Pacific starting from $23,240. See expeditions.com 

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