A little bit of History, Culture and Local Observations on the Tuamotu Islands - Surfer's Path

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A little bit of History, Culture and Local Observations on the Tuamotu Islands

By Bryson

Latitude: 16 deg 42′ S

Longitude: 145 deg 21 ‘ W

This group of 78 atolls is the largest group of coral atolls in the world. Running in two parallel lines they cover an area 600 km by 1500km. Tuamotu can be basically broken down to mean: Tua “Low” and Motu “Islands”. This is very apparent when sailing into the group, since you cannot see the islands until you are sometimes as close as 8 miles from the beaches. For centuries the Tuamotu’s were a group of islands to be seen and avoiding by all cruising and trade vessels. However, with the advent of radar, GPS and other navigation aids, they are now on most cruisers itineraries on their passage to Tahiti.

Together with the Marquesas and Society Islands they all fall under French protectorate and are hugely subsidized by the French Government. It seems even the smallest islands with only a few hundred inhabitants are all equipped with huge docks, solar powered lighting, brand new vehicles and satellite dishes.

The resourceful Tuamotu people have always managed to get by on a diet of seafood, pandanus nuts and coconuts. This is completely due to the fact, that there is very little on these islands. Many have a total height of less that 10 m. All water is collected from rain. The roofs of most houses drain directly into a large storage tank with is then used to for all uses around the house. For centuries, the Tuamotu people would dive up to 30m depth to collect black pearl for sale in far off reaches of the world. No days, due to over harvesting, this practice is not so common place.

Probably the most famous feature of the Tuamotu’s is their heritage as a nuclear test site for the French Government. Between 1966 and 1996, a confirmed 181 nuclear bombs, reaching up to 2 kilotons were set off in the Tuamotu’s. Despite the nuclear testing facilities being torn down on Moruroa atoll in 1996 and no detonation since that date, their is still a huge restricted area in the Tuamotu’s. This huge area covers all French waters south of 17 deg 20′ S and east of 145 deg 25′ W. Special permission is required to sail these waters.

Throughout the archipelago, one has been aware of fish poisoning, Ciguatera. It seems the fish gain the toxins from eating poisonous coral reefs that abound in the islands. The toxic fish one needs to avoid changes from island to island, so it is constantly required that you enquire as the local edible species. Mainly confined to coral reef fish, oceanic species such as Tuna, Mahi Mahi, and Bonito seem to be safe to eat through the archipelago. Larger fish have more toxins and are therefore avoided. The effect on humans is cumulative, so you may not feel the effects despite eating poisoning fish day after day, however the toxin level will rise in your system until you do indeed feel the effects.

Why are the reefs becoming toxic and poisoning the fish ? Many theories abound. Global warming creating warmer water temperatures and high coral reef die off rates is one of them but one cannot avoid thinking about the 181 nulcear bombs released on a group of islands just to the windward…


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