The Marquesas Islands

May 28 The Marquesas are farther from any continental landmass than any other islands in existence. They’re so remote that some are untouched since the era of European explorers. Moving onward toward Fatu Hiva. This morning, pilot whales staged our welcome formalities as we entered the protected harbor of Fatu Hiva. Baby whales joined the adults in circling the Orion, a hydrophone was dropped into the water to hear their communicating clicks. The pilot whales were joined by an oceanic whitetip shark who seemed to advise us to continue on. Adventure awaits every minute of the day!

The Marquesas

Fatu Hiva translates as “Bay of the Virgins”. Zodiacs at the ready to ferry intrepid hikers and birders to land for strenuous hikes and a waterfall dip. Local villagers warmly greeted our arrival with enchanting songs. Some of us hiked through the hills of the quiet town and visited a craft event. I had hoped to produce a photo journal of indigenous tribal tattoo art; however, the locals weren’t as decorated as I had hoped. Women crouched by the worn trails peddling vanilla beans and fresh fruit, the ship galley staff hustled through the village buying up provisions for the ship: root vegetables, honey and fruit. Stray dogs, stray chickens and drying coconuts covered the grassy hillsides. There didn’t seem to be a bare patch of earth in this emerald paradise.

Fatu Hiva Welcome
Fatu Hiva, always a quaint church in each village

Fatu Hiva is the southernmost island of the Marquesas Islands and has one of the most striking rock formations of the islands, an incredibly lush volcanic island. The eastern coastline of Fatu-Hiva is characterized by a number of narrow valleys, carved by streams that lead to the interior of the massive mountains. Between these valleys are headlands which end in cliffs that plummet directly into the sea, making travel between them possible only by travelling over the high mountain ridges between them or by boat. With only 650 residents, they survive on fishing and growing nono, a fruit with medicinal values.

There are also a variety of vegetable fibers, the island continues to produce tapa or bark-cloth, decorated with traditional designs – it is a forgotten art on many other islands. It’s here where Tua Pittman, our cultural specialist, introduced local craftswomen who showed us the painstaking steps to breakdown the bark to produce the wafer-thin fabric. Hiva is the island of tapa, a magnificent cloth which is made using the bark of the Banyan, Breadfruit and Paper Mulberry trees. The large sheets of fabric, laboriously made by a constant beating the layer of bark, were traditionally used for privacy as curtains and eventually costumes. Large lengths of cloth were worn during significant rituals and tribal war, the length and quality of the cloth was a sign of wealth and status. Today, smaller pieces are typically decorated with geometric or natural designs in colorful inks and dyes.

Tua asking a local woman about the process of tapa or bark-cloth art.

The villagers performed rhythmic tribal dances and serenaded us – many of the young children joined in the presentation. Tua also performed with the native women, it was abundantly clear they appreciated his style! The ship staff were never shy about enthusiastically joining in the festivities.

Tapa or bark-cloth, with traditional designs

Sharing their history, their dances and song, we felt an intimate bond with the locals. Imagine their isolated lives on these remote islands, visuals provide evidence of their modest lives. The juxtaposition of a still functional old pay phone booth adjacent to an oval transmittal antenna tower was an irresistible photo.

Tua, our cultural ambassador dancing with the local performers in Fatu Hiva

Massive banyan trees screen steep slopes and obscure the oldest tikis in French Polynesia, long-preceding their larger relatives on Easter Island. Also hidden beneath the thick overgrowth are stone fragments of houses built on high platforms, stone temples and ceremonial grounds where games were played and sacrifices made. Melville described these secret ceremonies and the mysterious taboo customs.

Divers took to the caves of sleeping sharks and a rare octopus. Afternoon outings included some calm snorkel sites and an extraordinary performance of spinner dolphins on the bow of our zodiacs – we raced the seas to keep up with the high-spirited creatures. A finale to our afternoon on the water – sea creatures providing surprises and delights.

Of course, every day, included sumptuous meals – breakfast, lunch on deck, afternoon ice cream snacks; icy Tahitian beer and salty potato chips were my after-snorkel indulgence! And then cocktails and ship briefings followed by convivial dinners. The menu was varied and delicious, I discovered a waiter who seemed to be the only one who knew they had coconut ice cream on board he also seemed to have a supply of Chablis for my dinner wine. After a few evenings, other guests discovered my top-secret coconut ice cream resource and joined in!

Under an infinite inky sky blanketed with sparkling stars, we moseyed up to the sun deck for a star gazing tutorial by Tua Pittman. Tua, our personal star navigator, has sailed the oceans solely by sun, stars and currents – a Master Navigator and an enchanting story teller. With a laser pointer, he expertly provided a mesmerizing celestial tour – making it sound so logical to navigate by the stars. I asked him to point out the Southern Cross, my favorite sighting whenever I am in the southern latitude. Tua provided the perfect ending to a brilliant day.

May 29 Hiva Oa and Tahuata, Marquesas Islands

An early morning arrival to the island of Hiva Oa, the largest and most lush of the southern Marquesas Islands. From my dawn balcony perch, I observe a fleet of NG Orion Zodiacs departing to explore the coastline and the main bay entrance to the chief town of Atuona, located on the southern side of Hiva Oa Island. A soaring peak, Temetiu rises up close to 4000 feet above the village. A lack of coral barrier, typical among all Marquesas islands, makes the coastlines vulnerable to erosion from heavy swells and waves. At Hiva Oa, a small break in the main bay provides a sheltered cove for landing and great snorkeling.

The Marquesas

Atuona was the final home and resting place of Paul Gauguin, who died here, his last resting place enjoys marvelous sea views and overlooks the town. A short hike up the narrow over grown roads with Tua as our guide, ended up on the steep hillside where Gauguin and Belgian singer Jacques Brel are buried at the Cavalry Cemetery. The two deceased men lie side by side, graves decorated with traveler’s mementos, painted rocks and shells, they have one of the most breathtaking views of the island and the sea. Gauguin died here, a pauper, on May 8, 1903, and was buried the next day.

Atuona, the view from Calvary Cemetery
Atuona gravesite of Paul Gauguin

The main town square has a large complex resembling an ancient ceremonial pavilion lined with stone statues. Behind the Tohua Pepeu, there is a small arts and crafts market with authentic hand-crafted souvenirs including jewelry, wood products and exquisite tapa cloth. A small cultural center hosts a museum devoted to Gauguin, without any of his paintings, there are original letters he wrote to family and friends, behind the museum in a garden is a replica of his simple wood home.

Atuona small home amid the green jungle environment

Small resident shops are always interesting to me – I peek into little grocery and hardware shops and chat with locals. A few of us sat out the heat on the sidewalk curb, licking ice cream pops, whiling away the leisurely afternoon in the village. People watching and observing local life – a perfect pastime for me when I travel.

Our enthusiastic welcome to the island of Tahuata

In late afternoon, the Orion repositioned to the near island of Tahuata, which is about 2.5 miles from Hiva Oa. Discovered in 1595 by Spanish navigator Alvaro de Mendana de Neira, Tahuata (“sunrise” in Marqusan) is the smallest island of the archipelago. For me, this was the most welcoming and authentic arrival ceremonies. Approaching in a Zodiac, we were greeted by small children blowing huge horns carved from bone. The main dock had a small religious grotto at the base of the towering rocks. At first one can’t look away from the towering 1000-foot mountains that disappear into the clouds, but here my eye was drawn back to the local singers and dancers. The welcome chants and guttural tribal songs were accompanied by striking dancers.

Our enthusiastic welcome to the island of Tahuata local dancers

The friendly animated villagers swarmed around us and lead us on a musical procession along the ancient paved royal walkway shaded by fragrant tamanu trees, we danced under the trees through the village to an open air cultural center. Offering a stunning array of delicious snacks, tables piled with gorgeous beads, carved wooden handcrafts, objects carved from bone. The genuine welcome was infectious. Small children mouthed the words to the songs, music passed down from generation to generation. They knew the dance movements and often slid into the adult performance, lovingly encouraged by the adults.
It was hard to tear myself away, but we had free time to walk around the Hapatoni Village and I didn’t want to miss anything in this paradise. Ambling down the deserted royal road, the little village is built atop a raised dike, the paved walkway was ordained by the queen and lined with ancient tamanu trees and is fragrant with the scents of tiare and frangipani blossoms. Following the shoreline to the top of a promontory, where you enjoy sweeping vistas. In the middle of the village, there is a beautiful stone church with stained glass windows and elaborate local carvings. The large Catholic church was built by order of the Vatican. Adjoining the extensive expanse of lawn is a small cemetery.

I reluctantly hopped aboard the last Zodiac, hating to depart back to ship.
Later that afternoon a group of guests joined staff on a Citizen Science project known as Planet or Plastic, which for the first time, conducted a plankton tow survey to be further analyzed and determined the amount of micro-plastic contents in it. This is a revolutionary way to integrate Orion guests into real science conducted onboard.

Beautiful women singers on the island of Tahuata

May 30 Nuku Hiva
Last on our island stops in the Marquesas was Nuku Hiva, some guests were sailing on to Hawaii, but this was my last port. This island has important archeological sites, vivid landscapes and fierce warriors. Another brilliant welcoming committee of locals playing drums and chanting fierce tribal songs. Some of us sadly loaded our bags into trucks piloted by locals, a rainy drizzly afternoon was my farewell. I was heartened to discover that he small airport was 2 hours away on the other side of the island, wanting to see what was ‘on the other side’ of this massive vine tangled islands, the airport transfer provided the perfect opportunity to discover the topography. Wet grassy, towering swaying palm trees, enormous banana trees, wild horses roaming the side of the road, stray cows, small brightly colored homes were tucked into the greenery – when we crested the top of the mountain, the stark desert terrain was quite a surprise.

Nuku Hiva warriors welcome us with song and dance

Overall, this expedition was so amazing, the ship staff and educators are beyond beyond – so helpful, fun and welcoming! The Marquesas Islands need to be seen to be truly appreciated, the geographic distance from civilization is daunting – learning the history of Polynesia, and seeing how these small communities have developed and survived while maintaining their culture is a phenomenal experience.

Lindblad National Geographic offers an array of expeditions all over the world, we have clients who thoroughly enjoyed an Alaska/Russia expedition and have signed up for an Amazon Journey! Are you ready for an Expedition?

Bead makers on the island of Tahuata
The welcome on island of Tahuata
Small rock church with stained glass windows island of Tahuata

Expedition – Marquesas Islands

In May, I was invited for an adventurous sail on the Lindblad National Geographic Orion in the South Pacific for 10 days from Papeete to the Marquesas. In preparation, I reread Typee, Melville’s first novel, if you don’t remember his tale, he jumped ship in the Marquesas and lived among cannibal tribes for a few months. Melville and his shipmate Toby were tempted by an abundance of breadfruit trees, beautiful Polynesian women and he was dreadfully weary from months aboard a whaling ship with a tough captain. On arrival to the Marquesas, I felt as if I had been there, completely captivated by the towering green mountains, perilously steep with very few natural harbors. I’m a fan of Gauguin who painted here, how could I decline an adventure at sea on the Lindblad Orion?

Before our clients depart on a Journey, we send a gift bag of books, a reading list and a note: Nothing will make your trip more satisfying than to know something about the places you’re visiting; whether it’s the wildlife, people, history, geography or plant life.

French Polynesia, Marquesas Photo Courtesy of Lindblad national Geographic

We disembarked the Papeete harbor on a sultry Friday afternoon and set to sea. Sunset cocktail briefing with charts and graphs indicating our morning destination would be under a foot of rain and a 40-foot swell, now that would make for an exciting but very wet sail. The brilliant expedition leader, Dr. Jimmy White, revealed a fresh sailing strategy. I loved the flexibility of the Orion team – this isn’t your typical cruise, where you may sit out a bad weather day in a port. Lindblad National Geographic Expedition teams studied tides, the wind and the sky and plotted a new course as a seasoned navigator might have years ago when canoes were the only form of transportation. This revised plan would come with an added bonus – an extra day in the Marquesas!

An over-night sail from Pappetee to the Fakarava atoll. Text-book lullaby: fresh sea breezes and the gentle rocking motion of the ship, my spacious stateroom with a sliding glass door remained open for the duration of the Expedition. Waking at 5:30 am, before sunrise each morning, eyes barely open, I padded upstairs to the library for coffee; each morning, I passed a sleepy disheveled gentleman in a white bathrobe balancing a cup and saucer of tea. Neither of us were dressed for public view or interested in conversation – quiet private moments to ease into a new day.

Makatea – Melville’s description of forbidding sheer cliffs appear to be accurate on first sightings of these islands.

The overnight sail delivered us north from Tahiti and the Society Islands into the great archipelago of atolls known as the Tuamotus. At dawn, we stopped briefly and peered at the dark forbidding clouds surrounding Makatea, a rare uplifted coral island, a large swell was crashing on the walls of the vertical coast and a wicked squall blackening the horizon encouraged Captain Heidi Norling to continue on our way north to the atoll of Rangiroa. My first glimpse of the sheer elevations of Makatea conveyed Melville’s descriptions, beautiful yet forbidding unyielding mountains rising out of the blue sea.

French Polynesia, Marquesas

Every morning I perched on the bow of Orion to welcome a new day of adventure. This morning didn’t disappoint, a pod of bottle nose dolphins greeted us and surfed the powerful currents alongside the bow of the ship – an exhilarating welcome. Across the swells, red-footed boobies, black & brown noddies flitted above the swells in pursuit of breakfast. We were ready for our first foray into the cobalt seas in the site known as The Aquarium. Oh, what a thrill to view a sunny beach, calm seas and a view of swaying palm trees on Rangiroa atoll; from the open Pacific into the sheltered lagoon, led by nimble dolphins. An extraordinary start to a day at sea.

Good Morning! A pod of bottle nose dolphins greeted us and surfed the powerful currents alongside the bow of the ship.

Continuing onward north we found shelter the next morning in the peaceful waters of Fakarava, a coral atoll. The ship zodiacs head out early to sea surveying diving locations, here the sharks prefer to lounge in the shallow bay. We departed at 9 am for a morning of self-guiding to the small village of Fakarava atoll, Tuamoto archipelago. The protected islets form a ring around the lagoon of Fakarava, the second largest atoll in French Polynesia. French painter Henri Matisse would claim that colors were for setting oneself free, he spent three months in Tahiti in 1930 exploring as far as Fakarava, where he was enthralled by the endless variety and shades of blue of the lagoons. This discovery prompted a new creative artistic effort for Matisse. Many art critics believe his Remembering Oceania cutouts represent his visit to Fakarava. Think of Fakarava as visual therapy for the soul. Fakarava, which means “beautiful”, is as stunning above water as it is underwater. The atoll has delightfully warm seas and the fluorescent corals are mesmerizing, it is also known for a protected shark population. Simple snorkeling gear is all that one needs to explore and be entranced by the wonders of these indigo seas. Schools of fish by the thousands, massive coral heads line the sandy bottom, there is so much to experience.

Cocktails in the sea? In the peaceful waters of Fakarava, a coral atoll.

The numbers: 806 population, 6/15 square miles of semi-paved roads. Although you can’t see the other side of the atoll, one could walk across in a matter of minutes through the swaying palm trees. Sunday morning Mass at the tiny Catholic church began at 9. We pedaled toward the Church, drawn by a harmonious chorus of Alleluia. The small church was under renovation and parishioners lined the lawn facing a charming garden grotto. We lucked out, it was Mother’s Day, the women were festooned in floral crowns and hand-made sunhats of local materials, their finest millinery.

We peeked in at the Church interior, only to be reprimanded by a woman in a lovely hat who asked us to leave, as it was a construction zone – she told me the ladies would be selling beads and crafts after Mass. She certainly had me pegged, bead collector on a bike! The island people utilize much of nature’s bounty; a curved church wall was enhanced with inlaid polished oyster shells. Vaulted ceilings were painted robin egg blue and a small rose window at the nave threw shadows on the floorboards.

The quiet village, with the exception of the church goers, must have slept in. A few stray dogs napping on the wide paved road, the obligatory free-range roosters but not much else happening. Going off road onto a sandy path, we discovered a small beachfront inn, it appeared to be owned by an artist or talented craftsman. Driftwood accessories, planters decorated with shells, and rows of potted flowering plants were a reminder of using found objects for décor, lacking shopping centers, nothing goes to waste. A little beach cafe offered chocolate ice cream and cold Tahitian beer – well deserved after biking in the humidity and heat. We passed a Sunday barbeque, the main course was fish, probably caught that morning – a carefree life on the village atoll. A local fisherman wading into the sea was practicing the old procedure of primitive fishing – toss in the line and pull in a fish no pole required. He was successful, I tried this in the Maldives, without success! It was a delightful interlude before moseying back to ship, imagine the expansive horizon with the lovely Orion bobbing atop the sapphire sea.

Nothing goes to waste on an atoll, a small cottage was decorated with a massive collection of sea buoys.

Back on deck for terrace lunch, photography talks in the afternoon and we continued toward the Marquesas, – a 44-hour sail. Onboard, there were so many activity options. Additional staff included multiple researchers, authors, published naturalists and dive masters, truly experts in their fields. All friendly, fun and not at all condescending if one wasn’t an ‘expert’ in birding, fauna, or photography. David Cothran, Naturalist/Photo Instructor, has worked for Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic since 1993 on six continents and in over 65 countries. He too was very patient and enthusiastic in helping us develop additional insight and skills necessary to better understand our cameras and the basics of composition — to better capture the moments at the heart of your expedition. Plus, the ship has loaner lenses, cameras, binoculars so you can experiment with new gear. Our Expedition team included Randy Olson, a National Geographic documentary photographer, whose work has taken him to 50 countries over the past 20 years. Concentrating on population and resource issues, as well as disappearing cultures, Randy has shot over 30 stories for National Geographic magazine covering diverse subjects. NG has published his books of photography and he has won numerous photography awards. He was laid back and very approachable, even for an amateur photographer like myself. Each evening included a summary of the day – his multiple shots laid out, his path to achieve his best photo. – I learned much from understanding his photographic style and goals and his visuals of how he achieved what he described as his best photo of the day.

An overnight and all-day Monday Journey to the Marquesas. The Orion is a small but luxurious ship, holding 102 passengers in 52 staterooms. I was wildly impressed by how frequently the guests had sailed on Lindblad National Geographic Journeys – a minimum of three and many had taken more than 10 trips and many more than 20 trips – seriously, an endorsement of a remarkable product.

Sunrise from my balcony

Each evening began with a cocktail gathering – a briefing on our daily progress, a promise of adventure ahead – a video chronicle of moments caught by the photographers – the generous sharing was enthusiastic and enjoyed by everyone. Dinner with guests and off to bed to awake to our next adventure. The gentle rocking and the fresh sea breeze was the perfect combination for dreamy sleep.

Next week a continuation of my Journey on The Lindblad National Geographic Orion.

This firm offers small group adventures on small boats all over the world.