This island in the Tuamotu archipelago sweeps visitors off their feet, inviting them to enter the unique world of the Polynesian atolls, a place where tranquility can be found and where light and colors reign.
About 470 km/292 miles to the North of the island of Tahiti—a one-hour long flight away—lies the atoll of Ahe tempting visitors to enter the captivating universe of Tuamotus coral islands. The Tuamotu archipelago is French Polynesia’s largest archipelago with 78 atolls and covering an ocean space of more then 1800km/1118 miles long and 450km/279miles wide. In fact, it is the biggest chain of coral islands in the entire area known as the inter-tropical Oceania. Like many other atolls in the Tuamotus, Ahe is a low-lying and ring-shaped coral island. Its underlying structure has been created over the span of millions of years, and today the visible parts of the island lie just a few meters above sea level, with most of the island having disappeared underwater over time. The atoll’s “donut-shape” separates the ocean from the lagoon, which is Ahe’s treasure because of its abundant fauna and flora. The atoll measures 23 km/14.5 miles long and on average about 12 km/7.8 miles wide, and there is only one passage that breaks the ring shape connecting the lagoon to the ocean; the Tiareroa pass which is situated on the Northeastern shores of the atoll. Tiareroa is a deep and wide pass which allows for yachts, as well as the so-called “goélettes”—small cargo ships—to enter the lagoon. The “goélettes” bring freight and connect these distant islands, thereby representing a vital lifeline for the local population. The atoll’s perimeter is constituted of a string of motus, which is the Tahitian name for these low-lying islets made up of coral debris. The ring-shaped strip of land that constitutes the atoll is covered by ranks of coconut trees—which is the island’s main vegetation—, and is punctuated here and there by small and shallow passes with radiant colors, called hoa. Depending on the swells and tides some of the shallowest hoa are left dry.
Today Ahe’s 561 inhabitants represent a rather discreet presence surrounded by a grandiose environment. The main village called Tenukupara lies on the main motu at the South of atoll, and here the inhabitants gather in religious centers, the city hall, the post office or in the atoll’s primary school, an essential institution for the island’s children. The main occupation on the island is the cultivation of Tahitian black pearls. Ahe’s lagoon offers the perfect conditions for pearl cultivation and the pearls that are “born” here are widely sought after and have a reputation of being particularly lustrous. However, the more traditional activities of fishing and copra (dried coconut which is used to make coconut oil and other products) continue to be of great importance for much of the island’s population. The atoll’s airport opened in 1998, opening up for flight service to the atoll, and this has helped to advance tourism. The island has great potential because of its exceptional and pristine natural environment, and the local population is concerned and actively involved in the fight to preserve the environment. Visitors to Ahe arriving by plane are certain to be mesmerized by the beauty and perfection of this unique environment. As one approaches the atoll, the view is reminiscent of that of a water lily floating graciously on the deep blue sea. Soft shapes and vivid colors ranging from the orange coral shores to the various blues and greens of the ocean greet visitors and inspire the lust for exploration.
Populated in the first millennium
It is thought that Ahe was populated by Polynesians as early as in the first millennium (C.E). At the time, the Polynesian people migrated from Occidental Polynesia (the islands known now as Fiji, Samoa and Tonga), and populated the islands of so-called Oriental Polynesia. After these long-distance migrations by sea, the Polynesians settled and developed civilizations which were perfectly adapted to the environment of the Tuamotus, particularly making use of their navigational skills and their abilities to take full advantage of the ocean’s resources. It was not until much later, in 1616, that the Europeans “discovered” Ahe. The Dutch navigators Jacob Le Maire and William Schouten were the first to have observed and documented Ahe during one of their expeditions in the Pacific Ocean. First contact with the Europeans and colonization followed, and in 1880 Ahe became a French protectorate.
Going with the Flow: A Colorful Itinerary
The lagoon is the atoll’s heart. Not only it is beautiful beyond comparison, but also it is a natural and precious common good, an abundant and diverse resource. Here in Ahe, land is the exception and ocean the rule, and everything people do is somehow related to this vast body of water which represents a sumptuous backdrop for daily activities, as well as a workplace and a place for leisure. The lagoon also represents an indispensable connection to family and friends, and inhabitants criss-cross the lagoon to visit each other, or to do their shopping, fish or dive… Instead of walking somewhere, they use a boat. There is no road that goes around the entire island, but bits and pieces of coral–debris trails that make for a path between the lagoon and the reef flats through the coconut plantations and the shrub that has been bent by the ocean winds and spray. In order to discover the island and its riches, it is best to do like the locals and hop aboard a boat!
First we head for the Southwestern shores of the atoll to visit the stunning green lagoon. Situated about 30 km/18 miles from the airport, alongside the big Motu Haka this area stands out. Over time the winds and dominating currents have pushed and gathered the finest coral sand, filling the lagoon and creating shallow sandbanks that lie a couple of meters—or sometimes only a few centimeters—underwater. The sandbanks cut elegantly through the lagoon outlining what is nothing short of a pristine tropical swimming pool with the most brilliant colors imaginable. But it is far from being your regular “tourist-trap.” The colors are so exceptional it is as if they had fallen from the sky, and tones of emerald green, sky blue, and the greens of the coconut plantations vie for your attention. This unique universe is unknown to many, and is of course the quintessential Polynesian dream destination!
Across the lagoon from this dazzling scenery, on one of the Northern lying motus you can find another, equally amazing place. As you arrive the first thing you notice is a sudden break in the beautiful ranks of coconut trees that encircle the atoll. All of sudden a forest of dense, leafy trees rise above the horizon. Dozens of birds hover in the sky above the trees. The freshness and lushness of the place hits you once you set foot upon the shores of this somewhat peculiar motu which stands out in this landscape of sunbathed and dry shores. You might even forget for a moment that you are on an atoll in the middle of the Pacific ocean, because the forest is dense and twisted roots literally cover the ground, almost reminiscent of European of Amazonian forests…This unique forest is comprised mainly of one species of tree, carrying the scientific name of Pisonia Grandi, called puka in the Paumotu language and pu’atea in Tahitian. Surprising as it may seem this type of forest was rather typical in many of the Tuamotu atolls in the pre-European era. However, with the arrival of colonization during the 19th century, everything changed. The newly arrived settlers planted masses of coconut trees in order to answer to the growing global demand of copra oil, which is one of the most valuable oils available. The original forest was burned or cut and cleared away to make place for the extensive cultivation of coconut trees. The atoll’s landscape and natural balance were entirely and permanently transformed. Today the wellbeing of this, shall we say “widowed,” Pisonia grandis forest is preserved by the local population. Ahe’s inhabitants are well aware of the value of this natural heritage, especially at a time when concern for biodiversity and environmental
Moana, Deep Blue
We continue on to take the journey to the Tiareroa pass, the lung of this live organism that the lagoon represents. Depending on the tides, a strong current runs through the pass as the lagoon partially fills with the incoming tides and empties when the tides go out. Constant fluctuation, like the breath of the ocean, gives life to this natural aquarium which is full of life. Big fish and lagoon fish swim side by side to the delight of divers and spearfishermen. Venturing outside the pass one enters the domain of the open ocean and the universe of the deep blue sea. In Tahitian, it is called moana, which describes both the color, the ocean in general and the drop-off where the deep seas begin. On the ocean side of the pass strong sea swells continuously roll in and break in waves, pounding the reef in smooth and perfect motion. A trained eye will immediately see the surf spot that can be found here when the swells grow big. In fact the surf spot is notorious far beyond French Polynesia and it attracts surfers from all over the world who are in the search of the perfect wave in idyllic surroundings. Our guide, Willy Richmond, explains with a grin: “We call this wave Evasan!” Evasan is the equivalent of “Medevac” or “medical evacuation” in English, referring to when someone is injured and in the need of urgent medical evacuation to the hospital in Papeete (Tahiti)from one of the outer islands…It is indeed a first-class wave, but there is no place for error on the hand of the surfers who try to conquer it. If you fall, you risk to hit the hard and razor sharp coral reef. To benefit of the beauty of this “surfer’s paradise,” you have to willing to pay your dues!
Thousands of Colors
No visit to Ahe is complete without the discovery of pearl cultivation, which is the island’s main activity. The pearl farms as easy to spot with their numerous constructions hovering over the lagoon on stilts; simple huts or bigger buildings in vivid colors stand out against the translucent waters. Some of the pearl farms have made their home on the carena, coral structures just below the surface in the middle of the deep lagoon. On the surface, strings of buoys in all colors of the rainbow give away the existence of the lines carrying the precious pearl oysters below. With much effort and patience, the oysters— Pinctada Margartifera—generate the renowned Tahitian black pearls; these living gemstones with their thousands of colors and sheens. Ahe is ranked in the top five out of the 25 islands that are listed as official Tahitian black pearl cultivators. No less than 1057 hectares of “maritime grants” have been dedicated to pearl cultivation in heart of the lagoon whose’s waters have proven to be particularly favorable. There are a total of more than a hundred pearl farms which gather and cultivate these precious oysters. Unsurprisingly, in the aftermath of the prosperous decade of the 1990s, an overproduction somewhat undermined the industry.
Nevertheless, the pearl business manages to perpetuate itself by always reaching for greater quality. One of the atoll’s main pearl farms is located on the motu Tahiri. This pearl farm belongs to Franck Tehaamatai who is perhaps better known for his point of sales network called Tahiti Pearl Market, which is one of main players in the market. We are welcomed at the pearl farm by a professional and experienced pearl farmer by the name of Jean-Michel. It is he who is in charge of this small community comprised of 40 people. Everywhere we look we see people busily taking care of the precious oyster shells, which of course are live organisms requiring constant care and attention. Some teams bring back lines of oyster shells from the lagoon, in order for them to be cleaned, while another team, in another building, is busy grafting. The organization runs smoothly; there is no time to be lost! “Nowadays, the focus is first and foremost on prime quality!” explains Jean-Michel. One might say that after the crisis of the pearl industry’s “youth,” Tahitian black pearl cultivation is entering a new chapter in its history, a chapter which aims its attention toward superior quality, but which also involves new measures to ensure the protection of the environment. Just as pearl cultivation celebrates its 50th anniversary in French Polynesia, major changes are underway. As a matter of fact it was in 1961 that the first large-scale pearl grafts took place on the atoll of Hikueru.
A spectacular change of scenery awaits us a few minutes away by boat from the village Tenukupara as we discover the motu called Tia Kumi Kumi. Here, more than 964 solar cell panels line up in a vast blue surface popping up amidst the coconut trees. It is the only solar thermal energy plant in the Tuamotu archipelago. The atoll’s inhabitants are proud of it, and with good reason. At a time in history when it appears that the entire globe is concerned about the end of petrol and the use of fossils fuels which inevitably feed the green house effect, this is no small feat. At the moment only half of the panels are being used, because they are so efficient that the supply outdoes the demand of the homes that are connected to the plant…The plant— which is a so-called “hybrid plant” because it switches over to generator electricity should the supply of solar energy be insufficient—is the result of a partnership between the European Union, the French government and the French Polynesian authorities. So far, the sun seems to be more than sufficient enough, and the need to switch over to the generator has never presented itself! Considering the amount of sun in the Tuamotu archipelago it makes good sense that the inhabitants have so wisely chosen this form of renewable energy. Visitors to Ahe will quickly observe that solar energy panels are to be seen in many places, particularly in the more isolated households. It is interesting to observe how this island is a pioneer of sorts when it comes to renewable energy, whereas people in so many other places continue to hesitate and question its validity… Here, people have long since learned to live with the environment and not against it!
At the end of the day awaits yet another stunning show of nature. The land, the ocean and the sky come together as the night approaches. The sky turns from light blue to steel grey, passing through nuances of orange. The sunset is everchanging, and it is as if it takes on a new dimension here, as if it were in tune with the ocean that surrounds these atolls scattered in the greatest ocean of the planet. It is an amazing sight which inspires tranquility and a return to the essence of life. An essence which is always close to Ahe.