Anaa Atoll, to the southeast of the Tuamotu Archipelago, is one of those places with a fascinating history as well as an exceptional environment. The first sight of the atoll from the air is very striking when arriving by plane from the Society Islands, whose high islands have lush summits that become lost in the clouds. Here, the change is dramatic and reflects the world of atolls, which is another side to French Polynesia. Anaa is a wonderful representative, for it is unique in many ways. Seen from the sky, the harmonious and varied shades of turquoise, emerald, and blue colors of its lagoon come into view. The atoll is magnificently detached from the Pacific Ocean. These vibrant colors are what marveled the first European explorers at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. The reflection of the colors gives the low-lying clouds a greenish tint. Called taeroto, this phenomenon still orients sailors to the presence of the atoll. This unique color is primarily due to the shallow depths of the lagoon, which are an average of 5/6 meters below sea level (16/20 ft). In contrast, depths can attain 164 ft below sea level in the other atolls.
Another particularity is the vast area of its land surface. Despite its small size, the atoll has 37.7 km2 (15 sq. mi.) of land mass. Only Rangiroa, the largest atoll in the Tuamotus as well as one of the largest in the world, has more square miles. This natural asset, very important for the development of different types of adapted agriculture, undoubtedly explains why the inhabitants had such power and influence in pre-Christian times. According to oral tradition, as early as the 17th century, Anaa imposed military, political, and economic dominance over a large part of the Tuamotu Archipelago. For more than two centuries, the Parata warriors, a name that reflects a type of shark, were feared for their violent attacks on foreign shores.
Anaa atoll is roughly oval, stretching 28km (17 mi) along an east-west axis with an average width of 6km wide (3.7 mi). Anaa does not have true passes, which are channels of communication between the ocean and the lagoon that have substantial depth in order to allow heavy ships to pass through. The circulation of the water, which is critical for the lagoon ecosystems, is assured by hoa, which are shallow waterways through which water flows intermittently to the whims of the tides, swells, and winds. The lagoon has large sandy zones with shallow, clear water. These are natural pools that visitors will truly appreciate. This dream setting is due to geological particularities of the atoll, which has “risen.” It underwent powerful telluric forces that rapidly, in terms of geological time, lifted it 8 meters (26 ft) above sea level. This explains the presence of small, fossilized coral cliffs and even caves. These unusual features for the Tuamotu islands are a major appeal for Anaa.
In 1825, the first European explorers found Anaa to be populated with 2,500 inhabitants, of which some were captives brought back from raids on other atolls. Nonetheless, like other islands in the archipelago, Anaa could not resist against French colonization and was annexed by France in the middle of the 19th century. Spurred on by the colonial administration, Anaa became the site of intense copra production favored by the abundance of fertile land surface. From 1950-1960, the island underwent a decline in population. Many of the young people left for Tahiti, which had become the economic center of the country with the possibility of jobs and prosperity within a budding consumerist society.
Today, the atoll has 500 inhabitants contained within Tukuhora village. Located near the aerodrome and the unique unloading dock for ships that arrive to replenish the island’s supplies, this locality is typical of the Tuamotus. Brightly colored one-story houses surrounded by Tiare Tahiti and hibiscus plants line paved alleys and crushed coral roads. The lagoon and all of its marvelous hues appear through bends in the “road,” which make Anaa even more charming. As a testimony to ancient times, there are three abandoned villages located along the perimeters of the atoll: Putuahara to the west, Otepipi in the center, and Tematahoa to the east. Are these sites totally deserted? Not all the time. For religious celebrations, the inhabitants—predominantly Catholic—organize processions and services in the churches, valiant structures that are still standing among abandoned and crumbled houses.
Today, the main economic activities on the island are copra and fishing, which is facilitated by the abundance of fish and the very healthy lagoon. As to tourism, islanders are all for it and they are becoming aware of the benefits of this destination. At only an hour-long direct flight, it is not too far from Tahiti. Without a doubt, Anaa will attract those who want to discover an authentic Polynesia and the world of atolls.
The realm of the feo
There is a succession of small white sand beaches immersed in crystal waters. Farther down the horizon, the reef sits with vivid colors as the waves crash in brilliant blues. On ocean side, the island’s coast from Tematahoa to Otepipi and up to the district of Temari, presents magnificent landscapes. On the shores of the motu, there is a stretch of feo, which are rock-like formations made out of fossilized coral. It is hard to imagine that this dark, hard rock evolved from tiny aquatic organisms. This type of rocky embankment is found on other Tuamotu atolls, but on a smaller scale. Anaa is the most beautiful realm. The presence of these feo spanning over several kilometers have created a landscape that visitors owe it themselves to discover. Admiring them from the water by boat is the best way to take a tour of the lagoon, the motu, and the reef.
The landscapes not only allow a dive into clear waters, but also back in time to the beginning of the island. The omnipresence of feo on this coastline is due to a phenomenon documented by scientists. To better understand it, let us forget about the beautiful beaches shaded by coconut trees for a moment and switch geographical and temporal scales. Several million years ago, hundreds of kilometers from Anaa, an immense volcanic formation emerged from the depths: the island of Tahiti. First submerged underwater, eruptions permitted it to rise several kilometers above sea level. By its sheer mass, this colossal edifice deformed the ocean floor on which it reposed. Somewhat like a seesaw, in which one person’s weight permits the other’s to rise, this phenomenon, called “bulging,” lifted up the neighboring islands, such as Makatea, Niau, and Anaa. The most spectacular consequence is visible on Makatea, an ancient atoll that rose 110 meters (361 ft) to become a high island rimmed with large cliffs. Much less affected, Anaa rose 8 meters (26 ft), which allowed the creation of these landscapes through placing fossilized coral above sea level.
Grottos and caves
This rising also explains the shallowness of the lagoon and the extent of the sandbanks, such as in Vaitea, a small lagoon split from the main lagoon by a strip of motu and submerged coral on the northwest end of the atoll. They are accessible by two passes in a small boat. The area is magical with its gorgeous stretches of white sand and natural pools. Another result of the island’s geological past is the presence of several grottos and caves. A main one is close to Putuahara, the island’s main locality. It is filled with brackish cold water that is a popular swimming hole for the children of the village. Another significant grotto is on Tematahoa motu southeast of the atoll on the ocean side. It is comprised of two deep springs of about 3 to 4 meters (9 to 13 ft) and is also filled with brackish water. According to ancient legends, and like many others, this cave was an access point to Pô, the world of the invisible, but also an underground network for all the islands in the Tuamotus to communicate with one another.
On the other hand, less likely to be submerged because of its higher elevation, the atoll has maintained a diverse and original terrestrial flora. Experts have identified 55 native species including four that are endemic to the archipelago. This includes the kôfaiou ‘ofai shrub (Sesbania coccinea var. Tuamotensis) with its delicate red flowers. Endangered because of competition with other plant species introduced by man, it is now a protected plant.
The realm of fishing
Experts and scientists usually describe the Tuamotu atolls as an “oasis of life” due to the richness of underwater fauna and flora. Naturally, this abundance makes activities related to the sea at the heart of the daily life of islanders, especially fishing. It would be more accurate to speak about fishing for it is as varied as it is adapted to different environments and species present on the atolls.
Very specific types of algae with an austere appearance grow in this environment. A novice would surely wonder what in the world could anyone find there. Yet, we take off to go fishing for pati or milkfish (chanos chanos is its scientific name) that frequent these ponds without worrying about overdosing on algae and overheated waters. It sure takes someone who truly knows their behavior and who is an excellent strategist to cast the net in the most favorable areas while reshuffling fish into the trap. This is an exercise that is anything but simple, and on this day, did not result in much. Some days later, fishing the same type of fish was met with success but on the lagoon side on one of the atoll’s huge sandbanks. Again, it was fascinating to witness the fisherman’s skills. He was able to catch fish even though their color totally blended in with the deep sea. Only a few shimmers from their scales gave them away. You have to really have an eye for them.
Fishing is also a great way to discover all the diversity and beauty that Anaa has to offer. To do this, Joel Dexter is our guide. He runs Anaa To’ku Kaiga, the only guest house inn on the island, and he wishes to share his true passion with visitors. We follow his lead to fish for the first time in a place far-removed from the marvelous underwater world of the Tuamotus with its clear waters praised by divers all over the world. Next to the abandoned village of Putuahara on one of the largest motu surrounding the atoll, a vast stretch of pond water. Parts of this area are either dried up, or submerged under a few inches of water, depending on fluctuations of the lagoon water levels and ocean swells.
Rendez-vous is then at a hoa on the northwest part of the atoll. There, huge coral slabs come together like a raised pathway. One of Joël’s friends showed us his expertise with the patia, the Polynesian harpoon made out of a long wooden pole with several metal points at one end. This tool seems archaic, but well handled, no doubt! Even though some of the species were experts at camouflage, they could not fool the sharp eye of the fisherman. After a few minutes, three round fish are caught. They are from a species closely related to the famous Japonese fugu. Their particular feature is that they blow up when they feel threatened. Above all, they have a huge supply of deadly poison. If the fish is poorly gutted, eating it is fatal. However, on Anaa, it is a delicacy for the residents, who have learned how to prepare it correctly.
Another place that is especially great for fishing is on the reef facing the ocean. Powerful swells crash on the flat of the reef bringing beautiful trevally fish looking for food. The line is cast, then the lure is reeled back in. In motion, they look like tiny prey that ocean predators seek. No need to wait too long. Joël’s fishing rod bends with the pressure. To bring in his catch, which promises to be beautiful, he skillfully uses the waves to help him. A few spins of the reel then a pause to avoid the possibility of snapping, the operation is successful, with as a prize, a suberb giant trevally. A beginning angler in our little group snapped his line trying to unsucessfully bring in a fish that bit. Goodbye fishing line, lure, and of course, the fish. It is all about learning the business…
On the atoll, fishing possibilities are infinite. Far from rivers, you can even practice fly-fishing. The idea of developing such an activity in such a setting would be absolutely magnificent, and would include a fabulous variety of fish. However, it was time for us to go. But since it is always time to fish, rods were again thrown into the water on our trip back to the village in order to fish while dragging the line through the blue lagoon. Barely a moment passed before the rod bent, a sign that another fish was also in tow. Such land of abundance!