Every year, many tourists visit Rangiroa to explore all the wonderful surprises that this atoll has to offer. Today, tourism is the island’s main industry. The inhabitants share the beauty and culture of their atoll’s legacy with warmth and generosity.
Before Europeans named this atoll Rangiroa, the Polynesians called it Ra’i Roa, which means “immense sky.” Besides the coconut trees spread along the atoll’s fragile coral strip, there is nothing high to impede the view of the sky. Located in the Tuamotu Islands, about 350km/217 miles northeast of Tahiti, Rangiroa is the largest atoll in French Polynesia and with a circumference of 280km/174 miles, it is one of the largest atolls in the world. The entire island of Tahiti and its peninsula could fit into the lagoon. Consisting of the remains of an immense volcano that gradually sank into the waves, the atoll consists of 500 islets and motu. There are two 12km/8 mile passes in the distance: Tiputa and Avatoru. The majority of the atoll’s 2,000 residents live between the passes where the island’s main infrastructure is located: the airport, harbor and lodging facilities. Since the 1980s and the arrival of the first flights from Papeete, tourism has become a main resource for most of the islanders. The area’s natural beauty and abundance attracts thousands of visitors annually from all over the world. However, it was Dutch navigators Le Maire and Schouten who “discovered” this Polynesian jewel in 1616. Polynesians had already settled the atoll around the fifth century. There are still traces of this people and their civilization who thrived on this fragile atoll.
Lagon Bleu: Between Beauty and Culture
Rangiroa’s Lagon Bleu is a stunningly beautiful marvel of nature with a cultural heritage that is breathtaking. It is located about an hour’s boat ride from Avatoru village. The motu (islets) in the lagoon contain marae, which were sacred prayer and meeting sites for ancient Polynesians. At the time, a family inhabited every part of the atoll, including the motu. As such, they built family marae close to the living quarters. “Several family lines lived over there. No one lives there anymore are there are too many mosquitoes,” mused Siki, an Avatoru villager. Siki is reputed to be Rangiroa’s encyclopedia. As soon as an archeologist or ethnologist come onto the sacred sites, Siki always joins them in order to help enrich their knowledge about Polynesian culture and traditions.
Sitting at the table on the patio of his fare (house), making a traditional tiare necklace for a ceremony, Siki tells the story. Called Tae’o’o in reo Tahiti (Tahitian language), the Lagon Bleu was actually an area where the ancients met to talk after swimming across the lagoon. “They called it Tae’o’o, because it means, ‘Do you come from here or there?’ which is the question the men asked once they arrived.” This part of the atoll was quite uninhabited because it was not considered a strategic zone. In Polynesian culture, everything that is important must be located to the east, where the sun rises. Tae o’o is located where the sun sets. This was also the site of massacres during battles between clans. “Ever since, if you go to Lagon Bleu, you must be quiet in respect of the ancient ones.” Siki explains.
Siki is truly sorry for the disappearance of the pāhua, clams, which were once quite abundant, even up until just a few years ago. He is not the only one. “We were too greedy. Sometimes we would fill an entire ferry with clams in order to ship them to Tahiti where they were in demand,” confides Tāne Tamaehu. Like many of the residents, he is a fisherman. This gentleman in his fifties has seen this type of exploitation. Tamaehu was the first person to offer trips out to the Lagon Bleu. In 1986, his was the only boat to take tourists out there, but many of the visitors were too timid back then. He had to wait a few years for lodging facilities to be built on the atoll before excursions truly took off. “I sometimes had as many as a hundred tourists a day,” recalls this family man. He still continues to offer regular excursions, but his company is no longer the only one. There are now 4 excursion companies on Rangiroa. They offer swimming in the lagoon, visits out to the motu—the most popular is the bird sanctuary—diving with rays and baby sharks…and of course, a break for a meal with local ma’a (food): poisson cru (raw fish marinated in coconut milk and lemon) and Tāne’s specialty, coconut bread. “I was the first to make it and the tourists love it!” he explains. Always ready to share his culture, he built his fare (traditional home) on one of the motu in Lagon Bleu and also offers workshops in weaving pandanus and stringing shell necklaces.
Shells: Symbolic Objects
Another specialty of Rangiroa is artisan crafts, especially creating shell necklaces. This requires true skill and is performed by men and women alike. In ancient times, shells represented power and virility. The regalia of ancient district chiefs were always adorned in shells, which were considered objects of value. In Sunday mass held at the Église Saint-Michel in Avatoru—which is the oldest church in Rangiroa built in 1823—parishioners wear beautiful shell necklaces. “Up until Christmas Day, we must wear necklaces made of shells and not flowers,” stresses Siki, who is also president of the church’s association (the church is currently undergoing renovations). Like most of the atoll’s residents, Siki grew up making necklaces. “There were eleven of us in my family and we had to eat. When it rained, we couldn’t make copra, so we made necklaces.” Still to this day, this type of activity is the main breadwinner for some families, even if this knowledge is sadly at risk of disappearing. “Just like everywhere else, our youth prefer to watch TV, play video games and get on Facebook…” says Thérèsa, who is able to make shell necklaces with two, three, four, six or eight strands. This mother of two teenagers explains that the kids don’t want to perform this painstaking work.
The first step is to go on the hunt for shells and this is not an easy feat. Depending on the type of shell, the three main ones used are the paoti, the pöreho and the pupu. Harvesting never occurs at the same place and at the same time. “We must respect nature,” emphasizes Siki. The iconic paoti are fished under each new moon when the reef is dry. Since this type of shell is found close to the reef, then it is easy to gather. Its color can change depending on the location. The pöreho is an oval black and white shell that can only be picked during the month of July. Lastly, the pupu is like a tiny little snail shell and is light in color. It must be picked under a tree. “Sometimes you must dig up to 6 meters/20 feet deep. The deeper you go, the more beautiful the color of the shell.” Harvesting pupu shells is certainly the most painstaking and dangerous to harvest. “You have to go to the Pink Sand motu, almost two hours away from Avatoru. Then you have to pick and sort them through a sieve. You have the throw the rest into the hole you dug. There is a special way to do this. Some of them bury themselves in their own holes!” The technique is the same for the other shells. It is important to let the shell’s animal die through feeding it to red ants or soaking it in water for days. Then you must clean out the empty shell with chlorine or water in order to bring back its original color. Afterwards, it needs to dry in the sun or wind, and then be pierced. The talent of Polynesian artisans takes care of the rest.
The Pearl Industry
Some artisans dedicate all their artistry to another precious object—pearls. In the Gauguin’s Perle boutique in Avatoru, the atoll’s latest pearl farm, jewelry is displayed behind glass. Tourists totally enjoy the necklaces, rings, earrings… “In reality, it is thanks to tourists that this enterprise can continue to subsist,” explains Philippe Cabral, the founder and manager. Selling pearls in bulk brings little profit as they are sold at a low price, but Gauguin’s Perles makes a profit through sales to visitors on the atoll and guided pearl farm tours. A scientist through his education, Philippe Cabral is not only a fine connoisseur but a perfectionist. His employees are very well-informed. Over a 45-minute visit, a guide will thrill toruists with 20 minutes of precise, interesting explanations before showing them the grafting studios and bins filled with mother-of-pearl. “Thank you so much for your visit. We need you very much,” a guide declares to a group of visitors. At one time, the farm had more than 60 employees. Today there are only 20. Production has been reduced to 5,000 pearls per year. “We were the first to open once the government authorized pearl farming here,” explained the 50 year-old. That was in 1990. At the time, the farm comprised over 480 hectares (1200 acres). Now, there are only 100 hectares (247 acres). Back then, about ten pearl farms were thriving on the atoll. Today, Gauguin’s Perle is the last remaining. “The pearl farmers lacked experience and education. The farms closed down one after another. ”
This comprehensive training is unique to French Polynesia and is the only such school in the country. Even though Rangiroa was chosen as the location for this school, it is not for its production of natural mother of pearl as harvesting this shell is now prohibited. Rangiroa lagoon is certainly the largest in all of French Polynesia as well as the most agitated, which is an unsuitable environment for mother of pearl. “Many other islands in the Tuamotus have pearl farms. If the center is located here, it is because we have the most infrastructure,” this passionate teacher explains. His students come from all over French Polynesia in order to learn the tricks of the trade. Most of them will find a job on a pearl farm. “This is what I hope for them because this is one of the most beautiful jobs in the world.”
The Only Pearl Farming Training Center in French Polynesia
However, during that same time, the government opened a pearl farming training institute. In 1991, the Centre des métiers de la nacre et de la perliculture (Center for Careers in Mother of Pearl and Pearl Farming) located in Avatoru welcomed its first students. Alexander Mataarere was one of the first students and has since become the main instructor. He knows the profession inside out as well as all the pearl farms in the country. This graying gentleman is proud to show the center to tourists who request a tour. “Our main concern is time. We are usually swamped with work, so it is sometimes not possible to dedicate an hour to a tour.” This public building, part of the Service de la Mer du Pays (the governmental Department of the Sea) prepares students for careers in pearl farming with a two-year program. They learn how to draw farming nets, dive, remove the pearls and graft as well as study biofouling of the mother of pearl shell and maritime and business law.