Fascinating due to its wild beauty and feared for its reputation as a predator, the shark leaves no one unscathed. As a symbol of French Polynesia, this creature occupies a privileged space in the culture and coral ecosystems as well as plays a major role in high quality ecotourism.
In the beginning of time in traditional Polynesian mythology, the big blue shark, Te Ma’o Purotu, was the favorite shark of the god Ta’aroa, master of the underwater world. He lived in Purotu, the original sacred land located in the depths of the sea that gave the deep blue color of the ocean its Tahitian name. He had a habit of rising to the surface to swim close to the beach to feed on algae and play with children. However one day, alerted by the gods of the sea, humans started to fear Ta’aroa’s tame shark that could have the evil intent to eat them. During a hunt led by two courageous warriors who were out to kill him, the shark was injured then he appeared to die. Suddenly, the gods Ta’aroa and Tū, angry at this injustice, lifted him into the sky. This is how the shark was brought back to life in the original sacred waters of Te-vai-ora, the celestial domain of the god Tāne. He became the guardian under his new name Fa’arava-i-te-ra’i. From this moment forward, he gained status as tapu (forbidden) to humans, which means he could not be eaten and in virtue of the restrictions attached to sacred words, his name could no longer be pronounced…. On the other hand, it is with a respect tinged with fear that the word Parata was pronounced during the 18th century to refer to the fierce warriors from Anaa atoll in the Tuamotu islands. These warriors ruled unopposed in the Tuamotus and even on the island of Tahiti. They were renowned for their attacks that were as sudden as they were violent. They often took advantage of storms that they battled for hundreds of kilometers in canoes before ambushing their unfortunate victims. They killed (and often devoured) the men and took women and children as slaves. These bloody warriors inherited the name that is no other than the local reo Ma’ohi term given to the Oceanic whitetip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus). This is obviously due to the similarities between this shark’s behavior and these warriors. The whitetip shark is renowned for its mobility in the high seas, its tenacity and its aggression towards humans who have the misfortune to find themselves in the water after sinking. These kaito (warriors) wore armor made from sharkskin and reinforced with shark teeth. Even their knives and spears were made of these razor-sharp teeth. This is an incredible example of the behavioral and aesthetic convergence between beast and human.
A threatened but precious species
Even though the whitetip shark still lives in French Polynesia, it is still just as much at risk of extinction here as it is throughout all of Oceania. The whitetip shark is a target of overfishing due to high demands on the Southeast Asian market for its large pectoral and dorsal fins used in a prestigious dish called shark fin soup. Overfishing is also a result of thousands of incidental catches of this magnificent animal trapped on longline hooks meant for tuna. In 2006 this alarming decline in numbers, which also applies to other species of sharks, prompted French Polynesian authorities to decree a partial protection of sharks. By 2012, the law included total protection of sharks throughout the vast territory. All shark fishing is prohibited as well as the commercialization of any products derived from sharks, such as shark tooth necklaces. Buying these products, which are sometimes still for sale in French Polynesia, is a crime. This courageous move and vision to create the first shark sanctuary in the Pacific has since been followed by New Caledonia and Palau and has now turned French Polynesia into a privileged space to admire these magnificent animals. This is the reason why few tourists on Moorea and Bora Bora leave these dream islands without having rubbed shoulders with the vaki, the small blacktip reef shark (C. melanopterus) that swims in Polynesian lagoons alongside stingrays. This shark’s sensual movement through the water is often interspersed with dazzling starts. However, perhaps due to its small size, it is harmless to humans. Tourists who dive will have the opportunity to come across the ’arava, or sicklefin lemon shark (Negaprion acutidens), which can reach an imposing size greater than 3 meters/10ft. This shark is also impressive, yet reserves his sharp teeth for fish. Rare shark bites involve upper limbs and are often through human error experienced by people who had the poor judgement to try and feed the sharks by hand. The lemon shark is also present in diving areas around Tahiti, mostly in the “Vallée Blanche,” located near the district of Faa’a on the island of Tahiti. Although greatly outnumbered here by dozens of vaki and also the famous raira, the grey reef shark (C. amblyrhynchos) is the privileged host of the passes, such as the one at south Fakarava, where they assemble into a wall of sharks comprised of as many as 700 individuals.
Lucky divers will have a chance to be impressed by the size and imposing mouth of the toretore, or tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier). In fact, this species is a regular visitor to the Vallée Blanche. Some tiger sharks exceed 4 meters/13 ft. They are attracted by shark feedings conducted by some of the diving clubs when they send a cage containing pieces of fish to the bottom of the sea. The smell of the fish floats along the currents and attracts sharks so divers can view the tiger sharks at close range. Contrary to popular belief and as long as it is well-executed, there is no evidence to support that shark feeding poses any particular risks for divers or anyone else in the sea. If divers wish to witness another monstrous sea animal, they must travel to Rangiroa atoll to see tamata roa, the great hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran). In fact, it is here, especially on the outskirts of Tiputa pass, that this majestic shark with its oversized curved fin can be viewed often with sighting peaks in December and January. Very little is known about this migratory species that can reach 5.5 meters/18 ft., except it has a voracious appetite for rays and smaller sharks, such as the raira. A study will soon be launched to identify individual sharks from one year to another through placing satellite tags to track their journeys once they leave Rangiroa atoll to return a year later to roam the immense lagoon, which is the second largest in the world at 1570km2/606 sq. mi. The vastness of the space probably explains why there are so many exceptional animals who usually prefer the deep sea. These types of studies led by the Centre de Recherche Insulaire et Observatoire de l’Environnement (Criobe – CNRS/EPHE/UPVD) is already in full swing with tiger sharks in Tahiti and the lemon and blacktip sharks on Moorea. The latter are studied with a slightly different technology that involves placing an acoustic transmitter on the animal. Receivers placed at the bottom of the sea in favorable locations around different islands emit regular sound waves. Studies over shark migratory patterns are an essential component of learning their ecology. These studies are combined with genetic studies to evaluate gene diversity among different shark populations. The greater the diversity, the greater the chances of resisting stress provoked through fishing or the destruction of coastal habitats necessary for young shark development, in particular in regards to lemon sharks and blacktip sharks.
Te ma’o, the key to balance within coral ecosystems
If man-induced stress towards this species of fish is occurring in high seas through fishing, it is even more insidious along the coast where real estate developments and deficiencies in waste water treatment affects the sharks indirectly through altering their living environment, the lagoons and the passes. Even though French Polynesia aims to pride itself as having the most sharks in the Pacific if not the world, the concentration of sharks along extremely anthropized zones (environments greatly modified by humans) has been greatly reduced over the past few decades. However, these animals play a key role in marine ecosystems in general and coral ecosystems in particular. We know of their role as trash collectors, which means their ability to rid the ecosystem of unhealthy or dead animals. However, this is but the tip of the iceberg. Sharks are true “motors of evolution” and “producers of biomass and diversity.” These two concepts touch on their daily ability to eliminate weaker fish and those fish not as adapted to the environment. They do this in large quantities, far more than the numbers of fish who are dead or ill. This chronic predation forces targeted fish to intensely reproduce, much more than if they were left alone. This is why in the presence of sharks, biomass (the amount of proteins represented by prey) is much greater than in their absence. This may seem paradoxical because one may think that since sharks feed off fish that with fewer sharks, there would be more fish. In reality, the opposite is true.
French Polynesia: a “shark” destination.
Today, other tourist destinations come across as privileged spaces to observe sharks in their natural environment. However, due to the diversity of visible species, their preservation and courageous political choices, French Polynesia is on the cutting edge. A major issue in French Polynesia’s favor is that there has not been a deadly shark attack in over 50 years. Without a doubt, some people will see this as a result of shark’s respect for humans; whereas in reality, humans respect the shark—which may be the opposite of what is occurring in other parts of the world. The French Polynesian ministry of tourism is aware of these attractive features. It launched a process to frame a shark-based ecotourism to meet the requirements of sustainable development in a way that combines ecology, economy and the human element. As far as ecological constraints, the ministry envisions suitable scientific support to ensure that ecotourism practices such as shark feeding do not alter the biology or the resilience of the animals, all the while guaranteeing visitor safety. Economically, innovative financial plans are in place so that the cost of management does not weigh heavily on public funding. Finally on a human level, training professionals and adding a strong cultural component that is essential in French Polynesia in regards to sharks, should allow for the development of an ecotourism aspect specific to French Polynesia and one of its kind in the world. Which other country in the world would be able to offer passionate divers the possibility of a high five with the tiger shark in Tahiti, the great hammerheads in Rangiroa, the wall of grey sharks in Fakarava and the lemon shark in Bora Bora? We leave you to select the latter…
Eric Clua & Frédéric Torrente