An Atoll at Last

On our first night on Rangiroa, Seven and I were strolling along the road and I said, “So, what’s different about this place from all the other places we’ve been so far?” Answer: no mountains. The temperature is the same, the sea is the same, the plants are the same, even the sand is the same. But the mountains, which on a high volcanic island dominate one’s sense of the place (maybe even more than the ocean if that’s possible), are simply missing.

An atoll is, in effect, the memory of a volcanic island which has subsided into the sea leaving only its encircling reef. Here is a part of one from the air:

an atoll

And here, btw, is what you land on. atoll landing strip

The Tuamotu Archipelago is a string of coral rings running NW to SE about halfway between Tahiti and the Marquesas. Rangiroa is the largest of them; it is, in fact, so large that you could fit the entire island of Tahiti inside it, which means, of course, that you can’t see to the other side (or even close!) when you’re looking across the lagoon. What you can see across is the strip of sand that passes for the island. Here is a photo Seven took standing on the open ocean side and looking across at the lagoon. That’s how wide the island is — not very!


These rings are typically not continuous; they have breaks, or passes in them through which the lagoon empties and fills. On Rangiroa the town, airport, hotels, houses, etc., are spread out along a 12 km stretch of road (there are lots of cars, which seems insane, since there is nowhere to drive except up and down this stretch), at either end of which there is a break in the reef. At the Tiputa end, the pass is narrow and seemingly pretty deep and the water rips through it at the turn of the tide. It’s famous for the dolphins that come there to feed when the water flows out of the lagoon, bringing, presumably, lots of fish with it, and by some miracle Seven and I just happened to be there at the right time of day:

dolphis at Tiputa Pass

The whole time we were on Rangiroa the wind was blowing like crazy — nothing to stop it, I guess, for hundreds (thousands?) of miles, and the lagoon, which we faced from our bungalow, was almost as wild-looking as the open sea. Apparently this is typical of July — a strong, steady southeasterly. The boys did get one swim in off the jetty in front of the hotel, as you can see:

swimming at rangiroa

though it was so rough I could barely watch (Seven went with them, so that was ok). Apparently they saw lots of things — the Tuamotus are a famous destination for divers — but then when they came out of the water Seven spotted this sign:


He was the last one back to the bungalow and he came in laughing about how he’d seen this sign about a poison Tigerfish (!) and then he read about another kind of poison fish, and then another and another, and suddenly he thought, “Holy shit, they’re all poisonous!” I think it might have been the stonefish we saw in ‘Opunohu Bay that put the wind up him initially…

I am now going to leave you with my favorite Rangiroa picture. There is something about the arrival and departure of planes on these small islands — I remember the feeling from Rarotonga back in the 1980s when the plane only came once a week, and when you heard it go you knew it would be another 7 days before it came back for you. The planes are much more frequent everywhere now — there were certainly a couple a day on Rangiroa (even the odd private jet) — and yet there still seems to be something a little forlorn about the sight and (especially) the sound of them approaching and leaving these remote little specks of land…

plane arriving on Rangiroa

I Can’t Resist…

Published by


Editor of Harvard Review and author of "Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia" and "Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All."

9 thoughts on “An Atoll at Last”

  1. I’m loving learning about places I’ve never heard of, but am now tempted to visit. I’m also interested in how your teenagers respond to the quite different environment than what they’re used to, and of course the Maori-Polynesian link that Seven brings.

    1. Well, I think they’re gradually getting the hang of it. Traveling is not easy, especially this much traveling, and we still have a ways to go! The big question will be what they make of it once it’s over and they’ve had time to process it all. I don’t know if they’d say they were enjoying it exactly, but I think they’re learning a lot. As for the Polynesian part: stay tuned for New Zealand where we go to visit the whanau!

  2. Wonderful to read another of your posts. Love the photo of the jumping dolphins and the sun setting over the atoll. First I thought the fish were poisonous, too, before I realized the descriptions were in French. I admire your family; you are very brave and adventurous. Looking forward to learning even more!

  3. When we lived in the Mariana Islands, we too had to be aware of poisonous fish when swimming and even wading in the lagoon. We also discovered that some lagoon fish, if eaten at the wrong time of the year, can also make you sick—even kill you. As a result, we never ate lagoon fish, only deepwater fish. And on dry land we had to watch out for unexploded ordnance from WWII. There were so many dudes from that battle that I think to this day there are still folks dedicated to the disposal of them.
    But getting back to animals that can kill you, I don’t have to tell you about Australia. Just about everything that swims, crawls and flies in that country is deadly. Why do you think the place is so sparsely populated?

  4. Christina, I am so enjoying your posts and the gorgeous pictures you’ve shared. The dolphins, the atoll….I’m learning a lot too. 🙂 Keep ’em coming.

  5. Chris,

    I recently read a great quote from the British writer, David Mitchell, that reminded me of the way you are sharing this journey with us;

    “your mind is nowhere else but in this world that started off in the mind of another human being. There are two miracles at work here. One, that someone thought of that world and people in the first place. And the second, that there’s this means of transmitting it. Just little ink marks on squashed wood fiber.”

    Of course, he was talking of fiction, and you are using pixels rather than ink …… but you get the picture. And, clearly and wonderfully, so do we readers back here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s