Updated: Sep 18
The Society islands are the fourth island group that we have visited in the Pacific (after Galapagos, Marquesas and the Tuamotus). Despite all islands having origins as volcanoes, their geography and demography vary greatly. The differences influence cruising in each group so we decided to research why and try to 'compare and contrast' these Pacific Islands.
First, we need to explain Darwin's Theory on the formation of coral reefs and atolls. Darwin actually conceived the theory before he had seen a coral island but it took him until 1835, four years into his voyage on the Beagle, to write it up.
The first thing to realise is that volcanoes are formed along borders of tectonic plates (big sheets of the earth's crust). But, as the tectonic plate continues to move, the volcano 'slides' away from the border. As it slides away, it also slides downwards
To grow, coral needs light, warm water and the presence of a reef building coral genus (transported to the location in the water). Light implies that growth is in shallow water, for instance on the flanks of the volcano, just below the waterline. If all these conditions are met then a fringing reef is formed. As the volcano subsides, the coral grows, maintaining the height just below or at the water level. The fringing reef becomes a barrier reef and the size of the lagoon increases. Finally, as the volcano disappears under water, an atoll is formed.
So now we can compare and contrast the four island groups:
Why are there only limited fringing reefs in the Galapagos? There are a variety of reasons. The El Nina and El Nino effects create changes in sea temperature. Closer to South America these temperature changes are larger. The temperature range in which coral can grow is quite narrow. Although, historically, there was evidence of coral reef growth over the past 500 years, of the 17 reefs observed in the 1970's, after the 1982-3 El Nino event, only one reef survived. In addition, the Galapagos have a particularly aggressive sea urchin which grazes on coral, giving it little chance to grow. Note that this depends on the type of sea urchin. Some types (in other locations) graze on algae and are actually beneficial for reef formation.
In the case of the Marquesas, fringing reefs are only found in a few sheltered bays (e.g. Anaho Bay on Nuku Hiva). For some reason (the south equatorial current which lashes the islands?), the major reef building coral genus 'Acropora' is not present in the waters around this island group. Without the genus, reefs cannot form.
Consequently, there are no anchorages in these first two island groups where there is protection behind a reef. Therefore, the best anchorages are on the west or north west coast, which is leeward with the prevailing winds. Nearly all anchorages have a degree of roll (except perhaps Daniels Bay on Nuku Hiva) but the worst are clearly those not on the west or north west coast (Santa Cruz in Galapagos, Atuona, Hiva Oa in Marquesas). The compensation is being surrrounded by stunning scenery
The Tuamotus are the 'elderly statesmen' of these islands, having been around for more that fifty million years. That is long enough for the original volcanoes to have disappeared, leaving only the surrounding atolls (see top picture, which is Tahanea. Photo is courtesy of SY Idefix: see Youtube.com/sailingidefix). Once you have navigated a pass to reach the protection inside the atoll, then you can look forward to a very quiet anchorage.
The age of the Society islands varies from a few hundred thousand years (e.g. Tahiti in the south east) to four or five million years (e.g. Bora Bora in the North West). All islands have extensive coral reefs which, for the younger islands are fringing reefs and for the older are barrier reefs. In this group you get both sheltered anchorages inside reefs and the stunning scenery associated with high, volcanic mountains covered in lush vegetation.
In the photo above, the fringing reef (light blue) is obvious with a small channel (dark blue area close to land) deep enough for cruisers (the white dots) to get in and anchor behind the reef, protected from ocean swell
Provisioning and eating out
The ability to provision economically is influenced not just by the climate, but also by the economics and political history of each island group.
In the Galapagos, despite the fact that getting in (fees and taxes) and tourist trips (diving and boat tours) are costly, the fresh food was, generally, extremely cheap. The authorities have tried hard to encourage local food production as part of their 'green/eco' credentials. Although there are few water sources, the highlands attract enough rainwater to make agriculture viable (and labour is cheap). In fact, originally the settlements were all in the Highands. It was only with the arrival of the missionaries, who advocated an economy based on trade, that settlements moved to the coast. However, any tinned, frozen or produce not produced on the islands is rather expensive. e.g. a packet of coffee costing 4 euros in Belgium would cost 18 euros in the Galapagos! It is definitely worth doing all non-perishable shopping for the Pacific in Panama before leaving.
To give an idea on the cost of eating out, there are multiple restaurants on each island who offer a two course lunch menu for only $5! (Choosing the fish or seafood menu was usually the best option).
The Marquesas is the island group where food literally falls from the trees. It was possible to acquire every conceivable fruit and fish through bartering or as a gift. These products were also very cheap in the markets in Nuku Hiva. However, tinned and imported food was again expensive. There were noticably fewer supermarkets and they typically offered less choice (e.g. It was almost impossible to find a tomato in Marquesas for some reason). Locals tend to be self sufficient, fishing for themselves and growing produce in their gardens.
Similarly, you will find few restaurants. However, locals realise the cruiser community sometimes like to 'eat out' and some households propose meals in their homes. These are typically good value if not a particular culinary treat. Our favourite was in Daniels Bay where, after our walk to the waterfall, we were served a delicious and huge tuna steak for circa 10 euros.
The Tuamotus are the worst of all the groups for provisioning. There is virtually no attempt to grow food locally (the only source of water is rainfall and there are no mountains). The islands are covered in coconut plantations to harvest cupra.
The supply ship comes once/week or once/month (depending on size of the island) and locals order their supplies directly from the ship. Any shop is small, poorly stocked and extremely expensive with little fresh produce. We even had to wait a week to find eggs even though chickens roam everywhere. The best way to consider your time cruising the Tuamotus is to assume it is an ocean crossing with no shops! And if you find an outlet, just regard it as a bonus.
There are also few restaurants ( except Fakarava) although you can again find locals wanting to cook for you. Price for these meals is 3X that in the Marquesas. Part of the reason in the Tuamotus for the apathy and lack of motivation to produce locally, or to run commercial enterprises, is said to be French government support. It was in the Tuamotus that France tested it's Nuclear Weapons. The first series of tests on Mururoa were not even underground but open to the atmosphere, causing widespread radioactive contamination. The last tests were in 1996. The area around the nuclear test sites are still 'out of bounds'. As well as individual compensation claims ( which still cost 10's of millions of euros annually) the French government support for infrastructure projects etc is unusually high in the Tuamotus. With this influx of money to a population of less than 15,000, why would you need to work? Tahiti and the Society Islands could not be more different. Papeete is a thriving metropolis and, entering a supermarket, you find everything you could imagine. Prices are typically 'european' plus 20%. We found our first lettuce since the Galapagos and have been eating a variety of salads at lunchtime and, of course, baguettes and croissants for breakfast! And that is before we start on the delights of French patisseries
However, it all comes at a price. The only real bargain is fish from the main fish market. A huge slab of tuna, enough for five meals, costs around 10 euros.
There are plenty of restaurants around too. Surprisingly, the plushest establishments around the marina seem to be frequented by locals. They are out of the price range of most cruisers. In fact, even steak and chips with a beer in a corner bar in a seedier part of town would cost 40-50 euros.
It is unclear to me why Tahiti is so prosperous. There is significant tourism. Air Tahiti has established a niche position in the US to Asia air traffic, offering an optional free two day layover here if desired. It is also a major trade hub in the Pacific. But this does not really explain an economy where people seem wealthier than Europeans and with a GDP/head 5X that of Fiji.
First Settlers and culture
Thor Heyerdahl sailed 'Kon Tiki' from Peru to the Tuamotus to prove the Polynesian settlers COULD have come from South America. Of course, that was in 1947, before the advent of DNA. Since then DNA tracing has proved that he was wrong and that the Pacific Islands were populated by a migration from Asia, basically hopping from island to island. It is thought they reached French Polynesia around 1250 AD.
It is said that the culture is Polynesian, the commerce is Chinese and the power rests with the French! certainly, throughout French Polynesia it is evident that their culture is extremely inportant to the local population. Communities organise their percussive bands, dance troupes, classes to teach the next generation how to arrrange flower garlands and weave the foliage, and paddling canoes competitively is everywhere. Wood carving is particularly important in the Marquesas.
By contrast, the Polynesians did not reach The Galapagos. The 3000nm distance made it too difficult to 'island hop'. In fact, the islands were discovered by chance in the 16th century when a ship, travelling from Panama to Peru, got becalmed and the current pushed it westward to the Galapagos. The grateful crew managed to find water, wait for wind and get back to Peru. However, it was only in the 19th century, having been annexed by Equador, that the islands were first settled. The culture is Equadorian with strong Spanish and Catholic influences. This means that a European hardly notices any cultural differences and the church is probably the only organisation that aims to maintain traditions.
We have another few weeks exploring the Society Islands and, as we learn more, this post may get updated. In the meantime, we hope you found it interesting.