Faces of Polynesia

2014 Faces of Polynesia: Fiji to Tahiti Field Report

Peter Zika|November 16, 2014|Field Report

Wednesday, September 17, 2014 - Nadi, Viti Levu, Fiji / Lautoka / Embark Caledonian Sky: After a long flight across the Pacific, we arrived in Fiji. We enjoyed a morning at leisure, sleeping, strolling, or swimming at our hotel on the beach, the Westin Denarau Island Resort & Spa. Red-faced parrotbills were quite tame near the pool, hopping in the lawn and eating grass seeds, showing off their emerald and scarlet plumage. After lunch, we set out in buses to explore the island. At the Garden of the Sleeping Giant, established by the actor Raymond Burr of Perry Mason fame, we admired a flashy diversity of orchids and bromeliads, and received some refreshments. Our guide revealed that white cattleya orchids, worthy of any corsage, were Burr's favorite. Overhead, a mahogany tree was releasing its winged seeds like little helicopters. We also spent some time in the village of Vei Sei Sei, where we saw a chief's house, some handicrafts, and the John Wesley Church. Late in the afternoon we reached our ship at Lautoka harbor.

Boarding the Caledonian Sky, we settled into our rooms, learned our way around the ship, and conducted a lifeboat drill before pulling away from the dock during dinner, setting out on our 3,100 nautical mile voyage to Tahiti.

Thursday, September 18 - Taveuni: As we approached the south shore of Taveuni, the birders on deck were quite pleased to see Tahiti and Phoenix petrels banking along in the breeze. After the birdwatchers were dropped off on shore in search of orange doves, the rest of us boarded Zodiacs and set out for a snorkel along the reef. We were admittedly disappointed by recent coral bleaching, but the water clarity was excellent. Notable sightings included an octopus, a dazzling nudibranch, and lemon peel angelfish. Several of the Zodiacs also had looks at the flukes of a humpback whale mom and calf.

During lunch the ship steered north, and early in the afternoon we shuttled ashore to meet our buses. Half of us went to Duivosavosa Village, where we learned about traditional Fijian customs and practices. Our hosts showed us how they weave baskets, make tapa cloth, build fires, and use the root of the kava plant to make an intoxicating drink, before serenading us as we departed. The remainder of our party rode along the coast to Bouma National Park, where we walked among red ginger and bamboo groves to the lovely Tavoro Waterfall. Here, the stream spills over a cliff into a plunge pool, where we swam behind the falls and cooled off in the shade of kauri trees. Gathering back on board the Caledonian Sky, we enjoyed cocktails with Captain Hakan Admarker, who hosted the Captain's Welcome Dinner in the restaurant. Our ship set sail to the northeast, and overnight we left the territorial waters of Fiji.

Friday, September 19 - Futuna, Territory of Wallis & Futuna / Alofi: As we approached the islands of Alofi and Futuna early in the day, red-footed boobies were spreading out across the ocean to hunt flying fish and other wet tidbits. Juan Fernandez and Stejneger's petrels were skipping past in the breeze, and tropical shearwaters approached us closely. When we dropped the anchor, a short Zodiac cruise brought us to the shore of Futuna and, using local pickup trucks, we experienced island life. In the northeast village of Poi, we visited a shrine dedicated to Saint Pierre Chanel; we climbed the narrow steps of a bell tower and rang the clamorous bell. Continuing on to the southwestern coast, we attended a stirring dance in the village of Taoa, under a traditional fale (a pole-framed building with a thatched roof). We also had the opportunity to sample kava, prepared from the roots of a relative of the black pepper vine. Meanwhile, hikers and birders were investigating the trail system of Alofi Island, across the channel from Futuna, where blue-crowned lorikeets and purple-capped fruit doves added some color to the thick greenery, and wattled honeyeaters filled out the soundscape. We all returned to the ship for a barbeqeue lunch on the back deck, then went snorkeling and beachcombing in the afternoon on Alofi Island. Thick black lizards scurried in the underbrush by the coast and fluttering white-rumped swiftlets hawked for insects while ignoring us a few feet away. In the sea, the hard coral was in good condition and we were delighted to see various angel- and butterflyfish. Reluctantly, we left lovely Alofi, and attended our first evening recap in the lounge, as the Caledonian Sky set out for Wallis Island.

Saturday, September 20 - Wallis: We arrived at Wallis at daybreak, entering the outer lagoon through Honikulu Pass. Soon after breakfast, we divided up into various groups for snorkel safari, diving, and island tours. On land, we visited several Roman Catholic churches and towns along the coast, before ascending to the volcanic crater which holds Lalolalo Lake. Here, white-tailed tropicbirds were circling their nesting grounds over the green waters far below. Descending, we saw the restoration of an ancient Tongan fort constructed in 1450AD, where we learned some Polynesian history and enjoyed fresh coconut. We returned to the main harbor town of Mata Utu, where we saw the local market stalls with manioc, cucumbers, bananas, and taro, as well as some handicrafts. After a dance performance, we stopped by the local post office where we were able to send postcards, and walked over to the adjacent cathedral before returning to the ship.

Traversing the lagoon at lunchtime, we were treated to a close view of the extraordinary emeralds and aquamarines of the fringing coral reef and scattered motus (or low islands) along its rim. Exiting in the early afternoon, our ship set a course for Samoa, and we heard presentations from Edmundo Edwards, The Settlement of Polynesia, and Peter Harrison, Seabirds of the World: An Introduction.

Sunday, September 21 - Apia, Upolu Island, Samoa: We spent the morning at sea; Jack Grove gave us an introductory lecture on Pacific Fish and Currents, followed by a biodiversity lecture from Jonathan Rossouw. This was interrupted as we parked at the pier, and we all went on deck to listen to a choir of teenagers, dressed in red and white, welcome us to Samoa with dances and songs. After lunch we ventured into town, with our guides showing us the interesting architecture and official buildings of the Apia waterfront. From here, some of us went hiking on the slopes of Mt. Vaea above the Vailama Botanical Garden—also once the home of author Robert Louis Stevenson. The hikers climbed the steep slope and saw Stevenson's grave. The birders found cardinal honeyeaters, a brilliant red and black bird, feeding on palm nectar. And the other groups took off their shoes and examined the carefully restored Stevenson home, with its tapa, extensive library, airy porches, and lovely grounds featuring orchids, bromeliads, and bands of banded rails. We had a lively dance performance by tattooed natives and returned to the port just before evening.

Monday, September 22 - Savaii Island: As we approached the shores of Savaii Island, high winds and rain were pushing the ship, but the intense squall passed, and we had a calm landing on a small wooden pier. Soon the rain ceased altogether, the sun came out, and we found our minivans and decorated buses and went to see Savii. The birders came across some interesting endemic doves, and admired a stand of rainbow eucalyptus. The hikers ascended the slopes of Mt. Matavanu to a crater, the site of a major eruption between 1905 and 1911; we learned that the extensive lava flows devastated five villages on the northeastern coast. The fresh volcanic terrain was now colonized by flowering fagraea and sumac trees, interspersed among vast numbers of ferns and orchids. The cultural tour visited Saleaula Lava Ruins, the site of the London Missionary Society Church that was half buried in lava, which entered through one door and flowed out the other. An imprint was still visible on the surface of the rocks of the long-gone metal roof, which collapsed on the flowing lava. From here, the buses went through the towns of Letui and Sasina, before we disembarked at Tanu Beach Fales. In this lovely coastal setting, we were entertained by dancers and provided with refreshments and fresh fruits. Some of the small villages use asphalt speed bumps to control traffic, known as "sleeping bullies" by the populace. We bumped over a few of these, and returned to the ship for a late lunch, where we cooled off a bit in the air conditioning.

Later in the day, some of us cruised via Zodiac to the shore for a casual afternoon of beach walking and swimming. Others went snorkeling, where farmer damselfish were grazing on algae and slipping between the handsome purple-tipped pinnacles of staghorn coral. The divers visited a wreck and had an introduction to leather coral, which changes color when touched, and is known to locals as "magic coral." Giovanna Fasanelli showed us her startling video footage of this at recap, and explained that microscopic brown filaments retract en masse when touched, unmasking the basal pale blue color.

Monday & Tuesday, September 22 & 23 - At Sea / Cross the International Date Line / Suwarrow Atoll, Cook Islands: As we crossed the International Date Line and headed towards the Cook Islands, on board we had a busy schedule. Jonathan was able to complete his lecture entitled, Biodiversity and the Bucket List, Polynesia, and Peter Zika followed with a presentation on Island Biogeography. After watching the BBC documentary movie on the South Pacific (Part 1), we heard from Edmundo regarding, Polynesian Religion and Beliefs. After dinner, we convened in the lounge for a special dessert, complimentary Irish coffee, and an energetic revival of music from the 1950s and 1960s.

Suwarrow Atoll is well off the beaten track, 807 miles south of the equator, and 577 miles north-northwest of Rarotonga. En route, we heard from Giovanna who discussed Sharks: Magnificent and Misunderstood. At midday, we dropped anchor and the Suwarrow caretaker, Mr. Henry Papai, came on board and gave us a briefing. Half of us went ashore to explore the coconut forest and breadfruit fern understory of the tiny island. Especially notable was the limestone shoreline, where one could stand knee-deep and have a good look at white-tipped, black-tipped, and gray sharks swimming in the shallows. Many of us admired these animals, whose presence demonstrated how successfully the Cook Islanders are protecting this marine reserve.

Our remaining adventurers hopped in Zodiacs and proceeded into the inner lagoon, where snorkel platforms were moored. Here, the coral heads were surrounded by clear warm water, with no chop or current, and the snorkeling was entrancing. Some of the highlights included clouds of turquoise chromis, humbugs patrolling the brain coral, large parrotfish, Napoleon wrasse, and occasional white-tipped reef sharks. Later in the afternoon we swapped locations, and even the divers, once they had finished their dives, came by to sample the lovely waters of our snorkel location. On board we had a delightful barbeqeue dinner, and the ship remained at anchor.

Wednesday, September 24 - Suwarrow Atoll: In the pre-dawn darkness, we nibbled a continental breakfast and sipped coffee to prepare us for a dawn Zodiac cruise. Out in the boats, we were embraced by the warm and humid tropical air. As the sky lightened, we made our way around the fringing reef of Anchorage Island and veered west into the lagoon. The rosy fingers of dawn greeted us, as did hundreds of sooty terns, swarming over the narrow motus where they were nesting. Their ruckus was the primary sound of the morning. Here and there an occasional bird came close to inspect our rubber craft, apparently curious and certainly not very familiar with them. Sometimes it was a sooty tern; other times a white tern or brown noddy. A few boats had close approaches by the lesser frigatebirds, red-footed boobies, and even brown boobies. Two boatloads of birders ventured further into the lagoon to study the seabird colonies. Our other craft turned back to the ship, and divers and snorkelers were soon in the water. Both groups were pleased to be able to spot some white-tipped reef sharks and manta rays in the inner lagoon. A pair of red-tailed tropicbirds came up even with the Lido Deck, checked on our lunch, and returned to the atoll.

Our afternoon at sea allowed us to watch a documentary film on the South Pacific, as well as listen to Jack’s presentation, Fishes of Polynesia, Part 2. This was followed by Peter’s discussion, Tropical Seabirds.

Thursday, September 25 - Palmerston Island: It took us 24 hours to reach our destination, covering 294 nautical miles. With a swell from a distant storm in the Southern Ocean, we were happy to reach a bit of lee. Half a dozen locals in bright yellow life jackets met us outside the reef, and served as guides through the twisting channel in the coral, and finally we arrived on the sandy shore of Palmerston. The locals, and especially the children, greeted us with a warmth and eagerness that we could all embrace, no matter our age. Some of them giggled and popped out of the life jacket barrels, surprising us as we disembarked. Others were part of the singing and dancing performances, and also served as enthusiastic guides on our walking tour of the little island inhabited by 62 members of the Marsters clan. We were shown homes and gardens, the cemetery, clinic, and the school. Fresh chilled coconuts were welcome, and we brought a few back with us, when we were finally able to separate from our new friends.

Later in the afternoon Edmundo presented his talk on Tattooing in Polynesia, before we gathered for a cocktail party and by dinner.

Friday, September 26 - Aitutaki: At dawn we arrived at Aitutaki Island, discovered by Polynesian mariners in 700AD. Captain William Bligh was the first westerner to sight Aitutaki, on his ship The Bounty on April 11, 1789, a mere 17 days before the famous mutiny. Bligh's mission was to introduce cultivated breadfruit in the Caribbean; the mutiny delayed this until 1799.

When we arrived on shore, we passed the Te Poake Manuiri, a sacred stone by the dock. Our passage signified acceptance by the local inhabitants, who then greeted us with drums, fresh coconuts, and fragrant leis of gardenia, plumeria, or bougainvillea. We divided up into several groups and investigated the island. The birders found an interesting little parrot, known as the blue lorikeet, feeding in the flowers of mango trees—it was introduced to the area centuries ago by the indigenous people, from elsewhere in Polynesia. The Circle Island Tour visited a number of villages, and enjoyed some photography from a nice viewpoint, which showed the surreal blue waters of the atoll and provided a distant shot of our ship. Others boarded local craft and boated to a snorkeling location in the lagoon, where they saw rays and butterflyfish, as well as nesting red-tailed tropicbirds.

After lunch on board, some of us returned to shore to shop for pearls, some went diving, and others went snorkeling on the outside of the fringing reef, with many surgeonfish and a few moray eels. After our evening recap and briefing, we sampled the cuisine of the Philippines for dinner.

Saturday, September 27 - Aitu Island: We lurched through a heavy sea to the shore of Aitu, a raised limestone island with no fringing reef or atoll to protect us from the swell. After careful positioning of the ship, we were able to get to shore, zigzag behind a small breakwater, and land on a concrete pier. We received fresh flower leis and a traditional conch shell horn greeting. Dividing up into several groups, some of us set out to explore a limestone cave. Over a rough trail we entered a cavern with dangling stalactites and the curious Aitu swiftlet, endemic to the island. It uses rapid audible clicks to echolocate in the dark recesses of the cave, finding its way to its nest. Our birding group was quite pleased to find Rimatara lorikeets and Rarotonga monarchs, as well as other endemic avians. Our island tour visited the towns and churches on the high central plateau, and stopped on the shore where Captain Cook first landed.

We all gathered at midday back at the landing, listened to a speech from the island's mayor, and enjoyed some local dances. We turned to a large table, covered with fresh fruits and nibbled on coconut, guava, manioc, banana, starfruit, water apple, and passionfruit, served on leaf plates, and enjoyed the view of the incoming surf, and the occasional appearance of a pair of humpback whales. Finally we boarded our Zodiacs, returned to the ship and the swell, and set out for Bora Bora. Along the way we viewed a movie, and listened to Peter Z discuss figs, followed by recap and dinner.

Sunday & Monday, September 28 & 29 - At Sea / Bora Bora, Society Islands, French Polynesia: Sunday began with Peter H describing his quest to discover a new storm petrel, the first new species in the genus in the last 92 years. Then Edmundo told us about his archaeological adventures in the Society and Marquesas Islands. After lunch, we watched a movie about the South Pacific, enjoyed ice cream and Bananas Foster at tea time, and Peter Z discussed The Famous Flowers of Polynesia, explaining their history and biology. We all gathered in the lounge for our final recap and briefing in the evening.

Monday morning, we boarded Zodiacs and divided up into groups on shore. Some went birding in 4-wheel-drive vehicles in search of the gray-green fruitdove; others boarded Les Trucks for a cultural tour of the island, stopping at villages and churches, and getting the flavor of life —including time at Bloody Mary's bar, a well-known institution with a stunning view of the lagoon. We also stopped at a local textile shop, where we were given a tie-dying demonstration, creating multicolored pareo cloths. They served fresh papaya and mango, as well as a delicious poi dessert. Another intrepid group went driving on the extremely steep slopes of the mountainside, in search of vistas. And a more aquatic adventure awaited those snorkeling in the lagoon, where they viewed a number of large stingrays and black-tipped reef sharks. Everyone was treated to handsome views of the azure bays and the central massif, Mt. Otemanu, in a setting that has earned Bora Bora the moniker, "Pearl of the Pacific."

Returning to the ship for lunch, we grabbed our gear for snorkeling and diving and jumped into the lagoon for the rest of the afternoon. Here, moray eels, spotted eagle rays, and orange-lined triggerfish dwelled in the coral. After the anchor was raised, we set a course for Tahiti while we enjoyed the captain’s farewell cocktails and dinner. Following dinner, we assembled in the lounge, where Cynthia Gneiser showed images from our voyage. We finally retired to pack and prepare ourselves for tomorrow in Tahiti.

Tuesday, September 30 - Papeete, Tahiti / Disembark / USA: After clearance by the French officials, we disembarked the Caledonian Sky. Our intrepid birdwatchers drove up a remote valley and experienced the intense precipitation of the rainforest, while crossing creeks and clambering into slot canyons in the abrupt volcanic terrain. Their endeavors yielded several endemic species, including a swift, a monarch, and a kingfisher. The rest of us admired the landscape from lower elevations and several nice viewpoints, including Point Venus, the site of Captain Cook's astronomical observations of a transit of Venus across the sun in 1769. We also admired the ornamental plantings at the home of James Norman Hall, author of several novels about the South Pacific, including Mutiny on the Bounty.

At the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands, our guides interpreted a number of exhibits explaining the Polynesian culture and natural history. There were handmade canoes, stitched together with coconut fiber and caulked with breadfruit latex, colorful feather capes, striking ferns, mother of pearl fishhooks, and nice maps of the region. We finally ended up at the InterContinental Resort Tahiti for the evening, where views of the jagged island of Moorea were delicious. The following day we headed to the airport, and our flights home.

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