Faces of Polynesia

2015 Faces of Polynesia: Fiji to Tahiti Field Report

Rich Pagen|December 16, 2015|Field Report

Saturday & Sunday, October 17 & 18, 2015 - Nadi, Fiji / Lautoka / Embark Caledonian Sky / Taveuni

We converged on the city of Nadi to experience the culture, wildlife, and landscapes of the South Pacific, from Fiji to Tahiti. Some of us had arrived a day early to explore Fiji on our own, while others enjoyed the amenities of the lovely Westin Denarau Island Resort. After lunch, we met local guides who introduced us to the history and culture of Fiji, first visiting The Garden of the Sleeping Giant, where hundreds of varieties of orchids are cultivated, followed by Vei Sei Sei village, where we met some of the locals, visited the church, and learned about tribal society in Fiji.

Late in the afternoon, we boarded the Caledonian Sky, our home for the next few weeks. We settled in onboard, before gathering in the lounge for a safety briefing. Following a wonderful dinner served in the dining room, we were ready for a good night’s sleep.

The following morning we arrived at Taveuni, the third largest island in Fiji and often referred to as “The Garden Island.” The birders set out on an all day excursion in search of some of the endemic birds found here, finding one of the most beautiful pigeons in the world, the orange dove.

Some of us went for a hike to a spectacular waterfall; we paused periodically to look at collared kingfishers perched in snags along the road, and observed Pacific swallows overhead. Those of us who were interested in the culture of the island visited a village called Duivosavosa, where we got an inside look at Fijian village life. We watched tapa cloth production, participated in a kava ceremony, and finished the tour with a look at the charming Taveuni Catholic Church.

After lunch, we met Jack Grove for a briefing about snorkel operations, while the divers headed for a check out dive. The rest of us landed on a beautiful beach, and headed into the water to explore the reef. Christmas tree worms of every color imaginable had their homes on the large coral heads near shore, and several anemonefish were encountered taking refuge in their sea anemone homes. Various damselfish vigorously protected their algae farms, while butterflyfish of numerous species flitted around the reef foraging.

Once back on the ship, we gathered for Captain Håkon Gustafsson’s cocktail party. As we mingled over champagne, the captain introduced some of his senior officers; it was a great party, and we very much looked forward to our arrival tomorrow in the Territory of Wallis and Futuna.

Monday, October 19 - Futuna, Territory of Wallis & Futuna

Today, we set off to explore the island of Futuna, where the birders encountered a honeyeater attempting to eat a stick insect, which was flashing its bright wing coloration as a warning. Another highlight was a roost of red-footed boobies, which allowed excellent looks at this gorgeous seabird.

Those of us interested in getting in a good hike headed into the interior of the island through primary forest, passing occasional small farms of pineapple, taro, and papaya trees. We met a few local farmers along the way, and admired a crumbling old stone wall that must have been from centuries earlier. The vines and epiphytes in the forest were impressive, as was the sacred kingfisher we spotted perched on a tree branch.

The rest of us, interested in soaking up some culture, visited the shrine of the South Pacific’s only saint, Pierre Chanel. We also watched a cultural performance, and stopped at a women’s artisanal village where we had the opportunity to purchase locally made handicrafts.

After lunch, the snorkelers and divers set out to explore the underwater world. It was quite something to watch frigatebirds soaring overhead while we floated in the pristine clear water. We encountered two very friendly porcupinefish, which were being cleaned of parasites by several bluestreak cleaner wrasses—the wrasses worked every corner of the fish, including inside the gills and mouth! Other highlights included longnose filefish, regal angelfish, and some nocturnal fish, like squirrelfish and soldierfish, which were already showing themselves as the afternoon sun got lower and lower in the sky.

Before dinner, we gathered for recap, during which Brad Climpson spoke about mushroom corals, Annette Kuhlem talked about Fiji’s history of cannibalism, and Rich Pagen presented a natural history of South Pacific flip flops.

Tuesday, October 20 - Wallis

We pulled back the curtains to yet another beautiful day here in the South Pacific. After breakfast, we set out for a tour of Wallis, stopping first at an overlook of a large crater lake. While Jack talked about eels, we watched white-tailed tropicbirds soar in courtship pairs over the water. These beautiful seabirds utilize the cliff ledges to build their nests where they raise their single chick.

We then headed to a restored 14th-century fort, where we hydrated with fresh coconuts, and watched lizards basking on the trunks of the palm trees. While Annette and the local guides interpreted the site for us, we watched Pacific golden plovers forage in the cut grass for insects. These remarkable birds breed up on the Arctic tundra, and migrate to the Pacific islands for the winter.

We drove down to the coast, watching banded rails scurry across the road as we went, and eventually ended up at a site where the Americans first came ashore during World War II. An introduced vine that now covers most everything on the island is thought to have been brought by the Americans to hide planes and other gear, making them difficult to spot from above.

After lunch, we snorkeled from a beautiful beach out along a reef that had everything—sharp drop offs, coral heads, and rubble flats where shrimp gobies shared burrows in the sand with their hard-working shrimp partner. Huge blue sea stars, teardrop butterflyfish, and mushroom corals were some of the other highlights. Soon the hotel department came over with cold drinks, and we sat in the shallows or lounged on the beach, which we shared with both color morphs of Pacific reef egret.

We watched a gorgeous sunset as the ship passed back out through Wallis’ fringing reef, before heading to recap where Brent Stephenson discussed the mottled petrels and sooty shearwaters migrating past, and Rich gave examples of mutualisms on the reef.

Wednesday, October 21 - Niuafo’ou, Kingdom of Tonga

The isolated island of Niuafo’ou is essentially a huge volcanic caldera with a central lake; an endemic bird called the Tongan megapode that lives only on a few islands dotting the middle of the lake. Those of us intrigued with the possibility of seeing this rare bird piled into vehicles and set off on an epic journey. Upon arriving at the lake, we took turns shuttling across to one of the islands in a small motorboat that can only be described as ‘simple.’ With a little searching, we spotted the bird, which lays its eggs in warm volcanic soil, letting the heat from the earth take care of the incubation.

Meanwhile, the hikers went on what can only be described as a culinary hike of Niuafo’ou. With some excellent local guides, we crossed lava flows formed as recently as the 1940s, and cut through rainforest interspersed with small farms of taro and sweet potato. We snacked on mango and papaya, washing it down with water straight out of freshly cut coconuts. Some of us even tried an interesting local delicacy, a large beetle grub about three inches long that lives under tree bark, the taste of which was described to us as ice cream or oatmeal. (Not sure if those who came up with that description have ever had ice cream or oatmeal!)

Others headed out to meet the local people in several small villages. We mingled with the school children and watched a cultural performance, before hiking up to the crater rim for a view of the massive lake below.

After lunch, the divers dropped in on a coral garden, greeted by banded sea kraits and giant trevallies, as well as a multitude of brightly colored fish. The snorkelers explored rocky ridges carved out by the sea, interspersed with massive boulders. In the surge zone, we watched white-spotted surgeonfish, big schools of orange-spine unicornfish graze filamentous algae off the rocks, and even a few bright white sand perch.

In the evening, some of the locals came aboard the ship to put on a performance of song and dance for us. They were very excited to get a tour of the ship afterwards, a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many of them.

Thursday, October 22 - Niuatoputapu / Tafahi

During the early morning hours, we dropped anchor off the Tongan Island of Niuatoputapu. We boarded Zodiacs and came ashore on a jetty, where the locals were waiting to greet us with beautiful flower leis. With the low tide upon us, huge intertidal flats stretched out for more than a half-mile from shore; we saw groups of pigs foraging next to reef egrets, and local villagers were also out on the flats, collecting snails for food and soaking pandanus leaves to soften them for weaving.

We mingled with the locals, who hadn’t had a passenger ship visit here in five years—the last one was also Zegrahm! A minister led us in a welcome prayer, and we piled into various personal vehicles to explore the island. We stopped at a school; visited the cemetery where the nine casualties from the 2009 tsunami are buried; and went to a freshwater spring. Our final stop on the island was the community center, where we gathered for a kava ceremony. The roots of the kava plant are ground up to produce a drink with sedative and anesthetic properties, which has significant cultural significance to the people of the South Pacific.

We returned to the ship for lunch and cruised to a small volcanic island just to the north, called Tafahi. The divers dropped in on eroded lava terrain, populated by a variety of reef fish, including a high diversity of triggerfish. Those who went to the beach watched white terns and noddies circling everywhere above the lush, steep slopes. Others climbed 150 steep steps up to a small village of seven families, where Annette led us around. The snorkelers found interesting canyon-like topography, where a nocturnal fish called copper sweeper was spotted with a parasitic isopod attached to its face. A pair of ornate butterflyfish, a pinktail trigger, and numerous blennies diving in and out of holes in the rock, were other highlights.

As we left the area, some humpback whales were spotted, and we detoured to see these magnificent leviathans. Following Annette’s talk, Lapita: The Ancestors of the Oceanic Peoples, we met for a drink and recap, during which Brad spoke about what the divers have been seeing, Rich highlighted some fish from the day, and Jack spoke of the conservation issues whales face around the world.

Friday, October 23 (PART 1) - Neiafu, Vava’u Islands

After breakfast, we came alongside a dock in Neiafu, the capital of Tonga. This town of 6,000 residents contrasted sharply to the remote villages we have become very familiar with so far on this trip. We actually had to look both ways before crossing the roads! The birders set off to search for the Tongan whistler, a beautiful yellow bird endemic to these islands. The rest of us joined some of the locals for a walking tour of town, starting with a visit to the local market, where taro roots, bits of various types of seafood in old plastic water bottles, and handicrafts were a few of the items on offer. We also visited a beautiful white church, as well as a park commemorating the Tongan kings who played a major role in keeping Tonga an independent nation.

Around midday, the divers set off to explore some large underwater caverns, while the snorkelers watched sunset wrasses, lemon-peel angelfish, and an assortment of beautiful parrotfish patrolling the reef in search of algae to rasp off the rocks. Others opted to go ashore on a beautiful white sand beach, to lounge on the sand, snorkel in the shallows, or do a bit of beachcombing.

We then all boarded Zodiacs to explore the islands and the stunning karst limestone topography. Erosion from wave action had created spectacular overhangs, where rock crabs ran about foraging on algae. Freshwater runoff eats away at limestone, leaving caves and sinkholes, some of which we could even enter into with the Zodiac! Once inside, we turned the engine off to listen to the echolocation clicks of hundreds of white-rumped swiftlets coming and going from the cave. We could also see the swiftlet nests high above on the cave ceiling. These nests are constructed with vegetation and cemented together with the birds’ saliva. A close cousin of this bird, the edible-nest swiftlet, builds its nest solely of saliva; and the nests are harvested for the delicacy known as “birds’ nest soup.”

Back on the ship, we lined the ship’s railings to watch a mother and calf humpback whale, which put on quite the show. We then joined Rich for his talk, Productivity on the Coral Reef: How Interspecies Relationships Have Built an Empire.

Friday, October  23 (PART 2) - Alofi, Niue

We awoke to open sea all around us, and a brilliant blue sky overhead. Brent kicked off the morning’s lectures with his talk, Seabirds of the Tropical Pacific. From tropicbirds to boobies to storm-petrels, Brent introduced us to the varied community of birds that can be found on the warm tropical seas we are traveling through. We then grabbed a cup of coffee and joined Brian Gibbons out on deck to scan for seabirds and marine mammals, before Brad’s presentation, Mechanisms of Dispersal: How to Get Yourself Out There. Brad spoke about the importance of plankton, the tiny organisms that drift with the currents, and make up the base of the ocean’s food chain.

After good conversation over a relaxing lunch, we took Zodiacs ashore to explore Niue, one of the smallest self-governing countries in the world. The birders sought out such species as Polynesian triller and Polynesian starling, while the divers dropped in some fascinating limestone terrain, where sea kraits and a variety of surgeonfish were highlights. The snorkelers drove around the island to explore the underwater world in two very different sites—the first was a gorgeous protected cove with several species of sea cucumbers as well as fourspot butterflyfish. We looked on as a goatfish rummaged through the sediment with its chemo-sensitive barbels, and a curious checkerboard wrasse hovered close hoping to sneak in and snatch up anything tasty that was revealed by the goatfish. The second site was a gully carved into the limestone by the sea, where Achilles tangs and surge wrasses foraged in the shady chasm.

Some of us went out to a farm to learn about noni, also called Indian mulberry, a little-known tropical fruit with a long list of supposed health benefits. We visited some women who were demonstrating weaving and who made a delicious pineapple and coconut cream snack for us to nibble on.

Others took several hikes out to sea caves, eroded into the limestone rock, as well as an archway down on a beautiful and remote stretch of coast.

Saturday, October 24 - Beveridge Reef

This morning we found ourselves 130 nautical miles from Niue, at a remote atoll known as Beveridge Reef, which completely submerges at high tide. The staff scoured the area for the best snorkeling opportunities, and soon we were boarding Zodiacs on the back platform, ready for a drift snorkel along the reef. The tidal flow was slight, but enough to give us a relaxing ride in the clearest water one could imagine. Giant clams (their name a misnomer in this case, as these clams were rather diminutive in size) were quite common, as were an assortment of striking parrotfish.

At one point, we drifted over a deep canyon with a sand bottom, where large schools of snappers patrolled. Perhaps the most impressive sight was the number of sharks present, mostly gray reef but also white-tipped reef sharks. Their silhouettes stood out against the white sand below, and we couldn’t help but recognize how off-the-beaten-path we were, a place where fishing pressure appeared to be nonexistent. Once we reached the end of the reef, we hopped back in the Zodiac and repositioned to the start for yet another drift.

As the morning progressed, the tide dropped, and soon bits of the atoll poked up above the sea surface. We went back to the ship to get ourselves organized for a landing on a now-exposed sand cay, where we wandered around beachcombing. Lots of pumice with attached gooseneck barnacles had washed up on the shore, and crabs held tight to bits of driftwood left up on the sand.

Some of us opted for a Zodiac cruise around the central lagoon, spotting green turtles foraging in the shallows, and reef sharks patrolling the sand flats. Small fish hid beneath pieces of flotsam, while flying fish flushed and spread their massive pectoral fins at the approach of our Zodiac.

Back on the ship, we enjoyed a relaxing afternoon at sea, only interrupted by a trip to the lounge for Swedish pancakes, prepared by the Hotel Department as well as the captain and chief officer (both Swedes!). This was followed by Jack’s very interesting talk, The Fishes of Polynesia.

Sunday & Monday, October 25 & 26 - At Sea / Aitutaki, Cook Islands

With a gentle rocking to keep us moving, most of us joined Annette for the first lecture of the day, Following the Wind, the Stars, the Birds: The Settling of the Pacific Islands. Rich followed with Drama Like Your Favorite Soap Opera: Competition, Adaptation, and Deception on the Reef, before an afternoon at leisure. We met up again for an Ice Cream Social, followed by Brent’s excellent how-to photography lecture, The World Through a Lens. Before dinner, we grabbed a cocktail and participated in a rousing game of How Well Do You Know Your Expedition Staff? We were on the edge of our seats as each staff member revealed which crazy story actually applied to them, and laughing uncontrollably as they explained. It was a wonderful event, followed by a lively dinner.

We awoke the following morning to glorious calm seas, and the brilliant blues and greens of the fringing reef around Aitutaki. A few humpback whales were fluking behind the ship during breakfast, after which we joined one of the locals in the lounge for a presentation about pearl farming. The snorkelers soon jumped in over a rocky reef where a huge school of white-spotted surgeonfish grazed algae, and emperor angelfish lurked under ledges. Small coral heads hosted several species of hawkfish, including the brilliant brick-colored flame hawkfish. We also saw schools of Vanderbilt’s and midget chromis.

After lunch, we went ashore in a small village where we were greeted with ice-cold coconuts to drink, and the most beautiful flower leis. Men and women from the village performed intricate dances to the changing tempos and beats of a very talented percussion group. Once the performance was finished, the birders went off in search of the blue lorikeet, a stunning parrot found nowhere else in the world. Those interested in island life boarded a small bus, and were shown around by one of the locals. Others boarded small boats for a ride through the lagoon, stopping at an area where giant clams were being propagated. The white sandy bottom was striking through such clear water, and we snorkeled around admiring the various sizes and colors of clams. But the highlight of the snorkel had to be the enormous four-foot-long giant trevally, a massive silver fish that was as curious about us as we were about it. From there, the boats stopped at a tiny sand island, where red-tailed tropicbirds could be watched at close range.

Tuesday, October 27 - Atiu / Takutea

This morning we arrived off of the small island of Atiu, an old raised coral reef with a high central plateau. The coastline of this lush island is predominantly steep and rocky, and the five villages on the island (and the 400 residents) are situated up away from the coast. We were greeted by an Atiuan warrior before heading off to explore the island. Some of us went for a beautiful hike through the jagged limestone terrain, under the cover of dense jungle. Our goal was a cave system in the limestone, which is home to a nesting colony of Atiu swiftlets. As we left the tropical sun behind and disappeared into the cave, the clicks of echolocating swiftlets reverberated throughout the cave; one of the few birds in the world that has evolved the ability to find its way in the dark using bio-sonar, the Atiu swiftlet is found nowhere else in the world!

The birders explored various habitats for chattering kingfishers, the spectacular Kuhl’s lorikeet, and the Rarotonga monarch, and the rest of us piled in the back of pick-up trucks for a very personal tour of the island, each local guide proudly showing us their own version of the not-to-be-missed highlights. Stops included a visit with the children at a school; the new quarry where the material for road construction is processed; the countryside bars where the locals go to unwind; and even the oldest horse on the island, which also happens to be the ONLY horse on the island (making it also the YOUNGEST horse on the island!).

We shared stories of the morning over lunch, as we repositioned to a small island called Takutea. Bristle-thighed curlews, an Arctic nesting bird, stalked small crabs in the intertidal zone, while peppered moray eels did the same from inside the tidepools. Red-footed boobies nested in the trees, while frigatebirds harassed red-tailed tropicbirds in attempts to get them to regurgitate food as payment to terminate the harassment.

The divers dropped in on some excellent coral cover, where a giant moray eel took shelter in the nooks and crannies of the reef. The snorkelers drifted over steep canyons, where nighttime feeders like soldierfish and squirrelfish lurked in caves, and tiny flame angelfish flitted about feeding in the pockmarked crevices created by rock-boring urchins.

Wednesday & Thursday, October 28 & 29 - At Sea / Bora Bora, Society Islands, French Polynesia

A relaxing morning, we lingered until the first lecture of the day, Brad’s Bits and Bobs: A Collection of Marine Life. Later, we joined Executive Chef Joerg Lehmann in the lounge for a cooking demonstration, followed by Annette’s talk, A Palm-Fringed Paradise: What Life on Polynesian Islands Was Really Like. We continued our relaxing day into the afternoon, before Mike Murphy’s presentation, Roughy Toughy Deep Sea Divers. In the evening, we donned our finest attire to join Captain Håkon Gustafsson at the farewell cocktail party, mingled over champagne and stories of our time here in the South Pacific, and enjoyed a superb dinner.

The next morning, the birders set off for a morning of exploration, successfully encountering the Society Islands’ endemic, gray-green fruit-dove. Others went off to circle the island, including a stop at an overlook of the bay, a gun emplacement from World War II with its ammunition storage bunker, and a gorgeous beach where great crested terns hunted small fish in the shallows. We also visited artists who showed us the process of dying Tahitian skirts called pareos. After a snack and some shopping, we continued on to Bloody Mary’s, a famous bar with a gorgeous view of the mountains across the water.

The snorkelers encountered moray eels, sting rays, and a manta ray cleaning station, where these enormous creatures come to shallow reefs for the benefit of the cleaner fish that pick parasites off them. Another highlight was encountering several species of sharks, including a very large lemon shark.

After lunch, some of us returned for some shopping and exploring ashore. Others went out to a reef in the lagoon, where huge sea cucumbers picked through the detritus on the sandy bottom, and several species of butterflyfish carefully picked at the rocky reef for bits to eat. The highlight had to be the enormous moray eel that all the staff acknowledged was the largest they had ever seen!

We met for final recap before dinner, and after dessert, we watched a wonderful retrospective slideshow of our trip, compiled by Brent.

Friday, October 30 - Papeete, Tahiti / Disembark

We pulled back the curtains to the bustling town of Papeete, our first taste of traffic lights and ambulance sirens the entire trip! Those of us departing the ship this morning put our luggage out before breakfast, after which we all set out to tour the island paradise of Tahiti.

The birdwatchers sought out the endemic Tahiti monarch, a striking jet-black songbird found nowhere else in the world. The rest of us visited the former home of James Norman Hall, an American author best known for the novel Mutiny on the Bounty with co-author Charles Nordhoff. We visited the Tahiti Museum, with its collection of artifacts from various periods of Tahiti’s history.

We arrived at Hotel Intercontinental for lunch, where we feasted on the most delicious tuna carpaccio and seafood salad. We circulated around the room, saying our goodbyes, and then those of us continuing on to Easter Island returned to the ship, while those disembarking checked into the hotel. We have reached the end of our journey from Fiji to Tahiti. The final days of this expedition have been dominated by reflection on all we have seen and experienced, and celebration of the friends, both new and old, we have shared this journey with.


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