Faces of Polynesia

2017 Faces of Polynesia Field Report

Rich Pagen|December 14, 2017|Field Report

Tuesday, October 24, 2017 - Nadi, Fiji / Embark Caledonian Sky

We converged on the city of Nadi from distant reaches of the planet for the same reason: to embark on an expedition to experience the culture, wildlife, and landscapes of the South Pacific, from Fiji to Tahiti. We arrived at the Westin Denarau Island Resort, some of us coming a day or more early to explore Fiji on our own. Before meeting as a group for lunch, some of us wandered the waterfront or took a dip in the pool, while others attempted to photograph the beautiful red-headed parrot finches that foraged around the hotel grounds.

After lunch, we met local guides who introduced us to the history and culture of Fiji. We visited The Garden of the Sleeping Giant, where hundreds of varieties of orchids are cultivated, and wandered the beautiful grounds, pausing occasionally to watch red-vented bulbuls forage in the lush
vegetation. We then stopped in at Vei Sei Sei village, where we met some of the locals, visited the church, and learned all about how tribal society in Fiji works. We also learned about Fiji’s significant Indian population, many of whom are descendants of contract laborers who came over to work the sugar cane fields during the British rule.

Late in the afternoon, we arrived at the pier and boarded the Caledonian Sky, which would be our home for the next few weeks. We settled in onboard and gathered in the lounge for a safety briefing, followed by Expedition Leader Michael Moore, affectionately known as MiMo, introducing us to the staff, and Cruise Director Lynne Greig sharing an overview of the ship.


Wednesday, October 25 - Taveuni

This morning we arrived at Taveuni, the third largest island in Fiji, often referred to as “The Garden Island.” After breakfast, we went ashore to explore this lush paradise, with the birders setting out on an all day excursion to search for some of the local and endemic birds. Their search was not an easy one, but they lucked out with an excellent look at the orange dove, one of the most beautiful pigeons in the world.

The rest of us split into groups, with some hiking to a spectacular waterfall. The drive along the coast to the trailhead was gorgeous, the brilliant turquoise water broken only by gentle waves breaking occasionally over the extensive reef system offshore. Some of us paused at the first falls for a swim, while others continued higher for a view over the area and a look at another waterfall further up the mountain.

Those of us interested in exploring the culture of the island visited a community house, where we were greeted by school children and women singing. We sampled chicken, taro, and cassava prepared in an earth oven pit lined with hot rocks, and learned about basket- and mat-weaving from local artisans. After putting a leg on each side of the International Date Line, we visited a historic Catholic church.

Following lunch on board, we met Jack Grove for a briefing about snorkel operations, while the divers headed off for their first dive. After our briefings, we landed on a beautiful beach, where we 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 dressed in our Sunday best and gathered in for Captain Håkon Gustafsson’s Welcome Cocktail Party. We mingled over champagne, and the captain introduced us to some of his senior officers.


Thursday, October 26 - Futuna, Territory of Wallis and Futuna

With Fiji well behind us, we awoke to a new country outside, technically a collective of France, the Territory of Wallis and Futuna. Though linked through French colonialism, the language, customs, culture, and artistic traditions of the two islands are distinctly different. While Wallis has ancestral ties with Tonga, Futuna traces its roots to Samoa.

We set off to explore the island of Futuna, where the birders caught glimpses of crimson-crowned fruit doves. Pacific kingfishers perched out in the open, their bright white underparts gleaming in the sun, while small groups of Polynesian starlings foraged in the treetops.

We piled into an assortment of “the best available vehicles” on the island and set out to explore, starting at an overlook with spectacular views over the coastline. We visited the shrine of the South Pacific’s only saint, Pierre Chanel, as well as a magnificent white-washed church. We also watched a cultural performance, the centerpiece of which was an endearing little boy dressed in a costume of the brightest colors. There was plenty of roast pig, breadfruit, taro, and bananas in coconut milk to be sampled.

After lunch, the snorkelers and divers set out to explore the underwater world. It was quite something to watch frigatebirds soaring and harassing red-footed boobies for their food, while we floated in the pristine clear water. Pairs of reticulated butterflyfish circulated around the reef, picking at tasty morsels wherever they could be had, and huge sea cucumbers were spotted on the fine white sand, lazily spending their day sifting through the sediment for bits of organic material to feed on. Every now and again, groups of very large fruit bats called flying foxes passed overhead, flying from one island to another to feed.

Before dinner, we gathered for Recap, during which Annette Kuhlem talked about Fiji’s history of cannibalism, and Rich Pagen summarized our day with pictures of everyone having a great time with the locals on the remote island of Futuna.


Friday, October 27 - 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 the island of Wallis, driving down the coast to visit the site where 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.

We first drove up to an overlook of a large crater lake, where brown noddies and white terns flew over the water’s surface, before heading 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 wintertime.

On the way back to the ship, we stopped at the coral limestone block cathedral and some of us visited the stamp shop. After lunch, some of us lounged in the water off a gorgeous beach, while others snorkeled on the outer reef. Huge swarms of plankton-eating chromis sparkled in the sunlight as they picked off tasty morsels drifting past in the gentle currents. Blue linkia sea stars were everywhere, and mushroom corals were scattered about on the sandy bottom. Some of us saw a manta ray cruise past the reef, likely arriving to have parasites picked off its skin by the resident cleaner wrasses.

Back onboard, we watched a gorgeous sunset as the ship passed through Wallis’ fringing reef, before heading to Recap where Tom Hiney shared information about some of the plants we’ve been seeing, and Brad Climpson introduced us to corals and their varied growth forms.


Saturday, October 28 - Niuafo’ou, Kingdom of Tonga

The isolated island of Niuafo’ou is essentially a huge volcanic caldera with a lake occupying the middle, and an endemic bird—the Tongan megapode—that lives only on the few islands that dot the lake. Those of us eager to spot this rare bird piled into vehicles and set off on an epic journey. With some very determined searching, we spotted the elusive bird, which lays its eggs in warm volcanic soil, letting the heat from the earth take care of the incubation for it.

Meanwhile, the hikers crossed lava flows formed as recently as the 1940s, and cut through forest interspersed with small farms of taro and kava. We munched on papaya, washing it down with water straight out of freshly cut coconuts. We also watched our young guides gobble up a very 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! We arrived at a remote village, with our accompanying local dog, and boarded flatbed trucks used as school buses, which took us on a circumnavigation of the island.

Others headed out to meet the locals of several small villages. They participated in a kava ceremony, watched a cultural performance, and hiked up to the crater rim for a view of the massive lake below.

After lunch, the divers dropped in on a coral garden and were greeted by a few sea turtles, as well as a multitude of brightly colored fish. The snorkelers watched white-spotted surgeonfish and big schools of orange-spine unicornfish graze filamentous algae off the rocks. Some of us spotted banded sea kraits, and those of us who swam into some of the sheltered coves were treated with views of the very entertaining rockskippers, flopping about like worms on the wet rock just above the waterline.

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


Sunday, October 29 - Fonualei Island / Toku / Vava’u

Today was a true expedition day through and through. MiMo had a few uninhabited islands in mind and sent some staff members out to explore Fonualei Island, while Brad gathered us in the lounge for his presentation, Coral Reefs: Rainforests of the Sea. Brad introduced us to the important mutual relationship between corals and the algae that lives in the tissue of the coral polyps. But Brad’s lecture was interrupted when a call came from the bridge that a number of humpback whales had been spotted around the ship. We grabbed our cameras and binoculars and headed out on deck to watch the show; it was wonderful to see these magnificent leviathans, which were soon to head south to their rich feeding grounds off of Antarctica.

With rough conditions at Fonualei, we set course for the island of Toku; though conditions were also unsuitable for a landing or watersports, we encountered numerous cow/calf pairs of humpbacks just offshore. We watched in awe as both mothers and their young breached nearly continuously, putting up huge whitewater as their massive bodies landed back in the sea. As we watched, a pod of bottlenose dolphins angled in towards the ship and began bow-riding alongside us!

After lunch, we arrived at the island of Vava’u, where we found a very sheltered stretch of coastline perfect for snorkeling, diving, and Zodiac cruising. The snorkelers watched parrotfish rasping algae off the rocky reef, while the divers got close-up looks at striking lemonpeel angelfish darting from one hiding place to another. The Zodiac cruisers explored the rocky shoreline, watching flocks of brown noddies feeding on small fish at the sea surface.


Monday, October 30 - Neiafu, Vava’u Islands

After breakfast this morning, we came alongside a dock in Neiafu, the capital of Tonga. This town of 6,000 residents contrasted sharply to the remote villages we had become familiar with; 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, while the rest of us joined some of the locals for a walking tour of town, starting with a visit with the local kindergarteners who performed lovely songs and dances for us. We also visited a park commemorating the Tongan kings who played a major role in keeping Tonga an independent nation, as well as the local market, where various produce and handicrafts were on offer. It was an interesting and bustling community, and some of us popped into a café for a coffee before heading back to the ship for brunch.

Around midday, the divers explored large underwater caverns, and the snorkelers set off from a sandy beach where small-spotted darts patrolled the shallows. Shrimp gobies kept watch outside their little burrows in the sand, while their partners, snapping shrimp, performed continuous maintenance on their shared home. We also found groups of garden eels sticking up out of the sandy bottom, swaying back and forth in the current as they periodically snapped up unsuspecting shrimp drifting past.

Later in the afternoon, we boarded Zodiacs to explore the islands and the karst limestone topography of the area. 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 a 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.

Back on board, we joined Brent Stephenson for his talk, The World Through a Lens, an introduction to some common approaches to working with camera exposure.


Monday, October 30 - Alofi, Niue

After a rather bumpy night onboard, crossing the International Date Line, many of us took full advantage of our morning at sea to have a bit of a sleep in, resting up after several busy days in Tonga. Rich soon kicked off the morning with his lecture, Drama Like Your Favorite Soap Opera: Competition, Adaptation, and Deception on the Reef, sharing stories of the amazing relationships found on the coral reef.

After a relaxing lunch, we took Zodiacs ashore to explore Niue, one of the smallest self-governing countries in the world. Some of us explored the remarkable coastal sites around Niue, all of them dominated by the sharp karst rock that is everywhere. We took several hikes out to sea caves and chasms, eroded through and into the limestone rock, where we watched beautiful black butterflies flitting about from flower to flower.

Others 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 a vanilla plantation, a cultural museum, and an experimental farm that teaches high school students the ins and outs of horticulture of ornamental and fruit plants.

Meanwhile, the snorkelers watched foraging ornate butterflyfish and groups of Achilles tangs picking filamentous algae off the bare rock. The divers encountered a plethora of Niue sea kraits on their dive, as well as beautiful volcanic rock terrain.

Before dinner, Brent showed hilarious before and after photos of us tasting noni juice, and Annette spoke about gender ambiguity in Polynesian society.


Tuesday & Wednesday, October 31 & November 1 - At Sea / Palmerston, Cook Islands

We awoke this morning to whitecaps on the sea, and a gentle rocking and rolling of the ship. After breakfast, we joined Jack’s lecture, Fishes of the Tropical Pacific: Part 1, before Annette spoke on, Following the Wind, the Stars, the Birds: The Settling of the Pacific Islands. After lunch, many of us relaxed before Brad’s talk, Mechanisms of Dispersal: Life in the Big Blue, during which we learned about the importance of plankton, the tiny organisms that drift with the currents, and which make up the base of the ocean’s food chain. Following a delicious Chocoholics Halloween Tea, we joined Brent for the final presentation of the day, Seabirds of the Tropical Pacific.

Over breakfast the following morning, we arrived off the west side of Palmerston Atoll. Just under seven miles across at its widest point, the atoll is dotted with 35 tiny islands around its pear-shaped barrier reef. William Marsters, a legendary settler, arrived here to set up a coconut plantation in 1863; his descendants still live here, currently numbering 39 individuals, though many more live elsewhere in the Cook Islands and New Zealand.

We sped ashore in Zodiacs, where we were greeted by locals who welcomed us with a song and dance. Afterwards, we broke into groups to wander through the small settlement, including a visit to the school which is currently served by three teachers from overseas. It was a remarkable remote community to witness and experience.

We returned to the ship for lunch, before going ashore to a beautiful white sand beach in the afternoon for some swimming and beach combing. The snorkelers explored between two anchored Zodiac platforms and found stingrays, sea turtles, and a few reef sharks. The divers had one of their best dives yet, with huge numbers of fish in attendance, including massive Napoleon wrasses and large schools of Moorish idols.


Thursday, November 2 - Aitutaki

After breakfast this morning, Jack introduced us to more of the fish diversity in this part of the world, in his lecture, Fishes of the Tropical Pacific: Part 2, before a briefing from MiMo about our plans for visiting Aitutaki 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; the costume changes took place almost as quickly as the hip shakes! After the performance, the birders went off in search of the blue lorikeet, a stunning parrot found only in this part of the world. Those interested in island life and culture boarded a small bus, and were shown around the island by one of the locals. We visited the hospital, a school, and learned about mahogany and ironwood trees on the way out to the old airstrip.

Others boarded small boats for a ride through the lagoon, stopping in 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. Isolated reefs sheltered numerous pipefish, close cousins of sea horses, as well as farmer damselfish that aggressively defended their algae food patches.

Back on the ship, we shared stories from the day over drinks at the Zegrahm Expeditions and Victor Emanuel Nature Tours cocktail party.


Friday, November 3 - Atiu

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 its 400 residents) are situated up away from the coast. We boarded Zodiacs and wove our way inside the zigzagging seawall, without which coming ashore would be impossible due to huge breaking waves.

We were greeted by an Atiuan warrior, and we headed off to explore the island. The birders visited various habitats for chattering kingfishers, the spectacular Kuhl’s lorikeet, and the Raratonga monarch. 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 the site where Captain Cook’s party came shore at Atiu during his first voyage, an old burial ground, a beautiful forested nature reserve on the south shore of the island, and the communications tower, which now boasts one of the fastest satellite connections in the world! Most of us saw Atiu swiftlets foraging for insects over the roads; these birds, found nowhere else in the world, are one of the few to have evolved the ability to find their way in the dark using bio-sonar!

We dried off back onboard and enjoyed a leisurely lunch before joining Rich for his talk, Productivity on the Coral Reef: How Interspecies Relationships Have Built an Empire, followed by Annette’s presentation, A Palm-Fringed Paradise? What Life on Polynesian Islands Was Really Like.

Following dinner tonight, many of us festively danced and sang the night away up on the Lido deck with the crew.


Saturday, November 4 - At Sea / Mopelia Atoll

With calm seas throughout the night, we slept like logs, resting up from our busy time exploring the Cook Islands. We scanned the blue water for seabirds, and admiring the occasional flying fish flushing from our approaching ship. We lingered during breakfast until Lynne announced the first lecture of the day, Mike Murphy’s hilarious, Roughy Toughy Deep Sea Divers. Sacha Guggenheimer followed with, Fantastic Plastic: Once the Savior of Species, Now the Polluter of Untold Ecosystems: Where Do We Go From Here?

After lunch, the snorkelers and divers set out to explore the very remote Mopelia Atoll. The divers drifted along the outer reef, past a multitude of different types of fish, including the usually nocturnal soldierfish and schools of raccoon butterflyfish. The snorkelers drifted from the lagoon into the channel that drains the atoll. Yellow goatfish hovered in the water column above the reef, while giant trevallies and white-tipped reef sharks patrolled the sand-filled channels. It was an incredible snorkel site, teaming with wrasses and surgeonfish, with coral heads pitted with dozens of brightly colored Christmas tree worms.

Later in the afternoon, we set out in Zodiacs to explore the inner lagoon, scanning the shallows for spotted eagle rays, and the shoreline for roosting brown noddies. We made our way in the direction of a swirling cloud of sooty terns, which we found to be nesting by the thousands on a low-lying sandy island, with scattered low bushes where an occasional red-footed booby was roosting. The tern chicks were portly little balls of feathers, roaming en masse around the sand flat. We were amazed at the abilities of their parents to recognize and feed only their own chick, despite them all looking and sounding the same to us.

As the sky lit up a brilliant orange color at sunset, we maneuvered back through the cut in the reef to the Caledonian Sky, which was waiting safely outside for us.


Sunday, November 5 - Bora Bora, Society Islands, French Polynesia

The towering peaks of Bora Bora loomed in the distance as we maneuvered into the channel through the fringing reef. Reaching nearly 2,400 feet above the sea, these mountains are the remnants of an extinct volcano. After anchoring, the birders set off for a morning exploration of this beautiful island, successfully encountering the Society Islands endemic, gray-green fruit-dove. Others circled 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 local 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.

After lunch, those of us interested in looking at Bora Bora’s underwater world went off to do some snorkeling or diving. The snorkelers visited a sandflat where we experienced close encounters with huge stingrays, as well as an offshore reef teaming with triggerfish, blacktip reef sharks, and a few very large lemon sharks. We topped off the afternoon by pulling the catamaran up to a beautiful sand beach where we were greeted by the tiniest of puppies, and a smorgasbord of fresh tropical fruit.

We all gathered for the captain’s farewell cocktail party and a delicious dinner. Following dessert, we watched a wonderful retrospective slideshow of our trip, compiled by Brent. The photos were amazing, and our experiences from Fiji to Tahiti seemed both years ago and yesterday at the same time.


Monday, November 6 - 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! After breakfast, we all set out to tour the island paradise of Tahiti. The birders sought out the endemic Tahiti monarch, a striking jet black songbird found nowhere else in the world, while the rest of us visited the Tahiti Museum, home to a collection of artifacts from various periods of Tahiti’s history. We also explored a ceremonial complex called Arahurahu, one of the most beautifully restored marae in French Polynesia. We arrived at the Intercontinental Resort for lunch, where we feasted on the most delicious tuna carpaccio and fish salad. We circulated the room, saying our goodbyes, and those of us continuing on to Easter Island returned to the ship, while those traveling onward checked into the hotel.

We had 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 the celebration of the friends, both new and old, we have shared this journey with.



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