If there ever was a paradise on this earth, it is Polynesia. These islands, formed slowly over millions of years in a violent but invisible storm which still continues to this day; the inner crust of the earth heaving innumerable tons of liquid rock from the ocean floor, building undersea mountains which over these millenea have gradually appeared above surface of the sea. We in the west know as schoolchildren the story of the prehistoric era of dinosaurs, the ice age, man crossing the land bridge and populating the Americas; all the while these islands had been slowly making their way higher into massive testaments to Earth’s power far into the sky in the middle of an otherwise vast and unpopulated ocean, one that would be known as the Pacific many years later.
At some point humans came to know these lands.
Why? No one really knows. Were they fleeing a bitter existence from a far away land? Seeking relief from famine, oppression, overpopulation? Were they driven by their ambition and curiosity, voyaging across the high seas in search of new lands to call their home simply because they could? The Polynesians came to inhabit what is known as ‘the Polynesian Triangle’, stretching on its three corners from New Zealand, to Easter Island, to Hawaii through the construction of massive outrigger canoes and an understanding of navigation that rivaled that of the most sophisticated of western navigators centuries later. As the Latins began to settle Italy and the Greeks brought ‘civilization’ to western Europe, the Polynesians pushed east into the unknown, settling in what we now call Samoa, Tahiti, Rapanui, Hawaii and finally New Zealand.
For thousands of years these people would not know the afflictions nor the luxuries of the West. They would develop a culture isolated from any other influences than that of their mother: the land, which noruishes, provides and protects; and their father: the sky, which punishes, directs and inspires. Polynesia: this place with no written language until it collided with the west in the 18th century, remains a mysterious place. One which now as a visitor has a peace and solitude not just because these are islands isolated by thousands of miles from what we may now call modern civilization, but because of its people, living a simpler life removed from but inevitably clashing daily with fortunate westerners who for obvious reasons come here to experience this paridiscial way of living if only for a few days.
Which brings me to our story. It is an odd feeling: one moment to be waiting at a food court in Los Angeles in a long line with travelers looking to order an overpriced pizza, to the next being on the same island which took men thousands of years ago months to reach in a death defying sail across the ocean. They brought with them their breadfruits, pigs, pineapples and chickens, eventually developing these islands into the livable utopia they are today, but we now found ourselves climbing down the stairs from the cabin of a 787 Dreamliner to the tarmac of Papeete International airport in the capitol of French Polynesia after what felt like a surprisingly short flight. Despite it been 5:30 AM, we were greeted by what Tahitians know westerners have come to expect of their paradise: flower necklaces, ukelele strumming men in native dresses, imposing wooden figurines resembling what hundreds of years ago were worshiped as Gods.
It would be hours until we reached our first destination of Moorea, and we stumbled like zombies making our way through passport control, on a bus, and finally on a ferry which brought us across the channel to much smaller but still impressive island. As you move northwest through the Society islands, all of them become older. Tahiti, being the youngest, still boasts a pair of giant mountains which are quickly recognizable as dormant volcanoes; Moorea its older cousin is less recognizable as a volcanic island, the Caldera of the volcano long since collapsed and the ocean creeping in forming bays and a protective lagoon around the island. Still older, Bora Bora, Tahaa, and Raiatea sunken to the sea much more and are not at all recognizable as what was once a mighty volcano. And finally, atolls like Mataiva; now merely rings in the ocean, its mountain having sunk as its mass became so great it settled back into the crust of the earth.
Through was is known as subsidence, what made these islands once so impressive eventually caused their demise as they sunk back down from where they came: their entire existence above the surface of the ocean mere blips in the course of the history of the world; but a long and fascinating lifecycle of birth, maturity and decline lasting millions of years for each one. And each one has its own unique story, which for the Polynesians has also become theirs: the youthful energy of Tahiti, the majestic and adventure filled Moorea, and the serenity and isolation of old Bora Bora. In all phases of this lifecycle nature has flourished here. Lush rainforests, coral reefs alive and teeming with stingrays, fish and sharks; humpback whales which stop here on their journey to and from the Arctic.
To travel here offers the ability to truly become immersed in all of this. On the island of Moorea, our local guide Maui, who was no less energetic but quite a bit smaller than Dwane Johnson’s Disney character who shares his name, gave us the opportunity to swim up from a distance to one of these whales who was making a stop here on her way up from the arctic for the winter. Protective regulations prohibit coming closer than 300 meters to these giants in a boat, but Maui explained that if the opportunity arose we could get out and swim towards them in the open ocean: a prospect at the time to me sounded both exhilarating and suicidal. But there we were, even though part of me secretly wished the opportunity never presented itself, the boat quickly moved to where Maui directed and as a few young ladies and Jenn indicated that they were going to the swim, so I decided that staying on the boat was no longer an option to survive with my pride intact.
For sure, we were going up to a creature that is as peaceful and non-violent as a hippie in a rainstorm, but also one that is the size of 20 pick up trucks. We jumped out of the boat and watched from about 100 yards of this giant mama breached from the surface and made a splash in the sea that looked like an explosion. I couldn’t help but wonder…. is she just having fun or showing her power to warn us to stay back? I didn’t think of this too much as we paddled over to her in the open sea with our heads below water. Despite that apprehension, the small part of my brain that told me I was on a suicide mission to go up next to this beast, those minutes swimming underwater towards her were one of the most peaceful of my life. Her singing, loud enough to be heard far off, was one i’d heard in movies and documentaries, but nothing I’d ever expected to hear for myself; looking down in the ocean as the sea became a deep blue bordering on black. It was an environment where clearly I was the guest and no longer in charge.
For what was maybe a couple minutes but seemed like hours, we came face to face with this peaceful giant. In the turquoise water, slowly her dark blue body began to become clear. And there she was. This monstrous yet graceful figure floating just under the surface, not concerned at all that eight anxious swimmers in flippers and snorkels were now just by her, and she looked on at us as if we she were our old friend. I would like to think at that moment we and her were something like that… friends… She looking to us with a smile and us to her. And as her rough hewn skin and massive aged fins floated we were for a few minutes. And then she dove in to the deep.
And then there was Bora Bora. Among the older of the Society Islands. Life here is simple. And I do not mean that to marginalize or make less of the people here who call this home. Even they will tell you so. They take pride in the simplicity of it all… the island way of living; the sea. The mountain called Otemanu which takes its names from the birds that would begin to fly off in disruption to warn when foreigners would sail into the otherwise peaceful turquoise lagoon. This island has like most places been thrust into the 21st century recently… being an American air force base in WWII (please give me that job), and as a result of the massive airfield left in its wake, the first international layover for many commercial airliners flying from the USA to Australia.
But since then the commotion has died back down, but has left an infrastructure that allows Bora Bora to be both accessible and remote, a rare combination in our world or over-tourism and red eye adventures. A day spent in Bora Bora is like a thousand elsewhere. Knowing you are over 2,000 miles from western civilization (save the many resorts on the island) and waking up to the huge but dying mountain of Otemanu gives a peacefulness which I really cant describe. The reef. The rocky island. The coconut palms. It all just feels like this was what the Earth was meant to look and feel like before we came along, but somehow we were there enjoying and experiencing it all.
On the morning we left, I was thinking of Jacob… he was so excited from our Facetimes to see the sharks, the sting rays, the whales and the ocean; his childhood fantasies from Moana, Finding Nemo and the little Mermaid that we had just lived. It was with a child’s wonder that we discovered Tahiti, and it was the same wonder in which we left. Those massive island mountains… some of them in their youth that will rival Hawaii in their awesomeness in mere millions of years, and others like Bora Bora which in that same time will be subterranean mounds hundreds of feet below the surface of the ocean; they all with their own story; a story which even though on our trip made time seem to stop was just a tiny snapshot in their history… not even a chapter in their lives as they have pushed up underwater for millennia, gasped for air for what seems to us forever but a tiny slice of this world’s history, and now become heaven on earth as they fall back below.