Field Notes / The Tuamotus: Life on an Atoll

Story and photos by Ashley Cunningham 

Day three on our sail from the Marquesas, clusters of coconut trees emerge from the sea appearing like a mirage in the distance. Pieces of land lay dotted along the horizon, disconnected from one another by the sea. Whitewash crashes before us over an unseen reef as we arrive at our first atoll in French Polynesia. This beautiful phenomenon is one of 77 atolls making up the Tuamotu Archipelago approximately 300 kilometers northeast of Papeete, Tahiti.

Its circular coral crown and interior turquoise lagoon distinguish the atoll from other islands. Created by an extinct volcano, the atoll formed as the volcanic land mass sank below the surface of the sea while its coral base grew, eventually becoming the barrier reef that exists today. Channels and rising sea levels caused the flow of ocean water over the former volcano becoming a unique interior lagoon full of life.

Today, the lagoon is home to hundreds of attractive fish for visitors exploring underwater depths including: grouper, angel, parrot, and unicorn fish. Small blacktip, whitetip and grey sharks—inquisitive as dogs—can be found darting around the lagoon. Meanwhile, nurse sharks inhabit the shallows, often spotted below the wooden docks that jut out next to tiki-roofed boat garages. Frigates, brown gannets, and white terns soar effortlessly in the sky above wide oyster farms where the sought-after black pearls of the region are cultivated.

While the lagoon has its own ecosystem, the channels that cut through the barrier reef allow the passage of more sizeable marine life. Here, a variety of larger sharks frequent the channel, including hammerheads and the occasional tiger.

Apart from fish, the reef lining the channels puts on a vibrant display. Its colors of blues, greens, purples, and yellows cascade down next to a wall of sea. The channel’s 100-foot clarity under a sunlit sky provides an underwater playground and diver’s paradise. Here, you may even witness the congregation of groupers spawning the next generation and the feeding frenzy of the sharks below.

The clear water in the atolls may be the draw for many, but French markets offering fresh baguettes may also sway you. The atolls provide a life of leisure and a beautiful blend of French and Tahitian culture. Mornings begin slowly in the atolls, and if you’re lucky you’ll stumble upon a hut serving café and crepes while fishing boats take off from their docks.

Back in land, locals riding bikes greet you by saying, “La ora na” (good morning) before you’ve even seen them. Stray dogs pass you with wagging tails. In some locations, piglets and puppies may surprise you by playing together on the coral sand beach. The lifestyle here is relaxing surrounded by clear, sunny skies and a glassy lagoon. Before the day is done, most have salty hair and sun-kissed skin. At sunset, you can set your watch for local paddlers as they gracefully pass in their Tahitian outrigger canoes. Moonrise brings the day to a close, the air quiet and sky full of stars with little light pollution to disrupt the view. There are no late-night hangouts or fancy resorts on the atolls, but rather lagoon-side tiki huts serving cold Hinano until they run out.

The atolls are separated from the rest of French Polynesia and quite isolated, most without an airport. Supply ships carrying fresh produce and provisions arrive weekly, leaving markets empty until they are able to restock. The land belt emerging from the sea is covered with flora typical of the coral zone, limiting vegetation. While the soil is poor for crop growth and fruit trees, the coconut palms are plentiful. The scarcity of provisions may be a hardship for those residing in the atolls, but such isolation is also the appeal. A relaxed lifestyle immersed in the beautiful scenery attracts those near and far to experience its magic. Here, the air smells of tiare and plumeria disrupted by the occasional burning of palms.

For surfers, waves are scarce, but when all the elements align, patience is rewarded with empty lineups and water clear as gin. Sailing onward towards Tahiti, we continue our hunt for perfect waves and let Mother Nature determine our time. The art of sailing and exploration keeps us in the moment here in French Polynesia. We do not plan our days by the hour, but by the light of day along with wind predictions and incoming swell reports. As we navigate this delicate partnership with the ocean and everything above it, we’ve learned that Mother Nature has the ultimate veto; our only option is to flow with her. The next destination keeps us going, and the draw to experience perfect waves with a couple of friends makes it all well worth the wait.

Sent from our sailboat. Follow us on Instagram on as we continue our journey through the South Pacific at @sailgarbo.


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