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From the Field
Expedition: Dangerous Archipelago
Kayaking French Polynesia's Tuamotu Islands


During the first weeks here we were five, in five kayaks, exploring some of the most remote islands in the world, the Tuamotu chain of French Polynesia. Made up of 78 coral reef atolls the Tuamotu's were dubbed 250 years back "the Dangerous Archipelago" by French explorer Lois-Antoine de Bougainville. "Dangerous" for all that sharp and nasty reef lurking just below the surface, waiting to snag—and sink—uncautious boaters.

We traveled nearly 400 miles (644 kilometers), from the giant atoll of Rangiroa (its interior lagoon is 30 miles by 50 miles [48 by 80 kilometers]) to Toau (where only 10 people live, getting by on fishing and hacking up coconuts to sell the meat inside, known as copra) to Fakarava (where we lived in Robinson Crusoe-style paradise for days on end, kayaking, snorkeling, fishing, watching the frigate birds soar above, sleeping long nights under big, black skies …).

Circled with breaking surf, this Tuamotu Archipelago island is an atoll, what photographer David Doubilet calls "coral crowns on the rims of ancient volcanoes."

Among myriad surprises out there in the middle of nowhere—we were perfectly placed halfway between Australia and South America, several thousand miles of paddling in either direction before we hit a landmass—was just how quickly we became familiar with the local marine life. Within days we thought nothing—well, almost nothing—of swimming among a swarm of a couple hundred, 10- to 12-foot-long (3- to 3.7-meter) black-tip sharks. Our first run-in came at 130 feet (40 meters) below the surface, just outside Tiputa Pass on Rangiroa, where we dropped in with tanks full and expectations high and were immediately nose-to-nose with a teeming mass of fish life, including the aforementioned packs of meandering sharks. From then on, every day we grew more familiar with the big tan-and-white fish, paying little heed when walking through the shallow blue water and having them swim within inches, feeding them with fresh chum while swimming in their midst, even wrestling them onshore and trying to pick up one of the gelatinous, snapping hulks.

Manta rays, sting rays, eels, giant Napoleon wrasses, turtles, and parrot fish became our daily companions. And the people we met were just as approachable; though the populations on these atolls range from 5 to 1,000, on each of the 24 islands we visited we—and our kayaks—were welcomed with open arms. These are people that live on and depend on the sea, always have. So our arriving in boats made perfect sense to them, even if our plastic, 18-foot-long (5.5-meter) craft were unfamiliar. That these atolls may not exist in another 100 years—given the rising seas planet-wide, thanks to warming climates—gave us pause, virtually every day. Not only will the physical elements disappear beneath the surface of the Pacific—sand, coral, coconut palms—but the way of life here in this remote part of the world will be erased as well.

During the second month we jumped on a cargo boat—the only link to the eastern-most islands—and, kayaks lashed to the stern, made a 2,500-mile (4,000-kilometer) round-trip tour of islands seen but just once a month by this floating Home Depot (virtually everything on these far-reaching islands, from beer and cigarettes to fork lifts, cars, cement blocks, and 2x4s arrives by cargo boat). As well as getting a lot of practice carrying 100-pound (37-kilogram) bags of copra (which the islanders trade for goods and is eventually turned into coconut oil and exported around the world), we managed to take our kayaks across reefs inaccessible via pass and be welcomed into dozens of homes along the route, feted as only rare visitors can be.

A lasting image? Swimming in the deeps of the blue, blue South Pacific, frolicking with a dozen friendly wild dolphins only to look down and see just beneath us a 35-foot (11-meter) gray whale turn on its back and looking up at us, saying to himself…'Who the hell are these guys in those bright-colored shorts…and what are they doing way out here?'

—Jon Bowermaster

Click map to enlarge

Look for Jon Bowermaster's feature article on kayaking the Dangerous Archipelago in a future issue of Adventure. Subscribe Now and Save 62 percent off the cover price >>

Funding for this expedition was provided by the National Geographic Society Expeditions Council. For more information on the Council, its projects, and grants, e-mail ecouncil@ngs.org.


Map by NG Maps
  The Team
  Photo Gallery
  Dispatch 1
  Dispatch 2
  Dispatch 3
  Dispatch 4
  Dispatch 5
  Dispatch 6
  Dispatch 7
  Dispatch 8
  • Conclusion

Related Web Sites

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Dispatches From the Birthplace of the Winds
See photos and hear dispatches from the expedition that inspired Bowermaster's new book, Birthplace of the Winds.

Video: Bowermaster on His Aleutian Odyssey
Find out what it took to take Alaska's Islands of the Four Mountains by kayak.

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