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Castaway in Paradise
Photo: Photographer Peter McBride
Photographer Peter McBride

French Polynesia
Map of French Polynesia
French Polynesia's Tuamotu Islands as seen from the hull of a kayak and beneath the deep blue waters at the heart of the South Pacific

Most people daydream about escaping to an idyllic island to avoid the workday grind. For photographer Peter McBride, a journey to paradise was simply part of the job when he was asked to join writer Jon Bowermaster on assignment in the Tuamotu Archipelago (read excerpt "Journey to Water World" in the August 2003 issue).

"It was overwhelming in its beauty and its expanse," McBride said about his first trip to the area. "We were essentially in the dead center of the South Pacific, a 10-hour flight from the United States, South America, and Australia. It felt isolated."

Portions of McBride's trip sound like pure cinema: He feasted on fresh coconuts and clams for breakfast, harvested pearls, and even rode dolphins. But life in the Tuamotus was also hard work. During their month-long assignment, McBride and his fellow team members usually clocked 12-hour days—starting at 5 a.m.—and braved tumultuous weather conditions.

Of course, even if they'd had the time, the paradisiacal fantasy of reclining on silky, white-sand beaches isn't a reality in the Tuamotus. The 78-island archipelago is composed of atolls—rings of coral and sandy islets called motus that are strung around a central lagoon. "These islands are basically narrow strips of washed up, recycled coral pieces," McBride said. "Coconut trees can live in this environment but there aren't really any sandy beaches."

But not even paradise is impervious to the changing global environment. Scientists predict that within the next century, spin-off effects of global warming—from rising ocean levels to an increase in storms—will swallow the low-lying atolls.

For McBride, though, the two faces of the Tuamotus—the quiet world on the surface and the vibrant paradise below—provided him with a photographic feast for the eyes. As one of the last places to be inhabited by humans, Tuamotu visitors look to the sea to learn about local customs. "Life everywhere around you is in the ocean," said McBride, "and the marine life here is remarkable."

—Katherine Koss

Portrait courtesy Peter McBride

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August 2003

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