We find magic in Mo’orea as we hike its mountains, meet inspiring islanders who restore coral reefs, and swim with whales.
Tahiti – Mo’orea (PYF)
As we leave Port Phaeton’s protected bay, it takes a while before we feel some wind. Tahiti’s high mountains create a sizeable wind shadow at the leeward side of the island, which happens to be where we are. However, when we reach the strait that separates Tahiti and Mo’orea, the wind starkly increases. “This acceleration zone reminds me of the Canary Islands”, Floris comments while we race towards Mo’orea. Ivar agrees and points to our destination: “Look at those magnificent mountains. I can’t wait to explore them.”
The anchorage in Cook’s Bay is quite spectacular, thanks to the backdrop of steep, green mountains. Yet tragedy has hit around the corner, literally. They day before our arrival, Eddie, a 14-year old boy, was snorkelling in the neighbouring bay. He was just a few meters from his family’s yacht to check the anchor when he was struck and killed by a motorboat that passed very close by at high speed. We are left speechless. We can hardly fathom the grief this family must be going through. Although we haven’t met the family, our thoughts are with them.
At the anchorage is another blue Dutch boat: SY Rhapsody. “Isn’t that Ada and John?” Floris asks. We met them at a meeting for long-distance sailors in 2016, but never crossed paths again, as we followed different itineraries. High time to catch up! Drinks and dinners together follow, as well as a hike. Tripp and Zach, our American friends from SY J.Henry, also join. Floris leads the way, using his beloved app maps.me that (almost) never disappoints. The trail passes fields full of pineapples, Mo’orea’s local specialty. Now we understand why they are so cheap and deliciously sweet around here: they’re as local as can be. As we get higher and higher, the forest gets thicker. In the midst of it, we find ceremonial sites once used by the Polynesians. Displays explain the importance of these sites. It takes a bit of imagination, as we only see overgrown stones that are no longer part of the living culture.
It’s lunchtime when we arrive at the highest point of our trail, the Three Coconuts viewpoint. While we marvel at the stunning view, we don’t see any coconut trees. “They have been blown over by the last hurricane”, Floris explains. On our way down Zach, a trained biologist, continues to amaze us with his knowledge of the many trees and plants we see in this tropical rainforest. But the ultimate treat is homemade ice-cream from the agricultural school near the end of the hike. Heavenly!
“Oh my God, look at these corals”, exclaims Floris when we snorkel at our anchorage in Mo’orea. In the previous months we got used to seeing healthy coral and a beautiful, diverse underwater world. In Gambier and the Tuamotus we regularly imagined ourselves in a sea aquarium. We are therefore quite shocked, as the coral here is in bad shape. It is brown and overgrown with aquatic plants. Sadly, the coral quality here represents a broader trend. About 40% of the coral worldwide has died in whole or in part in recent decades. The main causes: warmer and more acidic seawater as a result of climate breakdown, in combination with overfishing and pollution. That’s tragic because coral reefs are incredibly important. They are the cornerstone of oceanic biodiversity, support the income and food supply of millions of people, and attract tourists to dive in the beautiful underwater world. Coral reefs also protect coasts from storm surges. In total the annual contribution of coral reefs to the economy is estimated to be over $30 billion.
Fortunately, there are people in Mo’orea who give ailing coral reefs a helping hand. We meet Taiano Teiho of the ngo “Coral Gardeners”. He explains what drives him and his colleagues and what they try to achieve. “We are a group of 15 young islanders who love the ocean. A few years ago, we decided to do something about the decline of the coral reefs on our island. To tackle the root causes, we run campaigns to raise awareness about the threats to coral reefs, such as in schools and via our social media channels. We also implement a concrete, practical solution locally: transplanting coral.”
We are curious how that works, so Taiano continues. “We collect pieces of healthy coral and bring them to a designated area: our coral garden. There we let the coral pieces grow until they are big enough to transplant them to reefs that are in bad shape. It’s a lot of effort, but it works! In three years, we have already performed more than 14,000 transplantations that have made the reefs visibly healthier. And everyone can support us by adopting a piece of coral via our website!” Of course, we are happy to participate. We dedicate our adoption certificate to Eddie, as part of a global memorial service that both remembers him and celebrates his life. See for more information about the importance of coral reefs in the marine ecosystems and the ways we can save them in our separate sustainable solution item.
Up Close and Personal
More than any other island we have visited so far, Mo’orea is tailored to tourists. For us, it means the mobile phone network is reliable, provisioning is good, and tours are offered. Floris has wanted to go on a whale tour ever since he learned that humpback whales are known to visit Mo’orea’s waters each season. We’ve seen these magnificent creatures before, in Brazil and Patagonia. Yet we never had to opportunity to swim with them until today. It’s Ivar’s birthday gift to Floris.
At 8 am Heifara and his assistant pick us up at our anchorage. Heifara runs Dolphins and Whales Spirit Adventure and has been swimming with whales for 26 years. We first get treated to a tour around half of the island, as it takes hours before another tour company has spotted a whale. After they call Heifara we quickly make our way there. We can see a whale gracefully swimming outside the reef. But how do we get close to it? Now, Heifara’s experience comes into play. He seems to know instinctively where we should position ourselves to get close to the whale. Within a minute of us getting into the water and swimming to the spot Heifara pointed out, a whale appears out of the depths below us. At first it looks small, but we quickly appreciate its size as it swims right at us. It even appears curious to meet our group. He passes us just at few meters’ distance before diving down again, leaving us in ecstasy. So calm, gracious and huge. We estimate it to be the size of our boat. Heifara explains that this is a one-year old male, which will get much bigger as it grows older. We get to go into the water three more times. When we act playfully, the whale seems to like it and stays around longer. Truly magical!
A Floating Community
For a change of scenery, we move just two miles, close to the village of Mahanepa. Like the other boats here, we anchor on a three-meter deep, sandy shelf. That means we don’t need a lot of anchor chain, which is a big plus as our anchor chain has become rusty and worn and therefore much more difficult to handle with the windlass. It also means we’re surrounded by light-blue water and can easily see the anchor from our boat. Shallow anchoring is also a benefit in case it gets stuck, since it’s easier to free-dive down there to clear it. Happy with our newfound spot, our friends Niels and Linette from SY Stormalong arrive and raft up next to us. Together we welcome Helen, who sailed solo on SY WOW. Soon it’s one big community of sailors. We pick up baguettes for each other in the mornings, go on hikes (including a tough one up Mount Rotui) and snorkelling excursions together, and have many drinks and dinners. To our surprise, the Dutch pancakes prove to be a highlight, although they are eclipsed by Niels’s homemade pizzas. We also exchange stories and plans, hopes, and fears. Will we be allowed to go to New Zealand? What are our alternatives? What about the hurricane season this year?
Mo’orea proves to be difficult to leave. With such magnificent nature, inspiring youngsters saving the reefs, amazing whale encounters, and great people around us in the floating community, what can top this? We’ve found a truly magical place!