Opinion: Green Light

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From Laguna to French Polynesia

Ten years ago my wife, Ginger, and I visited Tahiti and other parts of French Polynesia. We snorkeled in the crystal-clear, 80- to 84-degree, turquoise water, swimming with stingrays and sharks (white tips and black tips). We toured UC Berkeley’s Gump Research Station on Moorea, where I interviewed marine biology students and several administrators of the facility’s vaunted programs investigating marine processes and health. Late last month, we returned to this area to savor the unmatched beauty of this paradise and gauge any changes. Unlike a decade ago, this time we voyaged with National Geographic-Lindblad Expeditions.

Along with about 70 other passengers aboard the Orion, we were treated to onboard lectures from naturalists, cultural specialists, and National Geographic photographers. We learned about the Anglo-French rivalry for control of the area going back to the navigational discoveries of Englishmen Samuel Wallis and James Cook and Frenchman Louis Antoine de Bougainville in the late 1700s. In 1880, France annexed what then became French Polynesia, which remains somewhat self-governing through a legislative Assembly composed of 57 representatives from the islands elected through universal suffrage. French and Tahitian are spoken widely throughout the area’s five archipelagos: Society Islands, Tuamotu Islands, Gambier Islands, Marquesas Islands, and Austral Islands. We’ve toured all of these except for the Gambiers and Australs.

The lagoon in the atoll of Rangiroa is reportedly the second largest in the world. There we snorkeled at a site called The Aquarium with stingrays and multitudes of colorful tropical fish: surgeonfish, butterfly fish, wrasses, and an assortment of reef sharks (ranging from five to eight feet in length and, mercifully, not particularly interested in us). The coral looked pretty good, meaning not too much bleaching from ocean acidification due to global warming-generated carbon dioxide in the water.

Divers aboard our vessel reported that significant coral bleaching had taken place down to a depth of about 40 feet. Below that depth, reefs seemed to remain colorful and relatively healthy, a diver/physician told me.

As a historian, I was particularly interested in a Polynesian ceremony we participated in at Rangiroa. In my journal, I recorded the following entry for April 26: “The morning highlight was the arrival at our beach of a double-hulled Polynesian canoe from Tahiti with about 20 islanders… Tua Pittman, a stately and powerful-looking Cook Islander [voyaging with us], was our interlocutor and translator. The stone-dotted area on the beach where we gathered was a sacred site, Pittman said. He explained that the stones came from throughout the South Pacific and their exchange among visiting islanders represented a bonding of Pacific peoples.” An esteemed canoe navigator known throughout Polynesia, Pittman lectured aboard our ship on ancient Pacific voyaging that relied on celestial observations, ocean currents, winds, sea birds, and debris in the water.

Pittman served as the navigator for a leg of the 2,800-mile canoe voyage of the Hikianalia in 2018 from Hawai’i to coastal California, which stopped in the Channel Islands (for a visit with Chumash Indians), sailed by Laguna Beach, and stopped again at Dana Point, where my wife and I were among a throng of onlookers who met and talked with the crew of islanders.

While the silhouette of the island of Moorea, verdant and fragrant and mountainous, against a setting sun is etched in my mind, the grim projections of our naturalists onboard about the warming ocean, dying reefs, and sea-level rise all attributed to carbon sequestration from the atmosphere, haunts me. Pacific Islanders have not caused this to happen; the developed nations, including our own, have caused it. We can still solve the problem if we will.

Tom is an environmental historian who has traveled extensively throughout the Pacific world. He and his wife co-lead the Laguna chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which advocates for taxing carbon and rebating the proceeds to households. Email: [email protected]

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