Getting to the Marquesas Islands was hard. Leaving Rangiroa we knew winds would be contrary, but in this La Nina year they turned out to be stronger than usual making our landfall in Nuku Hiva all the sweeter after pounding into the Northeast swells for a solid week. The direction of the wind was usual, though, and reminded me that getting here from Tahiti and Rangiroa has always been hard for any sailing vessel. The Polynesian sailors traveled this route of course, but while the kinship in culture and language between Tahiti and Marquesas is clear, the winds have erected a sufficient barrier against easy travel to have given the Marquesas their own unique trajectory of development.
What is perhaps more surprising is how different the Marquesas Islands are form one another. On any average clear day, you can easily see the other two from any of the three northern group islands of Ua Pou, Ua Huka, and Nuku Hiva. Yet on our arrival in Ua Huka it was clear this island was quite different from Nuku Hiva. For one, Ua Huka is much dryer. While the entire Marquesas group is suffering from a periodic drought (the rainfall has been below normal for almost three years now), the results here were more even more visible than in Nuku Hiva. Hillsides made a striking study in contrast with the deep red volcanic soil showing through the bright white tangle of dead, sun-bleached tree trunks. The relative dryness of Ua Huka is explained by its smaller size; the mountains here are not as tall and so fewer clouds form over peaks and so produce less orographic rainfall than in Nuku Hiva.
Maybe more striking than the landscape, though, was the unified community response to these challenging conditions. Periodic droughts have always been part of the environment of the Marquesas, and the lessons in survival have been developed and handed down in many generations.
We learned about these lessons on our visit to an arboretum and an orchard established on the island some 50 years ago. A vision on one community leader with funding from the government, the arboretum houses a collection of fruit trees from around the world cultivated and cross-bread here to match the local conditions. We learned about water rationing (people get priority over trees of course) and the application of old techniques of trenching and soil shading by coconut husks. The arboretum is a major source of seedlings in the Marquesas Islands (exporting even to Tahiti!), and a center for teaching and learning of techniques for processing and preserving fruit to help the community capture the abundance the trees on the island produce. And what an abundance it is! We were served starfruit, star apple, mangos, and variety of citrus from oranges to pamplemousse on our stops during the day.
Our method of transport during our grand tour was the municipal all-purpose bus and our stops included the arboretum, a visit to the harbor, a fantastic local museum, a craft center, and an amazing lunch organized at a private residence for us. The day wrapped up with a presentation given by Vanessa, the leader of a local Marine Educational Area initative, who told us about the effort to foster conservation through the local primary school adopting the bay of Hane as a focal point in teaching about the stewardship of the sea. This effort has led to the area being formally protected as a Marine Protected Area as well, and I think we were all once more impressed by the thoughtfulness and care this 800-strong island community show toward their home.
Our day-long excursion was all too short but delivered much food for thought on what kinds of relationships we humans can have with our environments, with our ocean. Our last contact with Ua Huka was a snorkel of the Hane Bay, and the incredible diversity and abundance of fish we saw bear witness to the success of the approach by the people of this remarkable island.
Jan Witting, Chief Scientist