Makatea, Tuamotus

May 14, 2019 - National Geographic Orion


This morning National Geographic Orion approached the Tuamotu Archipelago, one of five comprising French Polynesia, and afterward the island of Makatea. While envisioning a typical low-lying atoll, we were greeted by something quite different. Makatea is a vaulting coral atoll once lifted by tectonic shift up from the ocean floor between Tahiti and Rangiroa, resulting from nearby volcanic complexes. Walking through the ancient coral reef 250 above sea level is an incredible experience. Both the geology and the flora growing upon it was astounding. Makatea has the greatest abundance of native plants in the archipelago, and provides more niches for plants to subsist and evolve. As we crossed the island, we welcomed the shade on a typical hot day here in Polynesia.  As we walked, we could see relics of the island’s rich history, from narrow gauge rail to railroad cars and remnants of large machinery.

From 1908-1966, there were 11 million tons of phosphate extracted from Makatea. The phosphate was hand-dug out of the limestone by over 3,000 laborers employed during the island’s heyday. The material was then transported to the island’s port via rail and funicular, then shipped to worlds beyond to be used as fertilizer and gunpowder. Makatea phosphate became the core of French Polynesia’s economy, providing a quarter of its revenue in 1966. While less than 100 people live there today, the future of the island is uncertain as an Australian company has spent the last few years doing a feasibility study on mining phosphate once again.

The end of our walk brought us to an incredible cave for swimming. Cool fresh water was a welcome relief after a hot walk: The grotto environment was truly another world!

After lunch, we enjoyed the calm waters near our anchorage over snorkeling. The clear, deep water right offshore was amazing, and we were rewarded with incredible sightings of white tipped reef sharks and lush reef fish. The divers took the opportunity to descend deep into the underwater beauty of Polynesia while others explored the underworld via the glass bottom boat. Another incredible day here in French Polynesia!

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About the Author

Jonathan Kingston

National Geographic Photographer

National Geographic photographer, climber and diver Jonathan Kingston is a visual storyteller passionate about supporting scientific research and documenting the natural history and human story of our world through photography.  From arresting photographs of vibrant tribal dances to underwater scenes of elephants swimming at sea to 3-D photogrammetric models of submerged archaeological sites, Jonathan’s penchant for travel and love of the wild have taken him to some of the most remote and unmapped corners of the globe.  His work has appeared in print and online in National Geographic, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Wall Street Journal.

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