This is the second in a series of posts, each one about an island we’re visiting while on our grand tour of French Polynesia. (The first post was about Mo’orea.)

Rangiroa is an atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago, which is the middle, and largest, group of islands in French Polynesia. In the map below, it’s to the right of the “S” in “SOCIETY” and a little to the left of, and below, the “T” in “TUAMOTU”. While Mo’orea doesn’t have a whole lot of options for things to do, I think it’s safe to say that Rangiroa is even sleepier. It’s the largest atoll in French Polynesia and the second largest in the world – about 46 miles from end-to-end inside the lagoon. But the motus (islands) that make up the big oval around the lagoon are very narrow, very flat, and many of them are quite rocky (ancient coral reef), so not a lot grows on them. Except coconuts.

The first one we were on during our eleven day stay (the name of which I never was able to determine) had more coconut trees per square kilogram (or maybe square kilolitre? I never have understood the kilometric system) than anywhere we’ve ever been. (Except our backyard, of course.) And where you have a lot of coconut trees, you have a lot of… can you guess? No, not coconuts, numbskull – crabs! Big gray land crabs that live in holes the size of my left foot (ask me how I know this), and much smaller hermit crabs that live in seashells, and that make a really sad “crunch” sound when you accidentally step on them on your way to, well, anywhere.

There were a lot of coconuts, too – that’s what the crabs eat when they can get it. (The rest of the time, they seem to eat dirt, which may account for the really unhappy look on their faces.) So many that they’re in piles all over the island (coconuts, not crabs), waiting to be cracked open for the water and meat, or already harvested and waiting to be burned to help ward off the mosquitoes, or just lying there sprouting into – what else? – MORE coconut trees!

But Air Tahiti doesn’t have 32 flights a day to Rangiroa for the coconuts! No, only half the people come for the coconuts – a huge percentage of the flights are people arriving to buy black pearls, which are farmed / cultivated on Rangiroa, and sold in the pearl farm gift shop for 60 – 110% more than you can find them on just about any other island in French Polynesia.

The pearl farming thing is incredibly interesting. In a nutshell (or oyster shell), a mature oyster is gently pried open just enough for a technician to do some basic surgery inside. A slit is made into a part of the body of the oyster that they apparently don’t need, and into it is inserted a small – 6mm – sphere of Mississippi River clam shell (yes, really), along with a piece of the “mantile” from a donor oyster. (It’s on their driver’s license, so the technicians know which ones to use as donors.) The mantile is the tissue that normally generates the oyster’s shell, which is commonly known as mother of pearl. When placed inside the pocket with the sphere of clam shell, this piece of mantile grows and slowly covers the sphere with the same material that makes up the oyster’s shell. 18 months later, after receiving a bath each month (seriously), the oyster is gently pried open again (think gynecological exam, ladies), and the pearl is removed. At the same time, another sphere, this one the same size as the pearl which was removed, is placed back in the pocket, and the process starts over again, to make a bigger pearl. An oyster in French Polynesia can produce four pearls in its lifetime. After the fourth one, they get to retire. And by “retire”, I mean, they get a quick tour of the kitchen – wink wink, nudge nudge.

That’s a really large black pearl, but the quality of this one is just OK

The process was invented over a period of 35 years, back in the 1800’s, by a Japanese man referred to as Mr. Makimoto. His goal was to produce perfectly round pearls, which were very rare up to that point. Now, about one in ten cultured pearls is round. Some are not quite round (they don’t roll straight on a glass tabletop), some are more oval or teardrop shape, and some are “none of the above”, due to some mishap in the process, such as a piece of sand getting inside the pocket before it heals shut.

The pearls of French Polynesia are referred to as black pearls, but they’re really mostly some shade of gray, ranging from almost silver to almost black. But some oysters throw in a little color into their work, so the pearls can appear greenish, bluish, pinkish, or purplish – and those are the most expensive-ish. A large (14 – 16mm) round pearl with great color(s), superb luster, and no imperfections sells for something in the neighborhood of $16,000. Obviously, Fran and I are not in that neighborhood, or school district, county, or state. The few pearls we’ll be bringing back are referred to here as “tourist bait”. You can buy them by the handful for $13 each, so you can take them home and make them into your own jewelry (which I swear I’m going to do, as soon as I learn how to make jewelry!).

The possible colors of French Polynesian “black” pearls

But the REAL reason to visit Rangiroa is not coconuts, and it’s not pearls – it’s scuba diving. (And now I’m being totally serious.) The ocean flows into and out of the lagoon with each tide change, primarily through two large gaps between motus, called passes. One pass is only for boat traffic, the other mainly for scuba diving. And the scuba diving is spectacular! We dove five times, and the first three were three of the best dives Fran and I have ever done. Each dive starts on the outside of the pass, in open water where the island drops off into the depths. The initial objective of every dive is dolphins – there are a group of them that hang out in that area – and they are friendly! We had two or more pay us a visit on three or four of our five dives, with at least one of them each time being very interactive with the divemaster. On one dive, as Fran was filming that interaction, another one swam up behind her so close that she just reached out her hand to stroke it as it swam by.

He / she was about 3 feet from me

After the dolphins, the dive moves into shallower water (50 feet or so), on the steep slope of the reef. The coral is abundant and very healthy, and the fish are everywhere, all the time. Every size, shape, color, pattern, texture, and behavior you can imagine from a fish, and it’s happening right before your eyes. Or your camera lens, which presents an interesting problem – which fish to shoot? The spectacular Moorish Idol, with its striking white, yellow, and black colors, funny snout with the pattern, and long, wavy filament-like top fin? Or maybe the very shy Flame Angelfish – bright orange with brilliant blue stripes and accents on fins and tail? Possibly the pair of (fill in the blank – there are about a dozen types) Butterfly Fish flitting tantalizingly near (but often just out of camera range). And all of that can – and often does – happen within the span of 30 seconds.

The number and variety of fish is overwhelming!

After 15 – 25 minutes on the slope, it’s time to actually enter the pass. (If there’s an incoming tide – if it’s outgoing, the whole dive happens out on the slope.) The current starts to carry you, slowly at first, and your inclination is to resist it, to stay in one place for a bit. But very soon, you pick up speed, until you feel like you’re on the observation deck on a train, just looking out at the gorgeous scenery as you pass by. The scenery will certainly include the common sharks (gray reef, white tip, and black tip), possibly spotted eagle rays, manta rays, the big sharks (tiger and hammerhead), moray eels, the giant Napolean Wrasse, and a continuation of the assortment of fish that started on the slope. Eventually, the divemaster gives the signal that it’s time to end the dive, and you begin to sob.

Max “flying” through the pass

Our first dive included good friends Whitey and Max, (more about them in a minute), who are no strangers to great diving. When we all surfaced at the end, every one of us exclaimed something like “WOW!” or “Oh my god!” or “That was fantastic!”. We dove with them twice more, both times with similar results – lots of grey reef sharks, a manta ray(!), dolphins, and all the other usual suspects. By the way, we dove our best three dives with Y AKA Plongee (“plongee” means “diving” in French), a small husband-and-wife operation that we loved. There are several other dive operations, and Fran and I did dive with one other later, but we liked Y AKA the best.

Coincidentally, Whitey and Max (John and Maxine White) are on their round-the-world sailing adventure, too, about a month ahead of Liz and Paul, the couple we started this trip with (Panama to Galapagos). Through no planning, but excellent luck, we were on Rangiroa at the same time Max and Whitey were, so we got to dive with them. And it looks like we’ll cross paths with them again in a few weeks, when we’re all on Ra’iatea at the same time.

Now you now more about Rangiroa than you probably wanted to know, and more than I intended to tell you. The only thing left for me to do now is point you to our Google Photos Library, cleverly titled “Rangiroa”: click here to see it.


This is the first of what will hopefully be a series of seven posts, each one about one of the islands we’re visiting in French Polynesia.

After Galapagos, we spent a few days in Quito, Ecuador, which was unexpected. (Because we thought we’d be leaving Galapagos on a sailboat bound for French Polynesia – which we did not do.) Quito is a city of over 3 million people, and is at an elevation of about 9,000 feet, both of which came as a big surprise to us. 9,000 feet – even at the equator – can get pretty chilly! Fortunately for us, it was in the 60’s during both days we were there, because we had packed for French Polynesia – short pants and t-shirts! We enjoyed Quito, in large part because we spent the first of our two days there exploring it with Beth and Pat, who faithful readers will remember from the Galapagos post. But I’m not going to write any more about it. If you want to know more about Quito, GTS! (That’s what Fran’s sister Ingrid says to her teenagers when they ask her almost anything – “GTS! Google That Sh**!”.)

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From Quito, we flew to Ft. Lauderdale, FL, spent a few hours in the airport, then flew to San Francisco, spent the better part of a day, then flew the 8+ hours to Pape’ete, Tahiti, French Polynesia, and from there, we took the half-hour ferry ride to the island of Mo’orea – which is the topic of this post. I’m going to try to make a post about each of the islands we visit in French Polynesia, and each of them will be fairly short, and not very funny – sorry. I’m trying to be more timely, and it comes at the expense of humor.

Mo’orea is just west of Tahiti, in the Society Islands

Before I dive into Mo’orea, let me give a brief geography lesson. I was totally ignorant of the geography of French Polynesia, and you may be, too, so here goes. French Polynesia is a country – sort of. It’s part of France – sort of. But it refers to a bunch of islands and atolls (121, officially) in five main groups: the Society Islands archipelago, comprising the Windward Islands and the Leeward Islands; the Tuamotu Archipelago; the Gambier Islands; the Marquesas Islands; and the Austral Islands. The Society Islands includes the most famous of the islands, Tahiti, which is home to the capital city, Pape’ete. It also includes the second most famous island, Bora Bora, and Mo’orea, the topic of this post. There is a group of islands between the Marquesas and the Tuamotus, called the Disappointment Islands. Not sure why they’re not listed anywhere – I’m sure that’s disappointing to the residents there. (What the Fakahina?!?!) During this trip, we will visit seven islands in three of the groups, and if I don’t run out of steam, you’ll get to learn a little about each of them over the course of the next few months. If you want to know a lot more about them, GTS!

Mo’orea, like most (all?) of the islands and atolls of French Polynesia, is what’s left from a very old volcano. The peaks in the middle are dramatic – lots of sheer cliffs, mostly completely covered in green. When the sun is just right, or the clouds are covering just the tops of them, they are quite striking. The reef completely surrounds the island, and the only road of any significance runs the entire 61 kilometer (38 mile) circumference. You can’t get lost – everything is on this road, either “ocean side” or “mountain side”. We couldn’t rent a car (none were available for rent during our stay), so we rented a scooter, and drove the entire way around the island at least four times during our week there.

There isn’t a whole lot to do on Mo’orea. There are some touristy things to do, but not many, and we tend to shy away from those things anyway. You can get in the water at the three public beaches, but only two of them had water we could snorkel in – the third had such a current ripping across the beach that we could barely keep from being swept away. And there are some hikes you can do up those gorgeous green peaks. So we did a little of each.

First, the snorkeling. Almost immediately upon getting in the water, we started seeing fish we had never seen before, except in the fish ID books. The most immediately obvious were the butterfly fish, four species of which we’re familiar with in the Atlantic and Caribbean. Well, French Polynesia doesn’t have any of those four, but it has what seems like a newly created species of butterfly fish approximately every additional 10 minutes that we’re undewater here! They are absolutely everywhere, and absolutely beautiful! Most seem to be some combination of black, white, and yellow, but the combinations seem endless, as are the shapes and sizes. Some are kind enough to allow a decent photo now and then, but some are so shy that it may take the rest of our trip before we happen to snap even a good speciment shot. This happens frequently: see a fish you want to photograph, start moving towards that fish to set up the shot, and another equally or even more beautiful fish swims in front of you, distracting you from the first fish, and now you’re about out of breath so you can’t chase the second fish. Oh, well – we love seeing them, and chasing them, and are so happy when we do manage to fire off a good shot of one.

Snowflake Moray – we’ve never seen this guy before!

Most of the above can be said about the angel fish, the surgeon fish, the trigger fish, the unicorn fish, and several more groups of fish that we see all over: there are a lot of different ones, all are beautiful or strange or worthy of shooting for one reason or another, we’ve never seen them before, and they are challenging to shoot. I’ll include some of of our better shots from Mo’orea in this post, and will provide a link to all of our pix from there. Also, if you keep up with my posts about each island as we go (assuming I keep up!), you’ll see more and more pictures, and will start to recognize the usual suspects, because I know we won’t stop shooting them!

Longnose Butteryfly Fish, or Forceps Butterfly Fish – I can’t tell them apart

We did only one touristy thing: we took a boat tour of the two big bays on the north end of the island, with some dolphin watching, snorkeling, and lunch. The dolphins here are of two different species – at least the ones we’ve seen so far. On the boat tour, we had a couple small pods of what they call locally “spinner dolphins”, because when they jump out of the water while underway, they sometimes spin in the air. We’ve had spinners swim with us in the Caribbean, and they left no doubt that they were spinners with their aerial displays. The ones we saw here didn’t spin, but they were just swimming around in a bay, looking for lunch, so I wouldn’t have expected to see them spinning. Still, they didn’t look like the same species we saw in the Caribbean, so I guess I’ll have to GTS one day.

The snorkeling we did on the boat tour was in very shallow water, after the boat was parked so they could prepare lunch. There were some fish, but the main attraction was the sharks and rays. Everywhere you looked there were white tipped reef sharks in the 3 – 5 foot size range. We were in an area where lunch is often prepared for tourists, and the sharks get the scraps, so of course they hang out. It was not at all a shark feeding type of thing, however (we think those should be abolished – bad for the sharks, and occasionally very bad for divers) – the sharks are just hanging out, hoping for a scrap of fish now and then, which makes for some fun snorkeling. The rays are doing the same thing – very similar to the rays we have in the Atlantic and Caribbean, but a different species. (Reminds me of that old Steve Martin bit, which he concludes by saying “Those French have a different word for everything!” French Polynesia seems to have a different species of everything.)

Our entertainment while lunch was prepared – lots of black tip reef sharks

Finally, it was time for lunch. I didn’t expect lunch to be the highlight of the excursion, but it most certainly was! They set up the table and chairs in the water, about knee-depth. On the table they set bowls of tuna in coconut milk, tuna carpaccio, grilled chicken, grilled fish (not tuna), pasta salad, a cabbage salad similar to coleslaw, but not quite, and fresh pineapple, dragonfruit, and ripe papaya. All of it was delicious, as freshly made as it could be, and came with the added benefit of rays and little fish tickling our ankles and feet as we ate! (Side benefit of our excursion that day – we met Francesca and Luis, a couple from Puerto Rico now living and working in, of all places, Chattanooga, Tennessee! They were great – we had dinner with them a few nights later. They’re the couple on the left in the picture.)

Lunch not “on the water”, but “IN the water!”

The last activity we did was a hike up one of the peaks. Not the tallest – that would involve some actual mountain climbing. But one in the middle that, from the top, supposedly has a panoramic view of most of the island. I say “supposedly” because, when we were no more than five minutes from the peak, we encountered a landslide that had occurred just the night before, the result of some crazy wind immediately following a really thorough drenching. We managed to clamber over the first fallen tree in our path, but after that, what was left in our path was a bit too precarious, and we didn’t want to become the most talked-about event on the island for the next week: “Stupid American Tourists Killed Trying to Traverse a Fresh Landslide on the Three Coconuts Peak.” Sub-headline: “What The Hell Were They Thinking?”

The best view we could get from our truncated hike

We chose not to scuba dive on Mo’orea, because it’s not known for it, and the next two islands (Rangiroa and Fakarava) are, so we decided to save our dive budget for later.

Lodging on Mo’orea was interesting. There are a few very nice places – one of them has the little bungalows over the water, which look fantastic, but they’re also $850 per night, so no, we didn’t stay there. But mostly, there are small, quite modest places mostly with the name “Fare Something-or-other”. Fare means “house” or “home” in Tahitian, but it implies “guest house”. We didn’t stay in one, though, so I don’t even know why I’m telling you that. We did stay in an airbnb that was listed as a “Private room in a home”. Shared bathroom, shared kitchen, shared everything except the bedroom. OK – we had to book on short notice, let’s give it a try. What we didn’t find out until we arrived was that we would also be sharing the mold and fungus in the bathroom, the dog hair from the five dogs, the clutter from the woman’s grandchildren, and the grease, dirt, and food waste in the kitchen. Needless to say, we spent just one night there.

The second floor sleeping quarters of our bungalow at Mark’s Place

Fortunately, we then found Mark’s Place! Mark is an American who moved to French Polynesia in 1981 when he was 28 (he’s now 70), and to Mo’orea in 2000. He bought a piece of property with nothing on it, and started building things. (He’s a carpenter / furniture maker by trade.) First, a workshop, then a very tiny place for him to live. He just keeps building things, and now has five or six bungalows of varying sizes, and one of them, big enough to sleep eight, became available unexpectedly, so when we called about needing a place right now, they said sure, come on over, and we’ll charge you only the rate for our smallest bungalow. So we had the beautiful two story bungalow that sleeps eight upstairs, and downstairs has a full kitchen and dining room, and a bathroom with two sinks, two showers, and two toilets. And it came with two kittens! Not tiny kittens, but kittens in the 5 – 7 month range, who both loved to be petted, and one of whom would sit on a lap for the duration of our morning “long coffee” sessions. Boy, did we make a move up in the world when we came to Mark’s! And Mark is a super nice guy who is a much better talker than listener, but fortunately, he had a lot more interesting things to say than we did, so it worked out just fine.

Alright, that’s all I have for Mo’orea. So much for making a short, sweet post with some pictures. Better luck next time! (That’ll be Rangiroa.)

Here’s the link to our Google Photos library for Mo’orea – enjoy!

P.S. – Although we live in a place where coconuts are common (we have 13 coconut trees in our yard), it wasn’t until we visited Mo’orea that we started to learn all the really great ways to use the coconut and the fronds. You can bet we’ll be stepping up our coconut game when we get back to Southermost Smartini!

Freshly shredded coconut, banana, and lime juice – so good!


Our transpacificus interruptus left us in the Galapagos Islands, but before Sail Fail, we had already planned to be there a while, and had booked a weeklong cruise on the Aida Maria to see the wonders of the archipelego.

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The Aida Maria is a 16 passenger “cruise ship” that travels around the islands of the Galapagos, stopping at all the cool places to see all the cool things. We were amazingly fortunate that dear friends Beth and Pat were able to fly in and join us for the adventure, and a good time was had by all. In fact, this was one of those rare occasions when an event actually exceeds expectations. Lemme tell ya’ about it!

A marine iguana and a penguin – buddies, or just neighbors?

The above picture kind of summarizes the trip – animals everywhere, all the time, and they were animals we don’t ever see in Florida, or anywhere in the US, or even the Caribbean. The marine iguana lives only in the Galapagos Islands, as does the Galapagos penguin. In fact, it’s the only penguin that lives north of the equator. (Although just barely north of the equator – the farthest north part of Galapagos is not even 1 full degree north of the equator.) And as you may have heard, there are about 14,000,000 other species that live only in the Galapagos, and we got to see every single one of them! (OK, I’m lying… but it seemed that way!)

Jairo, our excellent Galapagos National Park guide

The Aida Maria and its crew were excellent. Jairo was our National Park-certified guide, and he told us all about everything, every day. Angel was the steward, and he simply could not have taken any better care of us. Walter was the chef, and his stated goal was to make every one of us gain 10 pounds in our week onboard (I think he succeeded!). And the rest of the crew, mostly silently and mostly in the background, made sure we got way more than our money’s worth. If the cabins had been a bit larger, it would have been damned near perfect. As it was, it was only fantastic.

On one of our many snorkels, we swam with a manta ray, penguins, sea lions, marine iguanas, and more sea turtles than we could count. (I actually tried and failed to keep count of them.) We also saw, above the waterline, blue footed boobies, which are some of the most impressive boobies I’ve ever seen, anywhere. (Sorry about that – it’s a federal law that anything written about the Galapagos must include at least one “boobies” joke.)

Three penguins in this shot!

We saw giant Galapagos tortoises, and Galapagos terrestrial iguanas, and lava lizards, and Darwin’s finches, and Darwin’s Galapagos Lava Finches. (Not really – but about 90% of the critters we saw had one of those three modifiers in their name, so we just started calling everything “Darwin’s Galapagos Lava <fill in the blank>”.) We saw Galapagos tortoises mating. We saw flamingoes mating. We saw lava lizards mating. We saw Nazca boobies, and blue footed boobies, and great frigate birds all mating, or in the process of getting ready to mate (think of all the primping you used to do before going out on a Saturday night, and all the preening you used to do in the disco – that was everywhere around Galapagos!).

Yes, that’s exactly what you think it is

We had marine iguanas swim at us so close we thought they’d crash into us. We had sea lions biting our snorkel fins and gloves. We had penguins darting around us like kids at a carnival after two full helpings of cotton candy and a Coke. We saw albatross and boobies and frigate birds on their nests.

Fran, me, Beth, and Pat celebrating our equator crossing on Aida Maria

With one or two exceptions, every fish we saw was new to us, so we’ll have at least 30 new species to try to identify from the pictures we took. I could go on, but I won’t. I’ll just post a few photos, and then give you a link to all the pictures and videos we took on the trip. To paraphrase The Dead – what a very cool trip it was!

One of my favorite pix of the trip – Godzilla! (Photo credit: Pat Winkler)
Hey, baby – you ever see such blue feet? Let’s get it on!
Thassalotta iguanas! And a flightless cormorant just for fun.

Here’s a link to all the pictures and videos – enjoy! https://photos.app.goo.gl/wSojXWNi2EhuehCM9