Protecting birds

We are very worried about shrinking bird populations in French Polynesia. Locals burn down motus for more palm tree plantations, but also cruisers unthinkingly disturb the few remaining ‘wild’ little islands.

If you get lucky and find one of those motus with shrubs, high, deciduous trees and circling birds explore with care: you might see red-footed boobies nesting in trees, frigate birds, noddies and white terns next to them. If tiny, sparrow-like creatures follow you around, you’ve encountered endangered endemic Tuamotu sandpipers (‘Titi’ in Polynesia)! Brown boobies, masked boobies and tropic birds nest on beaches, are therefore most vulnerable and have already become extinct in most places. Only tiny colonies of crested terns and sooty terns (they nest on rocky islands) remain.

When you anchor off a motu with birds be careful not to disturb those last refuges and observe from the distance:
- don’t light fires
- don’t have beachparties
- don’t walk dogs
- don’t go kitesurfing in the vicinity

Even a harmless beach walk can shy parents away long enough to end lethal for a small chick…

Young boobies are very curious and will plunge-dive relentlessly on a trolled lure. It’s best to roll in the fishing line, whenever they are around!

Find more info about the birds of French Polynesia on the webpage of the ornithologist society www.manu.pf

Brown Booby


Good infrastructure in Fakarava

We usually don’t stay too long in Fakarava, because it’s one of the bigger atolls (a long way to a protected anchorages when the wind shifts) and a bit too busy for our taste (dive tourists, charter cats), but we have to admit that it’s certainly a very convenient place to be: the supply ship comes every Wednesday and the supermarkets are really well stocked, a local farm sells super-high quality veg, free internet at the yachtservices and full cell phone connection all over the atoll…
Today’s supply ship will hopefully bring our new dinghy, a wind generator, foam for our couch, fabric for upholstery and catfood for Leeloo!


Cat worries

We were worried sick when Leeloo suddenly had a haemorrhage in the vitrious body of her left eye five weeks ago–just after we had arrived in the Tuamotus… We tried to get a long distance diagnosis from different vets and ordered drops to lower the eye pressure from Tahiti. After a dozen phone calls to different vets, pharmacies, a money transfer via the post office and a day of waiting at the airport we had the meds, but would they work? A few more bleedings followed, the eye went blind, but Leeloo recovered. It’s quite stressful having a geriatric crew member, but fortunately she’s a tough old girl…


Back at the village

On our second visit to the village we already have the feeling that we know most of the faces here (no wonder, only 65 people live on the atoll) and we were greeted like returning friends. We talked with the mayor and the policeman again, praising their efforts to protect the untouched motus, trying to emphasize how precious and rare such wilderness is.
Then we did a little presentation at the school about the local species and the fragility of such a little eco-system as an atoll. The kids were super-interested and cute (one class with kids between 5 and 10 years), aahing and ooohing the pics of their birds here–they only know the most common species (like noddies, white terns and frigate birds). We cobbled together the French, Tahitian and Paumotu names for rarer species as well and then we went on to the role of trees on a coral atoll. Fortunately there are still quite a few motus here that have not been burned down and turned into copra plantations. No trees means no compost and no space for nesting birds, no birds mean not enough nutrients (guano) for the motus and the coral, no coral means no fish and no fish means nothing to eat. I think I made my (very simplified but still valuable) point ;-)


Mixed feelings

We’ve now spent three weeks here and our experiences are a bit mixed. We were very happy to find about 50 nesting couples of brown boobies (more than anywhere else in the Tuamotus, which is a sad fact by itself) and a few endemic sandpipers. Most of the little motus in the biosphere only have shrubs and some trees, but on a few coconut trees were planted at some point and we found some signs of people doing copra there: some burnt patches and plastic rubbish left behind…

During our visit to the village we got a wonderfully hospitable reception and we had the feeling that the people were on a very friendly basis with the local wildlife: a tame turtle approached us in the small-boat harbour, two nurse-sharks begged for food together with her and crested terns hopped around us, also expecting some fish bits. However, when we snorkeled the pass, we were first enchanted by the healthy coral, but then we found turtles and reef sharks in the fish traps the locals have set up on both sides of the pass. Fish traps are never great for an eco-system, because the fish are speared out of there in big numbers (usually to export them to Tahiti) and it seems doubtful whether that’s sustainable. The locals assured us that turtles and sharks are just bycatch and get released, but then, why would they build the traps with such wide entrances in the first?


Brewing aboard

I’m sure we’ve mentioned our bubbly experiments a few times already, but as there have been questions recently and an article from us about that topic in Cruising World I thought it was time to write a new blog entry.

Alcohol is horribly expensive here in the South Pacific, so many locals brew their own ‘komo’ (fermented sugarwater with yeast, that’s how we got started years ago…). They use baker’s yeast and the results are strong, but have a distinct scent–like old socks or smelly shoes. The solution for this problem is using proper wine yeast (available at online shops, e.g. brouwland.be, or holzeis.at, etc.)
For us it’s not just a matter of saving money, but also storage: we love hanging out in remote areas without beach bars or supermarkets, but we still enjoy our sundowners, so brewing aboard is the perfect solution for us.

Fermenting fruit juices is easiest:
Fill one liter of 100% apple or raisin juice (or whatever, make sure it does not contain artificial sweeteners!) into a container, add 1 liter of water, 1 cup of sugar and ½ tsp of champagne or wine yeast (available at home-brew stores) and shake well. Leave standing with an airlock on top (or the lid half closed) for some days and keep tasting—when the sugar’s gone it’s ready. Sterilize 6 ½ l pressure bottles, put 1 tsp of sugar into each bottle and pour in the bubbly (leaving the yeasty goo in the container). Wait for 1-2 weeks and enjoy a light, bubbly ‘champagne-like’ drink!

Christian loves his beer, but starting from scratch is too complicated, so we buy ‘beer kits’ that contain a syrup and yeast.
To start brewing beer you’ll need:
1 beer kit (e.g. Munton’s Export Pilsener) of 1.8 kg
1 big container (23 litres)
23 l bottles or 46 1/2 l bottles (we use coke bottles, the only reason we buy coca cola occasionally)
1 air lock (to put on the big container)
disinfectant to prepare the gear (baby-bottle disinfectant from the pharmacy or special disinfectant from the home-brew shop)
enough patience to make it over 3 weeks of waiting time


Addition to ‘Wilderness’

Yesterday’s blog entry triggered the following comment from Joachim (SY Atanga). We cannot put it online without internet, but would still like to respond to it, clarify and give more background:

“Comment: Why do you think that you are disturbing nature less than anyone else.
If you really wanted to preserve the environment, you should fight for: rigid ancoring restrictions , closure of atolls for cruisers, visits of small morus only on organized tours….”

We are extremely considerate and cautious not to disturb wildlife, only observe from the distance with binoculars and tele lens.
Many other cruisers also act environmentally friendly, but unfortunately we witness many examples of the opposite. Reckless or simply thoughtless sailors anchor in coral, hunt coconut crabs and lobsters on remote atolls, neither considering that they are stuffing their freezers with endangered species nor that they disturb bird colonies with their behaviour. We see boaters letting their dogs roam freely ashore and leave their children to their noisy games. They have beach parties and bonfires. Kitesurfers spend days on the beach and in the shallow water off sandy motus.
Of course all that’s perfectly fine to do on 95 % of all motus here in the Tuamotus, because they have been ‘cleared’ long ago and are now barren, lifeless coconut plantations. On the few remaining bird motus with decidious trees and shrubs on the other hand, it’s not okay. Even a harmless beach walk can cost lives–a young masked booby chicks dies within 15 minutes from exposure when the parents are shied away. Ground nesting species (e.g. brown boobies, masked boobies, tropic birds, sooty terns, etc.) have disappeared almost everywhere.

We try to inform fellow cruisers, put up info sheets how to anchor around coral, write articles and directly address neighbours in the anchorage (not always a way to make new friends). We fully agree with Joachim that only a strict ban on certain areas (that unfortunately hits eco-friendly cruisers as well) can achieve the necessary protection. The inner zone of a biosphere reserve (like in the Commune of Fakarava, Aratika, Kauehi, Raraka, Niau, Toau and Taiaro) is supposed to achieve just that. Theoretically those inner zones are off limits for everybody. Theoretically. Unfortunately those laws are not enforced (or only partly and rather senselessly, like when we were told that it was forbidden to sail over a protected corner in the lagoon of Aratika…). Locals are exempted in Fakarava and Aratika anyway…

In fact not only cruisers cause damage, the local population often shows even less awareness of nature or inclination to protect it. Copra workers keep burning wooded motus, introduce rats and nonos with their boats and copra bags and actively steal eggs and chicks from seabirds. Cruisers who make local friends are often encourage to join in this ‘traditional lifestyle’. It’s true, the Paumotu (people of the Tuamotus) have always hunted and collected, but the village elders used to ensure sustainable use by putting a rahui (ban, taboo) on certain species or areas for a while. Due to the influence of the European colonialists this traditional knowledge was unfortunately lost in most places.

It would be ideal if the government revived the tradition of the rahui, or if that fails, to replace it with modern rules. The population should be educated and informed. Unfortunately Tahiti is not really concerned with environmental protection and the few existing laws (biosphere zones, ban on hunting turtles, etc.) are not executed.

We have been working actively for years to protect the environment. We inform Te Mana o te Moana (organisation to protect reefs and turtles, based in Moorea) and send reports to the ornithologist society in Tahiti (SOP Manu, the reason for our visit here). Whenever we find motus worth protecting (there are only a handful left in all the 78 atolls) we approach officials (mayors, principals, teachers) to raise awareness of how precious their wilderness motus are. Sometimes we get positive feedback–locals often don’t even know that it’s a special feature for an atoll to have land and sea birds. The people of Raroia were thrilled when we assured them that their motus with primary forest are a nature gem and agreed that they must be protected for future generations.
Unfortunately we sometimes just hit walls, like in the case of the wildlife gem Tahanea, which we struggled to get some protection for years. After it was left uninhabited for decades, many rare species had returned until people from the neighbouring atoll Faaite started doing copra again. We watched the sea bird colonies dwindle, talked to the mayor of Faaite, informed environmental protection organisations and even bothered the ministry of environment–to no avail. Tahanea belongs to Faaite and they can ruthlessly use its ressources.

We keep searching for spots with wilderness, get disappointed in many cases, but sometimes we find a place that is a really pleasant surprise (like this one here).


Finally some wilderness!

We are currently in an atoll we have not visited during our previous seasons in the Tuamotus and we are in LOVE and truly happy.
It wasn’t easy to come here: we had to navigate through an uncharted, tricky pass and get a special permission to explore the lagoon. All the effort was fully worth it: dozens of untouched motus with endemic vegetation and bird colonies. We have seen more brown boobies (vulnerable, because they nest on the ground) here already than anywhere else in the Tuamotus and we’re hoping to find some endemic, endangered species as we work our way around the lagoon when the weather permits.

Only a handful of locals live here and hardly any visitors ever come here, so wild animals find the peace and quiet they need. Of course we are also careful not to disturb them and only observe from afar. As we cannot be sure that all cruisers who follow in our footsteps will be just as cautious and respectful, we will not put the name of this wildlife refuge in our blog.


Very long day

We got up at 5 this morning, sailed across the lagoon and out of the pass of Aratika (at 8). Again the forecast predicted light conditions for our planned daysail to Kauehi (36 nm) and again we had much more wind and a boisterous sail. This time we had fishing luck though, after an unlucky stretch of a year or so. A big mahi-mahi bit heartily into the lure and will feed us for 2 weeks :-)
After arrival we still had to bottle our new batch of beer, now we’re completely knackered…


Biosphere reserve? My arse…

We sailed to Aratika a few days ago, sailed along the western outer reef (the biosphere protected zone) and were already disappointed to see only very few birds in the air. We arrived with easterly winds and after going through the pass, we altered course to sail across the lagoon to the SE corner (close-hauled pointing as close to the wind as possible), when a boat with locals came after us. They told us that ‘everything down there’ was off limits as part of the biosphere reserve, but were not specific. Asked whether we were allowed to anchor along the eastern coast they said yes, anchoring was okay, but we were not allowed to sail across the lagoon. Instead we’d have to go directly east and then along the coast. Told that we’d have to motor against the wind instead of environmentally-friendly sailing there, they said it was the law. Asked what exactly we would harm by sailing through, they didn’t have an answer either. We assumed they were protecting the water from being run over by boats. Hmmm.

We motored to the east as requested and then sailed southwards along the eastern shore, which is marked as ‘transitional zone’ on the biosphere map, which suggests happy co-existing of humans and nature. We found a few patches with shrubs among the palmtrees, some boobies and terns, but not many as there are houses on almost every motu.

Today we sailed back up to the northern shore to visit the townhall (mairie) and ask for details. The newly elected mairess welcomed us super-friendly and was astounded that we wanted to pay our visitor’s tax (apparently we’re the first sailboat to volunteer–only about 10 boats come here per year…). We asked about the biosphere and together with the nice police man she explained that the southwestern coast (with a few small motus) was strictly off limits. For everybody? Yes, for everybody–except of course for locals, when they want to have a picnic or so. Aha, just a picnic? No, of course they can go fishing there as well, just not too many fish. Aha. So could we go there as well if we promised not to fish or take anything (we don’t even HAVE a speargun). Noooo, sailboats are not allowed there. Hmmm.
What about sailing through the lagoon? The map showed only a narrow fringe off the coast off limits and part of the lagoon in a different colour (the same colour and zone category as the ocean between the atolls of the Fakarava commune…). No, that’s forbidden. Aha, and why? There are many bommies, oh and many pearl farm collectors (plastic girlandes where larvae of pearl oysters are supposed to attach themselves).

So summarising you can say that in this biosphere reserve everything is allowed for the locals and wildlife is protected from the handful of rather harmless sailboats that make it here. We suspect that the biosphere lady (yes, the one who shied us away on day 1) didn’t want anybody to see the pearl farm buoys in the reserved zone. Oh and we asked: her family owns the huge fish traps in the pass and they export fish to Tahiti. Getting a biosphere status seems like more of a scam to get funding. We were also told that anchoring was forbidden in the lagoon (for sailboats) and referred to the big, yellow buoys that were installed one (or two) years ago (14 well made and certainly expensive buoys, 2 next to the W pass, 5 in front of the village, 4 in the east pass area and a few more down the eastern coast). We motored over to the NE corner after visiting the mairie and are now on one of those buoys–so far out in the lagoon that we have 0 protection from the wind and white caps around the boat. Hmmm.


Forest fires

Here in French Poly it’s ‘tradition’ to burn islands to ‘clean’ them from shrubs, so it’s easier to pick up coconuts and make copra (and a few bucks). Of course this way no humus can build up, birds lose their habitat and what remains is a barren rock with some palm trees on it. Whenever we go ashore and find a burnt motu we come home depressed (like yesterday).

This morning we read the BBC news: the forest fires in California and Oregon are the biggest ever recorded, also in Siberia forest fires are raging and in Brazil the Pantanal wetlands(!) are on fire. These fires were either caused by careless people, but most were started on purpose to gain farm land, have easier access to logging grounds, etc.
Greed and stupidity ruin our planet. What’s wrong with humanity?


Not enough efforts to protect environment

Fakarava and its neighbouring atolls are a UNESCO biosphere reserve: a program for ‘conservation of biodiversity with its sustainable use’. Unfortunately there’s not much wildlife left ashore that could be protected–copra industry and a rather large population have shied away most birdlife. Fakarava’s famous for its many grey reef sharks in the south pass and several dive operators and of course the ‘pensions’ ashore depend on tourists to come and admire the underwater world.
We snorkeled the North-pass today, sadly the coral is not in a good shape and we didn’t see lots of fish. We moved on to snorkel a bommie inside the lagoon (also a popular place for excursion boats) and were more than surprised to see a group of tourists in the water with a speared parrot fish. Not exactly clever of the tour operators to have the fish speared that are supposed to pose for the cameras of future visitors…

We find the lack of awareness and environment protection here in French Polynesia really sad. Yes, there are programs in Tahiti and Moorea to protect birds and turtles, educational programs at school and some awareness. But out in the Tuamotus people still hunt turtles, eat sea bird’s eggs and spear endangered species. Even here in a biosphere copra production and spearfishing is allowed and the few moorings that were installed for sailboats a few years ago to protect the coral were not maintained and have mostly been torn out and swept away.

The uninhabited atoll of Tahanea (just 100 nm from here) still has plenty of bird colonies, wonderful coral, spectacular passes as well and would certainly deserve to be a biosphere reserve. Unfortunately it is not protected and the people from the neighbouring village call it their ‘food reserve’. All our efforts to raise awareness for the nature gem Tahanea have hit walls: apparently it’s a ‘political issue’ and delicate topic.
It’s a shame that the little left-over patches of wilderness here don’t get the protection they deserve. Soon there won’t be anything left to protect.

:de_start “Zu wenig Naturparks in Französisch Polynesien”

Fakarava und seine Nachbaratolle schimpfen sich UNESCO Biosphären Reservate: ein Programm für ‘den Schutz von Biodiversität in Einklang mit nachhaltiger Entwicklung in ökologischer, ökonomischer und sozialer Hinsicht’. Leider gibts hier nicht mehr allzu viel zu schützen – die Kopraindustrie und eine recht zahlreiche Bevölkerung haben zum Verschwinden der Vögel auf den meisten Motus geführt. Fakarava ist berühmt für die vielen Riffhaie im Südpass und einige Tauchbasen und natürlich Pensionen an Land profitieren von den Touristen, die diese Attraktion anzieht.

Wir haben heute den Nordpass geschnorchelt, leider sind die Korallen hier in schlechtem Zustand und wir haben nicht allzu viele Fische gesehen. Wir sind dann weiter zu einem Bommie in der Lagune, wo schon einige Ausflugsboote vor Anker lagen. Wir trauten unseren Augen kaum, als wir Touristen mit einem per Speer erlegten Papageienfisch im Wasser sahen. Nicht gerade schlau von den Organisatoren, wenn die Fische, die eigentlich für die Kameras der nächsten Touristen posieren sollen, abgeschossen werden.

Uns erschüttert der Mangel an Umweltbewusstsein in Französisch Polynesien. Ja, in Tahiti gibts Programme zum Schutz von Schildkröten und Vögeln, aber hier draußen in den Tuamotus schlachten die Einheimischen immer noch die wenigen, verbliebenen Schildkröten und sammeln Seevogeleier. Sogar hier in der Biosphäre gibts Kopra, Speerfischen ist erlaubt und die wenigen Bojen für Segelboote, die zum Schutz der Korallen installiert wurden, sind großteils mangels Wartung schon längst wieder verschwunden.

Das unbewohnte Atoll Tahanea (nur 100 Seemeilen von hier) hat noch Vogelkolonien, superschöne Korallen, ebenfalls spektakuläre Pässe und würde den Status Biosphären-Reservat viel eher verdienen. Leider ist es nicht geschützt und die Leute vom Nachbaratoll beuten die Ressourcen aus. Alle unsere Versuche zum Schutz dieses Naturparadieses sind im Sand verlaufen: angeblich ist es ‘eine politische Frage’ und darf nicht angesprochen werden…

Es ist eine Schande, dass die wenigen, übrig gebliebenen Flecken Wildnis hier nicht den Schutz bekommen, den sie verdienen. Bald gibt es nichts mehr zu schützen.


Rapa Iti remains closed

Rapa Iti, the southernmost of the Austral Islands, has no airport and only one supply ship a month. When the Covid crisis started, they very reasonably decided that they couldn’t take any risk and closed their bay for all ships (except the Tuhaa Pae supply ship). Only family returning to Rapa Iti was allowed to travel on that ship and they have to stay in quarantine for 14 days after arrival.

Last week we wrote to our friends in Rapa Iti and were told that the little island is still holding up those strict rules. While Covid19 spreads slowly to the remote islands, they want to stay on the safe side and asks sailboats to stay away as well.


Cruising in times of Covid19

French Polynesian officials have announced the first 2 deaths: an elderly couple (both 81) died at the hospital in Papeete this week, more than 800 cases have been registered since July 15.
Of course those numbers are still very low in comparison to many other countries, but it’s still alarming…

The majority of the sailboats that were either here before or have arrived this year will stay in French Polynesia, as most islands further west are still closed. Only Fiji has opened its borders (with lots of regulations in place), Indonesia is partly open, New Zealand announced that some applications would be considered if crews would spend more than 50.000 NZD, but that deal is uncertain as well.

We wanted to sail westwards next year, but it’s impossible to make plans at the moment. The future of cruising seems very uncertain at the moment.


Article on our Mooring Project for Rapa Iti in Yachtrevue Magazine

Christian Feldbauer, Birgit Hackl: Mit Rat und Tat–Eine Muring für Rapa Iti, Yachtrevue, August 2020, p.40–43.

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