The Tuamotu archipelago is a large group of islands in French Polynesia formed almost exclusively by atolls. The atolls are flat coral islands that include vast lagoons within them. These islands were originally formed from high volcanic peaks, such as those that can be seen in Tahiti and Moorea. But over the millennia they have slowly been eroded, leaving visible the shape of the ancient volcanic island, now limited by the coral reef.
In the Tuamotu, 450 km north-east of Tahiti, between the atolls of Toau, Niau, Faaite, Raraka and Kauehi, is the atoll of Fakarava. The island is very famous among diving enthusiasts for its spectacular coral reefs and for the abundance of fish. This atoll is among the largest in the Tuamotu, measuring 60 km in length and 21 km in maximum width. The land area of the atoll is only 16 sq km, but its lagoon is the second largest in all of French Polynesia (after that of Rangiroa) and extends for 1,121 sq km.
A LARGE RECTANGULAR LAGOON
The atoll, which has a rectangular shape, has two “passe”, ie two openings that connect the internal lagoon with the Pacific Ocean. The largest “passe”, that of Garuae, is located to the north near the airport and the main village of Rotoava. This opening is the largest of all atolls in French Polynesia. While at the southern end of the atoll where the small village of Tetamanu is located there is a smaller “passe”, that of Tumakohua or Tetamanu.
It seems that the famous “Bleu Matisse” was born after a visit by the French painter to the Fakarava atoll. On his visit to the atoll Henri Matisse was struck by the infinite shades of blue of the lagoon. If you visit the island you will also be impressed by the blue shades of the lagoon.
It is not certain when the first Polynesians arrived on the island, but they were already there when the first Europeans arrived. The first European to arrive in Fakarava atoll was the Russian explorer Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen. His ships, Vostok and Mirni, arrived at the atoll on July 17, 1820. The inhabitants of Fakarava were evangelized by the French priest Honoré Laval in 1849. There are two ancient churches on the island: the church of Rotoava founded in 1850 and that of Tetamanu which dates back to 1874 and which has the particularity of having been built in coral.
UNESCO BIOSPHERE RESERVE
In 2016, Fakarava was integrated into the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve created in 1977. This reserve is made up of 7 coral atolls: Aratika, Fakarava, Kauehi, Niau, Raraka, Taiaro and Toau. In the lagoon of the island there are spectacular coral formations, while on the mainland there are endemic animals and plants. The cultural heritage of the atoll is also rich, there are archaeological remains including some marae, ie ancient Polynesian temples.
The economy of Fakarava is essentially based on tourism. Other activities are sea cucumber fishing and the cultivation of the famous Tahitian pearls. The island in 2018 was reached by the Natitua submarine cable which allows high-speed internet connection.
The atoll has an airport with frequent direct flights to the island of Tahiti. The flight time required to travel the approximately 450 km between Tahiti and Fakarava is just over an hour. On the island there are several hotels managed by the local population.
Photos: TAHITI TOURISME © Jim Winter