I stood on the deck for a long time last night as we left Pape’ete, Tahiti’s big city. I couldn’t get used to the warm air. After three years visiting the Arctic and Antarctic, I kept waiting for a blast of cold to hit me. I gripped a cardigan thinking that – any minute – I would need it.
I’m on the National Geographic Orion, a Lindblad Expeditions ship, the company that has been sponsoring my journalism since 2015. Photographer Eric Guth and I will spend two weeks working as guides on this ship as it spins through the coral atolls of the Tuamotus archipelago and then up to the high islands of the Marquesas. It will be a scouting mission for us; we’ll find places to come back to once our filmmaker, Matthew Mastrantuono, arrives next month.
By morning, the first atoll we will visit shows itself on the horizon. These rings of coral are barely higher than the coconut palms that grow on them, so they can’t be seen from far away. Even though French Polynesia covers an area the size of Europe, several European ships, centuries ago, blew through this region without seeing land.
The first island rises like a shadow from the water. So many outsiders consider these islands paradise, but conditions are harsh. How did people learn to make a living here?