Rapa Expedition: The Untamed Ocean Hits Marotiri

Exploring the islands and islets of Rapa and Marotiri on this Pristine Seas expedition in far southern French Polynesia, we are met by two extreme environments, both extremely different from each other.

If the remote but lush island of Rapa represents life at the edge, then the rocky, stormbound Marotiri represents life over that edge but still clinging on with one hand. Harsh, seemingly barren places like Marotiri are not welcoming, but as explorers and scientists we love them because they test us and sharpen up our capabilities. The fact that they don’t fit the postcard view of paradise awakens a different kind of respect for them, and reinforces our desire to protect the wild in all its manifestations, not just the ones that make us feel warm and fuzzy.

Arriving at a Rocky Cauldron

The wind had died to just 15 knots from the southeast, the sky was clear for the first time since our arrival at Rapa Iti, and the weather forecast (which has been changing every few hours) showed a brief “weather window” in which we might be able to work in the remote rocky islets of Marotiri.

The rocks of Marotiri are small but they break the power of the onrushing ocean swells in spectacular fashion. (Photo by Manu San Felix)
The rocks of Marotiri are small but they break the power of the onrushing ocean swells in spectacular fashion. (Photo by Manu San Felix)

Our passage to Marotiri was a beautiful six hours characterized by the long, slow rise and fall of huge oceanic swells, but on arrival at the rocks we found a chaotic scene of released power with huge waves and foaming white water thundering off the rocks. After their long journey under the surface, the waves here react to the freedom by exploding into an arrhythmic muddle, which means that we were faced with big waves from all directions on top of the steady pulse of the oceanic swells. The small size of the rocks themselves offered no shelter and only helped to swirl the waves into more powerful disorder.

Launching and recovering the inflatable motorboats called Zodiacs in such conditions can be dangerous, but by careful positioning of the ship and skillful crane operations combined with healthy doses of good timing, muscle, and enthusiasm, we managed to deploy the drop-camera and the mid-water camera teams. The work they do with remote cameras will give us views from depths and regions that our divers simply couldn’t reach.

Despite the violence of the waves nearby, a bit further from the rocks we could look down into the blue and clearly see the bottom a hundred feet below. That visibility combined with the essential need to survey this unique area meant that we couldn’t resist the urge to dive too.

The turbulent surface and fairly barren seafloor are both visible in the crystal clear waters of Marotiri. (Photo by Manu San Felix)

After a fast descent to escape the surface action we arrived at the bottom in super clear water in what felt like a deserted landscape on a grand scale. Soon we had Galapagos sharks coming close and amberjacks bashing into our masks and cameras. Aside from abundant sea urchins, a few small schools of butterfly fish, and a trumpet-fish, the bottom here was strangely empty, which makes us wonder how this ecosystem works, and which adds to the sense of sheer remoteness.

We were the visitors here. The locals were Galapagos sharks like this one. (Photo by Manu San Felix)
We were the visitors here. The locals were Galapagos sharks like this one. (Photo by Manu San Felix)

The return to the heaving surface is always a jolt to the system, and once we were aboard the Zodiac it was clear that boarding the Hanse Explorer was going to be an exercise at the limit. It’s all about the timing—when we get it right it looks very casual to step from the top of the inflatable boat onto the rear deck of the ship, but before that momentary sweet spot arrives we have either two hundred tons of ship bearing down to crush us or massive waves drawing the Zodiac away at precisely the wrong moment leaving us staring into a gaping maw.

The Hanse Explorer team are great and we in Pristine Seas know how to operate in these conditions, so with experience, care, and plenty of gusto we concluded a brilliant day. The seas were building fast though, and conditions soon became unworkable for the ship’s crew, so we were happy to make our passage back to a calm anchorage in the bay at Rapa. We’ll work there some more and plan to return to Marotiri in a few days. It’s a wild place to work, but we’re loving it.


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The Pristine Seas expedition to Rapa is sponsored by Blancpain and Davidoff Cool Water.

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Meet the Author
Paul Rose is an ardent explorer, television presenter, journalist, author, and Vice President of the Royal Geographical Society, and an Expedition Leader on the Pristine Seas team.