Changing Planet

Rapa Expedition: The Difficulties of Leaving Paradise

After exploring, diving, writing, photographing, and just plain living here in Rapa in far southern French Polynesia for the past few weeks, leaving is difficult.

The weather is perfect, our ship is in great order, our equipment is stowed ready for the seven-hundred-mile passage, and yet we feel such a strong connection to this community that we just can’t bring ourselves to depart. In fact we have re-calculated the passage plan a few times just so that we leave the site of the latest Pristine Seas expedition as late as possible.

A month ago we’d never been to this island in our lives. Now it feels like a home away from home. (Photo by Manu San Felix)

We love these waters, full of life, and little touched by human activities, but we also love these people and every moment with them counts.

Besides, we can’t possibly leave at the moment, as we have all of the island’s sixty schoolchildren aboard for a tour! They arrived at the ship, sang songs for us and are now in the cabins, on the bridge, in the engine room, the saloon, and the galley, and are hugely interested in everything especially the diving gear, helicopters, drop-cameras, and all the high-tech clutter that appears shortly before we sail. It all makes for a great feeling on board.

The schoolkids prepare to come aboard the Hanse Explorer. (Photo by Scott Ressler)
The schoolkids prepare to come aboard the Hanse Explorer. (Photo by Scott Ressler)

We have had a number of Rapa Council, Rahui Council, and community meetings to share our scientific results, present the film and images of the expedition, exchange gifts, and swap stories along with our deep shared love of the ocean. We hope that these assets will help the people of Rapa with their efforts to name their waters as a marine protected area.

Beneath the hostile surface waters of Marotiri, dozens of Galapagos sharks were evidence of a healthy ecosystem below. (Photo by Manu San Felix)
Beneath the hostile surface waters of Marotiri, dozens of Galapagos sharks were evidence of a healthy ecosystem below. (Photo by Manu San Felix)


But these aren’t just business meetings. They’re meetings “Rapa style” which means they include the most wonderful hospitality imaginable, accompanied by vast amounts of great food, music, singing, and dancing.

(Photo by Scott Ressler)
The sound of music is wonderful everywhere, but the sound of Polynesian music is like a little taste of paradise every time you hear it. (Photo by Scott Ressler)

The Rapa singing and dancing is legendary, executed with elegance and excellence, instantly evoking the spirit of nature. The Rapans must have realized that our skills would not be up to this standard so they offered us the opportunity to join them in “Rapa Haka” which is a powerful display of muscular dance moves, fighting stances, and frightening facial expressions.

When they dance Haka it is a thing of potent grace.

When we do it, it is a thing of enthusiastic, frightening chaos.

Luckily they liked it and we have subsequently lost our inhibitions and now perform the “Pristine Seas Rapa Haka” at the drop of a hat. If you see a Pristine Seas dance troupe coming to your town, don’t miss it.

(Photo by Scott Ressler)
When the Rapa people dance Haka it is a thing of potent grace. When we do it, it is a thing of enthusiastic, frightening chaos. (Photo by Scott Ressler)

When Rapa fishermen go to sea they say the only way to catch fish is with total commitment—you can’t catch the fish unless you are totally committed to the ocean and her ways. This is the way the Rapa people approach their Rahui system of natural resource management and why it is so effective. Total commitment is also clearly the right way to approach hospitality, and most of all, dancing.

We have learned a lot from the Rapa people. Their spirit is reflected in our work and we shall never forget this experience. I have no idea how to leave this community and get the ship underway—we have become deeply connected with these people and their home.

[Updated 11/3/2014]


Read All Posts From the Rapa 2014 Expedition

Learn More About Pristine Seas


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

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.
  • gabriela

    I hope the little ones are inspired to be stewards of the oceans. What a great experience! wonderful to hear this.

  • Whitt Birnie

    Just a quick note to second what Paul Rose writes about. Bad sailing weather forced me to put into Rapa for shelther from gales in the mid-70’s, and I discovered many of the human traits and island characteristics mentioned in this article. True, it was before electricity arrived and life was fabulously primitive, hence it was a tremendous life-changing event. So seldom did ‘adventurers’ arrive that the villagers in Area convinced me to stay a few months, so your article title rings a bell. But I was no skilled archiologist or sociologist, so I eventually sailed away. Forty years later, it’s very satisfying to learn that some things never change, although civilization is not as civilized as we are led to believe. Please don’t encourage visits to Rapa – I never did because that destroys the pristine nature of places – but thank you for working to preserve one of the most wildly natural islands I ever had the chance to see; our memories will always keep us attached to places like these.

  • Erik Wagner

    did you get a chance to see the famous hilltop fortresses before you left? The archaeology and history of Rapa Iti are legendary, and points to a long history of conflict to manage life on a small island.

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