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Rapa Iti

At Sea: October to November 2014
Country: France

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The Place

Rapa Iti and Marotiri, the southernmost islands of French Polynesia, have long been a haven for nature, remote as they are in an already remote region. Inhabited relatively lightly by Polynesians throughout most of history, these far-flung islands have been free of the intense fishing and development that have altered other areas so dramatically in recent centuries.

Inhabiting the waters here are a large number of endemic species, including the Rapa toby and Rapa sweeper, the latter photographed for the first time on this expedition. The existence of two contrasting habitats in Rapa’s waters (coral gardens with high sea urchin densities versus Sargassum seaweed forests devoid of sea urchins) increases the diversity of the seascape, adding additional value to the conservation of the island’s unique underwater ecosystems.

While the rocky islets of Marotiri are entirely unpopulated, the current inhabitants of Rapa have taken notice of the ecological treasure their home contains. They are among the only islanders to practice a traditional conservation method called rahui, a seasonal program for marine and land management.

Map of Rapa Iti

Map by NGS Staff; Charles Preppernau

The Mission

Over the course of three weeks in this remote stretch of sea, the Pristine Seas team dove several times a day—sometimes battling strong currents and powerful swells—to examine the marine life surrounding Rapa and Marotiri, including Galápagos and tiger sharks, huge amberjacks, spiny sea urchins, and creeping algae. To survey midwater and deep-sea activity, they lowered unmanned cameras equipped with bait, recovering hours of footage for analysis.

Partnering with the PEW Charitable Trusts and CRIOBE (Centre de Recherche Insulaire et Observatoire de L’Environnement) on the expedition, the team produced new data and visuals that allow people around the world to know for themselves the beauty and value of this remote and barely touched region.

The southernmost place for corals and subtropical sharks in the central Pacific has revealed its best kept secrets to us.

Alan Friedlander
Chief Scientist

The Result

Following their analysis of these waters, the team participated in a number of Rapa Council, Rahui Council, and community meetings to share their scientific results and present film and images of the expedition in the hope that these assets will help the people of Rapa in their efforts to establish a marine protected area.

The Highlights

Due for a meeting, the team makes a wet, muddy, five-hour trek across Rapa—and arrives on time. A traditional fishing trip gets off to a rocky start. Amberjacks menace masks and camerason a Marotiri dive. Hooked sharks betray the reach of human activity. Finned spectators watch as a tangled tale unfolds.