Mo'orea - sharks and rays, meet Rodney Dangerfield

Mo'orea!  This island in French Polynesia is only 11 miles from Tahiti.  About 17,000 people live here, which makes the arrival of a ship carrying 3000 guests a big deal.  Clearly, French Polynesia is the preferred location for those magazine shots of romantic cabins over the water, although no one mentions that boats can buzz by and peer within (we did).

The topography is dramatic, as erosion has been working on this extinct volcano for 2 million years.  And the circling fringing reef inspired Charles Darwin, looking down at Mo'orea from a mountain on Tahiti, to hypothesize a process for the formation of coral atolls.

NASA Photo ID: ISS006-E-39837.
One day isn't enough to even begin exploring these islands.  Since we had gone tramping in Tahiti, it was time to explore the water.  With friends Carla and Michael, we booked a lagoon excursion through Albert Transport.  This was to include 2 snorkels, 1 with sharks and rays, and a lunch, for 70 USD.

We used a tender lifeboat to get to shore, and waited for an hour before our excursion boat arrived (we were early; they weren't late).  While we were waiting, we were entertained with Tahitian dancers.  I am conflicted about this reception.  There are a variety of troubling concepts that express western, white, and privileged views of native peoples ("they are such a happy and musical people").  I am uncomfortable with the almighty tourist dollar dictating how visitors see Polynesians.

Visitors seem to love these depictions of local people in Polynesia.  When do you see the visitors take photos of these people dressed in tee shirts and shorts?

Do visitors think that people living in these houses are wearing dancing clothes?

We boarded the boat for the lagoon tour, and were off.  An hour later, we had docked to allow some folk (me included) off to walk to the main office to pay for our ride with a credit card, followed by another docking to load up the food for our lunches (both in Cook's Bay, or Pao Pao Bay, which I don't think Captain Cook anchored in, ironically).  Then, we had to make a stop to pick up a shell for photos.  Finally, we were off to the snorkeling adventure.  However, I wasn't truly ready for what I experienced.  We made a turn, and... I had a vision of a flotilla anchored for a party.  Boats lashed together.  People standing in the water (very, very few were snorkeling).  And the sounds came straight from an amusement park... shouts and squeals and laughter.

Guides were tossing out food for stingrays and blacktip reef sharks.  People were encouraged to touch the rays.  I felt so bad that these magnificent creatures were being trained to exist on handouts.  For a diver like me, sharks and rays are a wonderful, rare sight.  To see a hammerhead or a spotted eagle ray in the wild is a real treat, the product of me visiting the shark's or ray's world, not vice versa.  

This is a photo from Pinterest, taken in Mo'orea.

Every lobe coral was dead on top, the result of visitors being encouraged to wear reef shoes.  The bottom was a fabulous sand, but reef shoes encouraged irresponsible foot placement awareness.

I don't know why, but the phrase that latched on to me here was Rodney Dangerfield's catchphrase, "I get no respect!"

As I snorkeled around the boats, I was amazed at the grace of the blacktip reef sharks.  Sharks have maintained their form and function over millions of years, and populations are declining due to overfishing and bycatch.  One study estimated that between 63 and 273 MILLION sharks, or about 100 million, are killed every year.  "Our analysis shows that about one in 15 sharks gets killed by fisheries every year," one author concluded.

Although shark steaks are available, it is the enormous market for shark fins that drives a great deal of this mortality.  Fins are removed from sharks captured intentionally or as bycatch with other target fish, and the fins are removed, often when the sharks are still alive.

NOAA agent inspecting shark fins.
So here's the deal.  How many of the 3000+ guests upon the Celebrity Solstice would order a bowl of shark-fin soup if given the chance?  I suspect many would.  After all, who is eating the whales killed in Iceland when less than 5% of Icelanders eat whale?  Tourists, that's who.  The same tourists who go whale watching in Iceland in the morning sup on whale meat in the evening.  Maddening!

When sharks and rays are there for our amusement, how is a protective ethic developed?  I recognize that people in Mo'orea are simply making a living, but does feeding rays and sharks do anything for the rays and sharks?

Blacktip reef shark.

Okay, I know I'm sounding both preachy and "holier than thou," but cruise lines DEPEND on a healthy, vibrant ocean.  How many of those swimmers/waders were wearing reef-friendly sunscreens?  How many even had a comprehension of not stepping on the lobe coral heads?  Then there is, of course, sustainably captured fish, supporting those non-profits what are working full time to protect the ocean and its inhabitants, reducing plastic use, and living a greener lifestyle.  Today, the Celebrity Solstice is hosting a "World Wildlife Foundation" (sic), that is, a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) fundraiser with tee shirts and plush Nemos.  There is NO FOCUS on changing behavior, or educating the guests, other than "Help preserve the coral reefs for future generations through the power of dance."  This is the RCC-WWF partnership?  For shame!

I did find myself within 20 feet of some idiot who tossed bait into the water near me, resulting in a swam of 20+ sharks circling madly and stirring up the sand.  Thanks.  I also experienced snorkeling and feeling something touch my legs.  I looked down (easy when snorkeling) to see a large ray passing inches under me.  That gives your adrenal glands a squeeze, to see the wings pass under you, followed by that barb on the tail!

We reboarded, then visited another site for a lunch, a coconut opening demonstration, and another snorkel. Again, most people didn't snorkel. I swam a long curved path around the small islet we visited. There were some hugemongous lobe corals, and lots of small parrotfish that reminded me of palenose parrotfish.  However, there wasn't a lot here.  The site was chosen, obviously, as a choice place for the picnic, not snorkeling.  There were a few cats, but they looked very socialized.

Where was Caroline all this time?  She had to work in the morning, but when she finished she got to shore, walked to a resort, rented a kayak, paddled out to an area that, in hindsight, was very close to our second spot, snorkeled with rays, returned to the resort, then ran back to catch one of the last tenders.

It's Caroline... what else would you expect?


Ed Abbey wrote, "Some people write to please, to soothe, to console.  Others to provoke, to challenge, to exasperate and infuriate.  I've always found the second approach the more pleasing."  Good on you, Ed Abbey!


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