Moorea: Maritime History and Culture

When Polynesians first arrived at Moorea, they were unable to survive solely on the terrestrial resources and developed a close relationship with the ocean. This relationship shaped early Moorean culture and is still important. The Mooreans required sea-worthy voyaging canoes and navigation methods to travel to other islands. As a population became established on Moorea, boat-building advancements were essential for taking advantage of available fish resources. Polynesians developed many fishing methods to catch the species around Moorea, and fish was a prominent part of their diet. In modern times the ocean continues to be an important resource, for food as well as employment.


Early Polynesian religion was closely connected to the ocean.In ancient Polynesia, Tangaroa was worshiped as the God of the sea and the ocean was viewed as having its own spiritual aura (Elliott, 2004). These beliefs evolved among people who were around the ocean a great deal. Since the arrival of European missionaries in Polynesia, the ocean has had less presence in religious customs. A majority of the current population is Christian and no longer practices the rituals of their ancestors. There remain however, vestiges of the beliefs that the islanders had before European contact. Many families continue to tend religious sites called maraes. Most of these areas are walled in to keep a sort of positive, metaphysical energy from escaping. Some Polynesians consider the ocean to be a similar type of barrier around the islands (D'Alleva, 2011). In the highlands of Moorea, ruins of ancient maraes exist as evidence of ancient civilizations. Complex stone gardens with alters at one end were once used as spiritual sites for individual families. The families that held higher social status in the community structure had their maraes built at higher altitudes on the island. These sites are no longer used for religious worship. However, they can provide archaeologists with insights into ancient Polynesian life.

The Canoes of Polynesian Immigration

Evidence suggests that Polynesians settled Moorea and the other Society Islands sometime between 700 and 1150 A.D. The ability of ancient Polynesians to migrate to distant islands in the Pacific indicates that they had excellent boat building techniques and navigational abilities. Many different types of canoes existed for various purposes.

There were single hulled canoes, which varied greatly in size. Some would only hold a few people and were used close to shore, possibly for fishing. Other canoes were much bigger and could hold a large number of people and provisions (Oliver 115). The hulls were either made out of one hollowed-out log or multiple pieces of wood bound together. Logs were dug out using adzes, which are like axes with horizontal blades (Finney, 48-49). Boats that were built using multiple logs were sealed off using plant fibers. Composite boats often leaked and water had to be actively removed during voyages (Oliver, 115-116). On islands such as Tahiti and Moorea, single canoes would only have one float for stabilization and it was consistently attached to the left side (Oliver, 116).

Many variations were developed from the basic single-hull design. Polynesians created large double-hulled canoes for traveling long distances in the open ocean.  Ancient Polynesians likely migrated from island to island using this type of canoe, carrying many people as well as animals and supplies. In addition, sleeping areas and shelters could be incorporated into the larger boats (Oliver, 116).

Many Polynesian boats were also equipped with sails, which enabled them to travel further distances. Sailboats had one or more fixed masts with booms that attached near the base of the mast and pointed up diagonally towards the stern of the boat. The sails were attached to these frames, starting in a point and getting wider as they went up. A rope would attach the top of the boom to the top of the mast, causing the thinner boom to bow out slightly. This allowed to the sail to form a pocket to catch the wind. On some islands, the triangular sail design that most people are accustomed to seeing on smaller sailboats today was adopted. Sails were essential for Polynesians to take long voyages in large ships (Oliver, 117).

Developing a thorough understanding of ancient Polynesian boats is difficult, due to the lack of surviving physical evidence. When Polynesians stopped making long sea voyages and Europeans brought western influence to the islands, the traditional art of boat building was essentially lost. No complete canoes from early Polynesia were preserved in a way that kept them from decomposing (Oliver, 115). The Polynesian canoes usually did not sink when they filled up with water, but drifted until they hit land (Finny, 43). Because of this, the canoes were not naturally preserved on the ocean floor, but were left to rot wherever they landed. Historians have done their best to compile scattered bits of information to gain knowledge about the boats the ancient Polynesians used. The most substantial material remains of the ancient watercraft are a large steering paddle and a 17-foot long board found on Huahine Island, which is part of French Polynesia (Finney, 44). Archaeologists estimate that this canoe was likely 25 meters long. The pieces of wood were buried in mud near a stream, which prevented them from decomposing (Oliver, 115). Because of the limited remains, most of the knowledge about Polynesian canoes is derived from written descriptions or drawings.

Some of the best sources of information about Polynesian canoes are accounts from early European sailors who visited the Polynesian islands. Europeans took some measurements of the boats and provided descriptions of them (Oliver, 116). The renowned British navigator and explorer, Captain James Cook, provided a detailed description of Tahitian canoes. He wrote, “Their Canoes or Proes are built all of them very narrow and some of the largest are twenty to twenty-five meters long; these co[n]sist of several pieces, the bottom is round and made of large logs hollowed out to the thickness of about 3 Inches and may consist of three or four pieces” (Price, 38-39). He goes on to give a full page of descriptions of various types of canoes, including their dimensions. Accounts such as this and many others give a general idea of how a Polynesian canoe might have looked or been built (Price, 38-39). The only problem is that many of the original voyaging canoes may have already disappeared by the time Europeans arrived. When European explorers first came to Polynesian islands, they did not document finding any boats as large as historians believe some of the early voyaging canoes were. Despite this, sailors’ accounts provide a lot of valuable information about traditional Polynesian canoes. The prevalence of information about Polynesian canoes in sailors’ journals demonstrates how important canoes were on islands like Moorea.

Within the last century there has been a renewed interest in building ancient-style Polynesian canoes. For many Polynesians, it is significant to connect with their past and continue the traditions of their culture because so much of it has been lost. Historians have also had an interest in recreating ancient boats to answer questions about how the Polynesian islands were settled.

In 1965, David Lewis sailed his modern catamaran, Rehu Moana, from Tahiti to Aotearoa, and became one of the first sailors to attempt to retrace the voyage routes that might have been used by the ancient Polynesians. He navigated the entire 2,000 nautical miles using only the navigational tools that may have been available to the Polynesians, and was only slightly off course. Polynesians were able to use stars and the sun to determine direction and their position relative to known landmarks. Lewis’s test was an important step because it demonstrated that the Polynesians could have purposely migrated to various islands (Finney, 35).

Around the same time, Ben Finney, an enthusiastic scholar of Polynesian watercraft, created a replica double-hulled Polynesian sailing canoe named Nalehia. He tested it in open water and found that it could sail at a seventy-five-degree angle off of oncoming wind, which would have been an important factor in Polynesian migration. Building on what he had learned from Nalehia, Finney began work on a new boat, Hokule‘a, with a plan to sail from Hawaii to Tahiti and back. It was built based on a generic design, which emulated real Polynesian voyaging canoes. The voyage took place in 1976, and was navigated by Mau Pialug, a traditional navigator from Satawal Island, who used only the stars, sun, and cues from nature to find his way (Kāne, 1998).

The voyage had huge implications both culturally and historically. It demonstrated that ancient Polynesians might well have navigated the seas. It also marked the revival of a part of Polynesian culture that had been lost for a long time. When Hokule‘a arrived in Tahiti, thousands of people were there to great it. Moorea was likely discovered using a similar canoes and navigation methods. People felt a connection to their ancestors and the voyage had a spiritual meaning for some Polynesians (Kāne, 1998). The first Hokule‘a voyage inspired the building of many other canoes on various islands. Recently a boat was built on Tahiti, named O Tahiti Nui Freedom, which sailed from Tahiti to China. Some Polynesians have started to make hand-made canoes for their own use. To some extent, traditional boat building lives on in Moorea today (Maamaatuaiatapu). The Atitia Center teaches youth on the island how to restore ancient canoes. Because there are no surviving Moorean canoes, the center has imported a canoe from New Zealand to work on. An expert boat builder from New Zealand has also come to lead the restoration. The design of this boat is vastly different from one that would have been found on Moorea, but people still find it important to carry on some form of Polynesian culture. One of the workers at the center, M. Djelma Maono, admitted that there might be more local interest in the project if they were working on a Moorean Canoe and being taught by a Moorean boat builder.

Figure 1: Traditional New Zealand canoes being restored at the Atitia Center on Moorea. Picture by: Eric Smith, Friday, February 5, 2011

Modern Boats Used in Moorea

Moorea’s current fleet of boats consists mainly of a few common boats, and most of them are designed for fishing. In 2001, fishing was a very profitable enterprise. Gaston Flosse, President of French Polynesia, hoped to boost the fishing economy by developing a fleet of long line fishing boats out of Tahiti and Moorea. Today, this fleet is made up of sixty-eight boats. However, due to a slump in the fishing industry, not all of these boats are actively being used for fishing (Maamaatuaiatapu). The long liners that are based in Moorea sell their catch in both Tahiti and their home island. Foreign companies in New Zealand and Australia built some of the boats, but before the slump in the fishing industry, there were four Tahitian companies that, with the help of subsidies from France, built local long liners. Their operation ended when fishing ceased to be as profitable, and the companies stopped receiving support from France in 2004 (Huata, 2011). Another type of popular fish boat is the Poti Auhopu. These are medium sized fairly sea-worthy boats, with a cabin and an upper deck. Fishermen can take multiple day trips with these boats and travel a good distance from shore on their hunt for fish. Poti Marara are smaller, more basic boats used for day fishing trips in the ocean. They have a front steering console and are capable of going fast in a seaway. The last variety of fishing boat used in Polynesia is much smaller and is used mostly for fishing in the lagoon. Most are less than five meters, with an outrigger and an outboard motor. This type of boat frequently goes out to the deep areas of the lagoon at night, gigging for the fish attracted by their light.

Figure 2: Local fisherman day fishing in the lagoon. Picture by Jackie Conese, Friday, February 4, 2011

One watercraft that can be found all over Polynesian is the outrigger canoe, used mostly for recreational activities. The most common sizes are single-man and six-man canoes. They are very narrow and an outrigger on the left side, about a fourth as long as the canoe, keeps it from tipping. The canoes are sleek and powerful boats and are a relative of the more traditional dugout canoes. The modern racing canoes are made out of fiberglass to be light and fast. They are painted bright colors and well maintained. Each village has its own canoeing center, and every afternoon the locals can be seen out on the water training for various canoe races. Canoe racing is the national sport of French Polynesia. Races include anything for sprints across a bay to grueling inter-island passages. The importance of outrigger canoe racing in  modern Polynesian culture is one important connection to traditional maritime culture that is still alive and visible today.

Festivals and Events

There are a number of ocean related events that take place on Moorea. The island hosts an adventure race, which includes a canoe element. There is also a festival each year that begins with a sailing race from Tahiti to Moorea; the three-day festival consists of many events, including canoe racing. Many other surfing, boating, and fishing competitions take place on nearby Tahiti (“Tahiti Festivals and Events”).

Fishing in Moorea

The nature of the ocean floor around Moorea requires different fishing practices in the various ocean environments around the island. The reef separates the lagoon from the ocean, creating two types of fisheries, pelagic and reef. Pelagic fish are caught in the ocean outside the reef. Commonly caught and eaten ocean species includes various types of tuna, such as Skipjack, Yellow fin and Albacore, as well as Mahi-Mahi, Wahoo and the occasional Marlin. In Moorea there are over 500 different species of fish living in the lagoon, though not all of them are good to eat. According to Kieitapu Maamaatuaiatapu, the French Polynesian Minister of Fisheries from 2004-2008, you can tell which reef fish were eaten traditionally because when Polynesians don’t eat a species of fish, they don’t name them. If a fish is nameless, it is probably too small to eat or too difficult to catch. Reef fish are usually much smaller than the pelagic fish and plentiful in the lagoon. These two different fishing environments led to a diversity of fishing techniques.

The historical populations of Moorea took advantage of the abundance of fish and were efficient fishermen. They had many methods for catching and trapping them. One traditional method was groping or catching fish by hand in shallow waters. Using this technique, islanders collected stationary and slow moving creatures, such as mollusks, lobster and fish that were slow enough to be caught by hand. They sometimes even caught octopi using this method (Oliver 87). Poison was also used to gather fish—usually made from the ground up seeds of the Barringtonia shrub—which was scattered in tidal pools or crevices in coral, stunning the fish and making their collection a simple matter (Oliver, 87).

Fishing implements, such as nets and spears were also part of the traditional fisherman’s repertoire. A wide variety of designs were used, from small one-person casting nets to large seines of up to 100 yards. They were usually made of coconut fibers and sunk with rock sinkers. There were also a few of types spears designed to catch different species of fish. Polynesians used long spears that were thrown from the shore or canoes. They also had a shorter version for jabbing that was used while swimming or wading in the shallows. Spear fishing frequently took place on moonless nights, when fishermen would go out on the reef with torches to attract fish. Using harpoons to catch the pelagic Mahi-Mahi was another traditional fishing style. The harpooner would stand on the bow of a canoe as it pursued the fish, and when they got close enough, throw the harpoon. This method usually resulted in two fish, as Mahi-Mahi mate for life, and travel in pairs.

Various types of angling—fishing with hooks and lines—were employed by the Polynesians to catch fish. They used fishhooks of all sizes and materials depending on what type of fish they wanted to catch. Some examples are the small hooks made out of shells and bones for fishing in the lagoon and big wooden hooks used for shark fishing. Polynesians were innovative in their fishhook designs. Simple versions of flashers, barbs, and sinkers were all incorporated into traditional Polynesian angling. In traditional island culture, there were some islanders who specialized in fishing. The fishermen lived near the ocean and traded their catch for land-based commodities produced by the in people who lived further up the valley. The multitude of techniques that were developed for catching fish shows how important fish resources were to early Polynesians.

Fishing continues to be an important source of income and protein in Moorea. Modern fishing techniques are similar to traditional methods. Nets, spears, hooks, and line remain important tools of the industry. Moorean fishermen mostly sell their catches in local markets or from stands along the side of the road (Maamaatuaiahutapu). Modern spear fishermen use more advanced spear guns and slings to stab their prey. It is common to go spear fishing at night, when the fish are sleeping and it is easy to sneak up on them (Maamaatuaiahutapu). Mahi-Mahi are also still caught with a harpoon. The motorized Poti marara is the boat of choice for pelagic harpooning (Maamaatuaiahutapu). Harpoons thrown from the Poti Marara are used to catch Mahi-Mahi as the fish swim through the ocean. This enterprise is usually undertaken solo, and takes skill and knowledge to execute. Fishermen also use hooks and line to catch fish in both lagoon and ocean waters.

Food: Historical and Modern

Historically, Mooreans ate what they could grow or gather from the island and the surrounding ocean. Many of these foods, such as vegetables, fruits, and seafood, were eaten raw or lightly marinated (Oliver, 94). They also had cooking techniques. Preparing a Traditional Polynesian feast involves baking food in an earth oven, known as an Ahima’a. These ovens are made by starting a wood-fire in a pit lined with porous volcanic rocks, which are heated until they are red-hot. The fire is then removed and the food, usually fish, pork, taro, breadfruit, sweet potatoes and a variety of banana dishes, is placed on the rocks in coconut fronds baskets and buried under banana leaves and sand then left to cook for three to four hours (How to eat…). Preparing food in this manner is time consuming, and results in a lot of food, so it was not the cooking method used every day.

Modern food in Moorea is a combination of traditional Polynesian food and French food. There is much from the sea to be found in Polynesian cuisine. On average, the population of French Polynesia eats more fish than any other country, about forty-eight kg/person, compared to a world average of sixteen kg/person (Coastal and Marine Ecosystems). The national dish of French Polynesia is Poisson cru, which is raw fish marinated in limejuice, coconut milk and other ingredients. Other popular seafood includes limpets, shrimp, and octopus. This fresh seafood is sold in the markets and from roadside stands. Some less traditional foods eaten in Moorea include rice and Punu Pua’atora, which is the Polynesian equivalent of spam (How to Eat).  


Figure 3: Pristine beaches such as this attract tourists to Moorea. Picture by David Siu, Friday, February 4.

In addition to providing food for the local communities, the tropical waters that surround Moorea are a tourist attraction. To get to Moorea, tourists have the option of flying or taking a ferry from Tahiti. The ferry voyage costs $10 a person and the jet-powered catamarans take twenty-five to thirty minutes (Moorea: Activities and Sites). The ferry provides a reliable connection between Tahiti and Moorea and allows for locals to commute between the islands on a regular basis. The ferry trip offers scenic views and is a cheaper alternative to flying. This is an important ferry line because it makes it easy for tourists to get to Moorea, and gives the local population access to a job market off the island.

Many jobs in Moorea’s tourist industry involve taking people out on the water for various ocean recreations, such as boat trips to the lagoon and fringing reef. The calm shallow waters in the Lagoon around Moorea make for easy snorkeling at many sites. Another popular activity is the lagoon excursions. Local guides take tourists out to uninhabited motus for a day of snorkeling and swimming with stingrays and sharks. Dive trips are also popular among tourists visiting Moorea. The underwater features around the island are very dramatic, with many deep canyons and points. According to one tourist website, Moorea has the finest diving in the world (Moorea). Underwater helmet tours are also popular. The boats used for these excursions are usually five-to-ten meter long open motorboats, designed to be a steady platform that can hold a lot of people. Other water craft used by tourists, such as Jet Skis, kayaks, and pedal boats can be seen ion Moorea’s lagoon.

Tourists on Moorea also have the choice of venturing out onto the open ocean. Dolphin and whale watching trips are offered and there is a chance of seeing Humpback whales in the late fall. Bottlenose dolphins and toothed whales are seen near Moorea all year round (Moorea). Deep-sea fishing is another open ocean experience offered in Moorea. The Moorea Fishing Charters website says that the fish frequently caught are Black Marlin, Tuna, Wahoo and Mahi-Mahi. The boats used for sports fishing charters are fairly typical thirty-foot modern fiberglass motorboats. These water related aspects of the tourist industry provide jobs for boat-savvy guides as well as all the land-based personnel who organize the trips. This is one of the ways that the ocean continues to provide a livelihood for the people of Moorea.

Sustainability of Moorea’s Oceans

The protection of the waters surrounding Moorea is crucial to the lifestyles and livelihoods of Mooreans. Anxiety about overfishing and the environmental degradation of the waters and reefs around Moorea led to the implementation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) (Lison). MPAs are management tools implemented with the purpose of protecting fish stocks, biodiversity, and ecological integrity as well as providing economic and social benefits to the surrounding human community (Forrester). They do this by implementing various regulations restricting fishing, anchoring, and diving. The strictest MPAs are “No Take Zones,” which protect everything within the boundary of the MPA. The idea behind MPAs is that protecting an area with certain boundaries will have a beneficial effect on not only the localized region, but the regions surrounding it as well.

The Plan de Gestion de l’Espace is a comprehensive marine management plan that is being implemented in Moorea by the Polynesian Government. This plan includes the lagoons and waters beyond the reef up to seventy meters deep (Lison). Part of this plan was the development of eight MPAs spread out along Moorea’s coast. In 2004 the plan was put into action. Though used widely around the world, there remains to be uncertainty about whether or not these protected areas are having the desired effects on biodiversity and habitat conditions, as they are difficult to regulate (Lison). It is hard to get people who have fished for their dinner right off the beach for their whole lives to stop and there is no one to control or enforce the regulations (Maamaatuaiahutapu).

Moorean people have a close tie to ocean, manifested in their use of the ocean for food and in their early religious beliefs. Advancements in boating and fishing allowed Mooreans obtain a large amount of resources from the ocean efficiently. Historically the ocean has been seen as an inexhaustible resource—no matter how many fish were taken from the lagoon and ocean, there were more to take their place.  We now acknowledge that this is false and that ocean resources need careful stewardship. If the ocean is going to continue sustaining Polynesia and much of the world, more conscientious practices need to be adopted.

Alyce Flanagan, University of Washington
Eric Smith, Ripon College


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