Tahiti:  Maritime Culture

Tahitians have always lived in close promixity with the ocean due to the island’s inaccessible, mountainous interior. The ocean brought the earliest voyagers to the island, and once they arrived, provided them with a way of life. All aspects of the culture, from food and trade to religion and war, were influenced by the surrounding ocean. European contact and colonization changed Tahitians interactions with the ocean, but the underlying appreciation, knowledge and respect for the sea remain today.

Although little archaeological evidence remains of the canoes that first brought Polynesian people to Tahiti, scholars have deduced these vessels were double-hulled or outrigger canoes about eighty feet in length, which could have carried twenty to thirty people and considerable cargo. [1] An open ocean voyage of that magnitude would necessitate an extremely large, well built, and navigable canoe to withstand the journey. Tahitians later modified this design for canoes to be used in smaller journeys, war, and fishing.

The voyaging canoe of the Tahitians was known as the pahi.[2] It had a composite hull, which was constructed piecemeal, rather than carving out the canoe from one large log.[3] The building of canoes was an intensive process that required skilled craftsmen. While the canoes could float and were capable of withstanding longer journeys, they took on so much water that they required almost constant bailing.[4]  Despite their shortcomings, the canoes were still extremely useful for their intended purposes. James Cook reported that he thought that they could “with ease sail 40 Leagues a day or more,” –faster than his own ship.[5] Their speed was due both to their design and their use of the Tahitian half-claw sail, a distinctive shape that decreased the weight and stress of the sail when it was aloft[6] The second hull, or outrigger, was attached to the main hull by a flexible, pliable binding, which provided more stability than a stiff, unbending connector.[7] The shape and design of the sails and the construction of the outriggers indicates that Tahitians were actively studying and engineering their craft to make them more efficient and to increase speed.

The long voyages required a skilled navigator, someone trained in the knowledge of the habits and cycles of the sky and the sea. In Tahiti, the tata-o-rerro had the knowledge of navigation passed down to them from their fathers or teachers.[8] This oral knowledge transmitted through generations provided not only navigation techniques, but also awareness of other people and islands.

One of the most impressive boats used by the Tahitians was the tipaerua, the canoe of the ari’i and chiefs. It was a double-hulled canoe with two large sails made out of woven pandanus.[9] These canoes were meant to be impressive and assert the power and prestige of the ari’i.  A more casual type of boat, used almost daily by Polynesians, was the fishing canoe. These were usually dugout canoes, carved from a single log and used by two or three people.[10] They were smaller than the ones used for the long journeys to the island, and worked best in calm waters. These were used for lagoon fishing, one of three types of fishing seen in Tahiti.

Lagoon fishing thrived in Tahiti and there is evidence that up to 625 different species of fish lived in and around Tahiti in pre-European times.[11] The wide variety of fish made for good fishing grounds, and the development of different techniques for catching them. Various watercraft and technology were used in different environments, so the types of fishing varied among environments.

Diving for fish was an exhausting, difficult and dangerous endeavor, but the Tahitians were known for their skill.  One of the Bounty crew reported that “They…are excellent hands at diving after [rock] fish and I have seen a Diver in Clear Water and Calm weather pursue a fish from one hole in the rocks to another without coming up to breathe;…This may seem an odd Method of Fishing but I have seen it attended with good success and …large Strings of Fish.”[12] A diver would dive into the water and grab fish with his bare hands, sometimes grabbing multiple fish in one dive.

Lagoon fishing was only one type of fishing seen in Tahiti, barrier reef fishing and open sea fishing were also common. When fishing for dolphin fish, or mahi mahi, the fisherman would find a school of fish, and then follow it because the dolphin fish would usually be found nearby. They would troll their lines, and then it would be a fishing frenzy, with fish many fish caught rapidly and frequently.[13] This type of fishing required practice, and knowledge of the habits and habitat of the dolphin fish.  Another fishing style, distinctive to Tahiti, was tira fishing, a method of catching tuna or albacore. Douglas Oliver describes this method as “consist[ing] of long and heavy angling rods fixed to canoes at about 45-degree angles; when the intended prey took the hooks the rods were raised to vertical positions by means of pull-ropes, the device having acted as a crane.”[14] Tira fishing required larger vessels and specialized rods and hooks. 

Fishing served a practical purpose, providing the people with food, but it also formed a type of framework for the society and religious expression on the island. Like most things, boats and fishing gear had mana and canoes, lines, hooks, and nets were all consecrated so that they would be under the influence of the gods.[15] Fishing was deeply ingrained in the belief system of the island, and the gods could control the fish and the fishing trips. The skilled fishermen, feia taia, on the island formed a sort of guild where they made offerings to the gods of fish and fishing.[16] Fishing and the gods were connected, and affected each other.

This belief that the gods had an influence on fishing also manifested itself in other practices. Tahitians believed that a god and his mana could be embodied in a sacred stone and the placement of the stone could affect the catch[17]. While Tahitians knew that skill and knowledge were an intrinsic part of being a successful fisherman, they also believed that the goodwill of the gods had an effect.

Fishing knowledge was shared through an oral tradition, and the stories and knowledge became a part of Tahitian lore. In 1928 Frank Stimson recorded some of these oral stories about fishing and how Tahitians kept track of fishing cycles by the moon. “Night One (Tireo): …it (is) a new moon…the fish have all risen, all species of fish…the method of fishing is with a net, but the opening of the trap-pocket should face the shallows; this (is) a night of very many fish.”[18] The Tahitians had descriptions like this for every phase in the moon, and would follow the advice and directions carefully.

In Pre-European times, the Tahitians had a unique connection with the sea. They saw it as their connection to their ancestors, the people who brought them to the island. They also saw it as their food source, as well as their connection to the gods. An appreciation and knowledge of the sea was a way of life, and the water was not seen so much as an economic property, but part of the everyday cycles of life and seasons. The technology that they used was handmade, oftentimes with finely crafted decoration, and was used primarily for voyaging and subsistence fishing. The introduction of European technology and economy changed how the Tahitians interacted with the ocean.

The modern maritime culture of Tahiti is radically different than it was in pre-contact times. This is largely due to the introduction of new technologies and lifestyles but that is not to say that Europeans were the only cause of change in the maritime practices of Tahitians. In fact, sailing and fishing practices across Polynesia were dynamic and highly susceptible to interaction with the peoples and ideas of other islands. On the subject of pre-contact changes in Tahitian society, noted Polynesian scholar Douglas Oliver writes “it is reasonable to conclude that there had been periods in their histories when their canoes had been larger and better designed for long voyages than those seen by Europeans, who… arrived among them after their longest intentional voyages had ceased.”[19] Before creating a dichotomy between traditional and modern maritime culture, it is important to stress that neither is static and one does not exist independent of the other.

Tahitians today interact with the ocean in much the same way as coastal and islands peoples worldwide. They use it for recreation, transportation, sport, but most importantly fishing. Government statistics estimate that French Polynesians (of whom the vast majority are Tahitian) eat about 1kg (2.2lbs) of fish per week or about 114 lbs per person per year, for a total consumption of 13,000 T annually.[20] In contrast, a 2004 report by the National Marine Fisheries Service places the per capita seafood consumption of Americans at about 16.6 lbs annually.[21] As mentioned earlier, Tahitians have enjoyed the advantage of being able to fish in all three of the major marine ecosystem types in Polynesia; lagoon, barrier reef and open ocean, of which the latter has become the most economically important. Due to the vastness of her territorial holdings, France has the second largest Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the world at around 11 million sq. km, of which about 5 million is in the waters of French Polynesian.

With this vast expanse of ocean (as well as lagoons and surrounding reefs), one might assume that Tahiti has no problem with self-sufficiency in terms of protein, but alas, this is far from the truth. Some of the fish caught in Polynesian waters is exported, although exports nearly crashed during the past decade.[22] The most commonly exported fish are the more valuable species such as mahi mahi, ahi and yellowfin tuna, the price of which (depending on origin) can be as high as 42 dollars a pound at auction in Japan[23]. However, the quality of the fish sought in such a lucrative market demands immediate (and in most cases shipboard) processing, refrigeration and exportation, things not possible aboard the bulk of the Polynesian fishing fleet. Fish exportation is a surprisingly recent development. Before 2000, nearly all fish eaten in Tahiti was caught locally.[24] In 2009, fish imports to French Polynesia exceeded exports by nearly a thousand tons.[25] The reasons for this are various, most notably perhaps a dramatic shift from subsistence to commercial fishing, change in workforce demographics, the incursion of large foreign fishing vessels and the almost exclusive use of poles or long-lines, not seine nets.

Long-line fishing is a technique involving a line strung between a series of buoys, attached to a boat. Baited hooks are attached at intervals along this “long line.” In 2009, there were 68 operating longliners, totaling over 17 million hooks and bagging an annual catch of over 5500 tons. This fishing technique is most successful for catching albacore (63% of the total catch), yellowfin (13%), and bigeye tuna (10%).[26]

While long-line fishing is done primarily using larger boats, known as thoniers, smaller ones are required for other species. In Tahiti (and elsewhere in French Polynesia), two types of small boats are used, the poti marara (flying-fish boat) and the poti auhopu or bonitier. The poti marara, as its name implies, was originally used for catching flying fish. As they became larger and better engines became available, the poti marara became much more maneuverable and better able to keep up with the agility of its intended catch.[27] With this added size and speed, the poti marara became an excellent boat for catching mahi mahi, bonito, and tuna. A typical poti marara is about 18 ft in length, constructed of plywood, and equipped with an engine of 75 or 85 hp. This type of boat is especially popular with the hotel sector, which is increasingly a major source of income for many Polynesian fishermen.[28] Skipjack and mahi are normally caught by trolling with lines behind the boat, while other types of tuna are sought with downriggers, a technique practiced by Tahitian anglers since ancient times[29]. The current French Polynesian fishing fleet consists of about 313 of these boats.[30]

The second major type of boat used for rod fishing is known as the poti auhopu in Tahitian and bonitier in French. This is a larger boat complete with a cabin and small second deck. As its French name implies, the poti auhopu primarily serves as a bonito-catching vessel, and is more suitable for longer voyages on the deep sea than the more shore-dependent poti marara. The French Polynesian fishing fleet can claim about 50 of these boats among its ranks. Up until the late 90s, poti auhopu were responsible for a vast majority of the annual small-boat catch tonnage[31], but in recent years this has shifted to the poti marara, due at least in part to the increase of tourism and sport fishing.

Rod fishing in Tahiti has changed little since ancient times, unlike the angler’s mode of transportation. The rod itself is a flexible bamboo pole of about six feet in length, a design that allows the fisherman to set the hook on the fish and pull it into the boat with one adept motion. Harpoons are used to finish off larger fish, especially mahi mahi (sometimes called Dolphin fish). In the 1980s, a fishery development agency known as ‘l’Etablissment pour la Valorisation des Activites Aquacoles et Maritimes’ (EVAAM) began placing fish aggregating devices (FADs) in the waters around Tahiti. These FADs are essentially anchored rafts equipped with radar reflectors and fish lures, designed to attract small fish (and therefore predators like Tuna).[32] There are currently 12 FADs in operation around the islands of Tahiti and Mo’orea.[33] Just as fishing in ancient times was subject to the introduction of new techniques and technology, so is the modern Tahitian fleet, with each fisherman seeking a competitive advantage over his opponents—a trait not unique to Tahitian fisherman. Technology however, is not sufficient to be an expert angler. It requires a detailed knowledge of currents, topography and bathymetry, fish behavior, seabird behavior and above all, good technique and experience.

We have discussed the role of importation and exportation of fish in the Tahitian economy, but what of the local economy? It is difficult to quantify the local seafood industry because much of it is unregulated and, in a sense, "under the table." The market is the most common place for Tahitians to buy their fish (a kg per week remember), the largest being in Pape’ete. In 2009, about 360,000 kg of fish were sold at market in the capital, with an almost equal divide in sales between reef or lagoon and pelagic fish.[34] In addition to the regulated market, many fishermen sell their fish to neighbors and friends as well as operating small roadside stands, thus the difficulty in compiling accurate statistics.[35] Not all Tahitians are professional anglers, but many of them fish for recreation as well as food. It should be mentioned that fishing licenses are not required for land-based or small-boat fishing, making accurate statistics hard to come by. Reef and lagoons are not as ubiquitous as they are on other islands in Polynesia, so we will not go into detail concerning them, suffice to say that fishing is practiced in those marine environments, sometimes with nets but most often with pressurized spear guns. Fishing can be a profound and even spiritual experience for Tahitians (as it is for many peoples of the world) and can provide a meaningful connection with the ancestors and their way of life.

Although the central theme of this paper is the way in which European contact permanently altered Tahitian maritime culture, we do not mean to imply that the ancient cultural traditions associated with the sea have totally vanished. In fact, a fascinating response to over two centuries of European rule and cultural imperialism is a growing movement to reclaim and celebrate history and culture. A perfect example of this is the construction and voyage of the O Tahiti Nui Freedom, a modern incarnation of a traditional single hulled, single outrigger canoe. Completed in June 2010, and tested for just one month, the O Tahiti Nui Freedom set sail from Pape’ete in July bound for the Shanghai Expo in China, a journey of about 7,000 nautical miles. Stops along the way included the islands of Tonga, Fiji, New Guinea and the Philippines. The overall goal of the project was to encourage cultural interaction among the various peoples of the Pacific, retrace the ancient Lapita migration route, and present Polynesia on a world stage.[36] Although the canoe was equipped with modern technology such as GPS and batteries, the crew attempted to be as traditional as possible by eating traditional foods, carrying all of their own water and subsisting on fish they could catch for extended periods. Not only does the O Tahiti Nui represent a resurgence in traditional maritime culture, its builders and crew are forging cross-cultural connections and crucial links to the common ancestry of nearly all Pacific Islanders.

Europeans came to Tahiti and changed the technology but were unable to suppress the Tahitians' love and appreciation for the ocean. Although fishing became an economic activity, Tahitians continue to do it as a form of recreation and as a way to connect with their traditional culture. No matter the goal, whether economic or subsistence, the Tahitians have had a spiritual, long-lasting relationship with the ocean. Whether on modern voyaging canoes, bonitiers, or traditional outrigger canoes, the people of Tahiti have never lost their respect for their oceanic surroundings.

Owen Daniels, Macalester College
Kate Kelly, Colgate University



[1]  Douglas Oliver. Polynesia in early Historic Times. Honolulu, Hawai’i: Bess Press, 2002, 115.

[2]  David Lewis. Ed. Sir Derek Oulton. We the Navigators. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994, 56.

[3]  Oliver, 116.

[4]  Oliver, 116.

[5]  James Cook, quoted in Lewis, 70.

[6]  Lewis, 64.

[7]  Te Rangi Hiroa. “Canoe Out-Rigger Attachements in Tahiti and New Zealand,” The Journal of Polynesian Society, 38.151 (1929), 204.

[8]  Lewis, 373; Note 5.

[9]  Kennedy, Alex. “Model Tipaerua.” Te Papa Tongarewa:  Museum of New Zealand. <http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/objectdetails.aspx?oid=648721>

[10]  Oliver, 115.

[11]  Oliver, 86.

[12]  Morrison in Oliver, 87.

[13]  Oliver, 90.

[14]  Oliver, 90.

[15]  Handy in Hanson, Fallan. “Female Pollution in Polynesia?” Journal of Polynesian Society. 91.3 (1982), 342.

[16]  Oliver, 92.

[17]  Oliver, 93.

[18]  Stimson in Oliver, 91.

[19]  Oliver, 115.

[20]  Keitapu Maamaatuaiahutapu. “Tropical Fisheries,” SEA Lecture, January 6, 2011.

[21]  Per Capita Consumption of Fish. Rep. National Marine Fisheries Service, 2004. Web. 27 Jan. 2011. <www.st.nmfs.noaa.gov/st1/fus/fus04/08_perita2004.pdf>.

[22]  Maamaatuaiahutapu.

[23]  http://swr.ucsd.edu/fmd/sunee/twprice/twpjan0511.htm

[24]  Coastal & Marine Ecosystems --- French Polynesia. Rep. Earth Trends Country Profile, 2003. Web. 27 Jan. 2011. <http://earthtrends.wri.org/country_profiles/fetch_profile.php?theme=1&filename=coa_cou_258.PDF>.

[25]  Maamaatuaiahutapu.

[26]  Maamaatuaiahutapu.

[27]  Borel, Gildas. "The 'Poti-Marara'-- A Multi-Purpose Inshore Craft." SPC Fisheries Newsletter 52 (Jan. 1990): 31-36.

[28]  Borel.

[29]  Oliver, 89.

[30]  Maamaatuaiahutapu.

[31]  Maamaatuaiahutapu.

[32]  Borel.

[33]  Maamaatuaiahutapu.

[34]  Les Ventes En Marche." Service De La Peche pour la Polynesie Francaise. 2009. Web. 27 Jan. 2011.

[35]  Maamaatuaiahutapu.

[36]  Hiria Ottino. "O Tahiti Nui Freedom Canoe Shanghai-bound." Interview by Geraldine Coutts. Pacific Beat. Radio Australia. 27 July 2010. 



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Ottino, Hiria. "O Tahiti Nui Freedom Canoe Shanghai-bound." Interview by Geraldine Coutts. Pacific Beat. Radio Australia. 27 July 2010. Radio.

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