Sunday, August 18, 2013

Swimming in Tourist Infested Waters – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly about Moorea

The Mountains of Moorea

After watching many a beautiful sunset over the island of Moorea from our anchorage in Tahiti, it was time to find out if it could actually live up to the hype.  This would be the most popular tourist destination we had gone to yet and we were curious how the hotels, cruise ships and tourists would affect the natural surroundings and our interactions with them. 

Spinner dolphins like to leap and spin - hence the name.
First off, let me say that Moorea is an amazingly beautiful place – completely living up to the hype in that area.  There were picture perfect white sand beaches, crystal clear aqua blue water, spinner dolphins, sting rays, and sharks galore and unbelievable sunsets from our lovely spot, anchored in Opunohu Bay.  The brochures don’t lie – it really is everything they promise.

Sailing school made this a busy bay!
Better yet, sailing is alive and well in Moorea.  Right next to where we were anchored, a large sailing camp was operating with scores of kids from 7 to 16 sailing around the large bay every day.  At times as many as 100 sailing skiffs would be in the water, all being managed by about 5 instructors.  It was such a pleasure to watch these kids having fun doing something we love.  Even with the wind blowing 20-25 knots those kids would be out sailing around – sometimes “turtling” the boat – but always managing to get them back upright on their own.  I totally respect that the instructors had a “you turtle, you correct it” policy, but they were always standing by carefully watching to make sure no one got into serious trouble.  The older kids were impressive sailors and could easily compete with the best and brightest we have back home.  We greatly admired what was clearly a very well-run program, spreading the love of sailing to a whole new generation – very cool to see.  Even better when we found out that many of the kids are from poor families and are taken into the program for free – fantastic!

Heavy winds made for lots of fun sailing!
So what’s up with the title you may ask?  Stay with me a little longer…

One of the coolest parts of taking a trip like this is you get to see places that very few people get to travel to.  While there are many other boats doing what we are doing, if you add us all up we’re likely less than a 1000 people traveling to some incredibly remote areas.  So when you arrive in a known tourist mecca, it stands in stark contrast to the places we’ve seen and it makes you a little sad to see how the people that live there have compromised their lives and their surroundings in the quest for the almighty dollar.

Now before people think I’m some sort of tourism Nazi, let me try to explain.  I have absolutely NO issue with vacationing tourists and have been one myself MANY a time!  In fact – I am still a tourist everywhere I go – doing it by boat certainly doesn’t change that.  I firmly believe that everyone has the right to visit amazing places like this and to stay at fabulous beach front hotels if they can afford it.  In fact – I would HIGHLY recommend a visit to any one of the Society Islands as they are incredibly beautiful and definitely would make a “dream vacation” for anyone willing to take the long flights involved to get here. 

What bothers me however is seeing the nature of the area changed to create a “tourist attraction” when it’s completely unnecessary.    Let me give you an example that has made a strong impression on me….

Lots of turtle sightings in from our boat.
One of our favorite activities when it’s time to play is to go snorkeling.  Getting out there in the water and swimming among the sea life is a very special thing.  Observing sea life in its natural habitat, undisturbed by humanity is one of the biggest gifts we’ve had on this trip.  We have spent a lot of time in the water and you definitely develop a huge appreciation for the ocean and its creatures after observing them for hours on end. 

But when you have 1000’s of tourists in one small area, it can’t help but change the ecosystem to some extent.  For the hotels around Opunohu Bay, one of the big attractions is swimming with the sting rays.  Sounds really cool right?  And let me be the first to tell you – IT IS COOL!  It’s amazing in fact!  You stand in this shallow sandy area and you are literally swarmed by sting rays.  They swim around you and even shimmy right up the side of your body, back or even your chest, rubbing against you almost like a cat!

Feeding the sting rays...
But why are they swarming you?  Because they are used to be fed several times a day by the big tour groups brought out by the hotels – as many as 100 “guests” will be in the water at one time – feeding the sting rays.  And it happens twice a day, every day but Sunday. 

This is a perfect example of how the local ecosystem has been completely changed by the tourist industry.  It is not normal for sting rays to come up and rub themselves against you.  Normally they have a very healthy natural fear of human beings!  But here in Moorea they are so used to being fed that they actually recognize the tour guides, putting on a show worthy of Sea World – even taking food right from the tour guides mouths.

"Swimming" with the sting rays...see how it's rubbing me?
Now – as I said, I enjoyed “petting” the sting rays as much as the next tourist – because we are ALL tourists in this sort of situation.  It was incredible feeling their skin and having them practically climb up the front of me.  But later on, when I started to really think about it, it left me feeling sad that we humans have created this environment for the profit of the hotel industry.  I am not so naive to think that this is not happening all over the world, nor am I some crazed tree hugger.  But having been out here for almost a year, I have had the privilege of seeing some amazingly untouched areas and it has changed the way I think about this sort of thing. 

Several days later Brett and I were snorkeling in Huahine and came across four beautiful sting rays buried in the sand.  As we swam a little closer, they unearthed themselves and silently glided away in front of us – absolute poetry in motion.  Watching them as they are MEANT to act was so much better than our previous interaction that I just had to write about it.  It makes me want to convey (my personal opinion) that it’s not natural (or good) for us to modify nature in this way or to support tourism that creates this sort of environment.  Trust me that swimming with sting rays FOR REAL – is so much better than a manufactured experience!  Why must humans always try to “improve” on something that is already perfect?

Okay – I’m putting away the soap box, but just a little food for thought.

Yet another amazing sunset from Opunohu Bay


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