Ti‘a Moana Captain Julien
Dienis (left) with chief
engineer Jean Marc Rouet.
Stéphane Toimata has got to be one of the most stylish guys in French Polynesia: For someone who wears very little, he wears it very well, and he could teach John Galliano a thing or two about accessorizing with plants. Stéphane lives on Motu Ea, at the edge of Taha‘a’s lagoon, with a dreamy view across to Bora. Almost three years ago, he moved to Ea to live in a simple shack and start Mata Tours, named for his great-grandfather Mata, a shark caller who appeared to him in a dream and urged him to stick with the family business.
Stéphane tells me the story as we sit on Ea’s beach, finishing up a traditional Tahitian tama‘ara‘a, or feast, and looking across turquoise shallows to hundreds of coconut trees standing on a neighboring motu. A day with Stéphane is another event off the ship, and earlier a group of us were out in the lagoon with him, swimming with stingrays, then watching him call in and feed a dozen black-tip reef sharks. He stood in the water as the sharks swirled around him, utterly at ease, occasionally picking one up as it swam by. It was wonderful to see sharks in the wild, but it was even better to see Stéphane so utterly attuned to the sea, continuing an ancient way of living with the ocean.
Which leads to another thing about these islands: the benevolence of the lagoons. Each of the landfalls we visit is surrounded by wide, fertile, protected waters that have nurtured life for eons. The lagoons have a fantastic calm to them. When we are outside them at night on the ship, traveling between islands, the sea is filled with slow, strong swells. When we pass into the lagoons, everything stills.
Each dawn, I get up to watch the ship enter the day’s lagoon. This morning, we are nearing the Iriru Pass into Raiatea. Behind, Huahine is lit gold by the waking sun; ahead, Raiatea is still in shadow, with a stark white cloud sitting atop its highest mountain like a halo. I’m on the bridge, where first mate Nicolas Popinet offers coffee, and the captain, Julien Dienis, shows me the charts. Julien is new to the boat, just arrived from driving an Exxon oil tanker in the Persian Gulf. Judging by the calm smile on his face, he isn’t having any problem adapting.
The ocean outside is 2,480 meters deep, according to the charts; entering the lagoon, it’s thirty-two meters, and as we cruise into the pass, the color of the water shifts from deep navy blue to pale aqua. I look out at the two small motus that flank the pass, Tipaemau and Ilê Iriru. Later tonight, we’ll be on Iriru, watching a silent movie called Tabu that was shot in Bora Bora in the late 1920s; it won its cinematographer, Floyd Crosby, an Academy Award. Sitting under the stars, watching the film on a screen slung between two coconut trees, listening to the waves lap against the shore, I remember that Mehiti said time on the boat "stimulates the senses in a rich, vital and fragrant manner." At the time I heard it, it sounded like hyperbole. Sitting here, I realize it’s true.