The Marquesas Islands are the jewels of French Polynesia. They are located far from any continent, making them a secluded array of islands in the quiet South Pacific. They are known for their dramatic cliffscapes plunging into the deep blue ocean. And green, forested mountains rising directly out of the sea. A cruise to the Marquesan islands will reveal a culture seamlessly mixed from native Marquesan, Polynesian, and French influences that will be unforgettable.
The Marquesas Islands were first discovered by Polynesian voyagers as long as 2,000 years ago. These intrepid explorers named the islands Henua Enana, or Ground of the Men. The earliest settlement dates back to 150 BC, and several fishhooks and adzes are left as evidence of this marine-dependent civilization.
Settlers began to spread to inland areas over the next 1,300 years, and these civilizations left behind vegetable-pounders and peelers indicate that agriculture became prominent, and the breadfruit became a dietary staple.
As habitable spaces filled up on the islands, raised platforms for houses began to appear, and there is evidence that violent confrontations occurred. Human bones that have been found also suggest a tradition of cannibalism. As the cultures advanced, irrigation ditches and terraces came into use as agricultural practices evolved, and religious structures were built in a parallel spiritual evolution. An expedition cruise to the Marquesas may reveal some of these fascinating archeological sites.
Recent History of the Marquesas
The people of the Marquesas first encountered Europeans when Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mandana stumbles across the islands in his search for the mythical land of Ophir, where he believed he would find the mines of King Solomon. Instead, he found savage natives that greeted the suspicious stranger with violence. Mendana killed 200 Marquesans before leaving the islands.
This contact presaged several foreign visits to the islands, including slave raids. These visitors also brought diseases that sped the decimation of the native population. The islands weren’t claimed for colonization until the French arrived to do so in 1842. Records indicate that the native population at the beginning of the 1800s was around 90,000; forty years after French colonization, that population plummeted to less than 6,000. Marquesan culture was in quick decline as French influences and demands took hold of the island. The good news is that as of the 1990s, the Marquesan population has rejuvenated itself to the point of 8,000 people. A culture cruise to the Marquesas may provide the opportunity to experience a recuperating Marquesan culture.
Marquesas Islands Politics
The Marquesas Islands are a French territory, and incorporated as part of French Polynesia. They are part of French Polynesia’s five administrative subdivisions, and one of six circumscriptions/electoral districts for the Assembly of French Polynesia.
As of the last census, 70% of the population is of Polynesian descent, 5% are of European descent, and the rest is mixed.
Dramatic Cliffs and Coral Reefs
The Marquesan Islands are scattered 600 miles south of the equator, and about 1,000 miles northeast of Tahiti. They have the geographical honor of being the island chain farthest away from any continent. With their combined land area, they are the largest island group in Polynesia. In fact, Nuku Hiva is second in size only to Tahiti.
Because the islands were created through volcanic activity, they appear to be green mountains rising straight out of the sea. The absence of coastal plains leaves only dramatic cliffs for the waves of the Pacific to crash against.
The islands fall into the northern group and the southern group. The large island of Nuku Hiva is part of this group, and its outline indented with several deep bays. It has a high grass prairie that covers its inland area, from which tumbles the beautiful Vaipo Waterfall. The capital city of Tai o Hae is located on Nuku Hiva.
The southern grouping of islands is composed of such jewels as Moho Tani, Tahuata, and the beautiful main island of Hiva ‘Oa. A cruise to the Marquesas will likely visit these secluded landscapes.
Nature Reserves of the Marquesas Islands
Some of the most beautiful parts of the Marquesas Islands have been protected as nature reserves. The Eiao Nature Reserve was the first to be declared, as a first step in restoring an ecosystem destroyed by feral pigs and other introduced species.
Hatutu, an island in the northern group, has been designated as a nature reserve; it is home to several endangered species, many of them endemic. This means that they are found nowhere else in the world, such as the Marquesan Ground Dove and the Hatutaa Polynesian Warbler.
The island of Motu One and entire coral reef that surrounds it make of the Motu One Reserve. Its beaches are important nesting grounds for endangered sea turtles, and the island is a prominent seabird rookery.
The Marquesan Islands enjoy a sub-tropical climate, where clouds drop rainfall on the south and east slopes of the islands that results in the beautiful greenery of those areas. The north and west slopes, then, are dryer and grassier. The middle months of the year, May-August, is generally the wettest period. The average temperature on the islands is a perfect 79 degrees. It is almost always good weather in the Marquesas, making them the perfect destination for a South Pacific cruise!
Creatures Found Nowhere Else in the World
Because of their isolated state in the Pacific Ocean, the Marquesas Islands are home to several types of endemic species (which means they are found nowhere else in the world). A Marquesan adventure cruise will allow travelers to view some of these beautiful, rare animals. Most of them are avian, as the distance across the ocean is almost impossible to cover except by air.
Some of these endemic species are the blue-footed booby (yes, its feet are bright blue) and the red-footed booby, various types of doves, two types of warblers, and the Marquesans kingfisher.
The Marquesas Islands have few terrestrial animals, and most have been introduced. Travelers may find feral pigs, dogs, and the Polynesian rat, as well as the more common cattle, sheep, and goats.
The waters off the Marquesas are home to a wide array of marine life. Reef sharks are often seen prowling the waters (for prey much smaller than humans!), and dolphins and the occasional whale are frequently spotted from one of the Marquesas sandy beaches. An incredible assortment of tropical fish are to be found, and the lucky traveler may see an endangered sea turtle making its way up the beach. In fact, the Marquesans are a famous dive spot, which can be discovered on your adventure cruise to the islands!
South Pacific Living
Although it experienced a dangerous decline, native Marquesan culture can still be found on the islands. It has since been mixed with French influence and an overall Polynesian culture to create a feel all its own.
Most Marquesans work for the Catholic Church, the government, the school system, or for themselves. Many islanders work to produce pottery, woodwork such as ukaleles, and other arts and crafts to sell to tourists. Others are involved in the sheep and cattle ranching that is an important part of Marquesan culture.
Tattooing, which used to play a large role in native culture, has made a comeback, and so a cruise to the Marquesas may result in the traveler returning home with an exotic new tattoo . . . The native Marquesan language has also made a comeback, and is now part of school curriculum on the islands.
A style of dancing resembling Polynesian is popular on the islands, accompanied by drums and stringed instruments. Performances are common on the larger islands, and travelers on a cruise to the Marquesas should be sure to attend one.