The future of human habitation and economic production in French Polynesia depends on its ability to adapt to and mitigate sea-level rise and coral bleaching and acidification

Polynesians and How We Can Sustain their Indigenous Way of Life

A canoe wades off the shore of a small island in turquoise blue water.

A row boat wading in turquoise blue waters off the shore of a small uninhabited island in French Polynesia: Carrigan, Keone. “French Polynesia – A Southern Pacific Paradise.” Exquisite Travel Group, 28 Feb. 2020, 


Australia and the Pacific Ocean, Oceana

Hugging the pristine California coastline is the mighty Pacific Ocean, the largest and deepest of the Earth’s oceans, which covers over 60 million square miles, which is approximately 30 percent of the planet’s surface area. In the heart of the Pacific Ocean is the continent of Oceania, which is made up of Australia, New Zealand, and up to 25,000 or more islands that form Micronesia and Polynesia. In this region of the world, the local populace that calls these islands home, are heavily dependent upon the nourishment of the Pacific Ocean, from fishing to tourism. The Polynesians, who are the indigenous inhabitants of these islands, have lived off of the water for generations, dating back to when their first ancestors canoed across the high seas with nothing but the stars above to guide them, eventually canoeing and settling the numerous islands we associate with honeymoons such as Bora Bora, Tahiti, the Solomon Islands, et cetera. These picturesque isles, at one point, were once active volcanoes spewing hot molten lava, but overtime, during the geological history of the Earth, it began to cool, went extinct. It then began sinking into the ocean, creating the stunning turquoise blue lagoons and the kaleidoscope array of coral reefs that act as a natural barrier as a byproduct, thus attracting not only the vitally precious organisms that make a coral reef habitat so magnificent, but also a lot of travel and tourism centered around the stunning beauty of the South Pacific from its towering misty volcanic peaks to its sparkling crystal clear waters and white sand beaches.

But long before there was Tripadvisor or other such sites, the early Polynesians thrived on these islands for centuries as the rest of the world just started to achieve modernity, simply by dictating their lives in symbiosis with the ocean. Much of their way of life, culture, and values has not changed for hundreds of years. However with the colonization and expansion of Europeans all over the world, plus with the advent of new and improving technology, their islands would become more accessible than ever before to travelers and visitors who visit from far and wide to partake in five star world class snorkeling, scuba diving, surfing, sailing, to deep sea fishing in literal paradise on Earth. With the amount of tourists coming and going from the Pacific Islands, there is a consistent exchange or flow of different cultures and identities coming together with respect for the natural beauty of Mother Nature. The Polynesians call the energy of the mountains to the oceans to all things as the mana, a divine energy that permeates with our souls. The closest cultural neighbor who shares similar values and beliefs and is the gateway to perceiving and understanding the anthropology of the ancient Polynesians and their lineages are the Native Hawaiians. Even though Hawaii is a US State, the way of life on the Hawaiian islands has not changed too drastically compared to the Mainland even with the arrival of the Anglo-American. Many of the local people still are very grounded in their heritage and roots, which is why Hawaii is the closest place to learn about the origins of the Polynesian culture and to experience it firsthand.

The Polynesians

Polynesian dances on beach

Unlike the Hawaiian Islands, which is a part of the United States, the thousands of atolls and islands settled by the early Polynesians are far more remote and isolated in the vastness of the South Pacific. From an anthropologist’s perspective, these different islands host different groups of inhabitants who were descended from those who paddled across the Pacific, where, at that time, different cultures, ideologies, and values were formed that shape the very way of life of these Islanders. The one value perhaps that is spread across all throughout the Pacific, is the Polynesians’ reverence for water and all things that depend upon it. From sharks, whales, to turtles, the ocean and the land form a sacred symmetry for the people who call the islands their ancestral homeland. But the Polynesian islands could not hide their beauty from the rest of the world, especially nowadays with the abundance of social media apps and users that have easy access to travel related media. A vast number of Instagram to Facebook posts are people vacationing on islands like Bora Bora or Fiji, sharing their experiences on someone else’s feed. That ultimately makes one envious or motivated to take part and make their own memories.

Even without the aid of social media, the Polynesian Islands are a paradise where life is not determined by its place in the age of modernity, where the inhabitants have lived and thrived the same way for countless generations, by way of water. The Polynesian way of life and culture are hospitable towards visitors and travelers who have respect for the indigenous locals and their island when they come on vacation. Protecting, respecting, and cherishing every aspect of these ancient volcanic islands from the peaks, the waterfalls, the streams, to the ocean, all of these natural elements create an interrelated network of mana or energy that is bound to all things that is a significant aspect of the Polynesian culture that can be carried on by someone from an entirely different culture, a memory that will serve for a lifetime. Whether it be by flight, sailing, or by cruise, men, women, and children of all kinds arrive to these idyllic islands to escape the trials and tribulations of everyday life from work to graduate school to tap into this energy. While the islands of Polynesia and Micronesia exist in their own little bubbles where their livelihoods depend upon the ocean and the tourism that comes with it, the influences of the outside world through foreign international interests and the impact human beings have had on their surrounding ecology and environments has put a strain on the Earth itself. Ever since the birth of the Industrial Revolution, the amount of excess carbon dioxide and methane gases that are released and trapped in the atmosphere has accelerated climate change in our times and could spell dire consequences for the many islands scattered in the South Pacific. 

A native Polynesian walks a traditional raft through shallow water.

A native Polynesian wading a traditional raft through shallow waters at a Tahitian resort: Whelan, Nathaniel. “What Is Polynesia?” WorldAtlas, WorldAtlas, 23 Nov. 2020, 

Climate Change

The future of human habitation and economic production in French Polynesia depends on its ability to adapt to and mitigate sea-level rise and coral bleaching and acidification

 Many people don’t realize, but climate change has a much bigger impact on the ocean than we can imagine. Of all the Earth’s spheres, from the Geosphere to the Biosphere, the one that is being impacted profoundly the most is the Hydrosphere, which incorporates all the bodies of water on the planet. Life cannot flourish without the sun and water, so if the Hydrosphere is severely impacted by human activity, it can change many aspects of our way of life. One of the biggest noticeable impacts is overfishing, which if left unchecked could completely deplete entire fish species that so many people and other animals depend on for food and nutrition. Not only could it create widespread famine, but it could also hinge upon the Polynesian Islands economy who survives off of their fisheries and the abundance of fish that can still exist if we change how we approach our fishing methods and regulate who can fish where and what times, should it be the breeding season. Another very dire consequence of climate change in the warmer tropical regions like the Great Barrier Reef or one of the many Polynesian Islands, entire coral reef colonies are becoming ill due to the increasing acidification of the world’s oceans which has begun turning vibrant coral reef ecosystems into desolate boneyards that was a shell of what it once was. This is not only devastating for the marine life that depend upon the coral reefs for their own existence but also for tourism in these places. Being able to travel somewhere and scuba dive is allowing oneself to gaze upon one of nature’s most beautiful arrangements of organisms anywhere, a whole community of interdependent aquatic life thriving off of one another’s success. However as the world continues to gradually heat up, future generations may never know or get the chance to look upon corals with their own eyes.

But life always seems to find a way out of the brink. Conservationists, activists, and artists recently in our times, have teamed up to create artificial sculptures that will serve to attract coral polyps and other marine life to a stable structure that could serve as the foundation for a future coral colony. It would seem coral reefs will exist well into the future through the ingenuity of human beings, but in that same breath, more and more measures are being taken to combat climate change as more people are taking a stand to increase change. The Polynesians serve as an example of what a self sustaining, sea-faring people can achieve for centuries, by respecting and cherishing the land and the ocean, the two aspects that they hold sacred, which has allowed them to thrive. The entire culture of Polynesia and the South Pacific is dominated by the ocean from trading, fishing, to tourism, it is all driven by their symbiotic relationship with the ocean, all the while, others are centered around materialism that sprouts from capitalism and free enterprise, while some cultures and its people don’t have either. 


Traveling to a place like French Polynesia or one of the many thousands of islands in the Southern Pacific, not only is aesthetically pleasing to the eye with its untampered natural beauty and wonder, but also culturally pleasing to see how such a warm and kind people live out many aspects of their lives at the mercy of the Pacific. Every morning their day is centered around the ocean from catching fresh fish for the day, surfing remote reef passes, or showing tourists around their beautiful islands. It has only been since the last century that people have travelled all the way down to the Southern Hemisphere to vacation and bask in the tropical sun, which coincides with the rise of climate change and the increase in machines and technology, making travel to these remote islands far easier than that of the ancestors of the Polynesians who travelled to the islands they settled by rowing a canoe. Ultimately, now is the time to go and travel to these fantastic paradises where the water is the same temperature as bath water, where people can swim up close and personal with some of the Earth’s most unique marine organisms from Dolphins, Whale Sharks, to Manta Rays, relax in a hammock under the hues of the sunset, and to surf some of the best reef breaks in the world formed by the coral reefs surrounding the lagoons.

As we approach Asian and Pacific Islander heritage month this May, it is important that their way of life can persist well into the future even with climate change and the rising seas on the horizon. While most of us see these tropical paradises as a vacation spot or honeymoon destination, these sacred islands have been the home and lifeline of the Polynesians. But what many cultures may lack with the Polynesians is the reverence for the ocean and the energy attributed to it. Our entire weather pattern is dictated by the circulation of the oceans all across the globe from monsoons to hurricanes, which as of lately have been increasing in severity. What other western cultures could learn from the Polynesians and Pacific Islanders in regards to how to treat and respect our oceans would be beneficial for us all since we all depend upon the oceans for the preservation of our species. Traveling to French Polynesia, Fiji, Vanuatu, to one of the many other Polynesian Islands, exposes tourists to a culture that owes its existence to the ocean and the tides, where they take their boat to the store instead of their car and where the strife of life can be easily forgotten just by being in the presence of such natural majestic beauty. Saving up enough in life to explore such a place and to experience firsthand such an ocean based culture can help us appreciate what we have taken for granted by also preserving their way of life by demanding change. For most Californians, the ocean is always there and a place to go when it gets too hot, but for Pacific Islanders, the ocean is a very part of who the Polynesians are.

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