Scenes from Rapa

A visiting research vessel experiences a traditional Rapan celebration.

November 6, 2014
Scenes of Rapan celebration Mike Litzow

Johnny is an important guy in the Rapa community. He’s fifty, he’s a very active fisherman, he’s a member of the council that administers rauhui, the community fisheries management plan based on rotating closed areas around the island that is surely the envy of subsistence fishing communities around the world.

Johnny is also an even-tempered guy. Our acquaintance has been short, and necessarily shallow because of the language barrier, but I get the idea that it’s hard to get him angry.

But when he was on our boat for dinner the other night, and we were showing each other pictures of Alaska and Rapa, he showed us a picture on his phone of a ship anchored in Baie Haurie, the harbor of Rapa.


A scientific ship from New Zealand, he explained. They were here, we know they were diving around Rapa, but they never explained to us what they were doing.

There was a real bitterness in his voice and his demeanor – a palpable sense of being wronged.

Scenes of Rapan celebration Mike Litzow

Public “outreach” is all the rage in Alaskan marine science. Especially if a group will be working in the area around a subsistence community, there is a strong expectation that the scientists involved will present their work to the locals and solicit feedback.


Here, and below – scenes of Rapan celebrationThe Kiwi-flagged ship that Johnny had photographed didn’t do that. And oh boy, did they miss out as a result.

The National Geographic “Pristine Seas” group, and the Pew marine protected area people who were working with them, took a completely different approach.

A central goal of theirs was securing local support for the establishment of a marine protected area in the Australs. They went fishing with locals, and took locals on their sampling/filming trips, and generally did everything they could to make their work valuable to the people of Rapa. So, for instance, when some locals suggested that it might be a good idea if they were invited on board the Hanse Explorer for a party, the Nat Geo guys didn’t hem and haw and try to fit it in at the end of their trip. They invited their local contacts, and their contacts’ families, on board at the soonest opportunity for beer and wine and finger foods and a viewing of a rough cut of the footage they had been shooting.

Eric, Johnny, and a yellowfin tuna caught on hand line. Just like in Kodiak, where king crab legs sometimes go into crab dip, part of this tuna went onto a tuna pizza. Nothing compares to the casual use of luxury foods in the source communities Mike Litzow

They also presented a ten-minute version of their movie and an overview of their scientific results to the whole community at the end of their trip, and had the entire school on board the ship for a tour.

The people of Rapa, in turn, did something that Polynesian cultures clearly excel at – they treated these visitors as honored guests. They reciprocated with the leis and necklaces and flower crowns and woven hats that are the Polynesian way of saying, “you are special – we honor you!” They played music for the visitors and sang them songs and taught them local dance (the “Haole haka” – always a crowd pleaser).

And, they showed their welcome with ma’a – food. Or, more accurately, with feasts. Food is a center of social life and festivity everywhere, but even more so in Rapa, if you follow me.

On the VIP list. The written invite from the mayor was immediately a treasured souvenir Mike Litzow

And, so being included in all this, we got to see a wonderful side of Rapa. This place isn’t any kind of time warp – the people here are modern, with experience of life in the big smoke of Pape’ete. They have their cell phones and Facebook pages and they watch the French version of “Dancing with the Stars” at night. But, since there is no airport they are also modern in an undiluted version of their home island, if you will. Visitors are still a special event, and don’t threaten to outnumber the locals as they do in so many places in French Polynesia. And so although this place is of the contemporary world, the willingness and ability to celebrate visitors might be akin to something from decades gone by in most of the region.

Gettin’ down with the people. Mike Litzow

In other words, we were treated to a number of scenes of community celebration that were very reminiscent, I imagine, of what a sailor might have encountered had they sailed into this place forty years ago, when the Pacific was innocent of the great modern herds of travelling sailboats, and a friendly face from foreign shores was something to celebrate.

Mao leading the Rapa hake, haole-style. Mike Litzow

The interaction between the Nat Geo folks and the Rapans culminated in a picture-perfect sendoff for the Hanse Explorer. There were mutual gifts and songs and dance and endless waving as the ship slowly moved away from the dock. And then, puzzled expressions ashore as the ship came back and turned around to leave a second time so that the cameraman operating the drogue could get the departure shot for the movie.

The Nat Geos and Hanse Explorer crew, decked out for departure. Mike Litzow

That was Thursday when the Hanse Explorer left Rapa, and the celebrations ended…until Sunday, when the monthly feast for the Protestant populations of the two villages rolled around. There was singing, there was music of ukulele and kamaka and guitar. There was food for all, and enough for everyone to takeaway for a second meal at home. And there were Alisa and myself (the boys were eating at the kids’ table) sitting at the VIP table with our friend and interpreter Jackye and the venerated old people of Rapa.

Farewelling the Hanse Explorer. Mike Litzow

Meet the crew of Galactic: Mike and Alisa Litzow and their sons Elias and Eric. “When we left Alaska to sail to Australia with our toddler for crew, we thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. But then we had our second child, and bought our second boat, and sailed across the Pacific a second time. We’ve been living aboard for seven years now. Sometimes we wonder how long we’ll keep at it, but all we know for sure is that the end doesn’t seem to be in sight just yet.” Follow their story at


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