Makatea, French Polynesia

Jul 30, 2018 - National Geographic Orion

Today National Geographic Orion explored the magnificent uplifted atoll of Makatea.  Considered part of the Tuamotu Archipelago, this 50-million-year-old island stands out from all other islands in the area, literally rising 150 meters above the ocean’s surface.  Once a typical atoll island formation comprised of limestone deposited over 10’s of millions of years of coral reef formation, it now presents as a “flat”-topped island with towering white sea cliffs.  The former lagoon that is typical of atolls is now a mere depression at the center of the island with tropical forest vegetation blanketing the entire island.  For a short period there was a robust phosphorite mining operation here which ended in the mid 1960’s. 

The geologic history here would provide us the opportunity to explore this very special island, both inside and out.  Due to the nature of the bedrock over the course of time, erosive forces have excavated out numerous caverns, one of which we simply call “The Grotto” which would provide a once in a lifetime chance to immerse in the ancient waters that have percolated down through the porous limestone deposits, leaving beautiful formations above and below.

Many guests made their way to The Grotto on foot, trekking 3 miles through the dense forest and taking in the sights.  While a robust contingent of bird enthusiasts sought out some of the rarer species of birds found here, including the Makatea fruit dove (ptilinos chalcurus), Polynesian imperial pigeon (ducula auroae) and Tuamotu reed warbler (acrocephalus atyphus).  All three of which were spotted and good looks at these endemic birds to French Polynesia were enjoyed.  Nearly the entire compliment of guests immersed themselves in the magical waters of The Grotto.

In the afternoon we set out to see just what lies beneath the deep blue waters around Makatea, thriving coral reef covering nearly 100 percent of the depths captivated the snorkelers as they drifted with the currents that feed this thriving ecosystem. The day as whole could only be summarized as pure paradise completing the experience of visiting such a unique place as Makatea.

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About the Author

Doug Gualtieri


Doug’s passion for the natural world started at an early age in his home state of Michigan. He received two biology degrees from Central Michigan University, and later went on to get a master’s degree in conservation biology. His education led him to study a diverse range of natural sciences, with an emphasis on ecology, animal behavior, and migratory birds. Shortly after leaving the academic world, Doug migrated north to Alaska with his trusty Siberian husky, Koda. He began working as a naturalist in Denali National Park in 1999. For over seven years he has shared his love of Alaska and Denali’s six million acres with Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic guests, as trip leader for the Denali Land Extension based at the North Face Lodge deep within the park.

About the Photographer

Jay Dickman


Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Jay Dickman's career has spanned a multitude of experiences. As a photojournalist for more than 40 years, Jay has covered topics as diverse as the Salvadoran civil war, Olympics and Super Bowls, national political conventions, and the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Among his more than 25 assignments for National Geographic, he lived in a Stone Age village in Papua New Guinea and spent a week under the Arctic ice in a nuclear attack submarine. Jay has been joining National Geographic Expeditions for over a decade and has traveled to all seven continents. A popular photography instructor, he has also published a best-selling guide called Perfect Digital Photography, as well as numerous articles for National Geographic, LIFE, Sports Illustrated, Time, and Forbes.

About the Videographer

Dexter Sear

Video Chronicler

Dexter grew up in England where a love for exploring the countryside ignited a lifelong passion for discovering natural history and embarking on adventure. As a teenager, two trips to India sparked a fascination with insects and a desire to share a “hidden” macro world was born. He produced a popular insect website and authored a reader digest about cultural entomology.

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