COURTESY ROB KAY
Moorea Ferries wait to set sail at Papeete Dock. Tahiti's ferry experience could provide an example for the future of Hawaii interisland travel.
Ferry proves integral link for Tahiti
The service from Moorea has helped turn that island into a suburb for Papeete
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They are not super-large, not all super-fast nor are they in the least bit controversial. But man, are they ever busy. Tahiti's venerable ferry services, which have been operating for more than three decades, move a million passengers a year. This makes Papeete the third-largest port under the French flag (behind Calais and Cherbourg) in terms of passenger movement. Given that Tahiti, French Polynesia's largest island, has a population of fewer than 180,000, these numbers are even more startling.
After the past several years of news concerning Hawaii's Superferry, I thought it would be useful to see how Tahitians live with their ferry services. With the recent demise of Aloha Airlines and an inevitable rise in interisland air fares, Hawaii residents could be taking a second look at traveling by boat to the neighbor islands.
Rob Kay / Special to the Star-Bulletin
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On a recent trip to French Polynesia, a friend (a longtime Tahiti resident) and I jumped into his family Peugeot to take a "road trip" to Moorea, about 12 miles from Tahiti.
The first stop was Papeete harbor. We jockeyed the car for a place in line and waited our turn to file up the ramp, where a burly Tahitian took our money (about $60 for the car and $25 per person round trip) and directed us into the bowels of the Aremiti. An equally muscular loadmaster told us in no uncertain terms where to park – only inches from the bulkhead to our right and the beater pickup truck ahead of us.
They packed us along with motorcycles, tractor trailers, SUVs, fancy Mercedes and other autos like, well, sardines.
Our fellow travelers included well-to-do locals headed for their weekend homes, students, surfers, tradesmen, moms with kids in tow, and tourists – mostly European and a smattering of Americans. (With the Yankee dollar so soft today, Tahiti is not cheap.)
Allegra Marshall, a 40-something accountant who lives in Papeete, works in the airline industry and travels to Moorea for weekend getaways, is a typical Aremiti passenger. She said the ferry is convenient and serves the community for a fraction of the cost of air service.
"You don't see these from the plane, either," she said while pointing to the "marara" (flying fish) skimming the waves.
In addition to marara, dolphins often race along the ferry, and it's not unusual to see humpback whales from July through October.
Ah, yes. Those pesky whales inhabit Tahitian waters, too, and sometimes they do collide with the faster ferries.
According to Dr. Michael Poole, director of the Marine Mammal Research Program on Moorea, there have been three whale strikes in the past five years. Poole, who has conducted scientific research in French Polynesia since 1987 and who pioneered whale watching in French Polynesia in 1992, has good relations with the local ferry captains and closely monitors encounters with cetaceans. None of the whales, to the best of his knowledge, died from the collisions, but all three reacted to the ship strikes by vigorously slapping parts of their bodies against the sea surface. Poole believes that Hawaii's much larger whale population would mean potential mishaps with the Superferry are likely.
COURTESY ROB KAY
Moorea Ferry passengers stand on the open deck, which affords views of flying fish and other sea creatures enroute from island to island.
THE MOOREA ferry services are operated by two companies and include two fast ferries that travel at around 34 knots and two conventional ferries that cruise from 14 to 18 knots. The largest fast ferry is the Aremiti V, a catamaran that at 56 meters (just under 184 feet) is a bit more than half the size of the Superferry's 330-foot Alakai, which lists its "service speed" as 35 knots.
The fast ferry service has enabled Moorea, Tahiti's closest neighbor island, to become a "bedroom" community of the capital, Papeete. A 30–minute ferry ride from Moorea to Papeete often takes less travel time than an auto commute from a Papeete suburb just five miles away. Consequently, some people from Tahiti have relocated to the more tranquil, bucolic Moorea and commute daily by fast ferry to work in Papeete.
The population of the island has doubled in the past 20 years, from 8,000 to 16,000 people, as Moorea has evolved into both a suburb of Papeete and tourist mecca. The influx of visitors on weekends and holidays is marked by increased traffic on the 50-square-mile island, which is a little more than one-third the size of Lanai.
Mark Walker, a 17-year resident of Moorea, runs a pension, or small hotel, called Mark's Place on the island. He believes that any of the ferry services' liabilities are outweighed by its advantages. Walker doesn't think that traffic is inordinately bad, even during holiday periods, and is convinced, as most residents I spoke to, that the boat service is an absolute economic necessity. Walker caters mostly to local tourists from Tahiti – virtually all of whom use the ferry.
"Over the holidays my clients will pack themselves into their cars or pickups on a Friday afternoon, jump into the car and voilà, an hour later the are watching the sun set from their bungalow," Walker said.
COURTESY ROB KAY
Boarding surfers can keep their boards close at all times.
The ferry service is good for his clientele, as well as Moorea entrepreneurs dependent on the tourist trade.
The ferries are a key economic link to Moorea not only because they transport people, but because there is no barge service akin to Long Bros. The upshot is that everything residents need to survive – food, gasoline, building materials and medical supplies – is transported via ferry.
Locals on Moorea have not only accepted the ferry service, they understand that without it many of their jobs would disappear, and the economic life of the island would wither away. Whale strikes notwithstanding, Papeete residents would no sooner give up their ferry service to Moorea than stop drinking Bordeaux or cease surfing the island's world-class waves, and their experiences provide a useful guide for Hawaii tourism and the future of interisland travel.
Rob Kay is a Honolulu-based writer and the author of "Hidden Tahiti," a guidebook to French Polynesia.