The Austral Islands are a place of quiet beauty, peacefulness and pride. Traditions thrive in this remote corner of the world, where past and present ideals blend together in harmony. The island of Rurutu, known as a refuge for whales, is the ultimate attraction in this distant archipelago.
The Austral Islands, named for their location, are the southernmost group of islands in French Polynesia. They are situated over 300 miles (500 kilometers) below Tahiti, and therefore have a slightly cooler climate. The islands include the largest, Tubuai, which is also the capital; Rurutu, the most accessible; Rimatara, the smallest; Rapa, the farthest; and Raivavae, the prettiest; plus two small, uninhabited islands: Maria and the Marotiri Rocks.
These islands are remarkably varied, from the limestone caves of Rurutu to the hilltop pa fortresses of Rapa and the windy bays of Tubuai. Each one provides something different, but they all have one thing in common—their traditions.
Polynesian culture is alive and well in the Austral Islands. The ancient people were highly skilled woodcarvers; and remnants or replicas of their exquisite works of art can be found throughout the islands. The locals have also carefully preserved the art of weaving coconut and pandanus leaves into elaborate hats, bags and mats.
The 6,600 residents enjoy an easygoing lifestyle working as artisans, fishermen or farmers. Their local villages consist of small homes and churches constructed from coral limestone and bordered by fragrant flower gardens. Travelers come here to embrace the simple life and interact with these personable people, but the real appeal is to stay in Rurutu and encounter an inhabitant of another kind.
Rurutu is a magical island covered in coral caves and abundant vegetation. The lagoon here is not very wide since the reef hugs tightly to the shore, but there are some amazing beaches with the purest white sand imaginable.
Beyond the coastline, Rurutu is known as the Island of Whales because every year from July to October, southern humpback whales migrate to these warm waters to mate or give birth and nurse their young. Due to the incredible underwater visibility, this is a nirvana for avid divers and whale watchers hoping to encounter these large marine mammals.
The islands with small hotels and pensions include Rurutu, Tubuai, Raivavae and Rapa. There is regular air service to Rurutu, Tubuai, Raivavae and Rimatara, but Rapa remains reachable only by boat. The Tuhaa Pae II cargo ship transports supplies and passengers from Papeete to the Austral Islands on a regular basis.
Photographers and filmmakers come from all over the world to capture the majestic beauty of the humpback whale. These migrating mammals unfortunately come and go, along with the season; but year round, the Austral Islands remain a place of unaltered traditions and a peaceful existence.