National Geographic Explorer and documentary photographer Chris Rainier has been visiting and documenting Pacific-island cultures and landscapes for much of his career. Through his Cultural Sanctuaries Foundation and on expeditions aboard the National Geographic Orion, he continues this work today. We asked Chris a few questions about his work in the South Pacific:
What keeps bringing you back to the tropical Pacific?
It’s one of the world’s most fascinating and alluring areas because of the isolation of all its small islands amid the vast ocean. Cultures are still very much intact. In the 21st century, when so much of the world has been explored, these islands remain unique. You find a rich set of ancient cultures, languages, customs. And there’s a huge revival of traditional cultures such as dance and tattooing throughout the Pacific region. Combine that with the stunning landscapes—beaches with marvelous turquoise waters, steep mountains rising from the sea.
As National Geographic has made clear through its Pristine Seas program, many of the planet’s last untouched marine ecosystems lie here in the remote Pacific. The diversity of both marine habitats and island cultures remains intact.
What are some highlights of the Pacific destinations travelers can visit with you and other photographers and naturalists aboard the National Geographic Orion?
Easter Island: The name Easter Island resonates for people around the world. On his famous expeditions, Thor Heyerdahl described the island’s standing statues—moai—that are so mysterious. For many, this represents the most isolated inhabited place on the planet. It’s a little dot in the South Pacific that’s so remarkable when you get there: There’s ongoing archaeology, and the Geographic has worked closely for years with the famous Chilean archaeologists who take us to the hidden nooks and crannies of the island.
Pitcairn Island: Pitcairn was made famous by the mutiny on the Bounty. I photographed a National Geographic Traveler story on Pitcairn and met the descendants of the mutineers. They rarely get visitors, but we’ll have the privilege.
Tahiti: So many writers and painters such as Paul Gauguin have celebrated Tahiti. The very name conjures dreams of exotic locations. We’ll visit a number of islands around Tahiti. One of the splendid things about being aboard the Orion is that we get beyond the places everyone sees to the far-flung archipelagos where a ship might arrive once every several years. We see cultures that remain absolutely traditional. Some of the most spectacular snorkeling and scuba sites in the world are scattered throughout the islands, isolated and pristine. We’ll be traveling among the reefs, getting in the Zodiacs and snorkeling, sitting on beaches people seldom visit.
Southern Line Islands: Ancient mariners would voyage across the Pacific Ocean. One of their compasses, so to speak, were the Line Islands. They form lines that navigators and mariners could use and still do. They’re very remote, often huge atolls with coral reefs that protect beautiful lagoons. There are tiny communities scattered throughout the islands. National Geographic has identified these islands as some of the most precious and biodiverse marine destinations on the planet.
The Marquesas: Before Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki expedition, he took his fiancé and lived for a year on Fatu Hiva, a part of the Marquesas. His book about the experience, Fatu-Hiva:Back to Nature, became a classic. His experiences living on this island engendered Kon-Tiki, and that expedition ended here where he had lived for so long.
The culture is wonderful, rich. It’ll be spectacular for us to step back in time again here.
Cook Islands: These are islands that the Great British explorer James Cook stopped off on during his journey. They’re at the epicenter of what’s happening in the Pacific region, a revitalization of Pacific cultures. European missionaries and authorities had worked to diminish traditional culture. Now there’s a spectacular renaissance going on, and it’s a fantastic location to visit.
Tuamotu Archipelago: The Cultural Sanctuaries Foundation I’ve founded is building a program here focused on documenting and preserving traditional knowledge, including cultural practices and languages. This evolved from our Enduring Voices project with National Geographic. These beautiful atolls have huge lagoons and striking outer reefs that protect them. Due to the unique design of the Orion, we can slip into these lagoons and explore them via Zodiac. It’s an unforgettable experience.