Life on an atoll is a mixture of scarcity and abundance. On land, not much can grow save thickets of coconut palms, scrubby bushes and weeds. But in the water, atolls, with their abundant coral reefs, stony inshore lagoons, and steep drop offs, can manage to support a very diverse variety of sea life. With careful stewardship, this balance can support a population, so long as its size is in balance with what the atoll can bear.

Our guide Fernando, who also happens to be the local leader of the Mormon church, has had the opportunity to visit cities all over the U.S., including Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Chicago, New York and Miami. His travels have also taken him to Peru. Something that he said struck him in Peru was the high density of people and the large measure of poverty he saw. There, he said, poverty can lead to hunger. In Manihi, he said, even if you are poor, you can live off the land and sea with very little money at all.

A person can catch lobster in the shallows of the lagoon at night, fish just outside the pass, eat clams, and pick coconuts for vitamins and hydration, and eat greens from a certain salad weed that grows on the motus (individual islands that comprise an atoll). More than others on the atoll, you may suffer from a lack of electricity or abundance of fresh water, but these challenges affect even the well-heeled to some extent.

There is no power generation station on Manihi, or on many of the other Tuamotus atolls. For power, the locals use means generated by natural forces. Xavier, the retired French navy man who lives on Manihi and runs the region’s Sailmail (SSB radio email) station, has 3 sources of power for his home and radio station:

  • Solar panels with a tracking device, allowing the panels to follow the sun as it moves across the sky
  • Wind generation, from a sailboat-style wind generator mounted on a high pole in his yard
  • Hydroelectric power, generated with a water wheel situated in the channel between his motu and his next-door neighbor’s. The current averages about 6 kts at max tidal flow.

The power from these three sources is stored in a rack of deep-cycle gel batteries inside his Sailmail building.

Tracking solar panels at Xavier's

Tracking solar panels at Xavier's

Xavier is pretty well-outfitted for power no matter the circumstances, but your general Manihian appears to depend more completely on basic solar panels, mounted in the yard or on the roof, which do a swift business on the atoll. Fernando’s son is the island’s solar technician, and yesterday afternoon we saw Fernando’s boat loaded to the gunwales with panels being serviced.

Depending on the weather, many Tuamotans may be subject to more or less power availability in their homes. The key power drains appear to be refrigeration for fresh foodstuffs and light. No one that we could see, including the $600/night hotel with villas on stilts above the lagoon, had air conditioning. We found that the wifi hot spot broadcast by the hotel would die nightly, and then come back to life around 9:30-10 every morning. We finally concluded it must be run on solar-powered batteries, but who knows? Gas is $10 a gallon here, and we don’t expect that diesel is any better. Generators weren’t something we saw.

Water catchment system

Water catchment system

Another consideration for life on an atoll is fresh water. There are no natural sources on the island, so residents build houses with corrugated metal (or heavy-duty roofing cloth) roofs, with gutters run so that all the runoff is stored inside cisterns in the yard. Conservation is a part of daily life. An extended drought such as the once we saw in the Caribbean would lead to washing in the lagoon and possibly even depending on coconuts for water, as John on Kijro mentioned doing while he was stationed in the South Pacific with the Peace Corps.