Rangiroa at a Glance
In Tahitian Rangiroa is also known as Ra’i roa, which means ‘the immense sky.’ Anyone who visits this gigantic atoll will easily understand why it has this name. Rangiroa has no high points that can block the view of the sky; only the coconut palms rise above the fragile band of coral.
Situated in the Tuamotu Archipelago about 350 km to the north east of Tahiti, Rangiroa is the largest atoll in French Polynesia but is also the fourth largest in the world with its 280 km circumference. The interior lagoon is like its own sea at 30 km in width and 80 km in length – Tahiti and Tahiti Iti could easily fit inside its sprawling mass.
Like all atolls, Rangiroa was created by a volcanic island which slowly sunk deep under the sea over millions of years. A coral reef grew up around the ancient volcano to encircle the once-island. Eventually the island disappeared and today only the fragile crown of reef remains. The width of the coral land mass varies from just a few meters to half a kilometer and the atoll is made up of a string of coral islets called hoa. Between these hoa run waterways, only two of which are passes deep enough for ships to pass through. Tiputa and Avatoru passes have about 12 km of land separating them and it is here that the majority of the atoll’s 2,000 or so inhabitants live in the main town of Avatoru (named for the adjacent pass). On this narrow strip is the airport, the island’s hotels, banks, businesses and administrative offices.
Rangiroa was ‘discovered’ in 1616 by the Dutch explorers le Maire and Schoutter but had been inhabited by the Polynesians since the 5th century. Evidence of habitation and the civilization that grew here are best shown by ancient Polynesian temples called marae. Much later when the first Europeans arrived to set up colonies (around 1860), Catholic missions were built. Tourism, copra (for harvesting coconut oil) and fishing are the primary industries of the atoll today. The atoll is particularly known for its rich underwater life and the famous French biologist Jaques Cousteau considered the lagoon one of the most beautiful and plentiful on the planet.