For the first couple of months of our stay here in Bora Bora, Graham and I were often kept up by the sound of strange, distance drumming in the night. These mysterious rumblings of percussion couldn’t help but inspire in our sleepy brains, images of the first people to arrive in Bora Bora; brave, seafaring adventurers who had traversed the South Pacific in tiny kayaks discovering new territories from Hawaii to Fiji to New Zealand. This drumming, it turned out, was actually the sound of rehearsals for the Heiva Festival which runs from mid-June to mid-July; an annual celebration of French Polynesia’s indigenous culture.
Here in Bora Bora local districts compete with each other in sporting events and through percussion, choir and dance performances in a large arena in the centre of Vaitape. Surrounding the stage are arcades, shops, restaurants and bars to which both locals and tourists flock each night; the smell of BBQs and delicious local dishes fills the air, children are allowed to stay out late and fill up on ice cream and sweets and the uplifting sound of singing and drums echoes across the tiny island. It’s a bustling, vibrant, festive time to visit. The arena and surrounding vendors were erected at the start of June with incredible speed especially for the event and disappeared a few weeks later just as fast. Notably missing from the lineup this year was the usual nightclub as it went up in flames not long after construction and burnt to the ground; Apparently a reasonably common set-back as the whole temporary construction is made of wood, straw and leaves and the stands are filled with BBQs, deep fat fryers and plenty of people smoking cigarettes. Luckily nobody was hurt but sadly for the people of Bora Bora, Graham will have to save his dance moves for another festival.
The arena was only a few minutes walk from our flat so we’ve been able to pop along and take in a few shows, all of which have been fantastic. The large-scale group dance performances in particular are spectacular and accompanied by percussion in such a way as to make the whole experience very hypnotic. The passion and dedication of local people to keep alive these elements of their culture is evident in the unbelievably high standard of their performances; It is stressed to the audience at the start of each show that these are all people with normal day jobs who spend hours every night in intensive rehearsals during the months leading up to the festival.
We were of course thrilled on one evening to spot two giant manta ray sculptures framing the stage as part of the decoration for one of the local district performances! Check out my video below but bear in mind that the poor sound quality does not do the choir justice.
Today the people of Polynesia are incredibly proud of their native manta rays but Polynesian mythology shows that they have not always felt this way; Just as old Western literature portrayed whales as terrifying, savage leviathans of the deep rather than the intelligent, social, sentient beings that we now realise they are, Polynesian mythology demonised the strange and mysterious manta ray. Some legends told of mantas using their huge, cloak-like bodies to smother pearl fishermen and prevent them from getting back to the surface to breath, others of mantas kidnapping children and carrying them out to sea. With their horn-like cephalic fins (the fins on either side of their head which they use to funnel water into their mouth), mantas are often referred to as devilrays in many parts of the world.
Modern day Polynesians know mantas to be beautiful, gentle giants with no track record for stealing children or smothering fishermen. In fact rather than posing any threat, mantas help to attract tourists from all over the world to French Polynesia and its many resorts and so each ray is estimated to be worth over $1million to the French Polynesian economy in it’s lifetime. Protecting manta rays in Bora Bora is not only great conservation, it also makes a lot of financial sense for local people and businesses.
Thanks for reading,