It is day one in Fakarava and already things are not going well. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I was going on a seven-day cruise through the Fakarava & Marquesas in French Polynesia with just a phone and a drone. This may be common for most travelers today but as a professional travel photographer it is an uneasy first for me. I am also speaker on the cruise. I will be doing talks on iPhone/Smart phone photography and iPhone XS, Mavic Pro 2 Aqua Tech Water Housing and Moment 18 mm wide-angle lens for the phone. I have put all these in my backpack to go ashore. The problem is, through doing all that I forgot the phone. Reluctantly my wife Margaret allows me to use hers.
Fakarava is the second largest atoll in the Tuamotu Islands and has about 900 people, mainly living in Rotoava, where the airport is. The ocean is several shades of blue and a perfect temperature of about 80 degrees, but it is too windy and too close to the airport to fly the drone. We are just walking and swimming in the morning and riding bikes in the afternoon. One of the most beautiful churches in the South Pacific is in Rotaava.
In Fakarava I am getting a lot of use out of my Moment 18mm wide-angle lens. There are many accessory wide-angles available for smartphones but I believe this and the Sandmarc are the best of them as it is sharp to the edges. The new iPhone 11 has a wide-angle but from what I have seen it is not as good as the Sandmarc for both sharpness and distortion. You will have to buy the case that fits your phone. It has a quick and snug bayonet mount. Lens and case cost about $130.00.
Fakarava is also the first time I will be able to use my “water housing”. It is an Axis Go from Aqua Tech and is set up for the iPhone XS. They make them for several smartphones. I had already used it in Hawaii and knew I liked it. On this trip I loved it! I have always had problems with GoPros and other action cameras in seeing the screen or making changes with the tiny buttons. With this phone housing all the controls on the phone screen are available and the screen itself is easy to see. For me that meant it was no longer “point and pray”! I could actually compose the images I wanted.
Two built features for the iPhone that work well for me are the panoramic and portrait modes. The panoramic mode is amazing, best I have seen on any phone or camera. You can make it very wide or just do a short one, to mimic a wide-angle lens. Ocean waves and windy trees are problematic, but other than that, it is almost always successful.
The portrait mode is something available only on newer iPhones. It started on the iPhone 7+ and 8+ models but has been greatly improved on the 10 and 11 model phones. You can now take the photo and then adjust the depth of field later with a slider in edit. Of course, this is perfect for portraits but it can also be used effectively for flowers, food, or any other subject about 4 to 8 feet away.
For editing on an iPhone 10 the first thing I do, after clicking edit, is to touch the magic wand in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. Often that is all that is needed. For more control there are the four buttons on the bottom. The first on the left is for cropping and straightening horizons. It is easy to use and works well. Next to it is a three circles button that open up several preset formulas. I don’t particularly like these, except for the black and white ones on the far right. For color I prefer to use next button to the right that looks like a clock face. It has several sliders for light, color, saturation and several other adjustments. I find these more subtle and effective (Galaxy, Pixel, and other high-end smartphones have similar adjustments to improve photos). The far-right button with three dots opens up any third-party apps you have installed. I use PS Express, Afterlight, Camera+2, and Retouch. These all offer even more controls as well as some more useful presets, and repair options. They’re inexpensive (less than $10 each) and are all fun to play with.
Next, we are off to four islands in the Marquesas, Fatu Hiva, Jiva Oa, Tahauta and Nuku Hiva. These islands are very different from the Tuamotus or Society Islands. The Marquesas are sparsely populated volcanic islands. The land drops quickly and deeply into the ocean, therefore they have very few beaches. I had not been to Tahuata or Nuku Hiva before. The weather forecast was bad but that turned out to be completely wrong. This happens a lot in French Polynesia. The weather bureau often seems to be way too pessimistic.
Fatu Hiva is our first stop in the Marquesas. We go in Omoa Valley, which is connected by a mountain road to the settlement in Hanavave Valley. The drive takes about an hour and a half. There are only about 600 people on the island. Like most islands in the South Pacific the local population was decimated after contact with Europeans in 1595. At that time there was an estimated population of 100,000. That dropped to a low of 2,255 in 1926, and is back up to about 10,000 now.
The islands of Fatu Hiva and Tahauta get by living off the land and sea. The government still pays a guaranteed price for copra production (the dried meat of the coconut), so you will see coconut plantations on each island. However more income now comes from the revival of old crafts, tapa, woodcarving and bone carving. This is especially true on these two islands where there are some of the best examples. Neither island has an airport so this is the first place I used the drone. I had checked the flying regulations for French Polynesia and they are very similar to Hawaii, stay away from airports, under 400 feet and not over people. All flying was done from shore.
Nuku Hiva is 130 square miles and Hiva Oa is 122 square miles and are much larger both in size and population. Both are about the half again the size of Catalina (74.98 square miles). They each have a population of about 2,500.
Hiva Oa is the island where Paul Gauguin lived, did his later work and where he is buried, on a ridge above the town of Atuona. If you ask around you will find the locals do not speak well of him. While in the Marquesas, it appears he took more than he gave. They love the Belgian singer Jacques Brel though, who also came to Hiva Oa for his last years, and is buried in the same cemetery as Gauguin.
Nuku Hiva is the largest of the Marquesa Islands. I had not been there before and was stunned at just how beautiful it is. The bay at Taiohae had about 100 yachts in it. The town has a park full of Marquesan statues and stonework along the shore. At the heart of town is the Notre Dame Cathedral. It was finished in 1977 but looks older. The doors, pulpit and walls are all excellent examples of Marquesan woodwork.
We drove over to Taipivai Valley. Because there are no coastal roads this means going up to a mountain pass with incredible views of the island. The town has about 350 people. There is a large platform in the center with several tikis. Coconut trees surround the village and copra production still goes on here. This was the most traditional place we saw in the Marquesas. This was also my favorite spot on the trip for flying the drone. I was able to take it immediately away from town, way up into the coconuts and then back down to the bay.
After two sea-days we are back in the Society Islands with a first stop in Huahine. This is the first time on the trip we will get in the water and I will be able to use my “water housing”. It is an Axis Go from Aqua Tech and is set up for the iPhone XS. The first snorkel was at Motu Vaiorea and it was sunny, blue and clear. Later we took the local bus over to the main town of Fare and I was able to fly the drone there and do some 180-degree pans.
Next stop was Tahaa, which was really just a day at the beach. The ship took us to a private motu for the day and, while I did fly the drone once and used the 18mm Moment lens a bit, mainly we just ate, drank, and swam.
Bora Bora and Moorea were both water days for us as well. On Bora Bora we opted for an all-day adventure which took us to three snorkel spots and ended with a Polynesian feast on a motu. The second spot is where we got in the water with the sharks and stingrays. It is only about waist to chest deep so no fins or even swimming ability are needed. They are all around us. It is more fun than scary, but not for everybody. I had done this a couple times before in Bora Bora and Moorea with GoPros. It was much easier and better with the iPhone. On Moorea we did one more shark and stingray snorkel to end the trip.
I have done cruises in French Polynesia three times in the last two years. This is the first time I had traveled without a “real” camera. I was, however, happy with the results. The only time I really missed my professional camera is when we were on ship going into, or out of, the islands. Then it would have been good to have a telephoto-zoom to pick up detail photos of landscape, or close-ups of canoe paddlers. Maybe next time I will bring the heavy gear, but never take it off the ship. It is certainly nice to walk around with just the weight of the phone.