Tumi Brando (left), a naturalist guide with the Tetiaroa Society, shows off the vegetable garden at the Ecostation.
It's morning on Tetiaroa, and tropical fish swim close to shore in the sunlit waters of Turtle Bay, apparently undisturbed by the presence of our toes. Mornings on the atoll come on quickly and beautifully with an early sunrise, so by the time our 9 a.m. lagoon tour is about to begin, we've already walked along the beach and lingered over breakfast on our terrace. The tour launches from Mermaid Bay, only a few minutes from our villa, so we fill our bike baskets with cameras, reusable water bottles, and a beach tote and set out via the palm-lined path to the lagoon.
We've come to stay at the Brando to take advantage of, in part, its true detachment from the wider world. But this isn't your average South Pacific hideaway. It also offers a glimpse at how a natural and sustainable world of the future could function. That was its namesake’s vision, and no visit is complete without an exploration of all that's being done today to make that vision a reality.
When Marlon Brando came to French Polynesia in 1961 to film Mutiny on the Bounty, he had been in the spotlight for more than a decade and longed for a retreat from Hollywood. He found it amid the people and landscape of Tahiti—where he was unencumbered by his screen-idol fame—and especially on Tetiaroa, long a sacred retreat for Tahitian royals. He secured ownership of the atoll in 1967 and began to envision how it could remain a pristine piece of Polynesia through conservation and education.
Today owned by Brando's estate, the atoll is his passion come to life. The Brando, opened in 2014, is both a carbon-neutral luxury escape and a proving ground for innovative sustainable technologies. Separately, the nonprofit Tetiaroa Society and its multiuse Ecostation offer wet and dry labs and housing for visiting field researchers from around the world. Its naturalist guides lead excursions on the water and on neighboring motus (or islets) that shelter birds and other marine and terrestrial wildlife, as well as unique ecological features, all of which the society works to preserve.
Through these and other programs, the society is able to educate guests about its work on the atoll's delicate ecosystem. A dedicated area even encourages children to read, play games, and learn about the biology of the atoll’s beloved sea turtles.
When we arrive on the beach, two other couples are donning reef shoes, and we see our ride moored a wet walk away in the lagoon. Silvery fish school across our path as we make our way to the boat, which is smartly outfitted and shaded by a roof from the sun.
The tour begins with an exhilarating ride across the lagoon. Our first destination is Motu Reiono, which hosts the atoll's only remaining primitive rain forest. It's also home to the coconut crab, or keveu, the largest terrestrial arthropod in the world. As its name implies, it can use its substantial claws to tear open and devour coconuts—or small mammals if given the opportunity. Elsewhere in its range, the coconut crab is vulnerable to habitat loss, introduced predators, and the human appetite, but here it thrives, protected in its isolation.
Moana, our naturalist guide for the tour, explains that the crabs will likely be tucked away in their tree-root burrows, so I feel safe enough to disembark. He leads us into the old-growth forest, pointing out the burrows as we walk, and we even catch sight of a thick-set claw standing out among the tangled roots. We also get a closer look at the much smaller—and richly hued—strawberry hermit crab. These can be seen throughout Tetiaroa but seem particular abundant on the beach of Reiono.
Strawberry hermit crabs like the one seen here are abundant on Tetiaroa's Motu Reiono, home to the atoll's last remaining primitive rain forest.
It becomes clear that Moana knows this place, down to the best route back to the beach through dense, low-hanging foliage. And he knows the sea as well, pointing out lemon sharks and stingrays as we overwater to our next stop. We pass Motu Tahuna Iti, also known as Bird Island, where petrels and gannets wheel above the islet's palm trees and beach scrub, a midair traffic jam of beak and wing. (A couple of days later, Moana will lead us on a circuit of the island that takes place nearly entirely in the shallow waters just off the beach—a precaution against disturbing the eggs of nesting birds.)
When our boat has anchored in the shallows surrounding Motu Oroatera, we begin making our way to the seahorse-shaped freshwater pond that's hidden behind a perfect line of gracefully bowing palms. To get there, we walk along the beach before crossing a stretch of water so shallow that baby blacktip reef sharks seem barely suspended between sand and surface.
When we pass through the palms, the usual dense canopy overhead is gone, revealing a bright blue sky in its place. Underfoot, coral rubble and sharp, dried palm leaves have given way to long, soft grasses and the spongy soil from which they grow and into which they decompose. Mats of algae float on the surface of the copper-colored pond and coat the coral bottom in a silky, silty, living film. Other bugs live here. Other birds are attracted to its shores. The simple presence of freshwater creates an island within an island—a testament to the diversity and adaptability of life at all scales.
Max, our guide on the following day's behind-the-scenes tour of the island’s green infrastructure (a National Geographic exclusive), picks us up at our villa in a golf cart, and we soon arrive at the Ecostation, where an assortment of people seem to be either coming or going, including Moana.
Before he leaves, he takes us into an office that's open on one side to a patch of garden, and there we meet Tumi Brando, Marlon's granddaughter and a naturalist guide with the Tetiaroa Society. The office is spare and built several feet off the ground, as though to render escape slightly more complicated than getting up from your desk and walking to the right. On a wall hangs only the second picture we've seen of Brando himself, a classic Hollywood portrait in a nondescript frame.
Tumi becomes our guide to the Ecostation, taking us through the garden and the outdoor lab, where two visiting researchers from the University of Washington are attempting something baffling with a piece of acidification-testing equipment while a mantis shrimp looks on from its tank, peering out from a coral cave like an animated version of itself.
Meanwhile, in neighboring aquariums, various species of native fish are being hatched and grown in order to be released to the reef when they're more likely to survive predation, a project that's in, so to speak, its infancy.
"You've just missed the larvae release," Tumi says. Minutes before, her brother had unleashed a swarm of sterilized, nonbiting male mosquitoes into the air, where they would hopefully encounter unwitting females to render infertile during the mating process. It's an ingenious—and successful—bacteria-based method of eradicating these invasive and potentially disease-carrying insects, and it's perhaps one of the wiliest actions the resort has taken in pursuit of guest comfort. It's also one that might be most fully appreciated in light of the spreading Zika virus.
How successful is the program? The main test population of mosquitoes dropped 99 percent in the first six months, according to researchers. Meanwhile, in Australia, Southeast Asia, and South America, other strains of the same common bacteria have been used to render native mosquitos incapable of spreading several diseases while still remaining fertile. This allows the insects to continue to fill their ecological role without posing a threat to human health.
Work like this is an important part of the scientific contribution that the Tetiaroa Society and its partners are making, but there are also plenty of passion projects that are charmingly experimental, including a vertical hydroponic garden fertilized by tiny fish and a replica Polynesian dwelling in the process of being built by hand (I have the impression that the latter is being completed much like a jigsaw puzzle—whenever time allows).
There's even a vegetable patch no bigger than a kitchen garden. Later on the trip we view a considerably larger organic garden that supplies the resort with much of its produce. The Brando even keeps its own bees, which pollinate the motu's tropical flowers, resulting in a rich, floral honey that's perfect on crepes or a breakfast brioche.
The Brando's honeybees produce a rich, floral honey that's used by the resort's chefs.
Appropriately enough, the late-morning sun is beginning to press hotly on our skin when we leave the lab for the resort's eco pièce de résistance: a seawater air-conditioning system. The SWAC was a sustainable solution that Marlon Brando dreamed of making a reality and, once implemented, it became one of the first of its kind in the world.
By virtue of the motu's size, we don't travel far, but our journey is transporting nonetheless. The low building we approach in our golf cart, hunkered heavily down amid the tropical vegetation, bears a slightly unsettling resemblance to one of the farther-flung stations of the Dharma Initiative. But we know that one of the most important and impressive structures on the atoll is housed within it.
This is where the magic happens, where pipes run the cold saltwater of the deep ocean parallel to the Brando’s closed circuit of freshwater. Heat is transferred, and the chilled freshwater is then pumped throughout the complex, keeping guests cool without using fossil fuels.
Reducing the resort's energy demands by nearly 70 percent, the system is part of a comprehensive renewable energy program that includes solar panels and a power station that runs on coconut oil. It’s an array of quietly productive clean and renewable technologies that often seem unattainable back on the continents.
These efforts are something that Moana, Max, Tumi, and the rest of the Tetiaroa Society and resort staff are proud to show off and talk about. It’s what Marlon Brando himself wanted, and it's what truly differentiates the Brando experience. After a stay here, guests are likely to come away with as much passion as its stewards have for protecting and preserving the beauty and ecological legacy of this remarkable corner of paradise.
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