The Tuamotus, also referred to in English as the Tuamotu Archipelago or the Tuamotu Islands (French: Îles Tuamotu, officially Archipel des Tuamotu), are a French Polynesian chain of almost 80 islands and atolls forming the largest chain of atolls in the world. This archipelago in the southern Pacific Ocean stretches from the northwest to the southeast over an area roughly the size of Western Europe. The total area of land within this chain is 850 square kilometres (328 square miles), with its major islands being Anaa, Fakarava, Hao and Makemo.
The Tuamotus are a French overseas collectivity. The people of Tahiti originally referred to the islands with the exonym of the Paumotus, which means the "Subservient Islands", until a delegation from the island convinced the French authorities to change it to Tuamotus, which means the "Distant Islands".
French Polynesia is a semi-autonomous island group designated as an overseas country of France. The Tuamotus combine with the Gambier Islands to form the Îles Tuamotu-Gambier which is one of the five administrative divisions of French Polynesia.
The communes on Tuamotu are part of two different electoral districts (circonscriptions électorales) represented in the Assembly of French Polynesia. The Îles Gambier et Tuamotu Est electoral district comprises the commune of Gambier and eleven communes in eastern Tuamotu: Anaa; Fangatau; Hao; Hikueru; Makemo; Napuka; Nukutavake; Pukapuka; Reao; Tatakoto; and Tureia. The other five communes in western Tuamotu – Arutua; Fakarava; Manihi; Rangiroa; and Takaroa – form the Îles Tuamotu Ouest electoral district.
At the 2007 census, the Tuamotus (including the Gambier Islands) had a population of 18,317 inhabitants (15,862 in 2002, 8,100 in 1983). Of these, 769 inhabitants live in a 215-nautical-mile (400 km; 250 mi) radius around Mururoa and Fangataufa, the sites of former French nuclear tests.
The islands' economy is predominantly composed of subsistence agriculture. The most important sources of additional income are the cultivation of black pearls and the preparation of copra. Tourism-related income remains meager, especially by comparison to the tourism industry of the neighboring Society Islands. Modest tourism infrastructure is found on the atolls of Rangiroa and Manihi which have recreational scuba diving and snorkeling destinations.
Despite the vast spread of the archipelago, it covers a total land area of only about 885 km² (345 sq mi). The climate is warm tropical, without pronounced seasons. The annual average temperature is a relatively continuous 26 °C (79 °F). Water sources such as lakes or rivers are absent, leaving catchments of rain as the only source of fresh water. The annual average rainfall is 1400 mm (about 55 in). Rainfall is not markedly different throughout the year, although it is lowest during the months of September and November.
Geological stability of the archipelago is high, as it was created by the weakly active Easter Fracture Zone. No volcanic eruptions have been recorded historically.
The sparse soil of the coral islands does not permit diverse vegetation. The coconut palm, which forms the basis for copra production, is of special economic importance. On a few islands, vanilla is also cultivated. Agriculture is generally otherwise limited to simple subsistence. Fruit and vegetable staples include yams, taro, and breadfruit, as well as a wide range of other tropical fruits. Pandanus leaves are traditionally woven together as a roof thatch (although nowadays there are a great number of corrugated sheet-metal roofs instead), as well as for other items, such as mats and hats.
The species-rich reefs are home to a diverse range of underwater fauna. Surface creatures are primarily seabirds, insects, and lizards. The Tuamotus have only 57 species of birds, but ten of these are endemic, including the Tuamotu kingfisher, the Tuamotu reed warbler, and the Tuamotu sandpiper. Thirteen species are globally threatened and one is extinct.
All of the islands of the Tuamotus are coral "low islands": essentially high sand bars built upon coral reefs. Makatea, southwest of the Palliser Islands, is one of three great phosphate rocks in the Pacific Ocean. The others are Banaba in Kiribati, and the island nation of Nauru. Although geographically part of the Tuamotus, the Gambier Islands, at the southeastern extreme of the archipelago, are geologically and culturally distinct.
In the northwest of the archipelago, the ring-shaped atoll Taiaro provides a rare example of a coral reef with a fully enclosed lagoon. The atoll was officially designated as a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1977.
The early history of the Tuamotu islands is generally shrouded in mystery. Archaeological findings lead to the conclusion that the western Tuamotus were settled from the Society Islands by circa 700 CE/AD. On the islands of Rangiroa, Manihi and Mataiva, there are flat ceremonial platforms (called marae) made of coral blocks, although their exact age is unknown.
European encounters with the Tuamotus began with that of Portuguese sailor Ferdinand Magellan, during his circumglobal voyage in 1521 sailing in the service of the Spanish Crown. His visit was followed by:
It was not until the beginning of the 19th century that the first Christian missionaries arrived. Traders took the islands' pearls to the European markets by the late 19th century, making them coveted possessions. France forced the abdication of King Pōmare V of Tahiti and claimed the islands without ever having formally annexed them.
Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Stevenson travelled among the Paumotus on the Yacht Casco in 1888; an account of their journey was published as In the South Seas. Jack London wrote a story, "The Seed of McCoy", based on an incident in 1900 when a burning ship, the Pyrenees, was safely beached on Mangareva. In the story, London has the ship sail past Mangareva and all through the Tuamotus before beaching on Fakarava.
The Tuamotus made headlines around the world in 1947, when Norwegian ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl, sailing from South America with a crew of five others, reached Raroia on his raft Kon-Tiki. More recently the islands have been the subject of headlines as the site of French nuclear weapons testing on the atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa.
The Tuamotu archipelago consists of eight groups of small islands and atolls: