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A somewhat less-than-pious wag once remarked that God made the French Polynesian islands on the sixth day of creation so He would have an extraordinarily beautiful place to rest on the seventh day. Modern geologists have a different view, but the fact remains that the islands and the surrounding sea are possessed of heavenly beauty and a plethora of life forms.

All these islands were formed by molten lava escaping upward through cracks in the earth's crust as it has inched northwestward over "hot spots" of molten magma, which escaped through the crust and built great seamounts. Tahiti and the other Society Islands, as well as the Marquesas, are called "high islands" because they have mountains soaring into the clouds. In contrast, the atolls of the Tuamotu Archipelago are pancake-flat because they were formed when the islands sank back into the sea, leaving only a thin necklace of coral islets to circumscribe their lagoons and mark their original boundaries. In some cases, geologic forces have once again lifted the atolls, forming "raised" islands whose sides drop precipitously into the sea. Bora Bora and Maupiti are examples of partially sunken islands, with the remnants of mountains sticking up in their lagoons.

Flora & Fauna

Most species of plants and animals native to the islands originated in Southeast Asia and worked their way eastward across the Pacific, by natural distribution or in the company of humans. The number of native species diminishes the farther east one goes, so French Polynesia has fewer species than Fiji and other islands to the west.

Very few local plants or animals came from the Americas, the one notable exception being the sweet potato, which may have been brought back from South America by voyaging Polynesians.

Plants

In addition to the west-to-east differences, the flora changes according to each island's topography. The mountainous islands make rain from the moist trade winds and thus possess a greater variety of plants. Their interior highlands are covered with ferns, native bush, or grass. The low atolls, on the other hand, get sparse rainfall and support little other than scrub bush and coconut palms.

Ancient settlers brought coconut palms, breadfruit, taro, paper mulberry, pepper (kava), and bananas to the isolated mid-ocean islands because of their usefulness as food or fiber. Accordingly, they are generally found in the inhabited areas of the islands and not so often in the interior bush.

With a few indigenous exceptions, such as the tiare (Tahiti gardenia), tropical flowers also worked their way east in the company of humans. Bougainvillea, hibiscus, allamanda, poinsettia, poinciana (the flame tree), croton, frangipani (plumeria), ixora, canna, and water lilies all give colorful testament to the islanders' love for flowers of every hue in the rainbow. The aroma of the white, yellow, or pink frangipani is so sweet, it's used as perfume here.

Animal & Birds

The fruit bat, or "flying fox," and some species of insect-eating bats are the only mammals native to the islands. The early settlers introduced dogs, chickens, pigs, rats, and mice. There are few land snakes or other reptiles in the islands. The notable exceptions are geckos and skinks, those little lizards that seem to be everywhere. Don't go berserk when a gecko walks upside-down across the ceiling of your bungalow: They are harmless and actually perform a valuable service by eating mosquitoes and other insects.

The number and variety of species of bird life also diminish as you go eastward. Most land birds live in the bush away from settlements and the accompanying cats, dogs, and rats. For this reason, the birds most likely to be seen are terns, boobies, herons, petrels, noddies, and others that earn their livelihoods from the sea. Of the introduced birds, the Indian myna exists in the greatest numbers. Brought to the South Pacific in the early 20th century to control insects, the myna quickly became a noisy nuisance in its own right. Mynas are extremely adept at stealing the toast off your breakfast table.

Sea Life

The tropical South Pacific Ocean teems with sea life. More than 600 species of coral -- 10 times the number found in the Caribbean -- form the great reefs that make the islands a mecca to divers. Billions of tiny coral polyps build their own skeletons on top of those left by their ancestors, until they reach the level of low tide. Then they grow outward, extending the edge of the reef. The old skeletons are white, and the living polyps present a rainbow of colors; they grow best and are most colorful in the clear, salty water on the outer edge or in channels, where the tides and waves wash fresh seawater along and across the reef. A reef can grow as much as 2 inches a year in ideal conditions. Although pollution, rising seawater temperature, and a proliferation of crown-of-thorns starfish have greatly hampered reef growth -- and beauty -- in parts of the South Pacific, there are still many areas where the color and variety of corals are unmatched.

Like gigantic aquariums, a plethora of tropical fish and other marine life fill most of the lagoons. Many hotel boutiques and bookstores in the main towns sell pamphlets containing photographs and descriptions of the creatures that will peer into your face mask. Not all sea creatures are harmless.

Humpback whales migrate to the islands from June to October, and sea turtles lay their eggs on some beaches from November through February. Sea turtles and whales are on the list of endangered species, and many countries, including the United States, prohibit the importation of their shells, bones, and teeth.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.