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On January 20, 2022, news broke of an extraordinary discovery. In press releases, interviews, and Instagram stories, the French foundation 1 Ocean and UNESCO announced finding a pristine coral reef hidden off Tahiti, the largest island in French Polynesia. The story quickly went viral. “Sprawling Coral Reef Resembling Roses Is Discovered Off Tahiti,” read a New York Times headline. “Pristine coral reef unblemished by warming oceans found off Tahiti,” Reuters wrote, while the Washington Post announced hope for the oceans in its story. Amid news of droughts and floods, the world rejoiced; maybe you did, too. But one word from the PR blitz raised the ire of Tahitians: discovery.
Located off Tahiti’s southeastern coast, the reef is impressive. It stretches three kilometers, reaches a depth of 65 meters, and, despite the damage other reefs have felt from warming oceans and bleaching events, this reef is thriving. Some coral colonies are so big—meaning, so old—that they could cover a king-sized bed. The corals resemble giant pencil shavings, alien chanterelle mushrooms, or simply, as UNESCO put it in a press release, “a work of art.”
“We saw the pictures, and we were like, ‘We know that rock,’” says Dell Lamartinière, a commercial fisher who visits the reef every week. “I live really close by. I’ve been fishing there since I was little.”
In Tahiti, reactions were strong. The French Polynesian government called the use of the word “discovery” annoying, noting that it suggested the need for “the intervention of certain people to finally discover the world’s wonders.”
Not long after the news broke, a petition with support from some local authorities circulated seeking to prevent 1 Ocean and UNESCO from conducting future missions to the reef. On social media, some locals boiled with fear, rage, and racist outbursts that ultimately targeted not only the international expedition but also popa’a (foreigners)—and scientists—in general.
“I remember hateful comments posted by my intern,” says an anonymous biologist who handles projects for different organizations all over French Polynesia. A popa’a scientist herself, she feels the reaction against the mission undermined her own credibility. For the past four years, she has been working to improve locals’ inclusion in her scientific projects whenever possible. Moves like 1 Ocean’s, she argues, nurture mistrust. “We spend years earning people’s trust. We don’t want everything to be ruined.”
Tahitian-born marine biologist Vetea Liao also relies on locals to help study coral spawning. Liao’s nonprofit, Tama No Te Tairoto, draws on dozens of observers to monitor reefs at 80 sites. The knowledge collected through the project flows both ways, as Liao regularly publishes pictures and public reports.
Liao remembers being asked by the 1 Ocean divers about coral spawning habits on the reef. He shared a few tips, hoping the team would bring back useful data for the nonprofit. But when 1 Ocean eventually published its report, Liao kept his distance. “I didn’t want the nonprofit to be associated with the buzz,” he says.
The problem, according to Thomas Burelli, an environmental law researcher at the University of Ottawa in Ontario, is that the case evokes terra nullius attitudes—not mapped, doesn’t count. Throughout history, mainstream Western science has often overlooked the voices and interests of local populations, an ongoing trend that manifests as thefts of traditional knowledge, parachute science, and every variation in between. Such positions “tend to ‘invisibilize’ communities,” Burelli says.
From the perspective of Alexis Rosenfeld, 1 Ocean’s leader and photographer, the backlash is “ridiculous” and “odious.”
“There were Tahitians on the team,” Rosenfeld says. “Without locals’ knowledge, these stories wouldn’t exist.”
To Rosenfeld, the controversy derived from journalists distorting words. ‘‘We didn’t talk about a discovery, that’s not us. We talked about a scientific discovery.” (In social media posts and a press release, however, 1 Ocean and UNESCO did refer to the discovery of the reef itself.)
Offended citizens should have reached out, Rosenfeld says, noting that the data 1 Ocean collected is to be shared with everyone: “It’s common heritage.” Rosenfeld also notes that 1 Ocean had the permission of the French Polynesian government to conduct the work.
For this mission, 1 Ocean partnered with the French Centre of Island Research and Environmental Observatory (CRIOBE), based in French Polynesia. In 2014, CRIOBE became the first lab in France to implement an ethical code outlining key steps to avoid unethical research when working with, and within, local communities—steps such as informing populations in a familiar language before starting a research project and collecting resources in a way that is not perceived as offensive.
“I’m not sure they took the time to implement all these steps,” says Tamatoa Bambridge, a Polynesian anthropologist at CRIOBE who focuses on ethical research practices. To him, ignorance can’t be an excuse for researchers to neglect these guidelines: “It’s our duty to be informed.”
“There have been first contacts, epidemics, nuclear tests conducted without consulting communities. You have to take this into account. [These events] are part of the people’s heritage,” Bambridge explains.
One year after their pronouncement, 1 Ocean’s planned follow-up research to the reef is on hold. Laetitia Hédouin, a coral researcher at CRIOBE who initially told 1 Ocean about the reef after a diving club showed her the spot, says she’s “taking a step back.” The controversy, which she deems unfair, hit her hard. “This breaks my heart. I really think there are extraordinary things to discover,” Hédouin says.
She acknowledges that the word “discovery” was misused. If she had to do the mission again, she wouldn’t do it that way. “Though I don’t know how,” she notes.
“When we prepared the mission, nothing was inconsistent with how we usually function,” Hédouin says. Being a biologist, she argues, she lacks the skills, local contacts, and time to follow Bambridge’s lead. “Sometimes when we offer to talk about research, people don’t come. What am I supposed to do?”
In 2023, Hédouin and CRIOBE will embark on more missions with 1 Ocean in French Polynesia—to other reefs. Though this time, she says, “We’ll be more careful with words.’’