Life is quiet for the 2,000-some inhabitants of Tubuai, which is 644 km (400 mi) south of Tahiti. It's a mellow, subtropical island of approximately 70 square km (27 square mi) and the capital of the Austral Islands chain. Mts. Taitaa (1,280 feet [390 meters]) and Tonorutu (1,023 feet [312 meters]) dominate the horizon, and the island is fringed by a barrier reef scattered with motu (small coral islets), while its lagoon side offers brilliant, white-sand beaches. Polynesians have lived on the island for more than 2,000 years. English explorer James Cook first mapped it in 1777; the island was annexed in 1881 by France.
Today, much of the economic life of the island is devoted to fishing and growing fruit and vegetables destined for Pape'ete. Tubuai has a temperate climate, tropical yet cooler than Tahiti and well-watered and fertile, producing coconuts, taro, arrowroot, and bananas. Tubuai has one of the least-studied ecosystems in the Pacific; it is rich in flowers and plant life along with birds. Species like the Kuhl's lorikeet, the Rimatara reed-warbler, and the Rapa fruit-dove are unique to the island.