Puatea Ellis: Queen of the Ocean – Passion, Connection, and Empowerment in French Polynesia

There are many words I could use to describe Tahitian Water-woman Puatea Ellis. As a decorated French Polyensian swimming, SUP, Bodysurf, and Waterman Tahiti Tour Champion Puatea is one of the most accomplished ocean athletes in French Polynesia. The only words I can use to emphasize how remarkable Pua is… is that she is truly a Queen of the Ocean. Beyond her accomplishments Pua is one of the most unconventional, boundary breaking, baguette loving, wildest, strongest women I know. The name “Puatea” in Tahitian means “beautiful lady surrounded by white flowers”. Considering that the national flower of Tahiti is known as the “tiare mā’ohi” (also known as “the Tahitian Gardenia”) which just so happens to be white, I completely understand the origins of her name.

Puatea Ellis after a hard swim training session

Besides the fact that Pua has the most magnificent eyes I have ever seen, her beauty is demonstrated in her love for her people and the natural world. She is connected to the ocean in such an enchanting way that is hard to describe in words. If you have the chance to walk within her presence you can count yourself a lucky person. I am very fortunate to have had the honor to spend six weeks with Puatea and her family in Tahiti. The purpose of my most recent trip to Tahiti was to continue developing my skills as a professional SUP athlete. By going back to Tahiti I had absolutely no idea that I was going to learn so much through Pua’s teachings about life, love, dedication, and commitment. Today I want to share with you who Puatea is, why her work is important, and how we can all learn something from her remarkable life.

Puatea driving her jet ski during a water patrol safety course / November 2023

I was first introduced to Pua around this time last year after being spontaneously invited by Morgan Hoesetery to compete in the Waterman Tahiti Tour event. We arrived in Tahiti casually on a Tuesday morning in April of 2023. When we arrived at Pua’s home I immediately felt cozy, and comfortable. Her big open front porch, woven chairs, and dining table set up with coffee, baguettes, and massive avocados felt like a warm hug on a Tahitian rainy day. Morgan and I had spent a week in Tahiti not only competing in the Waterman Tahiti Tour, but also surfing, drinking spicy grape juice with Pua and her family, all while sharing many stories. We laughed about the fact that a Canadian, an American, and three Tahitians can enjoy meaningful conversation even though Morgan and I’s French was absolutely dreadful. Yet what brought us all to sit at the same table together was not just a competition, it was community, connection and the power of the ocean.

Waterman Tahiti Tour Event April 2023

Many island cultures around the world describe this energy as ‘Mana’ meaning when the power of mother earth, nature, and more specifically the ocean are embodied within a person. This mana energy is what brought me back to Tahiti almost a year later to continue my off-season training. I originally thought that Tahiti as a whole was going to make me a better paddler, and that the ocean, the reef breaks, the stars, the currents, and tides were going to make me a stronger, more skilled athlete. What I didn’t realize… was that the mana I felt the first time I visited Tahiti wasn’t from the elemental forces of the island. It was from Pua. The mana I came back to Tahiti for and what my heart’s energy was searching for was her. To become a better athlete I needed to be silent and still while I listened to Pua speak and share her life experiences with me.

Pua and I enjoying a trip to Huahine with the France Junior Firefighters program / February 2024

Pua is a proud Tahitian woman who talks about her culture and her people often. Whether you give her a Ukulele or a boom box, Pua is sure to be singing anything from Britney Spears to Aerosmith to classic Tahitian Hits. She is uplifting, heartwarming, and fun to be around. She is so busy constantly filling everyone’s cup with happiness, that I often saw it drain her. When she needs to refill, she lays in her hammock on her big front porch and rests while listening to the birds and telling the roosters to shut up. Pua will never ask for anything in return, even though all she does is give to others. She is willing to share her knowledge and love for the ocean for many reasons. She has seen everything the ocean can do from creating environmentalists, big wave surfers, artists and innovators, while also seeing many dangerous situations such as drownings, and sinking boats. Pua’s current work aims to change the way people behave around the ocean, whether that’s encouraging respect for mother nature or uplifting others to jump in and embrace all of the beauty the ocean has to offer. Her work is very important and needs to be recognized far beyond the borders of French Polynesia.

Puatea teaching local high school students swimming drills / February 2024

To fully understand the work that Pua does today, I want to take you back in time for a moment. If you were to point your finger at Hawaii on a map of the world, drag your finger down the map in the south east direction (just over 4,000km’s to be exact) and that is where you will find French Polynesia. French Polynesia is made up of five archipelagos. “Archipelagos” are a chain or group of islands that can be found in lakes, rivers, and oceans. The archipelagos that make up French Ployensia are found in the South Pacific Ocean. The five archipelagos of French Polynesia are known as the Gambier Islands, the Austral Islands, the Marquesas Islands, the Society Islands (which is where Tahiti is located) and the Tuamotu Archipelago. Pua was born and raised in an “atoll” which is a ring-shaped coral reef island called ‘Arutua’ in the Tuamotu archipelago.

Pua enjoying a sunrise over Mo’orea / March 2024

Her upbringing was a mix of strong family bonds, and hard work as she is one of seven children. Pua is the second youngest in her family having one older sister, four big brothers, and one little sister. It was in Arutua where she grew up diving for her family’s pearl farm, and would fish with her dad and brother. When she wasn’t working with her family, Pua was either surfing or swimming at an elite level. When she was 16 years old she met her now husband Angelo and they began building their relationship together slowly. When she was 20 years old, she left her island and headed to Tahiti to start a new life for her young self. Pua needed a change from her small atoll and wanted to explore more of French Polyenisa. It was a hard move for her, but one that changed the rest of her life. Pua started her working life exploring many different career paths. She worked for the government, a travel agency, was a volunteer firefighter, and coached swim teams. Through Pua’s grit, determination, and dedication she learned that she was passionate about working for herself, and creating a job that had meaning and direct purpose about things that excited her. It was through her life experiences, becoming a mom, and desire for travel and discovery, that Pua learned about the lack of ocean safety, swimming and awareness. This led her to create her ocean safety & awareness school known as Back 2 Ocean. As of now Back 2 Ocean has been in business for one year, and has skyrocketed with success.

Pua running her kids water safety & ocean confidence camp / February 2024

Pua teaching local high school students rescue tows and carries / February 2024

Pua founded her school Back 2 Ocean to educate, and inspire her fellow islanders to learn how to swim, surf, prone, apnea, and perform rescues, so that they feel more connected to the ocean. I learned from Pua that many of the locals either do not know how to swim, or if they do they are not strong swimmers, and/or they are scared of the ocean in general. This is because many foreigners come from all over the world to purchase waterfront properties and land in the mountains for primarily businesses and tourism. What this has done detrimentally as a domino effect is physically block the locals from having safe access to the water. By not having easy physical access to the water it has prevented Tahitians from learning how to swim. Presently this has caused a current generation of Tahitians that do not know how to swim. This has become a major issue primarily within the past ten years that is often overlooked and not talked about enough in Tahiti. Drownings happen often in Tahiti, and this devastates Pua. She teaches private swimming lessons, aquagym and biking classes, coaches athletes that compete in surfing, crossfit, and triathlons, as well as runs kids camps during the weeks when kids are off of school. Through her school, she aims to save her people by re-connecting them with their roots, knowing that having a safe and valuable connection with the ocean is in their blood and ancestral roots. Through the establishment of her school and her extensive wealth of ocean knowledge, Pua has also been recently hired to join the WSL Safety Team for the upcoming 2024 Paris Olympic Games for the surfing event that will take place in Teahupo’o.

Pua handing out certificates to her students / February 2024

Puatea hosting a Va’a paddling session in Huahine with the France Junior Firefighters Program / February 2024

Puatea’s training with the WSL for the upcoming Paris 2024 Olympic Games

During my first few days in Tahiti Pua drove me around her neighborhood to show me where I could surf, run, paddle, and train. She drove me to the top of a local mountain ‘Vaitavere‘ (which I ended up running a lot), as well as a couple of paddling spots where I could launch. She showed me the waterways where she trains her athletes, and introduced me to her friends that we saw during our tours around town. We even checked out multiple gyms where I could train because Pua wanted to make sure that I had access to the equipment I needed. She supported me every single day in every way possible. When I lived with Pua we fell into an easy routine. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were paddle and/or running days, as well as strength days, while Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays were usually longer and/or more intense paddling/cardio days. The first two weeks I lived in Tahiti she would drive me to the gym when I couldn’t ride my bike because it was raining so hard. She would also drive me to go paddling while she taught swimming lessons in the ocean. I should preface this with the fact that I don’t know how to drive a manual car which is why Pua drove me everywhere! The only way I felt like I could give back to Pua was by cooking nutritious dinners at night for her family, and by speaking english to her son Mataiva because he was still learning. After dinner Pua, Angelo, and Mataiva would sing songs, play ukulele, or tell stories to me about life in Tahiti, surfing, training, and traveling.

A selfie with the queen of the ocean!

Pua teaching CPR to the local children in Tahiti

Outside of my own training Pua would give me tips and tricks on how to improve my stroke technique. Since Pua also grew up paddling in Va’a boats she explained to me just how similar the stroke was, and would offer me advice on how to be more efficient with my blade in the water. Once she even came with me to the gym to work on land drills! We hooked up a paddle shaft that her husband Angelo made with a carabiner hook at the end of the shaft (where the blade would normally be) to a cable machine so that Pua could watch my stroke and correct it in real time. Additionally she invited me to every single swim training session she had with her athletes. I swam with her private clients, crossfit athletes, and triathletes along the many reef breaks, and beautiful channels Tahiti is famously known for. I saw miraculous amounts of wildlife while I swam such as turtles, colorful fish, and stingrays. Pua also told me how to improve my swimming stroke by saying “go deeper”. Funny enough I learned that the crossover was very similar. I learned through Pua that a common “reaching mistake” I was making with my paddle technique was also happening while I was swimming. With Pua’s willingness to help me fix my swimming stroke, I was able to realize a unique sense of untapped power that I could apply to my paddle stroke to become a better and faster paddler. When we surfed together she was always so gracious in the water showing me the local spots, and telling me where to sit so I could catch the best waves. Pua did all of this without asking for a single penny, or for anything else in return.

Puatea teaching me how to steer a Va’a boat with her in Huahine / February 2024

Pua probably is, and will be one of the best teachers I have ever had the pleasure of learning from. Every swim, surf, paddle, fishing trip, kids camp, or rendezvous around town had meaning. Whether she was describing to me her childhood, the ocean, island life in Tahiti, or her traveling experiences to places like Lake Tahoe, Japan, France, and Hawaii, I always listened carefully and learned something from her stories. I left Tahiti with so many life lessons and new perspectives on how I want to be in the world and the impact that I want to make in my community as I continue to grow older, it’s hard to summarize those lessons in a list. To go to Tahiti and spend time with Puatea Ellis, the beautiful woman surrounded by tiare mā’ohi, is truly the only way I can say you can experience the true magic of Tahitian life and culture. Ultimately I learned by walking within Pua’s presence that we should all try to find what makes us passionate in our lives, and give back to our communities through that passion. When we do this, it can help fill us with a sense of purpose and give our lives meaning. Pua will always continually give back to her community through her school which she founded through her passion for ocean safety, confidence, and awareness. Her life is filled with so much happiness because of this, and through that she is honored to share everything she has with others, including her home, her work, and her love. If you ever find yourself in Tahiti, be sure to reach out and connect with Puatea Queen of the Ocean, so that you may also have a chance to feel her magic and become inspired to create change in your own world.

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About the Author

Maddi Leblanc

Maddi Leblanc is a Niagara born, Canada-based stand up paddling athlete for Team Canada, SUP instructor, and lake surfer. Maddi is also the events and community co-ordinator at Surf the Greats. She has been paddle boarding for over ten years, competing in SUP for seven years, and surfing the Great Lakes for seven years. She is also a masters alumni from Brock University in Recreation & Leisure Studies. Find her on Instagram.

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