These remote islets are also known as Hull Island, Sands Island or, in Polynesian, “Nororuto”. They are located 215 km to the northwest of Rimatara, the closest island of the Australs, and 713 km southwest of Tahiti. The island is uninhabited today.
These islets also form an atoll unlike any other in the archipelago, which are volcanic high islands. This atoll formation is unique because of its continuous outer reef with no passage. It spans 4 km and has a combined land area of approximately 1.4 km². The atoll consists of four coral-rubble islets or motus, separated by a shallow lagoon:
- Tanimanu to the northeast (80 ha)
- Tinimanu to the southeast (35 ha)
- Haerai in the middle (17 ha)
- Tapu'ata to the southwest (8.5 ha)
The atoll is named after the whaler Maria, captained by George Washington Gardner, a Nantucket sea captain, who sited the islets on 19 December 1824. But the Polynesians were certainly first to discover the islands and even live there (archaeologists have found ruins of sacred marae and dwellings on Tapuata). However, it was Lieutenant Hiram Paulding, serving aboard the USS Dolphin, who was the first to officially step foot on the atoll on 8 May 1827. Two years later another explorer, Jacques-Antoine Moerenhout, not knowing of the existence of these islets, claimed discovery in 1829 and named them the Moerenhout Islands. This series of discoveries are why the Maria Islands were the last islands of Polynesia to be shown on a map.
Another famous explorer, Jules Dumont d'Urville, sailed along the atoll in 1834 aboard his ship, the Oceanic.
On 2 September 1901, the Maria atoll was included in the French protectorate of the Society Islands, which came into being on 29 May 1889. It served as a penal colony for many years. From Rūrutu (one of the Austral Islands), convicts were sentenced to death on Maria. These prisoners were simply abandoned without means of survival on one of the islets, where it was expected that they would die of exposure and starvation. In 1924, the Rimatara district council began planting coconut trees (mostly on Tanimanu) to produce copra. Copra production was abandoned at the end of the 1980s when service by the mixed passenger/cargo cargo ship, the Tuhaa Pae II, was halted. The only way to get to Maria afterwards was by whaleboat. Since 1972, this atoll has been administered by the Municipality of Rimatara.
The first survey of wildlife was conducted in 1924 by U.S. botanists Francis Fosberg and Harold St. John. The most recent survey, conducted in 2013, found mostly vascular plants (living on sandy beachtops) native to the Austral Islands.
Several species of birds can be spotted there: the red-tailed tropicbird (bosun–bird), the great frigatebird, the masked booby, the brown booby, the red-footed booby, bristle-thighed curlew, the reef heron, the Pacific golden plover and wandering tattler, among others.
There are abundant fish, too: jacks can be found weighing up to 10 kg! Korean and Japanese boats ply these waters to fish.
Scientist Yves Meyer's mission report recommended creating a protected natural area with restricted access and stringent controls on human activities on the islets. Today access is very limited and the islets can only be reached by yacht and then by kayak to get across the coral reef.