Rangiroa is home to about 2,500 people on almost 80 km2. The chief town is Avatoru, in the atoll's northwest.
The atoll consists of about 415 motus, islets and sandbars comprising a total land area of about 170 km². There are approximately one hundred narrow passages (passes), called hoa, in the fringing reef. The atoll has a flattened elliptic shape, with 80 km in length and a width ranging from 5 to 32 km wide. The width of land reaches 300 to 500 meters wide and its circumference totals up to 200 km. The lagoon has a maximum depth of 35 m and its surface is 1446 km². It is so large that it has its own horizon. Due to its shallow depth, the currents that come in and out through the passes and with the winds can sometimes create interior storms.
Only two islands, at the northern end of the atoll, are permanently inhabited. As of 2007, the total population on the atoll of Rangiroa was 2,473 inhabitants. The main villages are Avatoru (pop. 817), Tiputa (pop. 971), Ohutu (pop. 546), Taeo'o, Fenuaroa, Otepipi and Tevaro. Both Avatoru and Tiputa were built on neighboring islands, 12.5 and 4 km in length respectively. They are separated by the major Tiputa Pass. The other major pass of the atoll is Avatoru Pass, immediately to the west of the island of Avatoru.
Rangiroa is a major underwater diving destination because of the lagoon's clear blue water and exceptionally diverse marine fauna. The most popular diving sites are the Blue Lagoon, Avatoru pass, Tiputa pass, and Les Sables Roses ('the pink sands').
It is believed the first settlers arrived on Rangiroa around the 10th century CE. The first recorded Europeans to arrive on Rangiroa were Dutch explorers Jacob le Maire and Willem Schouten during their 1615-1616 Pacific journey. They called this atoll "Vlieghen Island". Rangiroa appears in some maps as "Nairsa" or as "Dean’s island". John Byron, passing the atoll during his circumnavigation in 1765, named it for the "Prince of Wales". This atoll was visited by the Charles Wilkes expedition on 7 September 1839.
During the 1950s, the economy of Rangiroa was driven by fishing and the production of copra. The inauguration of the Rangiroa Airport in 1965 allowed rapid development of the tourism industry as underwater diving facilities and hotels were built.
The atoll of Rangiroa is the chef-lieu of the commune of Rangiroa, which consists of two other atolls (Tikehau and Mataiva) and a separate non-atoll island (Makatea).
The breeding of pearl oysters in the lagoon can produce black pearls. Black pearls (meaning the marine cultured pearls produced from the black lip pearl oyster shell, Pinctada margaritifera) are abundant in the atolls of French Polynesia. These pearls, which have a wide range of natural colours, from white to dark and all shades of grey, are the only cultured pearls in the world with so many different natural colours as the famous green rose peacock.
The technique to produce marine cultured pearls was developed in Japan and, except some minor details, is similar in French Polynesia. A mother of pearl bead is inserted in the animal together with a piece of tissue (mantle) taken from another pearl oyster. The piece of tissue, as a graft tissue, will develop quickly and will form a skin around the bead and then will deposit mother of pearl on the surface of the bead. Bead rejection is important and concern about 30 percent of the seeded shells, mainly because the graft tissue is not close enough to the bead. Even with perfectly round beads, only 20 percent of the pearls will be perfectly round at the harvest, about two years after the seeding.
Pearl farming is done in more than 30 atolls of French Polynesia and is the main activity for numerous families in the Tuamotu archipelago. In Rangiroa, a few farms exploited about 1,000 acres (4.0 km2) of water surface in the lagoon loaned by the Tahitian government. The biggest farm, Gauguin's Pearl employed more than 50 local workers, with a strong impact on the economy of this 2,000 person atoll. A school dedicated to the pearl farming techniques and a research centre on pearl oysters are also implanted on the atoll of Rangiroa, which make it a kind of pearl centre for this industry.
Essentially a part of food production, however, it is also exported to the island of Tahiti.
The atoll of Rangiroa is also known for its vineyards, which are unique in the world. The vines grow on the edge of a lagoon beside coconuts, and produce two harvests per year. The winery is in the heart of the village of Avatoru. The grapes are brought to the winery by boat.
The creation of this vineyard came after much prior analysis, to find the best site capable of hosting the vines. The first vines were imported in 1992 and underwent tests for acclimatization and selection in the main islands of Polynesia, with the uncertainty of their adaptation to climate. Thirty varieties were imported from various parts of Europe. The vineyard is Domaine Dominique Auroy.
The tests took place in:
The atoll of Rangiroa was selected for the following reasons: absence of grapevine pest such as defoliating insects (e.g., Grape Phylloxera) and its proximity to Tahiti. The varietals grown on the atoll include Carignan, Italia and Black Muscat.
Like many atolls, there is no running water in Rangiroa. Each household must retrieve and store rainwater in tanks. The freshwater lenses which form in coral reefs mostly consist of brackish water due to excessive pumping, leading to saltwater intrusion. Some are also polluted because of the landfill.
Tourism is a major economic activity of the island: daily connections with Tahiti, an exceptional lagoon and passes which are good sites for scuba diving attract a steady number of tourists. These are accommodated in some hotels and guesthouses.
Rangiroa offers some of the best dives in the world in and around the Tiputa Pass, which lies at one end of the one main road and runs 3.5 km to the Avatoru Pass. Sedentary common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) regularly play group in the Pass. They can be viewed from the mainland but it is also one of the few places where they can be approached in scuba diving. Because of its large size and the existence of only two passes, each high tide creates a strong incoming current while each low tide creates a strong outgoing current in those two passes. When the current is flowing inward through Tiputa Pass, about 200 shark specimens gather at the entrance to the Tiputa Pass, at fifty meters deep. Led by the strong current, sharks can remain motionless and allow divers to observe them without any difficulty. Large manta rays, green sea turtles, and humphead wrasses can also be seen. Occasionally, tiger sharks and hammerhead sharks can also be spotted. In January, large number of stingrays gather in the Tiputa Pass, as well as hammerhead sharks that feed on them.
A notable site in the atoll is the famous Blue Lagoon, which is a smaller lagoon formed on the southwestern edge of Rangiroa. Its shallow waters accentuate the bright blue color of the water. The Pink Sands are sandbars surrounded by numerous ro'a are located on the southeastern portion of Rangiroa.
Air transportation is available at Rangiroa Airport, located on the Avatoru Island, with flights to Tahiti and other atolls of the French Polynesia. There is also a small road circling the island of Avatoru. It is made of tarmac and coral chips.