Sunday | August 14, 2005
Floating in a lagoon
The White Holly is resting quietly inside of the lagoon of the Tabuaeran. Here we are protected from many of the forces of the central Pacific, including the swell that pounded us as we returned from two dives at the northern extreme of the atoll and the wind that blew seawater into our eyes during the transit. The flat water and the light breeze in the lagoon make for ideal anchorage from which to manage our small boat operations and to live in safety and comfort. The comforts only increase with the amenities on board the ship. We are living far from a rustic existence, as we enjoy good food, comfortable beds (though my bedroom is slightly more private than our bunk rooms), and even air conditioning to beat the heat. From this pacified and relaxed existence, our occasional journeys to land offer stark transitions.
Returning from today's morning dives, a few of us stopped at the cable station in the northwest portion of the atoll. This cable station has nothing to do with television, mind you. This station was one of the fundamental relay stations for the first trans-Pacific telegraph cables. Underwater you can find the thick cables (about 5in/13cm in diameter) leading from land and sinking off into the depth. In 1903 the first of these cables was laid connecting Vancouver Island, Canada, with Fiji and beyond, providing a direct communications link across the Pacific for the British Empire. The structures at the station likely were used to provide electricity to amplify the signal along its long journey, to provide housing for the engineers and technicians tending to the line, and to provide armed support to protect the station from unfriendly visitors to the area (at one point, a German ship flew a French flag to convince the station managers to let them moor nearby. Once close enough, a few of the crew jumped overboard and severed the cables, briefly breaking the British connection across the sea).
Today the original structures of the cable station are used as the center of a small village of a couple hundred people. The main building is now the best school in the Line Islands. The students wear bright white uniforms and hopefully are learning lots about the world around them and the world that is far from them. The houses are much simpler, principally constructed of a few support poles and thatch roofs. People sit on the ground to cook meals and to talk with one another. The land is speckled with coconut palms and breadfruit trees, and blanketed in weedy plants. The vegetation is kept somewhat at bay by the pigs that run around, not knowing the fate that their future holds. A few weathered dogs provide a chorus as you walk down the small paths.
The economy of the Republic of Kiribati is not strong. By and large, the people live a subsistence culture, eating food from the sea and selling copra (coconut meat) or algae farmed in the lagoon to enable them to purchase goods from abroad (including basic supplies like rice and fabric). Health care is limited, with a large fraction of the island�s population suffering from one or more of a handful of serious diseases (e.g., hepatitis).
As we passed through the collection of buildings in the cable station, I wondered what it truly means to live in a place that appears so paradisiacal. Knowing that the next cargo ship from Tarawa is already 2 months late for one of its twice-annual visits to the atoll, I realize that living here is a commitment. You must depend upon skills of fishing, harvesting, and some limited agriculture to keep yourself and your loved ones alive. From our scientific perspective, we need to realize that the ocean provides the means to keep these people fed. Conservation is a problem of people, and solutions will only be found by addressing the needs of people. An ocean with high productivity and lots of fish is an ideal world both for the conservationist and for the Tabuaeran islander, and the solution will come from the connection between the two.
For now, however, I am happy to return to our safe haven floating inside of the lagoon. For now, I am happy to go to bed knowing that coffee and cereal will greet me in the morning. And for now, I would be really happy to know that the same simple wishes are met for each person on this atoll.
—Dr. Stuart Sandin