Arrived at village of Perout (approx sp), one of five on Fanning Island with Olga, Liz Dinsdale, Alex Wegman. We docked at a pier made from 2x6" lumber nailed to 4x4" posts sunk into pilings consisting of cement-filled 55-gallon oil drums. The pier, one of the sturdiest constructions in the village, was built to receive tourists arriving on pontoon ferries from Norwegian passenger ships that are obligated to visit another country while functioning as Hawaiian island cruisers. Where the wharf joins the land, disembarking tourists are greeted by dozens of tables built from recycled wooden pallets where they can buy curios ranging from necklaces to Christmas tree ornaments made of shells and shark teeth, bound with twine of coconut husk or colored plastic. A nearby signpost indicates directions and mileage to various distant cities: Los Angeles 3,414; New York 5,802; London, 8,424; Sydney, 4144; Tokyo, 4,433 miles. Manila is 5,318 miles away, nearly the distance to New York, illustrating not only how big the Pacific is, but also how far the Line Islands are from everything else - including each other: Tarawa, Kiribati's capital, is 1,907 miles away from Fanning Island.
Painted on one exterior wall of the Kiribati store is a history explaining that this island was discovered by Capt Edward Fanning, July 11, 1798; that it's 26 square miles, and 228 miles north of the equator. It adds that on July 12, 1979, this former British protectorate became the independent Republic of Kiribati. Oddly, an adjacent map of the Line Islands doesn't include this island - possibly because most of the residents have only arrived within the last four years. Most were relocated here from Tarawa in an attempt by the government to decentralize its population. Kiribati also reportedly wants its furthest-flung islands inhabited as a reminder to the Japanese, to whom it sells fishing rights (its main source of national income), that these waters belong to them, not Japan.
A cluster of painted public buildings, mostly wooden, stands behind the tourist market tables, fronted by a single-lane road of hard-packed crushed coral sand that parallels the lagoon's shore. The road is shaded principally by breadfruit trees, pandanus, and coco palms. Some of the last have bottles suspended among the leaves to tap coconut sap, which ferments into a mildly alcoholic drink called toddy. Traffic is mainly foot and bicycle, with an occasional Honda motor-scooter, usually bearing multiple passengers. We also saw one 1970s-vintage white Dodge sedan, two parked Toyota flat-bed service vehicles, and a Massey-Ferguson 165 tractor with tires so flat they've been partially buried in the sand.
All along the coast, lines of black sticks that support seaweed racks emerge from the water. A woman in her 40s, dressed in a red skirt and pink blouse who identified herself as Tarakwa, told us that her two handfuls of seaweed gathered at the shore would grow into two armfuls in two week's time, depending on the kindness of the currents and the tide (and if rains have been moderate: too much impedes growth). She sells her harvest to the atolls wholesale seaweed company, which, according to its sign, was funded by the European Union. The most important customer, she's been told, is Denmark. She invited us to her house to see the curios she made and to drink toddy.
Tarakwa's son, she told us, was off fishing. Fishing is a subsistence industry that every family partakes in, using hook and line or seines to catch their daily consumption. The catch includes yellowfin tuna from the ocean, parrot fish, gar, and possibly Napoleon wrasse, eel, bonefish from the lagoon, and probably others. Among them may be tilapia, which we saw breeding in brackish ponds that were runoff from taro plantations. Fish are not commercialized here, except for fundraising purposes such as a recent drive to build a new Roman Catholic church, for which a carpenter is charging $40,000 (presumably Australian dollars). Two people informed us that fish is being hawked in the streets to this end.
Growing seaweed, harvesting copra and selling homemade curios are the only industries. The next house we visited was the home of a schoolteacher named Raubane and his wife, Ariniti. Like Tarakwa's house, it was made from palm branches woven with a palm thatch hip roof, with a floor planked with denuded palm frond ribs tied together with coco twine. In lieu of furniture, people sit cross-legged on mats of palm leaf, some woven with complex patterns. Raubane noted that people often eat sea worms that congregate around the cultivated seaweed - raw or cooked -- or use them as bonefish bait. (Bonefish, he believed, also eat cultivated seaweed.) Around his house, like all others, wandered chickens and pigs, the latter an important part of their diet. In the forest of the lagoon's uninhabited opposite shore, he told us, people often let pigs loose to fatten and harvest later. A few scattered papaya trees were visible, as well as two native pisonias, locally called tibuka - whose leaves, he told us are eaten like cabbage or cooked with fish.
Every 3-4 months, a government supply ship arrives with flour, sugar, rice, tobacco, kerosene, beer and other staples. These are delivered to a government wholesaler who them sells them to the people at slightly better rates than the local retail store: e.g., $22 for 20 lbs. of rice versus $28. Introduced pumpkins and large squash grow wild, and he made us a present of some of each, as well as a bunch of bananas. One of his sons opened coconuts for us to drink, and he showed us a bottle of the coconut oil they collect for cooking and body oil. On the surrounding trees hung white plastic buckets, used to store food away from rats, a chronic problem.
Like most people here, Raubane and his family are recent arrivals, chosen by the government to make the 2-week journey by boat from Tarawa. They were allowed to settle where they wished, and local resources such as coconut trees appear to be held in common. Recently, he said, the government is approving applications for titles to homestead plots. He is one of eight school teachers on the island, which has 248 students in primary school (though it appears that only one of the teachers is formally trained).
It's far from everything they know; there's no electricity except for the Norwegian liners; but all told, he said, life on Fanning is an improvement from crowded Tarawa. There's work for everyone who's willing to nurture seaweed, fish and coconuts for the taking, and his children seem happier. The biggest concerns are lack of services, especially medical: there is a nurse on the island, but no doctor.
There are few things as comforting as hearing the rain gently kissing the surface of the sea while diving. When we first dived in Palmyra, this was a welcoming sound. Today we are back in Palmyra and it is raining again. Today, however, we hear the rain from the land, and it is a farewell. It is the last day of our expedition, the day of tedious packing and storing, but also the day of reflecting upon what we have experienced and achieved.
We achieved most of our scientific goals. In five weeks we logged over 800 dives with a total of more than 1,000 man-hours of diving, without any serious incident save the snapper bites. This is an extraordinary achievement by any standards. We surveyed more than 100 sites in five islands, collecting an amazing amount of data on microbes, algae, invertebrates and fishes belonging to about 1,000 different species.
We already have original and groundbreaking results on what humans do to coral reef ecosystems, on what coral reefs look like in the absence of humans, and on the essential role of microbes in coral reef health. We believe that our results will challenge ecology and conservation paradigms.
The scientific work is not, by any means, completed. Now come months of laboratory and data analyses. We will meet again in January 2006, to gather and integrate the final results, and to write a series of scientific articles. We will also work in making our results available to the greater public, using Zafer's photos for magazine articles, James' and Soames' video footage on a movie about the expedition, and Alan's book about the world without humans.
In five weeks we have lived the equivalent of several lives. We went back in time, to that place where humans were only a dream. We rejuvenated ourselves. Besides the science, we collected memories and learned about possibilities for the future of our oceans. We learned that it is impossible to have islands completely excluded from human influence. We accepted that the coral reefs of the future will be different than those of the past, except for maybe a few places such as Kingman reef. Our next challenge is to decide what we are going to be happy with, to identify a place along the gradient of human disturbance where both we and reefs will thrive.
Scripps Line Islands Expedition 05