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Current position of the SSV Robert C. Seamans. Click on the vessel to view position history. Use the tools, top right, to change the map style or view data layers. Dates and times use GMT (Greenwich Mean Time).

SEA Currents: SSV Robert C. Seamans

August 05, 2014

Colonization of PIPA

Keitapu Maamaatuaihutapu, Visiting Scientist, Professor of Oceanography University of French Polynesia Tahiti


An American satellite tracking station from the 70’s, left to decay on the island of Kanton.

Ship's Log

05° 33’ S by 173° 54’ W

Sail Plan
Motor sailing in near calm.

We have been in the Phoenix Island Protected Area (PIPA), for almost three weeks now and will be leaving it sometime tomorrow.  We navigated in PIPA and visited more than half of the islands (Kanton, Enderbury, Orona, Birnie and Nikumaroro) and the Winslow reef. People of the Seamans had the chance to go ashore on some of them.  Coming from a Pacific island, I find it interesting to see how these remote islands bear the marks of human activity - mostly of European and American origin.

First, it is interesting to talk about Kanton because this is the only still-inhabited island. The population of Kanton was very friendly and were welcoming to us with ceremony (welcoming and farewell maybe because our stay was short). Everybody from the Seamans enjoyed the dances, the songs and the dinner offered to us (I have been told that the people of Kanton have not seen any ship around their island for more than six months and they offered us a portion of their food). It was a wonderful moment that we shared with them and for most of us (I think), this was the first time we come across their culture. It was a good time of sharing.

I give here a brief review of the colonization process of the once or still-inhabited islands (Kanton, Orona, Nikmaroro) as related by the retired British Colonial Administrator H.E. Maude in 1968. The first visitors would have been Polynesians, but they left the islands. Around the forties, the Phoenix islands were under control of the British government and in order to get people on these islands, a “set-up economical project” based on copra was planned. But that did not last long, people return to their primary home. Even, on the long term, this type of project did not work. Indeed, the Kiribati government set up similar project in the late nineties and our visit to Orona shows evidence that people left the island in 2002.

In order to occupy these islands, none of the stratagem have worked; on Kanton, which features an unused air strip and wharf, one can easily see the rusting remains of two gigantic projects (island scale speaking). These projects have brought into Kanton more than one thousand people at two different periods. The first project would have happened in the forties or the fifties (according to the date written on the remain concrete) with the construction of a hotel that seemed to be used for travelers from stop-over planes crossing the Pacific Ocean. The remains of the hotel are still visible and part of them are covered by vegetation.

During the same period the Second World War touched the island as well, the first airstrip was constructed and one can still see old US military hardware rusting away in the remains of a village left behind. I have to say that it is an environmental disaster because left as it is, 50-100 years will be necessary for mother nature, maybe, to dissolve and absorb the remains, the rusting metals, concrete slabs and leaking barrels of oil.

The second project was set up by the US military and NASA for the support of the Mercury Space Program and a subsequent development programme for nuclear missiles . No evidence of a date was found, but it is more recent than the hotel, and according to our estimation, happened in the late sixties or early seventies. We could not figure out why this project had taken place on Kanton. Like the previous project, everything has been left on site : tanks, tires, gas pumps, power stations, utility poles, trucks, shelters, buildings. These add to the previous disaster, abandoned to mother nature again. Who will clean it up? Impossible with the 30 people actually living in Kanton!

My above account of Kanton should not shadow the charm of the people and the island. Kanton, ‘Aba Riringa’, the land of sunshine in I-Kiribati language is, with Enderbury, the easternmost islands of the Phoenix islands. In term of vegetation, these islands are covered with shrubs, coconut trees here and there, and other plants that only grow on atolls. The variety of plants is low. Reef fishes are abundant on both atolls and do not seem poisoned by ciguatera. Kanton has a beautiful lagoon that is the deepest of those we visited, 20 m at the most. Enderbury has more of a pond than a lagoon.

Orona, old Polynesian name (is there a link with one of the Polynesian god Oro?), is a lot more dense in terms of coconut trees. Pools of fresh water from rain were visible and invaded by land crabs. Coconut trees have no problem to grow and the density of coconut trees favors the coprah. But the access to the island is not as simple as Kanton since there is no easy access to the interior lagoon. As reported earlier, people left the island in 2002 leaving behind the decaying frames of their wooden thatched houses. The main reason is that the reef fishes were no longer edible because of ciguatera fish poisoning. It is indeed a threat for people living on atolls since their only source of protein comes from fish. In Orona there seemed to be signs of earlier Polynesian settlement as well, low stonewalls showing sites of houses and maybe ceremonial sites.

Nikumaroro, after the home island of a Gilbertese ancestress Nei Manganibuka, has a dense forest of coconut trees and has the tallest trees named ‘buka’. According to the history, a branch of the buka has been brought to the island by Nei Manganibuka when she swam over. Nikumaroro was known as the island of coconut crabs. Indeed, on our visit of the island, coconut crabs could be found anywhere as well as land crabs. The interior lagoon of Nikumaroro, like Orona, is shallow, less than 10 m. What characterizes Nikumaroro lagoon is the red/brown pattern seen in shallow water. This is due to a cyanobacteria that grows in the quasi-enclosed lagoon. It is known in other atolls that in the process of formation of the cyanobacteria, phosphate is released which is possibly the source of much of the phosphate mined on some of the Phoenix Islands. Reef fishes could be found in abundance.

It is interesting to see the evidence of earlier human interest in these islands, and it is not surprising that the country of Kiribati with few resources and a growing population has tried to put the land into human use.  But like in many other small atoll islands of the South Pacific, it can be difficult to form a sustainable working community.  Schools, health care, water and power supply, and transportation all pose a challenge.  So
instead, the Phoenix Islands are home to wildlife and become a place for conservation.

- Keitapu

Categories: Robert C. Seamans,Protecting the Phoenix Islands, • Topics: culture  s254  maritime history • (0) Comments
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