SEA Currents: Robert C. Seamans
July 20, 2016
Kanton, past and present.
2° 40.3’ S x 171° 42.7’ W
At anchor in Kanton lagoon
1820 Nautical miles travelled
Full moon, warm weather, cool breeze
Yesterday morning the Robert C. Seamans arrived in Kanton, motoring into its massive lagoon early in the afternoon. Today we awoke at 06:00 anchored in the lagoon, with a spectacular view of the strong tidal current, and a shore showing the signs of decades of military use: massive fuel tanks, the outlines of bunkers, and the remains of a WWII era shipwreck. Today we split into two groups, one going ashore to explore at 7:30, and another staying onboard the ship to stand watches and snorkel the coral gardens of the lagoon and the barrier reef outside. Afterwards, the 29 strong caretaker population came aboard for a large celebration dinner and music.
For a small populated island that has undergone decades of military use, the coral of Canton is in remarkable condition. Within the lagoon, coral covers the sandy floor in massive patches stretching for hundreds of feet, and fish of all sizes dart about in the remarkably clear waters. The corals are large and overlapping, forming large peaks and valleys out of the 10-30ft deep lagoon, with very minimal bleaching.
Kanton has a long history, like many of the other islands in the Phoenix Group. With much of the rest of Kiribati, Kanton was part of a British colony for many years. The colony experienced very mixed success, due to the isolation and harsh conditions of the islands in the Phoenix Group. Kanton later became home to a U.S. military base used largely for missile testing (the remnants of this can still be seen in large oil tanks and the infrastructure for large scale satellite surveillance). The military left their mark in more ways than one; the coral cut entrance to the lagoon is marked by two fractured, blackened, pieces of a WWII era ship that wrecked (and exploded) decades ago, and bunkers and power stations dot the landscape. In the mid-20th Century, the island was used for stopovers by Pan Am flights crossing the Pacific (passengers had the option of staying a few days on the island in between flights); the airstrip is still functional, although somewhat aged-it functions better as a slow-cooker for those who try to use it as a very large outdoor track.
On shore, Kanton’s hermit crab population outnumbers its human caretakers by at least 1000:1-they are everywhere, the largest being bigger than your fist, and the smallest the size of a dime. If you stop and stand for a minute, chances are you’ll hear the tell-tale quiet click-clack of them moving about. The rocky shores are populated by ghost crabs, remarkably fast and hard to see until they sprint away from you at dizzying speeds for such small creatures. The chattering of Fairy Terns fills the air as they soar above your head. While the island remains marked by development, its inhabitants thrive.