SEA Currents: Robert C. Seamans
July 24, 2018
The People of Kanton
2°44’ x 171°45’
Ship’s heading and speed
15° 7.5 knots
The people of Kanton are unlike any I've met. I know Nate talked about the reception they held for us, but there cannot be enough said about that evening. Their musical performances were as humbling as they were spectacular. While the women and children sang the words of a language we do not know, the men harmonized perfectly as they beat a large, shared drum to the slow rhythm of their chanting. Their voices filled the air and created the most enchanting atmosphere I've ever experienced. I'm still struggling to comprehend the gratitude I feel for them.
The sacrifice they have made to protect this invaluable natural treasure is humbling. A group of 30 people live here in isolation from the rest of the world, so they can be stewards of their nation's rich ocean heritage. Although this community was placed here by the government, it is clear that there is something special on this island: something we lack in the United States. It's something I will not be able to put into words, but you can
feel it in the warmth of each interaction. I've received so much from the people here: much more than dinner and a show. I cannot communicate the debt I owe to the people of this island, and the only way we can pay it off is in the diligent research we conduct and the protective policies it informs. For my research project, I've spent hours each day laying underwater transect lines, taking pictures of the corals, analyzing water samples from each reef, and trying desperately to catch my breath in between (literally and figuratively). From this, I've learned just a small bit of how largely significant this place is. Their houses may be small, but their home is grander, more ornate, and more beautiful than any of ours; the corals that decorate it are truly a wonder unlike any other.
On the short boat ride to the reefs, low-flying seabirds sweep the air in front of the raft and regard us, the strange visitors, with curiosity. A pod of dolphins swims just in front of the bow crisscrossing each other's path with bubbling jubilance as they escort you to your destination. All this before you enter the turquoise clear, 85-degree water. When you jump from the boat and the bubbles of your sloppy entry clear around your goggles, a sweeping view of orange, green, tan, and purple coral plates and branches greets you in 360 degrees. Large, brilliantly painted parrot fish of every hue cruise among the tiers of coral plates while the smaller ones weave skillfully through the tunnels and trenches of the reef. Schools of fish forage in the hundreds. Stripes of yellow, blue, white, and black line the bodies of the silver fish you're surrounded by. An occasional reef shark can be seen intimidating the adjacent fish while an unconcerned sea turtle slides gracefully along elsewhere. In a completely silent environment, these short-lived sightings race through your field of view. Were it not for the overflowing stream of diversely colored fish swimming past you, the ephemeral nature of these sites might be frustrating, but the only frustration I find is in the fact that I can't see it all at once.
After all that, I should say I've completely failed at describing these reefs. Any number of colorful nouns and thrilling adjectives cannot give a reader the same sense of the wild aliveness that pulses from these reefs so generously and intangibly. For now, suffice it to say that Kanton's people are protecting something worth protecting. The Phoenix Islands is one of those increasingly rare places on Earth where an ecosystem looks exactly the way it should. If humans had never encountered these islands, and I had never swam in these reefs, the corals and fish on July 23, 2018 would have looked exactly the same.
Although this is a no-take protected area, we've all come away with more than we could have asked for. As we sail away through the rest of PIPA, I'm left thinking about the people of Kanton. While I may not come from a place as rich in culture or community, I want to be rich in memories like this.
- Charlie Schneider, A watch, Colorado College
Shoutouts: Mom and Dad, thank you so much for helping me to participate in this amazing journey. I am profoundly grateful for the sacrifices you make to provide for me the outstanding collegiate experience I've had. I couldn't have written any of this if you hadn't facilitated my being here in the first place. Thank you!