SEA 2014: An amazing five nights in Kanton (July 22)

A six-week expedition with Sea Education Association (SEA) to the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) is underway. This will mark the first-ever oceanographic cruise to PIPA, and is a historic collaboration between SEA, the New England Aquarium, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Republic of Kiribati. The objectives of this mission include the high-quality education of 13 students in both science and policy aspects of PIPA as well as scientific goals, which will be detailed in the coming weeks and months here on this blog.

This post comes from research intern Luke Faust.

We have had an amazing past five nights in Kanton, experiencing fully the wildlife, history, and culture of the island. But the highlight of Kanton was spending time with the 33 villagers who live on this island, laughing, dancing, and feasting on multiple occasions with them. As we head south tomorrow, many of us will remember Kanton as our favorite part of our six weeks at sea.

Kanton Lagoon | Photo: Randi Rotjan from previous expendition

Kanton is a coral atoll, the largest of the Phoenix Islands, with a large lagoon in the center, connected to the ocean. The land itself makes a thin ring around the lagoon, with diverse vegetation and habitats in different parts of the island. For at least a hundred years, there has been a small population living on Kanton of I-Kiribati, people from the other island chains in Kiribati. At one time there were over a thousand villagers living on the island, but harsh, hot conditions and most importantly extreme isolation kept the population small. But being located in the center of the Pacific, the island played a key role in the middle of the 19th century in American military operations.

Ruins on Kanton Island | Credit D. H. Livingstone from SEA Blog

When the Americans left the island, all of their buildings, cars, and other large machinery remained. Their ruins are scattered throughout the main section of the island and give it an eerie feel. The vegetation too is very barren, besides a few groves of trees, enhancing the eeriness of the island. But all of that feeling went away when we put our heads into the water during snorkeling, walking along the beach spying on devil rays, and spending time with the local people of Kanton.

Limited coral growth on the shipwreck compared to surrounding calcium carbonate substrate

Snorkeling here was a total success. Within the lagoon there were enormous towers of platey coral, stretching all the way to the surface of the water. Amazingly colorful fish were always in view, making it very hard to see all that was there. Everyone's favorite spot though was around a huge shipwreck
located at the entrance of the lagoon more in the deeper ocean. Besides exploring the shipwreck itself, many of us were able to see manta rays, both black and white tipped reef sharks, and green sea turtles. The coral around the shipwreck has definitely been negatively affected, mostly through an extreme coral bleaching event in 2002. There is slow recovery, but new coral growth can be seen in many places. Counter intuitively there was more diversity and larger schools of fish in this area, but it is important to remember that many factors determine the abundance and diversity of fish in an area.

Our other mission when visiting Kanton was talking to and learning about the people who live here. Our interactions with the people here exceeded all expectations. As we would walk through the village, they would beckon us over to sit with them in the shade and share food and drinks. We joked around with them and learned a little about their lifestyle here on the island. I expected this to be the extent of our interactions, but later in our visit we feasted with them twice. The entire village came onto our ship on Sunday for delicious food, exchange of gifts, and hearing traditional dancing and songs. For the past few weeks they have been living off of rice, coconuts, and any fish they can catch. The supply ship is scheduled to come in a few weeks, but its timing is not always exact.

One of the many dances during our feast on Kanton. This one was performed
by the young men on the island in their traditional garb.

They were extremely grateful and in return shared all of their traditional dancing and songs, and invited us to a feast on Kanton. Having just returned from four hour long celebrations, I can safely say for all of us it was a once in a lifetime experience. They spent all night catching lobster and moray eel, and even slaughtered one of the few pigs on the island for the feast. The food was amazing, but mostly it was just about seeing what their culture is like through all sorts of games and dances, and showing them a little of our culture. Although many of the people on Kanton are just stationed there for a few years at a time, they have developed their own songs and community.

Tomorrow morning we sadly leave Kanton for Orona, with a potential quick stop at the small island of Birnie.

1 comment:

  1. Photo of what I think was the water and maybe power plant.
    Spent time there in late 60'searly 70's.
    Airport Manager was a interesting and enjoyable assignment with Kentron Ltd.
    replies welcome please aholloway5936@hotmail.com