Alone at last. Well, almost alone. Yesterday, Earthwatch Team V went back to Samarai to begin their journey home to the U.S.. Moira stayed behind, anchored in this charming little lagoon. We have a little over a week until the Lolarua returns with the last Earthwatch team.
"I have a problem," I look up at Freddy as she fixes breakfast.
"Such as?" She responds.
"You know how rare it is to find a really beautiful, unspoiled, deserted island with a good anchorage and fantastic reef. We've been sailing around out here about 4 years now and how many peopleless places as lovely as this place have we found?"
"Right. Well if I put the name of this place in the log and if it ever gets published, lots of yachts will want to stop off to check it out."
"Bad idea." Freddy is, like me, thinking about the many places we've seen where yachts have destroyed beautiful coral reefs by pulverizing the coral with their anchors. Some yachties leave their garbage strewn all over the beaches. Some are voracious shell collectors, taking buckets of shells of every description, often breaking up the coral with crowbars and hammers to get them. There are yachties who slaughter sea turtles and birds, and spear anything and everything. It only takes a handful of destructive people to reduce a tiny spot like this to another natural wound in paradise.
"This has to be a secret spot," Freddy says. "Call it something else."
"Like what? I don't like putting something inaccurate in the log."
"It's OK if you explain why. Call it Nothing Atoll," She laughs.
One of Neil Stanton's little fishing boats, captained by a 16 year old named Leo, has stayed with us here at Nothing Atoll. Leo is a good looking boy, with clean-cut features, a perfect ebony black skin and a powerful body. Back at the fisheries station I saw him pick up an old 40 HP Johnson outboard and put it on his shoulder like it was made of aluminum foil. I couldn't even lift it by myself without getting a hernia.
Leo's young companion was feeling sick and returned to Samarai with the Earthwatch Team. It's very unusual for a Melanesian to be alone, even for a little while, so we decide to take him some breakfast this morning. Leo keeps his little fishing boat freshly painted, neat and clean. He is a product of Neil Stanton's fisheries philosophy. Develop the youth and the fisheries will develop by itself.
Leo is happy to see us and accepts the breakfast from Freddy with a glittering smile. Immediately, perhaps to keep us around, he suggests we go fishing. Why not? I zip back to Moira and secure the Avon while Leo cranks up the little diesel engine. He picks me up and off we go, across the small lagoon, heading for the pass near the western edge of Nothing Atoll's fringing reef. His little diesel engine makes a terrific racket so we can't talk. That's fine with me. Leo drives and Freddy fishes and I watch and think about how beautiful it is here.
Nothing Atoll has two small, flat islands perched on the northern corner of a rather large, circular reef behind the Louisiade's giant barrier reef. There is no fresh water here so the island is uninhabited.
Nothing Atoll belongs to the 642 people of an island about sixty miles away. Most people there rely on fishing for their food and livelihood. We spent almost a week surveying around their home island with the last Earthwatch team. The weather wasn't too great and we didn't look everywhere but it was evident subsistence fishing had taken its toll. Like most reefs near villages, the coral was broken and poorly developed. There were very few commercially valuable invertebrates on the reefs and not many fish. It is much different here.
The moment we nose out through the pass we get a strike. Freddy pulls in an enthusiastic jack on the handline. I unhook it, and Freddy throws out Leo's home-made lure again.
The water around Nothing Atoll is reasonably shallow - labyrinthed with an extensive network of patch reefs. There is a small barrier reef and a little lagoon tight against the two coral cays. Fishermen seldom come here. At least, we have not seen a single fishing boat during the last week. Unlike the reefs around peopled islands, Nothing Atoll reefs are teeming with life, the corals are alive and well developed, the water is clear, sea birds are everywhere. It is absolutely stunning.
It's sad to see what the people of these islands have done to their reefs. The advent of modern technology - face masks, flippers, spear guns, night lights, outboard motors, has resulted in a general destruction of reef fauna close to even small villages. The people have no conservation ethic because, in the past, fishing with only very primitive means, there was never any need. The prey got away more often than not and it was simply too difficult to bash the coral without metal tools.
Also, there were a whole system of local Taboos regulating the way people fished. These are gone, tossed out with other "primitive superstitions" with the coming of Christianity.
Although I don't like what they are doing to their reefs, I do like the people. They are independent - practically self-sufficient. The town is clean and the houses neatly arranged on the western shore. They dress colorfully and are friendly - or perhaps hospitable is a better term.
I met their political representative in the District Council when we were making arrangements to come out here to survey. His name, in their language, means "Thank You". His personality matches his name. He's open, friendly, and very talkative. Always standing around with a casual, smiling face, chatting about nothing. He makes the perfect politician and, no doubt, the perfect pain in the ass if he stayed in the village.
So, they send him off to Samarai to sit in on the council meetings where he can smile and chat to some advantage. It's a good ploy on the part of the villagers. It means he won't be taking time from important chores in the village. Also, although he talks all the time, he rarely says anything of importance - a real skill - and I suspect this contributes to their island being left alone by the government of PNG.
Leo perches on the cabin roof and steers the little boat with one foot as we cruise in and out and over the maze of reefs west of Nothing Atoll. Fishing is good and within a couple of hours we have seven medium sized fish. We head back into the lagoon through the southwest pass.
I suppose most people would think islanders have plenty of time to just sit around and enjoy life. Actually, primitive subsistence living takes almost every hour of every day and isn't very relaxed. Everyone is constantly busy doing something. They don't go in much for recreation or just sitting back appreciating the beauty of nature. For most of the people on these islands, nature is the unchanging background of their existence and they don't pay any attention to it. They never go diving just for fun. If they go in the water they are after something and it's serious business.
The water changes from deep blue to a gem-quality aquamarine as Leo's little boat moves from the pass into the sand-bottomed lagoon. I stand on the gunnel and look into the wonderland of colors and shapes of the coral reef in the lagoon. Nothing Atoll's natural charm is enthralling. I feel a wonderful excitement and joy watching the small boat weave through the life of the lagoon.
The people of the islands simply can't understand why I am really here, doing this survey; especially on a volunteer basis. The idea of people paying to fly half way round the planet to go diving for "adventure" is beyond their belief. In fact, when we had a council meeting in Samarai they had a list of objections to the survey. These were:
1) We were tricking them. I was actually going to make a movie and get plenty of money from it.
2) We were an advance for a team of divers who were going to come and take all their rare and valuable shells.
3) We did not notify them in time and did not consult them first.
4) We had excluded some areas and included others from our survey. They did not agree with the selection.
With Neil Stanton's help, I finally got them to agree to let us do the expeditions but they are still convinced we are, we must be up to something. Probably why Leo is here with us - to keep watch to see what we finally take. Mr. Polisbo, the Premier of the Milne Bay Provence, gave a very negative radio interview about our project. I suppose the opposition is preparing to discount whatever our report says.
When the weather is bad and the reefs barren and depleted by subsistence fishing, the whole exercise gets depressing and I, too, wonder why the hell I'm bothering. But on days like this, in places where the reef is still vibrantly alive, all of Sea calls to me and demands my greatest efforts. It reminds me I am not doing this work for the people of PNG or for the Government of PNG but for the planet.
I burst out laughing. Leo and Freddy look at me, perplexed.
"What?" Freddy leans over to hear me above the sound of the diesel engine.
"People think we have to be up to something to be doing this," I wave my hand at the magnificence of the sea, reef, and island. "What would they think if they knew why we are really doing it? What if I was to tell them I am a secret agent for Planet Earth, trying to find ways to stop man from destroying Sea?"
"They'd lock you up," shouts Freddy. Leo says nothing. I don't think he could hear.
Leo drops me off to pick up the dinghy and we all head for Nothing Atoll's eastern beach. We unload the fish and Leo shows us how to build a PNG fisherman's smoking rack from the branches of beach trees. He lights a fire and puts sea grape leaves onto it, causing a white, sweet smelling smoke to float up through the cut pieces of fish and into the azure sky. We have to keep the fire going for several hours so Freddy heads back to Moira to fix some lunch. When she comes back, Walter Cat is in the dinghy. I wade out to get the lunch.
"He wanted to come," she climbs out of the dinghy with Walter in her arms.
"Probably smelled the fish on my hands when I picked up the Avon. Well, there are no other animals on the island so I guess it's OK." I start back in towards the gleaming white beach. "But keep an eye on him."
We find a big driftwood log in the shade and settle down to eat lunch. Leo takes his sandwich and goes over to tend the fire. Walter has a wonderful time eating small pieces of raw fish from the morning catch. Freddy, Walter and I decide to walk across to the other side of the small island. In the sparse green-grey forest of the interior, Walter shows us how well he can vanish and re-appear. His coloration matches the grey stems of the plants, his black stripes making shadow stems, his yellow eyes often the only part of him we can make out. He follows us, walking slowly, deliberately, as if he does not like the feel of the sandy soil under his feet. It is the first time he has been ashore since he captured the Moira in the Solomons.
On the west side of Nothing Atoll the three of us stand at the top of a broad, glistening white beach gazing at an extensive submerged sand flat about a meter deep. A family of large rays glides over the sand; moving black spots in water as clear as glass. There is only the sound of the wind moving gently through the palm fronds.