|Girls in centre picture are: (Blie bikini) Pam Moritz; (Pink bikini) Cynthia Smith. All others unknown except for Australia surfer 'Specks" top left|
|Guam waterfall and friends having a dip|
|Me doing something in front of this Japanese style temple|
|People on the streets of Honolulu put on a show.|
|Hawaiian paradise is very different to 'the real thing' where I'd just left - tourists enjoyed surfing aboard canoes.|
|This girl and her mother were very kind and showed me Oahu sights from their car|
|Someone I met briefly who followed surfing.|
|You would never see anything like this in Australia|
|I returned to Hawaii in 1970 to show my films from Kapingamarangi (and sharks on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia) and did surf photography at the northern beaches for an Australian magazine owned by the same publisher who did FATHOM magazine.|
|Waikiki Beach would not look like this today.|
The original Polynesian way of life has almost disappeared from Pacific islands. There are perhaps only a handful of islands left where coconuts and fish remain the back-bone industry. Western civilization has swept across the Pacific rapidly changing the old Polynesian customs. The only islands to escape the disaster of progress are those which are absolutely isolated from tourists and contact with the outside world. Kapingamarangi is probably one of the last real Polynesian cultures left.
The island is a tiny circle of life in a big ocean. Kapingamarangi or ‘Kapinga’ is a true coral atoll about 15 miles in diameter. Coral atolls are believed to be submerged extinct volcanoes with a living mantle of coral growing the last 100 feet to the surface. Above water there are almost two dozen tiny islands, which are virtually heaps of sand washed up by the tides. Thousands of years ago coconuts were washed ashore and began to grow in the clean white sand. If it were not for the surrounding reef of living coral, the low sandy islands would have been washed away by tropical storms. The coral reef protects the low islands from this threat.
Many centuries ago the Polynesians began sailing across the Pacific Ocean in dug-out canoes. Some traveled thousands of miles searching for islands which could support life. Kapingamarangi was one of the islands they found. It had abundant coconut trees and fish teemed in the shallow coral reefs. But tit was the precious coconut which the people required to sustain life. Their entire culture is based on coconuts.
The tree itself has a life cycle incredibly similar to a woman. A young tree takes 13-14 years growth before it begins to bear fruit. One new coconut grows approximately every 28 days and takes nine months to ripen. The tree continues to bear fruit until it is 40 to 45 years old. After this it continues to live for a further 20 years before dying.
The milk of a coconut is so pure and sterile that it was used (in extreme emergencies) as a substitute for blood plasma during the Pacific war.
The Polynesians make full use of every part of the coconut and the tree Just as the coconut tree’s leaves shelter the fruit from the tropical sun and keep it cool, so the leaves shelter the people. They weave the leaves into the roofs for their houses. The milk and coconut flesh is the main food and drink for the people. Coconut flesh is a rich source of protein almost equal to fresh meat. The fibrous coconut husks are woven into rope or are burned for fuel. The shell is used for kitchen bowls or beverage containers. Surplus stocks are also burned for fuel. But even Kapinga has begun to trade with the outside world. Coconut meat or copra (when it has been sun-dried) is sold to the trading ship which calls once every three months. In exchange the islanders purchase western products such as rice, kerosene, fish hooks, dripping, soap, etc. The people don’t have a wild spending spree when the ship arrives because the average wage gained through trading is only US $12 per month.
When the trading ship arrives it calls for only one day. Anyone wishing to reach the island this way would have to stay on the island for three months until the next ship arrived. As there are no hotels, shops or post office visitors would be forced upon the local community (who welcome people of any culture and invite them to stay indefinitely). Because of this customary friendliness, the island administrator makes it extremely difficult for visitors to obtain an entry permit.
Kapingamarangi Atoll (also called Greenwich Island) used to be governed by Germany until the end of the first world war. The Japanese then took control. During the second world war Japan established a small weather station on one of the nearby islands. They also had three amphibian aircraft there. The island didn’t see any vicious fighting as it was not a strategic location. The local people remember the Japanese as friendly people but preferred Americans (after the war) because they gave them more presents.
THE PACIFIC WAR
During the war American and Australian bombers attacked the Japanese base on several occasions. Wreckage of the amphibian aircraft still remains on the beach today. In the lagoon a few hundred yards offshore is the wreckage of an American B-17 bomber (or an RAAF Hudson bomber from Rabaul). This aircraft was making a bombing run on the Japanese when one of it’s own bombs was struck by ground anti-aircraft fire. The bomb exploded under the aircraft and blew it into five sections. The entire crew perished. People living on Kapinga witnessed the event, and local free divers recovered the bodies which were buried onshore. After the war they were exhumed by American authorities and returned to the US for re-burial. The only other military action seen during the war was when American destroyers shelled the islands from a great distance. The only damage was to a boat shed and several toilets (which are small houses built over the water for practical disposal reasons).
TRANSPORT WAS Hu-16 SEAPLANE
My transport to Kapingamarangi and Nukuoro was in a US Navy Hu-16 seaplane. We left the military base of Guam in northern Micronesia and flew almost 1,000 miles south, stopping at the old Japanese stronghold of Truk. After that it was on to Kapinga. My transport had been arranged by the US Department of the Interior who had commissioned three diver/scientists and myself to compile information on the ecological aspects of the submerged coral reef. My job was to photograph the expedition’s progress and assist with underwater data collecting. The scientists were to accurately record what we saw underwater. It was quite an experience for the crew of the seaplane. Landing in unknown waters of the lagoon proved hazardous. What could have been a very serious accident occurred when the pilot accidentally ran the aircraft over submerged coral reef. Great holes and tears in the hull prevented the aircraft from taking off and we were marooned on the island for an extra week until a replacement aircraft arrived from Midway Island. In the meantime the USAF sent a C-130 Hercules down to parachute supplies and repair facilities to help fix the badly damaged seaplane.
Of the 500 people living on Kapinga over half are young children. The old custom of infanticide was stopped by missionaries at the turn of the century, when the Christian religion was introduced. The missionaries also tried to persuade the young girls not to go bare-topped. It didn’t have any effect on the girls, who are still bare breasted (usually when no foreigners are present).
Our first few days on the island will always be remembered - the friendly smiling people each with the innocence of small children. Having arrived in the first aircraft they had seen for 25 years, we were treated like kings. In fact the island’s king vacated his house for us. The American government (through Westinghouse Ocean Research Laboratory) had supplied us with over one ton weight of brand new diving and camping equipment. The people had never seen items such as gas stoves and lanterns, scuba tanks, generators and camping equipment. Hundreds of friendly eyes watched in amazement as we unpacked our equipment. On the first night I decided to take a walk around the island. It was just at sunset when I began walking down the neat paths which separated one row of huts from the other. The people had spread an even layer of broken coral over the (inhabited part) of the island. Instead of walking on sand we walked on large finger length pieces of coral. Because we were so close to the equator (a mere 60 miles north in the Eastern Caroline Islands group) tropical rain storms were frequent. The porous coral sidewalks allowed the rain to seep through fast, eliminating puddles and wash-a ways. As I walked through the village almost every householder (it seemed) would invite me to share food. Mostly it was coconut or the potato-like taro. Breadfruit were in season. They looked like over-sized avocados but tasted like a mixture of soap and potato crisps (not a good description, more like hard French fries). People sat around small fires cooking their food and eating with their fingers. They slept on woven mats without (any need for) pillows or blankets. It is was a cool night they would place mats on the outside of the huts to deflect wind. On a hot night no mats were used, and as there is always a sea breeze this soon cools things off. The temperature never fell below 75F/21C degrees at night are rarely exceeded 90F/32C by day. Mosquitoes only fed by day – at night there was no problem with them.Always behind me when I walked around the island would be 20 to 30 inquisitive children quietly followed always stopping when I stopped and occasionally laughing when I found the coral sidewalk a little too hard on my bare feet.
Underwater the scenery was magnificent. The atoll had a living mantle of coral fore the first 100 deep (of depth) underwater. The water was incredibly clear and free of(coastal river) pollutants to the extent that one could see 200 feet underwater in any direction (compared with the average 75 feet in Australian tropical offshore waters). The sides of the atoll shelved steeply away and disappeared into a deep blue haze. From our maps we knew the atoll reached the ocean floor 900 feet below the surface. Without compressed air scuba equipment we were restricted to 200 feet (although none of us went below about 140 feet).
It was interesting to note that few fish remained in the shallows. What still lived there were very small. This was a direct result of the people fishing one small area for centuries. The fish had simply not multiplied to keep up with the islands rising population. The natives were mostly expert divers who wore small goggles and carried spear guns over 12 feet in length. The divers didn’t use swim fins or any breathing aids, yet they could dive 60 feet and hold their breath for well over a minute in order to spear a fish so tiny it was not visible from the surface. Although the spear guns were huge they fired a very thin spear, much like a piece of wire. Beyond 75 feet, out of range of the divers, we found most of the larger fish living in safety. The fish had educated themselves and at this depth were unafraid of any diver. Giant fans of soft coral (gorgonians) grew in the depths, their rich red colors hidden until they were brought to the surface. Close to the surface we watched the divers collect small clams. These were opened underwater and the meat threaded onto a piece of coconut string.
THE FUTURE OF THE ISLAND
Most of the young men of the island leave when they are about 16 and move to one of the larger ‘district center’ such as Ponape (now Pohnepei), about 300 miles away. Here the island is much larger and there is a community of Kapinga people numbering many hundreds. The young men work (mostly for outside financed developments), earn small wages and live in corrugated iron buildings. Few ever return to see their families (this may not be so in 2010) At Ponape they work to earn wages to buy soap and other products to wash cotton clothing introduced to them. Alcohol can be purchased here also (while it is forbidden by the leaders of Kapinga). Eventually more and more western people will visit Kapinga . With every visitor the islands life changes slightly. When we arrived the people had already been introduced to Polaroid cameras and tape recorders and transistor radios, although they had never seen an outboard motor, petrol driven generator or any other engine, scuba diving gear, gas lanterns and stoves. Even our visit would have helped to change the innocent charm of these friendly peace loving People of the Sea.
by John H Harding © 1970, 2010. 2012