The Best of Melanesia and Micronesia

Werner Zehnder, October 2003

When asked to name my favorite part of the world, I invariably single out the islands of Melanesia and Micronesia. These archipelagos, spread across a vast span of the western tropical Pacific, captivated me in the early 1980s when I first encountered them during a voyage aboard the Explorer.

Assuming the duties of Zegrahm CEO meant that I had to sharply curtail my activities in the field in order to plan and oversee our programs from the Seattle office. Of course, as CEO I enjoy certain prerogatives; exercising one of these, I assigned myself the position of expedition leader on the March 2004 The Best of Melanesia and Micronesia departure.

Just what qualities draw me time and again to this region? The shortlist of reasons includes encounters with traditional island peoples; the fantastic craftwork and artifacts created by their artisans and forebears; the lush vegetation of frangipani and palm groves populated by exotic birdlife; protected anchorages and spectacular white-sand beaches dominated by a skyline of active volcanoes; and snorkeling and diving coral grottoes in the company of pelagic fish and iridescent giant clams.

From the first, the Melanesian and Micronesian islanders impressed me with both their hospitality and their adherence to a long-held way of life. Wherever we go, islanders will exuberantly welcome us and share with us their customs. In Papau New Guinea we'll see ritualistic dances that date back centuries, including a nighttime performance of the Baining tribe's fire dance; learn the cultural history of the Kula Ring, a traditional pattern of ceremonial trade relationships binding the islands; and walk among thatched-roof huts for glimpses of everyday island life.

The engines and electronics of the industrialized world have made few inroads in Micronesia. Mariners there still navigate their outrigger canoes by the sun and stars, not by GPS, and people still dress in lava-lavas and grass skirts. The chiefs of Ifalik Atoll are particularly dedicated to preserving their people's cultural integrity: they have banned motor-powered boats from the lagoon, and televisions are likewise forbidden in their village. Before our group will be allowed to land, our expedition team will need to go ashore and sit with the elders to request their permission, observing a time-honored ritual of petition and welcome.

Isolation maintains this state of affairs. These serene islands lie far from the tumult of contemporary life, untroubled by the strife of the world and the frenzied routine of day-to-day existence. Just as they are separated from the outside world, so are they separated from each other by barriers of distance and terrain. Micronesia covers an ocean area larger than the continental United States, but has an actual landmass smaller than that of Rhode Island, and Melanesia's almost-impenetrable reaches kept its human populations divided into small cultural and linguistic communities. Even today, a dearth of airstrips ensures the islands experience minimal contact. On last year's expedition, we landed at the island of Tingwon, the first Westerners to do so in roughly 20 years.

You may think that I would become overly familiar with the islands, having traveled among them so often, but I always make some new discovery. Last year we had the incredible fortune of finding a large group of megapodes, an endangered flightless bird. Such a sighting is incredibly rare -- I had only seen one megapode in all my travels, and on this one island, we were able to photograph 50 of the birds from ten feet!

The megapodes are only one example of a wildlife array that equals the cultural attractions in its variety and numbers. Tropicbirds, sooty terns, black sunbirds, white-bellied sea eagles all perch in the dense foliage or fly overhead. Beneath the waves, 600 species of coral and more than 1,400 species of fish, as well as bottle-nosed dolphins, await divers' and snorkelers' investigations, and a custom-designed glass-bottom boat, newly added by our expedition ship Clipper Odyssey, gives us yet another way to view the undersea world. On Palau we will have the opportunity to snorkel with stingless jellyfish, something that previous passengers have described as "embryonic."

To make sure next year's voyage has its own share of unique finds and experiences, we've assembled an expedition team of people who share my passion for this region, experts in its human and natural history. Whether you are searching for endemic birds with our ornithologist or accompanying our anthropologist into secluded villages, I know you will come to understand just why I prize these islands above any other adventure travel destination.

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