Faces of Melanesia

2013 Faces of Melanesia Field Report

Rich Pagen|May 10, 2013|Field Report

Monday, March 25, 2013 - En Route / Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea: We all converged on the city of Port Moresby from distant reaches of the planet for the same reason: to embark on an expedition to experience the culture, wildlife, and landscapes of Melanesia. We gathered at the Airways Hotel, where we met our fellow adventurers at the welcome cocktail party, followed by dinner.

Tuesday, March 26 - Port Moresby / Embark Clipper Odyssey: This morning we explored the city of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s capital and largest city. We began with a stop at the Port Moresby Nature Park, where we were given a tour by the park’s general manager. We were impressed by the work going on there, a good bit of it funded by a zoo in the Seattle area. We saw crowned pigeons, all three species of cassowaries, and tree kangaroos, but watching the hornbills hop along on the ground was a crowd favorite.

We stopped at a large open-air shop called PNG Arts, where we could browse among masks, carved wooden bowls, and an assortment of jewelry, as well as the National Museum, where there was an incredible exhibit of folk art and artifacts. We also learned a great deal about the geography, wildlife, and history of Papua New Guinea, before stopping at the Parliament House.

Late in the afternoon, we headed to the harbor to embark the Clipper Odyssey. We got ourselves mostly settled in on board, before gathering for a Safety Briefing. Expedition Leader Mike Moore introduced us to the staff, and Cruise Director Lynne Greig gave us an overview of the ship. Following a wonderful dinner, we were ready for a good night’s sleep aboard our floating home.

Wednesday March 27 - Bonarua: We awoke to the mountainous scenery of eastern Papua New Guinea, and an introduction to Zodiacs, the transport of choice on a trip like this. This was followed by a snorkel briefing presented by Jarda Versloot, before we ventured up to the pool deck to make sure we were all well-stocked with masks, snorkels, and fins. The scuba divers got together for a briefing with Mike Murphy and Robin West.

Shirley Campbell gave the first lecture of the trip, entitled, The Art of Kula, during which she introduced us to a unique ceremonial exchange system conducted in the Milne Bay Province. The Kula ring spans 18 island communities and participants travel, at times, hundreds of miles by canoe in order to exchange Kula valuables, which are passed around this ring of trade.

After an early lunch, we explored the reefs of Bonarua. We sped along the steep forest-covered coast by Zodiac and arrived at a reef that was perfect for our first snorkel of the trip. Leather corals were intermingled with various types of hard corals, and feather stars were perched on high points. We saw orange sponges, brown starfish, and sea cucumbers, while the divers witnessed red-banded cleaner shrimp, soldierfish, and a crown-of-thorns sea star.

With rain pouring down, many of us went ashore at a small village where we were welcomed by a group of young girls putting on a dance performance. We were able to ride in a dugout canoe and watch a cooking demonstration—the locals prepared breadfruit, manioc, and sweet potato which we were able to sample. It was a wonderful experience, and we left awestruck at how friendly the people of this small community were.

After drying out from our afternoon, we gathered for Captain Luksa Plecas’ welcome cocktail party. We chatted about the day over champagne, and the captain introduced us to some of his senior officers. It was a great party, and we very much looked forward to our arrival tomorrow in the D'Entrecasteaux Islands.

Thursday, March 28 - Fergusson and Dobu Islands, D'Entrecasteaux Islands: We arrived on Fergusson Island at sunrise, where some of us opted for a morning bird walk along the shoreline. Rain came and went, but we got a good look at pied imperial pigeons out in the open, as well as flocks of singing starlings. The locals were very welcoming and some even accompanied us on the walk, filling us in on what life here is like.

Others enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, before going ashore for a walk inland to the hot springs and fumaroles. Eclectus parrots squawked as they flew overhead, and we walked through open woodland before arriving at the steam and sulfur smell of the springs. Some fumaroles gurgled while others shot up boiling hot water out of the ground. On the hike back down, some of us encountered a group of birds called curl-crested manucodes, a member of the bird of paradise family. At the landing, the locals were selling baskets woven from palm fronds, as well as produce such as large and tasty cucumbers.

After lunch on board, we motored off to a sloping coral reef, which some of us explored by glass-bottom boat, and others by mask and snorkel. We found many different shapes and colors of corals with fish, such as Moorish idols, darting in and out of the varied terrain. The divers saw superb coral growth, both soft and hard, and magnificent fish life—massive schools of yellowtail, blue-striped, and yellow-striped fusiliers numbering in the thousands.

We then landed on the island of Dobu, where the locals greeted us with a dance performance and presented us with star fruit and melon. Dobu is involved in the Kula trade circle and the villagers showed us some of their items, giving us a real appreciation for this unique system of relationships and status. We wandered the town, had a look in some of the school classrooms, and peeked into the church before waving farewell to our hosts and heading back to the Clipper Odyssey.

Friday, March 29 - Kitava and Narutu Islands, Trobriand Islands: We were greeted on Kitava Island with flower necklaces and literally hundreds of locals who had come down to the beach to meet us. We made our way to a shaded area behind the beach where we watched a dance performance put on by the children, before walking inland past gardens of manioc and raised wooden houses with clothes out on lines to dry under the tropical sun. Back at the landing, we browsed the beautiful wooden bowls, drums and other carvings for sale.

After lunch, we headed to nearby Narutu Island where we had the chance to land on a gorgeous sandy beach, or explore the crystal-clear water offshore. Some of us even swam between the beach and the offshore snorkel platforms, scanning the sand bottom for stingrays and gobies sitting outside their burrows. Those on the glass-bottom boat admired yellow lace corals and schools of glorious blue damselfish called demoiselles. The snorkelers found spaghetti worms feeding with their long white appendages reaching out across the bottom in search of organic material to eat. The divers made two dives, including one on a gentle sloping reef with huge coral bommies interspersed with white sand. A few of the bommies were completely covered with juvenile fish, moving like a massive cloud.

Saturday, March 30 - Bodaluna, Laughlan Islands: Our destination for the morning was a tiny sand island fringed by a rocky reef. Some of us went ashore to relax beneath an umbrella, or float in the silky azure waters. Others headed out to the snorkel platforms to explore the canyon-like terrain of rock pinnacles and the maze of channels. The visibility was incredible, and the underwater topography was like nothing we had yet experienced on this trip.

The divers had their own superlative experience on the reef, with an incredible topography of gullies, caves, and massive coral pinnacles. White-tip reef sharks and a group of huge bumphead parrotfish were highlights.

We dried off before boarding Zodiacs for the ride to Bodaluna Island. We walked to a clearing where we watched a dance performance and met some of the locals. As we walked through the village among stilted palm-thatch buildings, we admired rolled-up pandanas leaves drying on the ground in the sun, soon to be used to make storage baskets.

Back on the ship, we cooled off with a dip in the pool, and lingered outside on deck over lunch admiring the beautiful scenery. In mid-afternoon, we met Paul Ehrlich for his lecture, War in the Pacific with Special Emphasis on the Solomons, through which he provided an excellent overview of World War II in relation to the area we are now traveling through. Rich Pagen followed with his talk, Drama Like Your Favorite Soap Opera: Competition, Adaptation and Deception on the Reef. He explored strategies that various reef creatures employ to make a living.

After the lectures, some of us headed up on deck to watch the flying fish flush in front of the ship, often pursued by red-footed boobies hoping to snatch one out of midair.

Sunday, March 31 - Ghizo and Njari Islands, Solomon Islands: Some of us rose early to enjoy a full-day birding excursion in search of Solomon Islands’ specialties. We joined Peter Harrison and some local guides for the ride out to volcanic Kolombangara Island, and fairly quickly had superb views of Blyth’s hornbill and a pair of ospreys mobbing a Solomon’s fish eagle, one of the rarest eagles on the planet!

The rest of us came ashore at a small dock in the city of Ghizo, the capital city of this western province of the Solomon Islands. We were greeted by a very energetic welcome performance, and proceeded to watch a short dance show upstairs in an open-air restaurant. We wandered the city streets, greeting the locals, many of whom were dressed up in their Easter Sunday best. Some of us stopped for the Easter church service, which was very lively and included lots of singing. Others dropped into one of the shops along the main road to purchase some local handicrafts.

Back on the Clipper Odyssey, we ate a hearty lunch while the ship repositioned so we could explore the reef around a small island called Njari. On the glass-bottom boat, we got excellent looks at a few Oriental sweetlips, as well as a huge batfish. The snorkelers admired orange-finned anemonefish and schools of blue-and-yellow fusiliers. The divers dropped in on a magnificent wreck called Tao Maru, a Japanese passenger cargo vessel that was sunk by US dive bombers in 1943. In one of the compartments, we came across an armored tank, a motorcycle, and plenty of sake bottles. Their second dive brought them to observe snappers, barracudas, and sharks.

Once back on board, we sailed south past Kennedy Island, remembered as the site where Lt. John F. Kennedy aided his injured crew after his boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer in World War II. There was a barbeqeue on the pool deck while Paul gave us historical background on the incident over the PA system.

Monday, April 1 - Honiara, Guadalcanal: Over breakfast, we pulled up alongside the dock in Honiara. The birders proceeded up to Mount Austin on a steep and well-watered dirt track; after the staff jumped out and assisted the tire-spinning vans through a rough spot, everyone got out and walked further into the mountains, where we saw soaring Solomon sea eagles, cardinal lories feeding in the treetops, and a pair of Pacific bazas perched along the road side.

Meanwhile, the divers did a shore entry dive on the wreck of the Hirokawa Maru, with its huge gorgonian sea fans, large groupers, and parrotfish.

The rest of us toured Guadalcanal focusing on its role in World War II, including an American Memorial that overlooked Iron Bottom Sound and Henderson Field, the main supply center in the region. We stopped at Edson Ridge, where the US Marines fought the Japanese in a battle that is often described as shifting the momentum in the war, as well as a cultural museum, which focused on the Solomon Islands’ culture and prehistory.

We returned to the ship and sailed towards Florida Island. After lunch, Rich helped us with our fish identification questions, and we gathered on the pool deck and sailed across Iron Bottom Sound, named by Allied sailors for the dozens of ships and planes that sank there during the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942-43. After a speech by Paul, fellow passenger Bob Benner dropped a memorial wreath overboard in honor of all those who lost their lives here.

Later in the afternoon, we arrived at a very scenic passage and ducked into a small bay where the wreck of the World Discoverer lay tilted on its side in the shallows. It was surreal to see the weathered steel towering out of the sea next to palm trees and thatched huts.

At our nightly recap, Shirley spoke about the migration of people into Melanesia, and Paul summarized the war history on the island of Guadalcanal. Bob Benner shared with us his experiences as a veteran of World War II in the area. After dinner, we gathered in the Main Lounge for a showing of the movie Guadalcanal Diary, introduced by fellow passenger Richie Meyer.

Tuesday, April 2 - Santa Ana Island: We carefully maneuvered through a narrow break in Santa Ana’s fringing reef and anchored in a small bay. As our Zodiacs were just about to land on the white sand beach at the village, a group of men in grass skirts with spears in hand ran out to greet us. We were welcomed ashore by the village chiefs, and made our way through the village to watch an impressive dance performance. The musicians played flute-like instruments, as well as melodic percussion using old flip-flops as mallets on the tops of bamboo posts. At one point, a group of men completely covered in brown mud came out of the bushes and joined the other dancers, the whites of their eyes glowing bright in contrast to the dark mud.

Following the performance, we walked among the buildings of the village, introducing ourselves to our hosts for the morning. Young children came out to greet us, some of them with the most beautiful blonde highlights to their otherwise brown hair. The birdwatchers came across a group of Melanesian megapodes tending their buried eggs within their communal compost mound.

Some of us hiked across the island to another village, where the locals cut coconuts open for us, while another group opted to dive this morning, and descended a craggy reef slope in superb visibility, with schools of rainbow runners and blue-striped grunts in attendance.

Over lunch, the ship sailed into deeper water that was glowing a magnificent blue, and occasional flying fish took to the air as the ship headed east. We met Shirley for her lecture, The Tikopia, during which she gave us some background on the people we would be visiting in the coming days. Afterwards we enjoyed an Ice Cream Social before joining Paul Ehrlich for his talk, Cultural Evolution with Special Emphasis on the Solomons. Using evidence such as personality differences in identical twins and cross-cultural adoption, Paul explained how culture has a huge effect on us.

Wednesday, April 3 - Utupua Island: During the early morning hours, the Clipper Odyssey arrived at the mouth of Basilisk Harbor inside the fringing reef around the island of Utupua. With the sun already heating up the day, we boarded Zodiacs for a cruise around the shallow bay. Huge fruit bats occasionally passed overhead as we cut into narrow channels, and arching prop roots lined the waterline, where burrows of fiddler crabs could be seen.

After the Zodiac cruise we went ashore to visit the Nembao Village, where we reciprocated the performance the villagers put on with our own song and dance routine. We wandered through the village, stopping in the church with its sand floor and the school with it multiplication tables up on the blackboard. We chatted with the locals, who invited us over to learn about their lives and, in some cases, even invited us into their homes.

After lunch, it was to be an afternoon focused on the water. Some of us boarded the glass-bottom boat or headed out to the snorkel site, where we watched a variety of species of butterflyfish foraging around a drop off on the reef. Giant clams, ranging from tan to blue to green, had found convenient spots in the rocky reef to thrive. We saw orange sponges, massive sea anemones, and clownfish ducking in and out of the stinging tentacles. Those of us diving made two dives along a steep sloping wall with massive gullies and caves, where we spotted a number of reef sharks, sea turtles, and four huge Napolean wrasses.

We gathered on deck for a cocktail party, with a glorious sunset as our backdrop. Following a relaxing dinner, fellow passenger Richie Meyer introduced the movie The Thin Red Line, which we watched in the Main Lounge.

Thursday, April 4 - Tikopia, Santa Cruz Islands: As the Clipper Odyssey approached the remote island of Tikopia, pairs of fairy terns flew together, glistening white in the morning sun. The lush, steep terrain of the island was incredible, and we soon found ourselves approaching by Zodiac, where dozens of young children were eagerly on the ready to catch and hold us as we disembarked. Once ashore, we watched a very energetic dance performance, with both men and women together, bodies glistening with yellow turmeric. Afterwards, we wandered the sandy trails that bisected the flat, forested plain past thatch houses whose slanting roofs stretched nearly to the ground. Small, crawl-space-like doors allowed access to the inside and a few of us were invited in to have a look.

Some of us went for a long hike to a large freshwater lake, passing well-tended gardens and spectacular scenery on the way. White-tailed tropicbirds flew along the cliff face, while migrant ruddy turnstones gathered on the beach.

We returned to the ship for lunch, and many of us spent the afternoon exploring Tikopia’s offshore reef. The snorkel and glass-bottom boat site was unique in that it was a rise offshore with massive towering rock outcroppings cut by steep gullies. Mobs of plankton-eating damselfish hovered above the reef, ready to dart into the protection of arms of coral should the need arise. Those of us diving explored fingers of coral extending out into beautiful white sand flats.

Back on the ship, we joined Paul for his talk, Can a Collapse of Civilization be Avoided? Paul brought attention to the challenges ahead of us regarding issues such as human population size, climate change, and natural resource use.

Friday, April 5 - Luganville, Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu: Petrels banked in front of us as we made our way towards the island of Espiritu Santo. We embarked on a number of different options to introduce ourselves to the nation of Vanuatu. Those of us birding stopped in a patch of forest along a river, as well as a coconut plantation to get into some mature rainforest. Collared kingfishers perched on low branches in clearings in the forest, and we even got an excellent scope view of the endemic Vanuatu megapode. Unwinding with a beer and a sea breeze at a remote beach bar for lunch was a highlight.

Some of us went to a cultural village run by people from nearby Banks Island. There, we watched a women’s water percussion performance, and had the opportunity to taste kava. We also saw a demonstration on earth-oven cooking and fire-starting.

Those of us on the history tour visited runways and staging areas used by American forces during World War II. It was amazing to realize that over 100,000 Allied forces were stationed here at that time. We also visited Million Dollar Point, where the American military junked everything from jeeps, tanks, and cannons into the sea after the war was over.

The divers also focused on history today, starting with a dive on the wreck of the USS President Coolidge. The wreck was cloaked in schools of fusiliers, as well as giant trevallies keeping an eye out for their next meal. The divers and snorkelers both had the chance to explore the trucks, forklifts and other military detritus at Million Dollar Point after lunch.

Some of us opted for a picture-perfect visit to Champagne Beach, where we lounged on the sand and floated in the shallows, taking in the beautiful scene.

As the ship sailed out from Luganville, flocks of terns hunted over schools of tuna, and we gathered on the bridge wings to watch the show. After recap, we sat out on the pool deck for a barbeqeue dinner under the stars.

Saturday, April 6 - Ambrym Island / Pentecost Island: During the early morning hours, the Clipper Odyssey made her way towards Ambrym Island, its two active volcanoes glowing an eerie orange in the darkness. After breakfast, we landed on a black sand beach, where an excellent band playing guitars and a one-string bass greeted us. We enjoyed a welcome ceremony before walking up a short trail to watch the Rom dance ceremony. Men with elaborate masks and costumes of dried vegetation rocked back and forth, while the village elders chanted and played percussion instruments. It was a mesmerizing performance, and those of us sitting on the ground could even feel the stomps from the men’s feet as they passed.

Afterwards, we wandered past several vendors selling beautiful wood carvings, and made our way along a coastal track towards the village itself. Groups of children adopted us and led us around, and some of us met one of the local teachers and had a visit to the school. The divers among us saw thousands of blue-green chromis swarming over volcanic rock outcroppings, while angelfish darted in and out of the crevices.

The ship repositioned over lunch, and soon we found ourselves ashore at Pentecost Island at Londot Village. This island is the birthplace of the nanggol tradition, a land diving ceremony to celebrate the arrival of the first yam crop. We watched in awe as scantily-clad men dove off a rickety tower of saplings and branches towards the ground below. Careful adjustments were made both to each vine and to each individual platform, which needs to break to soften the fall. The image of spiraling bodies silhouetted against the blue sky will remain etched in our memories forever.

In the evening, we donned our finest attire to join our captain at the farewell cocktail party. We mingled over champagne and stories of our time in Melanesia, before heading downstairs for a superb dinner. While feasting on chocolate for dessert, we watched a wonderful retrospective slideshow of our trip, compiled by Jarda. The photos were amazing, and our experiences on this trip seemed both years ago and yesterday at the same time.

Sunday, April 7 - Port Vila / Disembark: We woke up alongside in the harbor city of Port Vila, our final stop on this trip around Melanesia. Our first stop of the day was a fascinating cultural museum, where a man played some local instruments as we browsed artifacts from all over the Vanuatu archipelago.

We then visited a cultural village, surrounded by dense rain forest. Upon arrival, we were greeted by warriors with spears and arrows, who later turned out to be our guides. They showed us how the local people preserve food in pits in the ground, as well as how they use traps to catch animals for food. We watched a man effortlessly scale a palm tree to get to the coconuts above, and we went inside the huge hollowed out center of a strangler fig. The morning was rounded out by a live musical performance and a few shopping opportunities.

From there we went to lunch at a restaurant overlooking the water. We mingled around the room to say good-bye to our travel companions for the past two weeks, before transferring to the airport for our flights home. We have reached the end of our exploration of Melanesia. The final days of this expedition have been dominated by reflection on all we have seen and experienced, and celebration of the friends, both new and old, with whom we have shared this journey.

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