Ambrym Island

On Location: The Black Magic of Ambrym

Zegrahm Contributor|February 12, 2010|Blog Post

On our New Zealand to New Guinea expedition, our stop at Ambrym Island prepares the stage for our cultural and discovery experiences to follow in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. Located in the Vanuatu Island group in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, Ambrym Island is best known as a volcanic hotbed of activity and is sometimes called the “black island” after the expansive ash plain covering the interior. Two active volcanoes, Mt. Marum and Mt. Benbow, have had eruptions serious enough to warrant the evacuation of several hundred people. Indeed it is calculated that should Benbow erupt in the coming years the entire island will be wiped out and the formation of a number of small islands is a likely outcome.

However, today Ambrym was quiet and our visit was a real island experience. It is a place of culture, spirituality, and adventure with warm and welcoming people. Ambrym is considered Vanuatu’s sorcery center, famous for its black magic and some of the best wood carvings in the Pacific. The men of a clan still gather nightly at their local nakamal to drink kava and communicate with the spirits of their ancestors, whose bones typically are buried nearby.

We were fortunate to be witness to a traditional Rom Dancing Ceremony. Some of the dancers’ costumes consisted of a tall, conical, brightly painted banana-fiber mask with a face resembling a baboon and a thick cloak of banana leaves which conceals the wearer’s body. The dance represents spirits which many islanders still believe in and are terrified in. Therefore, each costume is burned after the dance in case any of the spirits’ power remains.

Wildlife here is home to some fascinating wildlife including the endemic Vanuatu megapode, dugongs, and turtles. The Vanuatu megapode is considered as vulnerable, according to the IUCN red list category, because it is thought to have a small population that is likely to decline. Megapodes use external heat sources to incubate the eggs. Here the female deposits the egg clutch in cinder ash and then abandons the eggs. Upon hatching the chicks are completely independent and are capable of not only feeding themselves but to fly.

The people, their dancing, and culture were certainly what we were here for. However, today was also an exciting day, not just because of the megapode sighting, but because we managed to see and photograph the recently described Vanuatu petrel. Known only from three museum specimens the bird has never been photographed in the wild. This brings our number of previously-thought extinct bird species that we have seen on this voyage to three—New Zealand storm petrel, Beck’s petrel, and Vanuatu petrel, all of which were well-photographed and documented.

Today was a page in expedition cruising – and ornithological history – with Zegrahm Expeditions’ voyage onboard the Clipper Odyssey!

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