As Zegrahm Expeditions celebrates 30 years of adventure travel, I look back on the magic of these three decades and reflect on one of the most memorable experiences of my lifetime. It unfolded at Ifalik Atoll, Yap State, Micronesia.
It was a much anticipated day of expeditionary travel, the World Discoverer dropped anchor as the sun was rising. A zodiac was ready to take the scouting party ashore and I had the honor of driving. The night before, the anticipation of sharing with our guests the peaceful nature of the people and the pristine marine habitat kept me awake all night. Having traveled the world, Ifalik had become my favorite atoll. It was early on in the days of Zegrahm Expeditions, and a group from Stanford University Alumni was aboard with us. We had worked together with them for many years. It was a special treat to have the Director of the Stanford travel program aboard, Peter Voll.
Life on Ifalik Atoll is seemingly idyllic. I always enjoy visiting with the men, sometimes sharing coconut wine, called tuba. The people are dark-skinned, typical of Micronesians. Not sure how a county boy from Pennsylvania ended up with the same skin tone, but I always feel very much at home amidst this wonderful society.
Werner Zehnder, Cofounder of Zegrahm Expeditions was the expedition leader. It was standard practice to survey the landing site and determine if the islanders had been advised of our visit. When we entered the lagoon, it was unusual to find a coconut fiber net stretched across the mouth of the lagoon. Ifalik atoll is comprised of three small islets, locally called motus. Only one of which is inhabited, with a total population of fewer than 400 people.
We were greeted at the white sand beach, adorned with coconut palms. The reception was overwhelming, the entire village was there to greet us. The last time a ship had visited the atoll was two years prior, and I had been aboard. I recognized some of the faces, and it was heartwarming to see that many of them recognized me. “Jack, welcome back” … it was John Rapu, one of only two school teachers on the atoll. As John guided us to the men’s house, he reminded me of our walk around the motu during my last visit.
Coconut palms play a key role in the life of islanders living on atolls across the tropics of the Indo Pacific. Boys learn to scale the coconut trees at an early age and they continue to do so throughout life. The coconuts provide food, nutritious drink, as well as fiber for rope and nets. When the coconut water is fermented it becomes a popular alcoholic drink called tuba.
I had forgotten the conversation we had about climate change and sea-level rise. He had shown me the roots of palm trees at the water's edge that he had climbed as a child. He had expressed concern that the roots had recently been exposed by wave action. “The sea is rising, isn’t it?” He had asked me about climate change and wanted to know my opinion, as a marine biologist. Later in the morning, we went back to see those coconut palms, one of which had toppled into the water; the other was doomed. John recalled my gloomy forecast years before and had shared my concerns with the elders. The highest point of land on the atoll is only ten feet above mean high water.
Back to the story: When Werner, Peter, and I arrived at the beach, the three of us were guided to the men’s house. A giant wooden penis hangs down from the eve of the thatched-roof building, harboring a large outrigger canoe. In those days, it was acceptable to present a gift of tobacco as a celebration of our arrival… a token of friendship. I even smoked a cigarette which is not my nature, but it seemed a friendly gesture of camaraderie. The men were dressed in sarongs and we sat beneath the giant wooden penis. As we spoke with the elders, Werner inquired about the details of our visit. The Islanders were aware of our visit through the radio system.
There is an indescribable innocence among these island people. The population in the year 2000 was less than 600 individuals.
It was apparent that the chief and all the elders were having some difficulties with their speech as if they all had a cold. It was hard to understand what they were
saying, even though they were speaking in English. Werner asked, “why is it that you all sound like you have a throat problem or a cold?” The chief answered, “we were fishing yesterday.” So of course, Werner, Peter, and I wondered, what does fishing have to do with a sore throat? The answer: “When we fish we chant, and we caught a lot of tuna yesterday.”
Werner inquired if the tuna were still around. The Chief responded, “yes, that's why we put the coconut net across the mouth of the lagoon so they cannot escape and we will have a source of food for many weeks.” There were apparently several hundred yellowfin tuna still inside the lagoon. The Chief went on to explain “if you look across the lagoon you'll see a small sandbar and that's where the school is now, near that sandbar”. Werner asked if we could take our guests out fishing with them in the canoes. The answer was: “why would we go fishing, we already have enough salt dried tuna for many weeks.” To which Werner responded, “it would just be great for our travelers to see how you catch the tuna.”
These amazing outrigger canoes can carry up to a dozen men. They are extremely seaworthy and used to sail back and forth to other atolls hundreds of miles distant. The canoes are made completely of materials from the atoll, Wooden pegs and coconut fiber rope holds everything together. There are no nails or screws used in the construction. On this day, the canoes were launched for us to sail a short distance across the lagoon to catch yellowfin tuna.
And so it was that the Chief reluctantly agreed. “When you bring your guests ashore, we will have a welcome ceremony and then we go fishing." What followed was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. We sailed across the calm, crystal clear waters of the lagoon, on four massive outrigger canoes, a distance of about a kilometer.
As we arrived at the sandbar on the opposite side of the atoll, the men were setting up a coconut fiber net. They entrapped the tuna, maybe 100 of them. As the net drew tighter against the sandbar, the tuna frenzied. In those days, I was using an underwater film camera called a Nikonis 3. I asked the Chief if it would be ok to get inside the net. He looked at me as if I was crazy, smiled, and indicated that I could. The tuna ranged in size from about ten to forty pounds. As the net was drawn tighter the fish became more densely packed and frenzied. The tuna were banging into my lower torso so I kneeled down on the sand and I got some photos. Before long the tuna were too tightly packed for me to stay inside the net and I quickly retreated.
It became clear why the men had lost their voices; the chanting was powerfully invigorating, loud, and mesmerizing. As the moments passed, these wonderful Micronesian men with huge bodies and powerful arms pulled tuna from the net that weighed 30 to 40 pounds. One at a time, in an ageless ritual, a fisherman would grab a tuna by the tail, and hold it up in the air. As the tuna vibrated, the power was such that a 250-pound man shook with the energy. Watching this brought mixed emotions because I felt empathy for the fish, but the chanting and the energy was overwhelming. More than 50 travelers were observing from the outrigger canoes. For all of us, it was a unique, enthralling moment.
The young men prepare an outrigger to take our guests across the lagoon to catch yellowfin tuna.
The setting was surreal, the first man to pull a tuna out of the net had grabbed it by the base of the tail, known to ichthyologists as the caudal peduncle. The fish was yanked from the water and in his blue sarong, the fisherman ripped out the heart of the tuna and ate it. The chanting of the men surrounding the net was analogous to the roar in a sports arena when a goal is scored. I joined in with the chanting as I looked on in wonder.
Only three or four of the fish were harvested, all the others would be released. But before the net was opened to free the tuna, the Chief looked at me, gesticulated with a pointed finger, and said “your turn.” I stepped into the net once again and attempted to mimic what I had seen the other men do. I grabbed the smallest tuna I could find and yanked it from the water. The quiver of the fish was more powerful than expected, my entire body shook. I quickly ripped into the visceral cavity and pulled out the heart and swallowed it whole. The chanting was so loud and overwhelming, I did not even notice if there was any taste. I helped open the net and we all watched as the school of tuna swam free. We had been gifted with the experience of a lifetime. The sails were hoisted, there was no more chanting, we were all speechless. The sound of the wind in the sails, the idyllic setting, the remembrance of what we had just experienced was beyond words.
John Rapu and I became friends during my first visit to Ifalik in the 1980s. At that time he was one of only two school teachers on the atoll. We are seen here on one visit, holding a photo taken on a previous visit. Like everyone else on the island, his native tongue is Yapeese, but we managed to communicate and we have remained friends for many years, even though I have visited him only six times in the past two decades.
Decades have passed, and John Rapu recently visited his daughter in the United States. He and his wife arrived just prior to the onset of the global pandemic. Covid had left
them stranded. I spoke to John by phone several months ago, but his native language is Yapese, so our dialogue was limited. I am not sure if he has been able to return to Ifalik or not.