Visit to Ulithi Atoll.
In June 2016, I joined a group of researchers, the One People One Reef team, steered by Nicole Crane from Cabrillo Community College, to the most remote and isolated place I have visited thus far, Ulithi Atoll.
Ulithi lies in a region dominated by atolls, the islands of Micronesia. But what is an atoll? An atoll is a sunken crater, something that Darwin explained in his unique ability to make groundbreaking discoveries by observing what many others had seen during centuries. For me it is also one of the most gorgeous sights one can get from an airplane, one that fills you with gratitude for being a coral reef researcher. For the people from Ulithi, the atoll is the beginning and the end, the boundaries of a life and an identity that is tightly linked to the ocean. The ocean gives it all and the ocean takes it as well. In such a place caring for the ocean means caring for oneself, for your family, your community, present, past and future.
San Francisco-Honolulu-Guam-Yap-Ulithi. As we advance in our journey the airports get smaller and the air warmer and moister. The last leg is the most exciting, we fly from Yap to Ulithi in a 8-seater chartered by the Pacific Missionary Airlines. The 30 minutes flight is amazing, the plane is not too shaky and we get a privileged view of the atoll from the air. Eight islands, quite far apart from each other, surround the lagoon, and outside the lagoon the endless blue horizon fuses with the endless blue sky. Most of the atoll surface is water, and the tiny islands do not raise more than one meter above sea level. We land smoothly. The airport, which doubles as post office, is just a small building and an airstrip with people seating at either side. We were expected; this is the eight time that our team visits Ulithi, although the first time for me. We get a very warm welcome, but without much ceremony. I am introduced to the elder ladies from the community. I quickly become aware of the frugal lifestyle of the people of Ulithi.
How to describe Ulithi? In Falalop, the largest island and the only one with an airport, there are coconut trees, dirt paths, huts and beaches. Coconut trees are good news, last year, only a the naked stalks were standing after the visit of destructive typhoon Maysak… This year is different; the disaster relief fund funding has just arrived and everybody seems busy with the construction. Due to the Compact of Free Association, the United States of America have the obligation of allocating federal assistance for rebuilding. Let’s not get into politics, but the whole operation seems a bit of a non-sense. It probably makes a lot of sense in the office of a bureaucrat in Washington that has never been to Ulithi, but once you are here… The new concrete houses are ovens under the sun of Ulithi, unlike the traditional huts made with coconut tree branches. The construction workers have to wear harnesses in a place where nothing lifts above five feet. A group is laughing, they just opened a container in which a shiny motorbike arrived. No trace of the keys. That’s alright, they would not have been able to afford the gas, anyway. In the same lot there is also a top of the line road bike. It’s beautiful, but there are no roads in Ulithi… Ulithians have a great sense of humor, though.