Friday, October 25, 2013

Fiji 2013 | Following my ancestors ways

For the past several years, the New England Aquarium has participated in a joint expedition to Fiji, along with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and other conservation-minded groups and individuals. The last expedition took place in Spring 2012

Today's post about the joint aquarium Fiji expedition comes from the Aquarium supporter NAI'A Captain Johnathan Smith.

Three years away from the helm of NAI’A took me on a 20,000 nautical mile journey; I’m now back onboard again with familiar faces, familiar waters and familiar daily activities like the great Fiji diving that make my life feel more normal, and maybe more sensible.

Captain Johnathan Smith aboard the Uto Ni Yalo, Fiji’s drua in the Pacific Voyagers Project
Photos: Pacific Voyagers Project

I’m on watch, so I stroll through the NAI’A salon on my way to the galley to fetch another cup of coffee. My ears begin to hear the conversations where everyone seems to be intently debating the colors and shapes of fishes and invertebrate animals just seen on the dive. I move more quickly and try not to listen to the Latin names they use, because I consider myself a normal diver. We just know it as a blue fish or orange slug, maybe a grouper, a wrasse, a trevally or a crown jellyfish—no need to argue about its Latin names. I chuckle to myself because it’s always that way when the New England Aquarium and Monterey Bay Aquarium team led by the ‘Steves’ (Webster and Bailey) are aboard and diving the Lomaiviti waters and Vatu-I-Ra passage in Fiji.

I last saw Doc Webster when I passed through Monterey in 2011. He gave me and the rest of the Pacific Voyaging crew a personal tour of the Monterey Bay Aquarium; it was incredible. We all loved what we saw; it was the first time that any of us had been to a big public aquarium like that, and for that matter, most of my crew, before this voyage, had never been outside Fiji! Our landing in Monterey was one of many stops on the voyage of discovery aboard the drua Uto Ni Yalo. Our Fijian double hulled canoe was part of the Pacific Voyagers Foundation flotilla of seven, it being the multiple South Pacific country project that focused on raising awareness about our dying oceans, embracing the oceanic wandering ways of our ancestors using their amazing celestial navigational methods, and maybe most importantly, some thorough soul searching for many of us Polynesians.
Fiji Flag fluttering with 5 drua in distance
Sunset somewhere in the Pacific

Arriving in Tahiti while in traditional dress

Fijians honoring the traditions of ocean warriors
Photos: Pacific Voyagers Project

Whale tooth blessing of the druas | Photo: Natalia Tsoukala

This all happened to me at a time when I thought I knew everything about the oceans, after all, I had 21 years of sailing aboard many vessel types, ranging from big cargo ships to the 124’ liveaboard NAI’A which singularly focuses on accommodating serious divers in Fiji.  So I take up this offer to skipper an ocean voyaging double hulled canoe kitted out with only the bare necessities, giving up all electronic navigation instruments and tools.  Gone are the GPS, the radar, the weather reports via satellite radio, let alone the phone calls to family.  Our voyages would take our 80’ drua from Fiji to New Zealand, on to Tahiti, the Marquesas, north to Hawaii, east to San Francisco, down coast to Monterey, and Santa Barbara, stops in Malibu, LA itself, on to San Diego, then Mexico’s Ensenada, Magdalena Bay, and Cabo San Lucas, west through the Cocos Islands, continuing to the Galapagos, and of course, finally back home to Fiji.

Sailing route of the first leg | Chart: Pacific Voyagers Project

Life aboard the Uto Ni Yalo: Bathing in salt water, maintaining course with only a steering oar, no shelter from the sun, sea spray and raging seas, broken masts, shredded sails, constantly being wet, cold like no other I’ve known while sailing the latitudes of the 40s east, it all was much different than my prior life on the water.  It all at times made me wondered how I ever got myself committed to this and whether it was punishment that I deserved. The long, rough voyages made you think a lot about life, how we live now compared to the past, and how our ancestors managed to populate so much of the huge South Pacific expanse.

Floating plastic rubbish of every description fetched up by Uto Ni Yalo crew | Photo: Capt. J Smith

Some of the most powerful images in my head are the enormous rafts of plastics and rubbish, thousands of miles from any land.  But foremost amongst those images are my crew and how proud I am of them: all volunteers, ranging from young teenagers to a retired Fijian Army Major and a diplomat, male and female, all with different backgrounds, all with something special to offer, and all having to learn the sailing methods of the ancestors.  The ‘kids’ were the most transformed; often not sure what to do with their lives in the villages and towns, getting into all sorts of trouble and forming bad habits, some not knowing how to read and write; now full of confidence and sailing skills, and many of them training at the merchant marine academy for careers on the oceans.

Uto Ni Yalo crew and family members | Photo: Fiji Times

Shocking was how dependant we are on electrical devices.  There was no fridge aboard, no entertainment luxuries, food was most often fish caught on a trawling line off the stern. If it was too big to eat, it was let go. We only kept what we could eat and not waste. Rain was a real luxury when and if it did pour down. You appreciated every drop of it after rationing fresh water for drinking, and bathing in salt water for weeks grows very old.

A lot of things we took for granted all of a sudden made everyone realize how ignorant they’d been in leading their daily lives. We all came to realize that our societies can still use and adopt practices of the old ways of living, incorporate them into our modern, high tech world; realizing that the mentality of people must be changed soon, very soon, so the healing of our oceans and the surrounding lands can begin in earnest.

Respect for nature was lost when peoples’ lives no longer depended directly on it. One didn’t have to wait for seasons to plant and harvest.  Fertilizers, herbicides and growth hormones make food for some, easy and cheap to have.  Along the canoe’s way, I talked with shrimp fisherman who caught sharks on the side (finning, of course) to have some extra money in their pockets.  Their major complaint was about recent low shrimp catches, not realizing they only had themselves to blame for upsetting nature’s balance-  sharks eat rays, rays eat shrimp; the sharks are taken away, the ray population explodes, rays eat all the shrimp, and then the fisherman have no shrimp. It’s not hard to understand how these animals depend upon one another, but too many humans are ignorant of these simple relationships.

Pallets of sharks meat

Coming upon beaches with dead sharks littering the sand as far as the eye can see, shocked us all. Our drua took us to places littered with skeletons of whales and dead turtles washed up on beaches. An extraordinary day for us occrred when the Uto Ni Yalo was halfway to Cocos after leaving Cabo San Lucas and we encountered a turtle that had a floating plastic bag billowing from its mouth, and thusly could no longer dive or eat. Clearly the turtle had half-swallowed the very large bag and was now quite buoyant, unable to leave the ocean surface, and was slowly starving to death. A couple of my crew jumped in, wrestled with the flailing and frightened turtle a bit, and then passed the nearly exhausted animal to the remaining crew onboard. After a careful and time consuming extraction, we manage to safely remove the entire plastic bag. We were so happy and emotional about saving this one turtle, all the more moving for us after witnessing the days of environmental damage and sea creature death during our voyage

Olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) after extraction of plastic bag by crew | Photo: J. Smith

The knowledge gained from our experience during the voyage is something that no text book can teach. I am very confident that the movie about our voyage titled Our Blue Canoe will have an impact on everyone who sees it, and will hopefully help considerably spread the message on the importance of keeping the oceans healthy, and hence improve our chances for survival.

So, here we are on the NAI’A diving in some great locations, healthy reefs, abundant animals, good folks doing good things and caring about our oceans.  There’s a lot to worry about out there, but here there’s hope, and maybe it’ll be that way some day where the Uto Ni Yaso took me on the trail of my ancestors.

Watch the movie trailer, read blogs from the voyage and find pictures of the trip Fiji Islands Voyaging Society.

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