This post is from Aquarium Intern Adrienne Breef-Pilz, who researchers corals with Randi Rotjan, Ph.D. in the Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life.

Kanton is the only inhabited area in the Phoenix Island Protected Area (PIPA), but people do not chose to live here for the beach front property. There is no economy on Kanton. There was an airport but it is closed now. The people who live on the island work for the government of Kiribati and are sent here on 4-year work contracts. With them they bring their family. They catch their own food as there are not many boats with supplies that pass through. Currently living on Kanton are seven families who did not know each other before moving here. Upon meeting them you would not know this. For one night during our short visit, they came together to welcome us to their home.

Our first night anchored in Kanton, we invited the locals aboard the Robert C. Seamans for dinner. As they came aboard the boat, we greeted them but eventually retreated to our separate corners not knowing what to say. A few brave and charismatic souls slowly began to attempt to find common ground. The rest of us sat there exchanging nervous smiles unsure of how to act.

The captain said a few words of welcome and invited the inhabitants of Kanton to help themselves to dinner, which was all translated by the English-speaking police constable. The children clung to their parents as they went down below deck. As they returned above deck, each plate was filled with beans, rice and pork.  As we sat and ate dinner with them, the separate divisions seemed to break. There was no pressure to talk as we had our mouths full sharing a common meal and a common experience. But this gave us a topic to discuss. “Did you like the meal?” was met with a big smile and a vigorous nod of the head. As the dinner went, on the anxiety from the beginning seemed to melt away with the sun.

After dinner, one of the talented staff aboard RCS named Kelsey, took out her fiddle and played music. We all clapped along to the rhythm together. There were no words to separate us; instead, just the beat of the music brought us together. As dusk became night, we shared many songs together. One student named Jen sang a Tahitian song she knew. She began to sign and play the ukulele and, as I glanced around the deck, I noticed a few of the women from Kanton had begun to mouth the words with her. With tears glistening in their eyes, they sang along. And for that moment, language or experiences were no longer a barrier but a common ground.

Dancing in PIPA

The next night, our new friends hosted us for dinner. As their village was about an hour from where our boat was anchored, they spent the night in a makeshift village on the pier across from our boat. There were a few structures with sheet metal roofs, walls and a floor, although not much else to it. There were huts where they slept which consisted of a thatched roof and a board above the ground.

As we came ashore, they welcomed us and directed us to a hut so that they could finish their preparations. A few of us separated from the group to explore the area. There were rusted oil tanks, electrical poles holding disconnected wires, and a rusted vehicle which was so old and mangled you could no longer tell what it was.  There were coconut trees growing nearby, and all the land was made primarily from coral rubble. If you looked closely, the road would start to move as tiny hermit crabs walked about.

In the distance, we heard a whistle but ignored it thinking it was not for us. When we made our way back to the meeting area, everyone was sitting on what looked like an outdoor stage. Our hosts sat on the ground in front of us. The greeted us and then began to sing. They each had the words memorized and sang from their being. Even the children knew the words. Then they transitioned into a dance in perfect rhythm and timing. It was mesmerizing to watch. No one stumbled or missed a beat as if they were really one.

For dinner they had prepared a local feast: rice, steamed coconut, clam, crab, and milk fish. All of it they caught or harvested to share with us. As we ate, they presented us each with necklaces in the shape of a star made from shells. Each one appeared identical but was slightly different. As we looked closely at each individual shell used to make it, we began to recognize the time taken to collect all of the shells and the care in making one for each of us.  They gave us something beautiful to remember them and their island by.

The night again transitioned into signing and dancing. We were woefully unprepared; they had a highly choreographed dance, but we tripped all over ourselves trying to square dance. This brought laughter to everyone. Square dancing turned to waltzing as those few who knew how to do it taught a few of the children from Kanton. No longer did they hide behind their parents but came up front and took the hand of an American student and followed along as they stepped forward and back, side to side, now spin. Words didn’t matter as they followed the motion of their teachers and exchanged smiles. Here we danced together and, no longer separated by language, we came together as humans here to spend time together. Here in this special place in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to protect this area which we all agree is sacred.