A New Place for SSV Robert C. Seamans

October 18, 2023

Author: Caleb Dittmar, Williams College


Ruthie by the land reclamation project

Ship's Log

Date: October 18, 2023Time: 10:06 pmLocation: 200nm South of TuvaluWeather: Rolling seas, 6 foot waves and cloudy

Last Friday, the Robert C. Seamans and her crew anchored in Tuvalu for thefirst time. No one aboard the ship had ever been to this small, remotepacific island nation before. On our navigational chart, the islands ofTuvalu make up a dashed ellipse encircling a lagoon.It is a place that messes with your sense of scale, tiny on the chart,bigger than you might expect in real life, but still so small on the scaleof nations. In the US, it is common to express scale in terms of how manytimes Rhode Island could fit inside some landmass or other. The country ofTuvalu could certainly fit inside Rhode Island, lagoon and all.  Its entirepopulation, about 12,000 people, is about a third of that of my hometown. Inthe US, it wouldn't even register as a small city; it would be a small town,similar to the town that hosts my home institution, Williams College.Anchored in the lagoon, we can see the whole extent of Funafuti, the capitalisland/city of Tuvalu that hosts the majority of the population. Barges andlittle fishing vessels are anchored just off the shore. Along the coast arehouses, a radio tower, a government building topped with solar panels, and ahalf mile or so stretch of massive sandbags piled high against the lagoon,with bulldozers milling about on top. This, we would soon learn, is a "landreclamation project," part of Tuvalu's plan to combat sea level rise andmake space for its citizens to continue living on the island. We see a planetake off, one of three flights from Tuvalu each week. Fiji Airlinespurportedly holds a monopoly on air travel to and from Tuvalu, so a ticketbetween the two nations can cost upwards of $1000, more than a much longerflight from the San Francisco to Fiji.Onboard the dinghy heading ashore, I ask Cap and Jan what system ofgovernance Tuvalu has. They encouraged going into the government buildingand asking around to find out first hand, so Grace and I do just that. Iclimb up to the top floor, reading public health postings as I go along. Onewindow faces the calm lagoon; the other faces the rest of the Pacific Ocean,waves breaking over the edge of the reef. There is not more than half a mileof land between these coasts, and at 3 stories tall, this seems to be thetallest building in Tuvalu. I've unintentionally crossed an item off mybucket list: reach the highest point in a nation state.Back on the ground floor, Grace has befriended some people in the Ministryof Local Government. Seemingly unsure how to answer our questions, they sendus up to the Office of the Prime Minister. A friendly man in flip flopsgreets us and introduces himself as Semi, the Secretary to the PrimeMinister. He has a meeting to get to but will be happy to answer ourquestions later that afternoon. He encourages us to ask around in otheroffices and explore the island in the meantime. We learn a somewhat randomspattering of information: the ministry of culture oversees and maintains asite where European oceanographers drilled 300 meters of core samples in the1890s, attempting to verify Charles Darwin's theory of atoll formation,Tuvalu gets about 2000 tourists per year, and a lot of the businesses inFunafuti are purportedly Chinese-owned, or perhaps Taiwanese.The streets of Funafuti are long and narrow, filled with a constant streamof motorbikes. An SUV would take up both lanes of traffic. I mostly only seetrucks in construction sites and cars parked in spaces labeled for ministersof various branches of government. Walking along the narrow street, Iimagine a typical American parking lot, like you might find at a suburbanTarget. It would easily span the width of the island. With such spaceconstraints, widespread car ownership is not a real option here. On foot, Inote the lack of fellow pedestrians and cyclists. Transit here is poweredwith imported gasoline.Unlike in our previous stops in Levuka and Savu Savu, most houses here seemprofessionally built, made of cinder blocks, wood, and bricks, and notwalled with corrugated steel. Where do extra or old building materials go onthis island? I pass a solar power plant, some closed restaurants, a schoolbus with a sun-faded sticker that reads "From the People of Japan." Thereare no flights today, so the airfield, which employs about 20 people, isopen to thru traffic. In the evening, the green by the runway will hostgames of soccer and volleyball.I reunite with some of my shipmates, headed for a beach. We find a monumentdepicting important moments in Tuvaluan history. Two of the sides are inTuvaluan, illegible to us; the other two commemorate Hurricane Bebe in 1972and the landing of US marines on Funafuti in 1942. Back onboard the ship,Jan hypothesizes that Tuvalu and many other pacific islands still might nothave airports today if they hadn't been built during World War II. Now, anairfield is being built on another Tuvaluan island south of us, to hostdomestic flights and make travel between islands faster.I make my way down to the University of the South Pacific satellite campus,where I meet an Australian cultural geographer and her half-Aussie, halfTuvaluan daughter, who just finished high school. They were in Australia formost of covid, but they have been here since. The daughter says that theFunafuti feels more crowded than it did a decade ago.Headed back, I pass the judiciary building, the hospital, the Funafuti  towncouncil house, a housing project seemingly funded by the government ofTaiwan, and the empty expanse of the land reclamation project. Looking forfiltered water, I am directed to a conference center, which was built in2019 for the 50th Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting. Inside, it isair-conditioned and spacious, with floor to ceiling windows and polishedtile floors, like a conference center anywhere in the world. When I meetagain with Semi, he says that he and his co-workers say that going down tothe conference center feels like going abroad. A lot of interdepartmentalgovernment meetings are held there, as well as international conferences onvarious aspects of climate change and life in the pacific. Today, I seeposters left over for GMN: the Global MTCC Network, a global network forenergy-efficient shipping, funded by the EU.Semi is very generous with his time, answering to the best of his abilityall of my questions about government structure, history, climate change, sealevel rise, local media, economy, and limitations and opportunities of beinga small nation. He expresses pride that people in Tuvalu are willing toshare what they have, so no one is truly poor. I learn that Tuvalu has nonewspaper; there is a local TV broadcast for the main island and radio thatreaches the outer islands. I learn that Tuvalu had zero covid cases upthrough late 2022, when it reopened its borders, but the global supply chaindisruptions were very challenging. Tuvalu imports over 90% of its food, sowhen the ships didn't come for a month or so, people started to panic. Ilearn that Tuvalu is one of the few nations in the world that fullyrecognizes the sovereignty of Taiwan. When Semi's co-worker pops in, hedirects my fisheries questions to her, and I learn about the fishing daysthat Tuvalu sells to the offshore fishing fleets of Taiwan and othernations, as well as the challenges of policing illegal fishing, an areawhere much international cooperation is needed. Tuvalu's domestic fishing isall coastal, run out of small craft with outboard motors that can't take onthe open ocean.Eventually, it's time for Semi to go to dinner, and me to go back to theship. We part ways, and I think about the ocean side of the island, wherebroken bits of coral exoskeleton form a mound against the tide. This islandexists in a delicate balance. Some climate activists make the case thatTuvalu will be almost entirely underwater by the end of the century, if notsooner; therefore, life here cannot continue. Certainly, this place facesexistential challenges, but maybe the ships will continue to come, bearingfood and sandbags. Maybe the coral reef will keep growing and breaking off,pulling new rock from calcium and carbon in the ocean just fast enough tokeep this place above the surface.P.S. I didn't mention this at the beginning of this post, but I'm Callie(they/them). I study Computer Science and English Literature at WilliamsCollege, and I'm from Menlo Park, CA.P.P.S. Hello to all the folks at home! Mom, dad, Susannah, Kinsey, Memo, andnow Santi! I'm doing well on the ship, and learning a ton. I can't wait tosee all of you when I get back.

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