Last Friday, the Robert C. Seamans and her crew anchored in Tuvalu for the
first time. No one aboard the ship had ever been to this small, remote pacific island nation before. On our navigational chart, the islands of Tuvalu 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 scale of nations. In the US, it is common to express scale in terms of how many times Rhode Island could fit inside some landmass or other. The country of Tuvalu could certainly fit inside Rhode Island, lagoon and all. Its entire population, about 12,000 people, is about a third of that of my hometown. In the 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 capital island/city of Tuvalu that hosts the majority of the population. Barges and little fishing vessels are anchored just off the shore. Along the coast are houses, a radio tower, a government building topped with solar panels, and a half 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 "land reclamation project," part of Tuvalu's plan to combat sea level rise and make space for its citizens to continue living on the island. We see a plane take off, one of three flights from Tuvalu each week. Fiji Airlines purportedly holds a monopoly on air travel to and from Tuvalu, so a ticket between the two nations can cost upwards of $1000, more than a much longer flight from the San Francisco to Fiji. Onboard the dinghy heading ashore, I ask Cap and Jan what system of governance Tuvalu has. They encouraged going into the government building and asking around to find out first hand, so Grace and I do just that. I climb up to the top floor, reading public health postings as I go along. One window 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 mile of land between these coasts, and at 3 stories tall, this seems to be the tallest building in Tuvalu. I've unintentionally crossed an item off my bucket list: reach the highest point in a nation state. Back on the ground floor, Grace has befriended some people in the Ministry of Local Government. Seemingly unsure how to answer our questions, they send us up to the Office of the Prime Minister. A friendly man in flip flops greets us and introduces himself as Semi, the Secretary to the Prime Minister. He has a meeting to get to but will be happy to answer our questions later that afternoon. He encourages us to ask around in other offices and explore the island in the meantime. We learn a somewhat random spattering of information: the ministry of culture oversees and maintains a site where European oceanographers drilled 300 meters of core samples in the 1890s, attempting to verify Charles Darwin's theory of atoll formation, Tuvalu gets about 2000 tourists per year, and a lot of the businesses in Funafuti are purportedly Chinese-owned, or perhaps Taiwanese. The streets of Funafuti are long and narrow, filled with a constant stream of motorbikes. An SUV would take up both lanes of traffic. I mostly only see trucks in construction sites and cars parked in spaces labeled for ministers of various branches of government. Walking along the narrow street, I imagine a typical American parking lot, like you might find at a suburban Target. It would easily span the width of the island. With such space constraints, widespread car ownership is not a real option here. On foot, I note the lack of fellow pedestrians and cyclists. Transit here is powered with imported gasoline. Unlike in our previous stops in Levuka and Savu Savu, most houses here seem professionally built, made of cinder blocks, wood, and bricks, and not walled with corrugated steel. Where do extra or old building materials go on this island? I pass a solar power plant, some closed restaurants, a school bus with a sun-faded sticker that reads "From the People of Japan." There are no flights today, so the airfield, which employs about 20 people, is open to thru traffic. In the evening, the green by the runway will host games of soccer and volleyball. I reunite with some of my shipmates, headed for a beach. We find a monument depicting important moments in Tuvaluan history. Two of the sides are in Tuvaluan, illegible to us; the other two commemorate Hurricane Bebe in 1972 and the landing of US marines on Funafuti in 1942. Back onboard the ship, Jan hypothesizes that Tuvalu and many other pacific islands still might not have airports today if they hadn't been built during World War II. Now, an airfield is being built on another Tuvaluan island south of us, to host domestic 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, half Tuvaluan daughter, who just finished high school. They were in Australia for most of covid, but they have been here since. The daughter says that the Funafuti feels more crowded than it did a decade ago. Headed back, I pass the judiciary building, the hospital, the Funafuti town council house, a housing project seemingly funded by the government of Taiwan, and the empty expanse of the land reclamation project. Looking for filtered water, I am directed to a conference center, which was built in 2019 for the 50th Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting. Inside, it is air-conditioned and spacious, with floor to ceiling windows and polished tile floors, like a conference center anywhere in the world. When I meet again with Semi, he says that he and his co-workers say that going down to the conference center feels like going abroad. A lot of interdepartmental government meetings are held there, as well as international conferences on various aspects of climate change and life in the pacific. Today, I see posters left over for GMN: the Global MTCC Network, a global network for energy-efficient shipping, funded by the EU. Semi is very generous with his time, answering to the best of his ability all of my questions about government structure, history, climate change, sea level rise, local media, economy, and limitations and opportunities of being a small nation. He expresses pride that people in Tuvalu are willing to share what they have, so no one is truly poor. I learn that Tuvalu has no newspaper; there is a local TV broadcast for the main island and radio that reaches the outer islands. I learn that Tuvalu had zero covid cases up through late 2022, when it reopened its borders, but the global supply chain disruptions were very challenging. Tuvalu imports over 90% of its food, so when the ships didn't come for a month or so, people started to panic. I learn that Tuvalu is one of the few nations in the world that fully recognizes the sovereignty of Taiwan. When Semi's co-worker pops in, he directs my fisheries questions to her, and I learn about the fishing days that Tuvalu sells to the offshore fishing fleets of Taiwan and other nations, as well as the challenges of policing illegal fishing, an area where much international cooperation is needed. Tuvalu's domestic fishing is all coastal, run out of small craft with outboard motors that can't take on the open ocean. Eventually, it's time for Semi to go to dinner, and me to go back to the ship. We part ways, and I think about the ocean side of the island, where broken bits of coral exoskeleton form a mound against the tide. This island exists in a delicate balance. Some climate activists make the case that Tuvalu will be almost entirely underwater by the end of the century, if not sooner; therefore, life here cannot continue. Certainly, this place faces existential challenges, but maybe the ships will continue to come, bearing food 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 to keep 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 Williams College, and I'm from Menlo Park, CA. P.P.S. Hello to all the folks at home! Mom, dad, Susannah, Kinsey, Memo, and now Santi! I'm doing well on the ship, and learning a ton. I can't wait to see all of you when I get back.