Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Fanning Island – An Atoll Alright



Fanning Island – An Atoll Alright

So let me see if I can paint the picture properly:

We had been at sea for four long days to reach the city of Honolulu, only to be given an afternoon in which to enjoy its charms.

We then spent another two full days at sea sailing directly south from the Hawaiian Islands to reach the Republic of Kiribati. To be more specific, we anchored off Fanning Island. Now sitting at home in your lounge chair, or when looking over a brochure to decide on a cruise, you might find the idea of visiting Fanning Island in this little-known Republic exciting and adventuresome – you would be wrong! To start with, the name Fanning Island, is a misnomer. It really is not an island at all, but rather a large oval coral covered, atoll. You might remember from our trip last fall that an atoll is produced by the collapse of a volcanoes caldera. Inactive volcanoes are eventually eroded by the ocean, and sooner or later the sides of the caldera will fall inward allowing seawater to reach the interior. That then leaves a ring of sand around the previous volcanoes’ edge which overtime will eventually erode away. Until it does erode, these sandbars can be home to large groups of people, and I was mistaken when I said in my previous blog that Fanning Island was uninhabited, it is actually home to almost 1900 people. The size of the lagoon is over 42 mi.², and the land area is roughly 13 mi.². We, of course, only saw a very small portion of that.

Prior to this cruise, I tried my best to find out information from the cruise line about what to expect when we reached Fanning Island, and all I got were “puzzled looks” or “silence on the phone.” I could not imagine what such an elegant cruise ship like the Crystal Serenity was going to do, dropping anchor off a small island in the Pacific, with the 900 passengers, many of whom are quite elderly. “Surely,” I said to myself, “they must have some activities planned ashore, or perhaps they’re taking us to an exotic resort where we could spend the afternoon on a sandy beach.”

It wasn’t until the day before we were to arrive that by accident my friend Bill and I discovered that a small brochure had been put out describing the island. It sounded absolutely idyllic.” Fanning Island is a roughly oval coral atoll covered in coconut grows and framed by unspoiled, white – sandy beaches and warm, clear water. Fanning Island is a remote, rustic paradise sure to leave lasting memories.” Still there was absolutely no indication from anyone on the staff as to what we were to do when we got to this paradise of an island.

The morning of our arrival brought great anticipation as in a light drizzle, we slowly approached a formless mass sitting low in the water just off our bow. We were told to expect quote “colorful marine life, including parrotfish and angelfish that thrive in the tepid lagoon, while parakeets and warblers decorate the trees. Outrigger canoe will bob gently in the surf as locals await your arrival with hand – strung shell necklaces, etc.” Our daily newspaper advised that “this was an outstanding spot to spend the day enjoying sandy beaches and snorkeling was a must.” The only problem was that anyone who was interested in doing so should be sure and bring their own snorkeling equipment since non equipment was available on the island. Wait a minute – snorkeling equipment? Absolutely none of the information that we were given prior to this cruise made any mention of our having to bring our own equipment! As it turns out, I did not see a single per person with snorkeling equipment, but I did see a large number of people who had taken towels so that they could spend a day on the beach.

Well, let me tell you the reality of the experience was quite different than the hype! Unlike the smooth operation which Silversea is able to run when arriving at isolated destinations, the Crystal crew seemed to be totally unprepared for transporting 900 people ashore in an organized and safe fashion. We finally arrived at our anchorage almost 45 minutes late from our scheduled time, and then had to wait 30 minutes for the officials to board the ship and clear us to land. This was the usual motley group of overweight bounty hunters, which typically come aboard in such places. In fact, we later found them at lunchtime having taken over a large table where they were sitting with their brand-new Crystal hats and Crystal bags while eating everything in sight!

Finally an announcement was made that we could proceed to midship’s deck four to board our transport to the island. Lisa and I put our things together, went down on the elevator, but when the doors opened there was no way to go any further than to barely allow the elevator door to close behind us. There were 100 people or more crammed into a small space with more pushing down from the stairs above, and more arriving every minute via the elevators to the point that everything came to a complete standstill. The ship was not prepared for the people to disembark, and why they made the announcement I have no idea. The crew was frantically running around trying to organize the departure in what was an almost comical routine. This turned dangerous, however, when we started to board the tenders. The swell was very high, as were the winds. The operation was on the verge of being unsafe, and the crew was certainly not used to handling this kind of disembarkation. After almost 45 minutes of pushing and shoving, we were finally able to board our tender, Lisa and I had to sit there while 100 people were loaded behind us. The tender was banging up against the side of the landing platform, and we watched elderly people slip and slide, and almost fall in their attempt to board. It is amazing to me that someone was not seriously injured.

Our tender slowly made the roughly 25 minute trip into the lagoon, and pulled up to a rickety old wooden dock that rocked from side to side every time our boat rubbed up against it. Many of the slats on the dock were rotten, but some type of particle board had been laid over the top so that we could depart without falling thru. As we walked down the dock, there was a small group singing a welcome song as is so typical in Micronesia, and just beyond the dock was a mass of people standing with baskets on the ground in front of them asking for money. I was immediately turned off at this, as were our friends Bill and Jayne. There were no items for sale that were of any interest, and the people seemed more interested in getting money, then in welcoming us to the island. Several times I tried to take pictures, only to have a mother put her hand in front of the child’s face until I put money in the bucket – which I would not do. At about this point, it started to rain, lightly at first and then with increasing intensity so that I had to wrap my camera in a plastic bag. I continued walking hoping that I could find the idyllic beaches that we had been told about, but at about this point I looked down at the legs of the gentleman in front of me and saw that they were completely covered in flies and mosquitoes. Then I looked down at my own legs to realize that I was in the same condition. At that point, I turned around and headed for the tender figuring I’d had just about enough of this place. Running into Lisa was no surprise, since she had the same idea.

So that is my sad tale of Fanning Island. Our friends Bill and Jayne somehow managed to get on the first tender which was loaded with only about 50 people so they never experienced the panic driven loading operation that we underwent. As a result of being first on the island, they were able to walk much farther in, and in looking at their pictures, I see that they managed to reach the school and to get several good photographs of the locals without being asked to pay money. They finally made it to the other side of the small peninsula on which we had landed where the “beautiful sandy beaches” were located. Guess what, there were no picturesque sandy beaches. There were instead very narrow strips of beach covered with crushed seashells and rocks. From there it was a sharp drop into deep water, and not a safe place to swim. In fact, in the entire time that they were on the island they never saw anybody swimming, nor did we. So much for the snorkel gear!

At this point I have to be honest, I really don’t have a clue why in the world Crystal decided to take 900 people to an almost deserted atoll and dump them ashore. They obviously were not prepared or practiced in the maneuver, and it was basically a waste of time. Now we are back at sea for yet another two days on our way to Apia, Samoa. Let’s hope our experiences improve, because so far this cruise is what I would call – boring!

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