I spent a recent afternoon at the marina in Sausalito aboard David de Rothschild’s just-launched Plastiki, the 60-foot catamaran he plans on sailing from San Francisco to Sydney … very, very soon. A sailboat made nearly completely from plastic? The idea came to him four years ago – How to use adventure to draw attention to the world’s rapacious consumption and waste of plastic? – and it’s taken that long to figure out the design, construction and sail-ability of a completely novel craft. Sixty-seven percent of its buoyancy comes from empty plastic water bottles; its strength comes from a brand new plastic – SR-PET – which unlike most other plastics is 100 percent recyclable. The idea is to use the sailing adventure to draw attention to the plastic accumulating in the ocean, and on land as well, and then tear the sucker apart and turn the whole thing into new plastic products once it arrives in Sydney.
The Plastiki’s role model? Thor Heyerdahl’s Kontiki, the balsa raft the Danish explorer sailed from Peru to French Polynesia in 1947, to draw attention to his notion that that part of the world was first explored from South America. Though his theory was debunked, Heyerdahl’s adventure was a huge success; at its height, his book about the expedition outsold the Bible. David’s media reach has proved impressive; now he just needs to get the boat onto the water, test it as thoroughly as he can within the reach of the San Francisco Bay, and then he and a crew of a half-dozen are off, hopefully around the end of February.
“We began by looking at bamboo, which stayed within the theme of the Kontiki expedition, but decided an all-plastic vessel was more fitting for our needs. A bout with recycled plastic lumber proved it wholly inappropriate due to its density and lack of stiffness. Over time the troubles we faced during our search for the right material pushed us toward the path of least resistance. It was a path that was going to see us melting down all the bottles and losing the imagination grabbing iconic image that we were trying so hard to preserve.
“With outright stubbornness and determination we stayed true to the vision of our dream. But to do it we had to engineer a new product dubbed self-reinforcing polyethylene terephthalate (SR-PET), which is a proprietary plastic evolved from plain old PET plastic. Had we taken the easy route we would have of lost the biggest breakthrough for the Plastiki project and more importantly a possible real world solution for our plastic problem. Simply put the structural skeleton of the Plastiki as well as the majority of the boat is made entirely out of the same plastic used in soda and water bottles, the same material that ends up in our oceans! The two could co-exist within the same waste cycle and feed into each other’s production. Just as long as the plastic flows back into factories, not our backyards and coastal waters, it would be a model referred to as ‘closed loop.’ ”
No matter how the sail goes, David already feels like the Plastiki’s message has already been heard. He and the boat have gotten great press, from the New Yorker to the Wall Street Journal. “If all that comes from these past four years is that people think more about where that water bottle they buy each morning comes from – and where it’s going – then we’ve succeeded,” he says.
Standing on the deck of the plastic ship, it’s small cabin like some kind of hexagonal dome grown slightly wild, I try and imagine what it will be like to sail it in a big Pacific Ocean storm.
“I’ve gone back and forth about our route,” its captain explains (not a sailor himself, David’s hired a good one, Jo Royle, to command the ship), “initially I thought we would take our time and make lots of stops. Now I’m thinking we just go straight through, really test the boat and ourselves.”
The ground floor of the open-air market at Raiatea is filled with vendors hawking exotic fruits stacked high on long wooden tables; several coolers of the mornings catch feature bonito, tuna and Dorado on crushed ice. Shaded from the mid-morning heat, an occasional ocean breeze blows the brightly flowered cloths stapled to the tables, revealing plywood boxes of even more fruit below. Shafts of sunlight slice the piles of yams and coconuts, mangos and bananas from skylights overhead. Business on a midweek morning is light but steady; the clientele mostly upscale French expatriates and sailors wandered over from the nearby marina. Talk among the wide, smiling women doing the selling is soft; mostly they sit quietly on tall stools, waving themselves with bamboo fans.
A wide balcony rims the two-story market and is chocked with stalls selling shells and woodcarvings, black pearls and pareos, mostly to tourists. A ukulele band plays in one corner. I prefer the fresh fruit scene if merely because after eight years it feels like I’ve seen every possible kind of knick-knack made from sandalwood, woven palm and batik. I do stop to bang a stick on a wooden drum, not paying much attention to the salesperson until a big woman with a big voice asks if I’d like a demonstration of how to play the drum. Looking up I am reminded of something still very unique to Polynesia: The sales person is tall, with thick arms, definitely not a woman though he wears a distinctly feminine pareo. His hair is long and braided, his beard has been plucked and he’s not shy about the very-male belly pooching from beneath his cut-off t-shirt.
Transgenderism is alive and well across French Polynesia, as it was long before Gauguin arrived. On the big island of Tahiti many of the maitre d’s in the best restaurants are men dressed as women; on the smaller islands – like Raiatea – they most often work in shops. Discrimination is kept mostly quiet. There are four or five working in the stalls on the balcony this morning, accepted by locals, standing out only to visitors.
Known as mahu, one theory is that the eldest male in a family was often raised to be feminine because work for women was more reliable, insuring the family a breadwinner. In small communities, only one mahu was allowed. But I’m going to let an expert fill in some details: Roberta Perkins is a transgender, living in Australia:
“Tahiti has long had a romantic reputation for sexual permissiveness. Indeed, young people were encouraged to freely engage in sex and experiment with various sexual behaviors with many partners as a precondition of later satisfactory marriage. And, as 18th and 19th century seafarers discovered, Europeans were considered most desirable by Tahitian girls because their white skins indicated they were gods and nothing could be better than giving birth to a demigod. The early Europeans visitors to the Society Islands were also amazed to find Tahitian males who lived as women and were totally accepted in this role by the island community. They were soon to discover that the condoned social condition of males living as women existed right across the many islands of Polynesia, from Hawaii to New Zealand and from Tonga to Easter Island.
“There is an amusing tale about a sailor aboard the British frigate Mercury in 1789 who on making a short stop at Tahiti was smitten by a beautiful dancing girl. He gave gifts of beads, combs and other knick-knacks in the hope of pleasing her and then persuading her to go with him on board the ship. She consented, but to his surprise (perhaps shock) when she removed her lap-lap the body of a young male stood before him. The Tahitians showed their obvious enjoyment of the episode by laughing aloud on the beach at the sailor’s embarrassment. Such was often the way Englishmen were introduced to the mahu of Tahiti, the fa’a fafine in Samoa, the fakaleiti in Tonga, or other terms for them on the other islands, which was often followed by much mirth on the part of the islanders. Perhaps the nearest interpretation to these terms is that given by Samoans when asked about the fa’a fafine, which is like a lady, you know 50/50. So, in traditional Polynesian societies male–to–female transgenders were not seen as women, but as something in between. Nevertheless, they were widely accepted by the Polynesians. King Kamehameha I of Hawaii even had them dwell near his house because he considered them lucky, and in Tahiti every village had one mahu because it was thought to be fortunate for the village.
“The universal incidence of transgenders across Polynesia is a remarkable phenomenon, especially when in neighboring Melanesia (New Guinea, the Solomon’s, New Caledonia, Fiji etc) individuals changing gender were almost unknown in pre-European days (although ceremonial transvestism, homosexuality and male pederasty was prevalent and widespread), Perhaps, the concept of gender crossing had not occurred to the older island settlers of Melanesia, whereas, the newer Polynesians, who arrived in the Pacific only about 500 years ago, may have brought the idea with them from South East Asia, where gender crossing has been an important function in traditional societies there for many millennia.
“For the English, French and Dutch seafarers who visited the South Pacific Islands in the 18th century, confronting the Polynesian transgenders was a mixture of shock, fascination and repulsion. The best reports of these early contacts come from the H.M.S. Bounty expedition to Tahiti (1789 – 91) under Captain William Bligh. One of his officers, Lt. Morrison, wrote: ‘They have a set of men called mahu. These men are in some respects like the eunuchs of India but they are not castrated. They never cohabit with women but live as they do. They pick their beards out and dress as women, dance and sing with them and are as effeminate in their voice. They are generally excellent hands at making and painting of cloth, making mats and every other woman’s employment.’ Being a thorough gentleman who considered it his duty to investigate everything, Captain Bligh’s curiosity got the better of him ‘I found with her a person, who although I was certain was a man, had great marks of effeminacy about him and created in me certain notions which I wished to find out … The effeminacy of this persons speech induced me to think he had suffered castration … Here the young man took his mantle off which he had about him to show me the connection. He had the appearance of a woman, his yard and testicles being so drawn in under him, having the art from custom of keeping them in this position … On examining his privacies I found them both very small and the testicles remarkable so, being not larger than a boy’s five or six years old, and very soft as if in a state of decay or a total incapacity of being larger, so that in either case he appeared to me as effectually a Eunuch as if the stones were away.’ One can imagine old stiff and proper Captain Bligh in full dress uniform fingering the mahu’s genitals with his starchy white-gloved hands.
“An unexplained phenomenon on Tahiti was that just one, and only one, mahu resided in each village at any one time. As one Tahitian pointed out: “When one dies then another substitutes … God arranges it like that … It isn’t allowed … two mahus in one place. I’ve traveled around Huahine (the Society or Tahitian Islands) and I haven’t seen two mahus in one place. I never saw it.” How this phenomenon worked is still a mystery, but obviously some sociological mechanism must have been at work in each village to ensure that not more than one mahu lived there at a time. Since, as we know the desire to change gender is spontaneous and not an orderly event, how then did such precision occur on cue? Perhaps a young mahu growing up in a village, which already had an established older mahu, may have been forced to seek a village where none existed. Another suggestion is that the community, who selected a boy to be raised as a girl to replace the established mahu when she passed on, made a mahu. The question remains, though, what criteria was used for this selection? However it was achieved, mahus were accorded great respect and dignity.
“Bligh observed: ‘The women treat him (mahu) as one of their sex, and he observed every restriction that they do, and is equally respected and esteemed.’ Anthropologist Robert Suggs reported a similar attitude towards mahus on the Marquesas Islands, while another ethnographer, Donald Marshall, said much the same for Cook Islanders, and by all accounts it was similar on Hawaii. On Mangaia, the mahus were not only well regarded by the rest of the population, but they excelled at women’s tasks, sang in an excellent high pitch falsetto and were better dancers than all other women. Anthropologist Robert Levy claimed that the mahus on Tahiti served as an object lesson for demarcating the sexes. Since the sex roles were similar in many respects and some tasks were performed equally by men and women, the mahu was pointed to as neither wholly man nor wholly woman. However, this does not explain the presence of mahus in more warlike societies such as the Marquesans, the Hawaiians or the Maoris, where the sexes were clearly defined by the warrior status of men.
“The mahu tradition continues today on Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga and the other islands, but due to the intrusions of white missionaries to Polynesia in the 19th century it is much modified from its pre-European development. Mahus no longer have the respect of their communities and many have migrated to such cities as Papeete, Fagatongo, Nukualofa, Auckland and Honolulu, where transgender subcultures similar to those in Australian cities have formed. But the western cultural influence in these cities has resulted in the derogatory image of “drag queen” and the kind of persecutions that we transgenders in Australia are familiar with. As a consequence, some mahus have returned to their traditional communities where, in spite of a predominance of judgmental Christian dogma, at least the extremes of western oppression do not exist.”
It’s been amazingly windy across this stretch of the South Pacific during the past two weeks, from Tahiti out to the Cook Islands, the winds blowing out of the east and southeast, scudding clouds and rain overhead all day long. On the small motu of Tahaa yesterday I had lunch with veteran ship’s captain Tony Mirkovic; we have sailed together many times and both share a great affection for the South Pacific as well as his native Croatia.
I ask him to name the various winds he grew up with on the Adriatic … because in Croatian there are as many words for wind as Eskimos have for snow: Tramontana, Bura, Lavant, Jugo, Ostro, Pulenat, Lebic, Maestral and more. There each wind comes from a different direction, sometimes arriving simultaneously, overlapping. Tony says these South Pacific winds are most like the tramontana he grew up with, strong, unceasing.
“Remember, we were here one year ago in early September and had weather similar to this. That was the first time I had seen these kind of high pressure systems here at this time of year. It’s the same now.” I ask if he thinks warmer ocean surface temperatures are influencing the changing conditions, encouraging stronger storms at different times of the year … something I’ve seen impacting coastlines around the world during the past decade.
“Absolutely,” is the captain’s response. “There is no question that the world’s changing climate is starting to have an impact on the weather out here.”
It used to be that the “rainy season” in this part of the world was November to April; now you find long spells of sunny weather during those months … and a lot more rain during what used to be the “dry season.” In support of the changes affecting the one million square miles of South Pacific, the World Wide Fund for Nature reported recently that predictions about climate change’s impact on this region have been largely underestimated. And that by underestimating, have put at risk millions of people who live on low-lying coasts across the Pacific.
Experts say that the tiny Pacific Island nations, which collectively account for a mere 0.0012 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, are the most vulnerable and would be the first to feel the full brunt of global warming. Among those most at risk are some of the world’s lowest-lying islands, like Kiribati, Vanuatu, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, parts of Papua New Guinea, and many in the the Cook islands and French Polynesia. Because the Pacific Islands are small and un-influential and their concerns easily ignored, their governments have only recently gotten engaged in international climate change negotiations, through the Alliance of Small Islands States or AOSIS.
The other day we sat in a building surf off Raratonga, unable to land due to big winds creating big seas. The weather forecast predicted the same for the next several days, so we gave on a second landing in the Cook’s, as well as a planned visit to the Austral island of Tubuai. While we all pay lip service to the coming rising seas, it’s only out here that the real impact is already being felt.
In most Pacific islands, the people, agricultural land, tourist resorts and infrastructure (including roads and airports) are concentrated in the coastal zones, and are thus especially vulnerable to any rise in sea level. Determining how severe this problem is, or might be, is complicated by natural shifts in sea level associated with the recurring ice ages. For example, over the past 16,000 years, the sea level rose some 450 feet in the Southwest Pacific reaching its present state about 6,000 years ago. This would indicate an average rise of about one inch a year during the 10,000 years it took for sea level to reach its present level following the last glacial epoch.
The potential socio-economic impacts of climate change on the smaller Pacific island countries are estimated in a series of vulnerability studies. Depending on the worst-case scenario (three feet of sea level rise by the end of this century), the studies suggest that sea level rise will have negative impacts on tourism, freshwater availability and quality, aquaculture, agriculture, human settlements, financial services and human health. Similarly, storm surges are likely to have a harmful impact on low-lying islands.
Low lying coastal areas of all islands are especially vulnerable to rising seas, as well as to changes in rainfall, storm frequency and intensity. Inundation, flooding, erosion and intrusion of seawater are among the likely impacts. These catastrophes would result in economic and social costs beyond the capacity of most Pacific island countries and threaten the very existence of small atoll countries. Shifts in rainfall regimes and any increase in tropical cyclone intensity and frequency greatly amplify the impact of sea level rise. A rise of average sea level by three feet, when superimposed on storm surges, could easily submerge low-lying islands.
Which immediately makes me think of one of my favorite island groups – the Tuamotus – where we are headed in a couple days. The 77 atolls in the chain rise at most six feet above sea level, suggesting that by the end of this century they will be uninhabitable. I promise to ask my friend Ugo, who has lived on Rangiroa the past ten years, what he thinks about rising seas, if he does at all, and what he tells his sons about their future in the islands.
AITUTAKI, Cook Islands – I’ve been to Aitutaki before, a few times … though I have to admit that sometimes these South Pacific islands have a tendency to run together. Attu, Tahaa, Raiatea, Raratonga, all covered with lush green mountains, simple cement docks serving as welcome mats, a fringe of coconut palms paralleling a solitary ring road circling, sometimes it’s hard for my feebling memory to keep them all straight. Aitutaki I remember best from gray days, its welcome veranda – metal posts, faux palm roof – filled with young boys and girls dancing, practicing. I remember it too for its “starring” role in the “Survivor” series, which came here a few years back, camped out for six-plus months, the best thing to ever happen to the place economically.
I’ve seen “Survivor” impact on other islands. A crew of one hundred moves onto the island, often building its own living quarters, docks and marinas. They bring a fleet of small pickup trucks, speedboats and bulldozers. Much of which get left behind. They employ dozens, treating them well and paying them U.S.-television rates (about thirty times what the local fishermen were making spending ten hours a day in their mahi-mahi boats, harpoon in hand), spoiling them for those inevitable days post-“Survivor.”
Under a shore side tent a New Zealand woman – the Cook’s lean distinctly Kiwi, not French – remembers the “Survivor” crew’s coming … and going. “It left a lot of people more or less distraught. When they were here filming, there was big action everyday. Boats racing back and forth, people coming and going, money being spent. And then … one day … they were gone. They left boats and trucks and houses behind. But no more action, no more money.”
The first Polynesians settled here in 800, led by a voyager named Ru, who named it Utataki Enua O Ru Ki Te Moana (“the leading of the cargo people by Ru over the ocean” or “where Ru turned his back on the sea”); the first westerner to stop was Captain William Bligh, 1789, just seventeen days before his infamous mutiny – he would return three years later, searching for the men who had cast him adrift.
It’s a wild and rough day in the South Pacific, three to four meter swells under a deceivingly blue and unadulterated sky. It’s easy when the ocean here is living up to its name to be lulled into believing the entire Pacific region is ruled by calm. Days like this are reminders that wildness is far more common. Watching the wild, sun-drenched seas from a brand new cement porch built by and for the local fishing co-op, constructed super strong against the potential of tsunami and other storm waves, I wonder what Captain James Cook would have made of “Survivor.”
I marvel often about how many times my route around the world has crossed Cook’s path; that dude was truly a wanderer. On so many islands I’ve stopped at I’ve been greeted by welcome signs – made of bamboo, surrounded with half clam shells – detailing the historic arrival of Cook and gang.
Cook’s first assignment, in 1768, from the Royal Society in London, was to sail the Pacific Ocean tracing the transit of Venus across the sun – a task more scientific than economic. After rounding Cape Horn he made it to Tahiti for the first time on April 13, 1769, where the observations were to be made. Unfortunately the astronomer he carried with him was not up to the task and the mission was a failure. Over the next few years Cook criss-crossed the Pacific several times all the while keeping his southern eye open for a place we both have an affection for, then known as Terra Incognito Australis. Antarctica. While Cook never fully found Antarctica – spying large icebergs he confused with the continent – he got closer than anyone before.
His complete mapping of the Pacific left little for future expeditions; he died ignominiously in Hawaii, due to either cultural arrogance or confused i.d., dependent on which story you prefer/believe. Maybe Cook would have liked “Survivor”; certainly he would have much preferred being judged by some kind of tribal council than a bunch of Hawaiian tough guys swinging heavy war-sticks.
I went for a swim this morning in deep water in the middle of the South Pacific. Twelve-thousand-feet deep. The sea was lumpy, with six-foot swells running towards Hawaii, a couple thousand miles to the northeast. Using just a mask and snorkel, no fins, peering into the depths I tried to imagine what was below. It gets dark fast just below the surface despite the bright sunlight, which leaves everything to the imagination. That’s the wonder of the ocean; even its most expert fans have very little idea what lies two miles below. When it’s suggested that everything’s been “explored” or “discovered,” I put on a mask and try and see into the deep ocean. There’s a lot down there we have no idea about and I wonder if we ever will.
Photo, Pete McBride
Swimming in a wild ocean without fins is eye opening. A little scary. It made me wonder how long I could last out here on my own and have to admit I got out of the water not feeling superbly confident. An hour, maybe? Bobbing about, treading water, maybe taking a few strokes? It’s not how I would choose to go … but whenever I’m out in it I have to admit to the same thought running through my head. What would it be like to never climb out of the ocean, to truly be lost at sea?
I also thought about just how warm the middle of the ocean feels, empirically speaking. But it’s true, the ocean is warming and there are statistics to back that up. My colleague Alex Nelson sent this note this morning: According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the temperature of the world’s oceans reached a new high in July. The ocean’s surface temperature peaked at 63.1 degrees Fahrenheit, besting the old record — set just the month before.
The implications are enormous. Ocean surface temperatures affect the size and power of hurricanes. This year’s hurricane forecast is optimistic, with Colorado State University predicting 11 named storms, only five of them hurricanes. NOAA expects 9 to 14 storms, providing marginal relief from last season’s anomalous 16 storms.
The greatest impact of this worldwide warming is on the polar ice caps. Last September, for the first time in recorded history the North Pole became an island. Ever-rising water temperatures melted the ice that has always connected the landmass to northern Canada and Russia. The agency also said that, on average, Arctic sea ice covered 3.4 million square miles in July, 12.7 percent below the 1979-2000 average and the third lowest on record – after 2006 and 2007. While this development was an unexpected boon for shipping companies eager to cut down on travel time, it represented a grave manifestation of the effects of global warming. Sea levels have been rising 50% faster than the United Nations predicted in 2007 and are expected to gain at least a full 39 inches by 2100.
The UN is holding a summit in December in Copenhagen to draft a treaty addressing climate change issues. The 180 countries expected to attend will set limits for gas emissions and deforestation in an effort to combat the effects of global warming.
HUAHINE – It’s been unusually gray in Paradise for the past couple days, windy and rain swept, especially so here on the remote edge of the Leeward or Society Islands of Polynesia. I said the other day that I find Moorea to be the most beautiful island in Polynesia … but Huahine gives it a run for the money on one front: If its peaks are not as stark or dramatic, they are still tall and lush, its greatest advantage is far fewer people. The reality is that for all its paradisiacal beauty, Moorea is a bedroom community to Tahiti, its solitary ring road thick with traffic in the early morning and late afternoon as commuters rush to and from the fast ferry to the big island. Here on Huahine you get a similar lush, green beauty with ten percent of the people. One hundred miles northwest of Tahiti it’s out of the way, hard to get to … perfect if you are, like me, always looking for escape.
River eel, on a schoolyard window
Home to a plethora of ancient Polynesian Maraes (ceremonial temples) carefully preserved and reconstructed along the shoreline of its main village of Fare, in the 1800s this was mostly a whaling port. Today it’s home to eight small villages; in Fare a ferry boat has arrived to carry its school children back to boarding school on Raritea.
Following a mostly grown-over road to the coast I trace the island’s southern shoreline, paralleling deep coconut palm forests, in search of a couple very different sites: An abandoned hotel wiped out a decade ago by cyclone and a river said to be overflowing with “sacred” Tahitian river eels. I am only successful at finding the latter, and that thanks to an old woman in a red-flowered dress at the last house, at the end of the beach.
After a couple hours of a gentle walk along the coast – the local dirt red and healthy, the jungle dense and wet – I’d run into a dead end and she was there, sitting in her yard on a metal chair surrounded by a half-dozen languorous tabby cats, almost as if she’d been planted there to give directions to lost wanderers. She knew of the hotel (“everything in it was made by hand, and beautiful,” she said, “but now the only thing left are a few cement slabs”). In broken French and using her hands she indicated I was “two mountains and a lagoon away” from finding it.
The eels were easier and she pointed me in the right direction. Three to six feet long, with fins along their side which locals cal “ears” and eyes a translucent cold blue, they are found only on Huahine, Tahiti and Moorea. Their sacredness comes from legend, which says they are the product of a union between an eel and a Tahitian maiden. I find them swirling in the eddy of a narrow, black river, pointed out to me by a half dozen locals who are feeding them “sacred mackerel” from “sacred cans” found at a nearby “sacred market.” Two hundred years ago this was a center for Polynesian culture; today it is still very emblematic, “sacred” obviously having taken on very twenty-first century definition.