Jul 28, 2018

Okeanos Marianas Sails to Gaferut: An Island Dedicated to the Culture of Conservation

in category Marianas, Uncategorized

After four days of journeying across the deepest part of the world’s oceans, the crew of Okeanos Marianas safely sailed from Saipan across the Mariana Trench to reach their first destination in a month-long voyage across the Micronesian outer islands of Yap & Chuuk: Gaferut atoll.

Okeanos Marianas anchors off of Gaferut island before daybreak, studying the silhouette of the uninhabited island into the morning. Photo: Steve Holloway

It comes to no surprise that Gaferut’s original name, Fayu, means “stone” or “rock” in the Woleaian language, as the entire island spans a modest 500 feet wide and 1500 feet long. Photo: Steve Holloway

The tiny, uninhabited island is a testament to the precision of the traditional Micronesian navigators who, to this day, sail to Fayu using only the stars, waves and other patterns of nature as their guide.

Captain Cecilio Raiukiulipiy observes the clouds en route to Gaferut island. Like many Carolinian navigators, Cecilio grew up sailing on the ancient sea roads between Fayu and Satawal. Photo: Steve Holloway

“It’s an island where north-bound navigators headed for Guam or Saipan would visit for provisions and rest; a pit stop to watch the weather before sailing north,” said Okeanos Marianas Captain Cecilio Raikuilipiy, who grew up learning traditional navigation, or Wayfinding, in Satawal from some of the most skilled navigators in Micronesia, including his uncle – Pwo Master navigator Mau Piailug.

An awe-inspiring sun sets on the crew camping on Fayu, waiting for the weather to clear before continuing on their voyage. Navigators like Captain Cecilio read the sunset to predict the weather of the following day. Photo: Steve Holloway

For Carolinians like Captain Cecilio and his late uncle Papa Mau, who is revered for reviving Wayfinding across Polynesia, Fayu also holds a sacred meaning for voyagers looking for a safe passage venturing north. A mythical place to receive blessings for their voyage.

“There is a protocol you must follow when visiting the island,” said Satawalese crew member and Okeanos Marianas watch captain Jerry Joseph. “You must first visit the chief, present her with gifts and get her blessing before doing anything on the island,” Jerry explained to the crew.

The western-educated crew aboard Okeanos Marianas was excited to hear about a female chief ruling over her own Micronesian island. Some were surprised to learn that the female chief was, in fact.. a crab. Photo: Steve Holloway

“Yes, the chief is a lady. She’s a coconut crab,” Captain Cecilio added.  “The coconut crabs, the black birds, the reef fish, they are the people of this island and they take care of the island.”

The mythical haven for coconut crabs, birds, and other creatures of the Yap island comes with strict cultural restrictions (similar to what that Polynesians would refer to as a tapu). While coconut crabs and reef fish would be on the menu for mariners visiting neighboring islands like West Fayu, also known as Piagailoe, these animals are revered as spirits on Fayu island and cannot be eaten.

Okeanos Marianas crew Tehani Kirby & Scottie Suzuki scout the island under a riot of sea birds. The rusting remnants of a wrecked fishing boat is one of the only signs of human impact on the island. Photo: Steve Holloway

The first of the Okeanos Marianas crew to set foot on Fayu was tasked with finding the chief and presenting her with offerings. Just as promised by the Carolinian crewmembers, Jerry, Paramount Chief Leo Rcheilug of Satawal, and Chuukese crewmember Scottie Suzuki met the chief of Fayu – a fire red coconut crab who sat at the base of a coconut tree while smaller males and other hermit crabs scurried around her like minions. They crawled about the gifts laid out by Jerry and Chief Leo: a spread of crackers, fruit and a pack of cigarettes, graciously accepting the crew’s offer on behalf of their chief.

Two Above: The spirits of Fayu, manifested in the living form of coconut crabs & hermit crabs, eagerly accept the crew’s gifts. Photos: Steve Holloway


Chief Leo lights two cigarettes, one for himself and the other for the Chief as he asked for her blessing on their voyage onward to Satawal. Photo: Scottie Suzuki

The reverence for animals and the natural world is carried all throughout the cultural practices performed at Fayu.

“You can only eat certain animals on the island, the rest are sacred,” explained Captain Cecilio. “If you find trash on the beach, you bury it. You leave nothing behind.”

The Brown Boobies are one of the only animals that visitors are permitted to eat on Fayu. Photo: Steve Holloway

Tehani Kirby picks at her dinner, caught by Paramount Chief Leo of Satawal and prepared over a fire of ocean debris on the beach. Photo: Steve Holloway

“It’s a place for conservation because only a few people go here. The idea of respecting the animals on this island is passed on from generation to generation,” said Captain Cecilio, who like many navigators, believes Wayfinding embeds a similar respect of nature in its pupils.

Captain Cecilio explains the canoe’s course and weather readings to navigation student Scottie Suzuki. Photo: Steve Holloway

“Before I learned about the western idea of conservation, I realized that I had been learning conservation all along as a child by going on these voyages.”

Author: Steve Holloway, Okeanos Foundation US