Carteret Islands: Banana Boats on the Open Sea

The sea was calm today.

Most islanders travel by banana boat, a 15-foot single engine motorboat, between the Carteret Islands and Bougainville. The trip takes three to four hours, depending on the size of the ocean swells and the weight of the cargo. Back in the states, I received conflicting feedback about the banana boats. A journo from Japan wrote that they occasionally disappear whereas another one from Australia told the story of a friend who watched with dismay as the skipper tossed provisions overboard to prevent the boat from sinking. Still, he said, "it's the safest, unsafe way to get to the islands."

There were no other alternatives; the government ship –the safest way to travel to the atoll – only makes the trip four times a year, if not less. We had to travel by banana boat or not at all.

We decided to go.

The island of Bougainville lingered behind us on the horizon, fading slowly with distance and the brilliant sunlight. After an hour, the boat entered the open ocean. Several years ago I crewed boats sailing around the South Pacific for weeks at a time. Yet I have never seen the ocean as clear and smooth as it was today. It reminded me of a scene from Miyazaki's animated film "Spirited Away" when Chihiro travels with No Face through a lonely and expansive sea of glass. It was truly surreal and beautiful.

An hour after traveling with no land in sight, Iangain (pronounced Young-Ine), one of the six Carteret Islands, emerged on the horizon. Everyone in the boat smiled at the first glimpse of land. The colors of the ocean near the atoll are breathtaking: turquoise, lime green, crystal blue, and indigo stretch from outer reef to the islands swirling together to create a palette that could have easily become inspiration for a Monet painting.

An hour later we reached the largest of the Carteret Islands – Han Island. The islanders peered at us from the shoreline as we unloaded bags of rice sent from family members living on the mainland. I waved. They waved back tentatively. They weren't unfriendly, but something was amiss. We learned later this evening that news of our trip never made it from the mainland. Our arrival was completely unexpected.

I have no idea how we are going to introduce the camera tomorrow.