Tuesday 20th June, 2000
Ngulu Atoll
Writer :
Dave Abbott

Another day, another island…

Around 4pm yesterday we left Palau for the tiny atoll of Ngulu; approximately 200 miles northeast of Palau, with Navot from ‘Fish and Fins’ onboard as our ‘guide. Steaming through the night the sea was pleasantly calm, but early this morning the wind strengthened; and as we were taking it on our bow, for the last few hours of passage STARSHIP was pounding into a short, steep chop. Once we got close enough to the lagoon’s leeward barrier-reef the sea magically eased and we could concentrate on where we were. Ngulu Atoll really is in the middle of nowhere; a small island covered in verdant green vegetation and palm trees, and fringed with white coral sand, the wide sea stretching to the horizon in every direction…a perfect setting for a remake of ‘Robinson Crusoe’!

Although the island itself is tiny, the lagoon in which it lies is a large area, protected by an extensive barrier reef from the deep ocean surrounding it. Two even tinier islands are the only neighbours Ngulu has between Palau in the southwest and Yap in the northeast, and neither is inhabited. Strangely enough, we weren’t the only boat here … a battleship-grey Yap patrol-boat was also anchored in the lagoon, and after first introducing ourselves on the radio, we anchored STARSHIP, then stopped by briefly in STARTENDER to pay a ‘courtesy visit’ before going ashore.

Low tide and very shallow reef meant I had to take the tender back into ‘safe’ (deep) water while Michael, James, DJ, Navot, Peter and Norbert introduced themselves to the ‘Nguluans’ … all 17 of them! By coincidence we had arrived at the same time as their chief ‘Mike’ had come back from a visit to Yap, returning on the patrol boat. According to one of these 17 islanders (who are the sole inhabitants of the tiny atoll); having two boats in the lagoon at once is the most crowded Ngulu has been since the Second World War!

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Huts on Ngulu Island.
[ photo - Peter Sandmeyer ]

Perhaps to celebrate the return of their chief and the other Yapese visitors from the patrol-boat, five large Green turtles had been captured to provide meat for a small feast, and our shore party had the dubious pleasure (maybe ‘experience’ would be a better word) of seeing how they are killed, prepared, and cooked. Although this is not a pretty sight; and our greater awareness of the endangered state of sea-turtles nowadays gives us somewhat of a bias, it is still possible to appreciate that sea turtles have been a traditional food source for a long time without a significant effect on the overall turtle population, and is an important part of the culture of these and other Pacific island people.

Anyway, to describe the preparation of the turtles briefly; first a cut is made at the base of the throat and all the entrails pulled out through this incision, as well as the eggs, a particular delicacy. Often the turtles caught are females as they haul up on the beach to lay their eggs; an unfortunate fact for the continuance of the species. Next the turtle is placed upside down, still ‘whole’ but minus its innards; and a fire lit on its underside using dry palm fronds … this is kept alight for fifteen minutes by which time the turtle is apparently cooked and ready to eat. While the blood and guts involved make this practice seem somewhat barbaric; it is a lot less so than modern practices like drift-net fishing, coastal development, and dumping of plastic waste at sea, all of which do far more damage to turtle populations than ‘subsistence’ island-cultures ever have.

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Preparing for a traditional feast.

Getting the shore party off the island after their visit proved to be a little harder than landing; the tide had gone down some more, and the crew had picked a different spot to be picked up from; one I was unable to access due to a very shallow reef! However after a small amount of drama, a few scratches, bumps and a little swimming we got everyone onboard safely, and went back to STARSHIP for lunch.

This afternoon a dive was on the agenda, something that always gives me a sense of anticipation … especially when it is in a new and isolated spot like Ngulu Atoll.

The sky was overcast, and the sea metallic grey and choppy, but once we flipped backward off the tender and into the quiet blue world below the weather was forgotten. We found ourselves cruising along a sloping wall of coral, with the bottom nowhere in sight, myriads of blue and gold Fusiliers like flocks of aquatic birds teeming around us. A pair of big silvery Tuna flashed past; sleek, efficient, and hungry looking, followed by several curious and beautifully coloured Blue Trevally, and closer to the reef big-eyed Black snapper lurked like nervous undertakers.

We also saw a couple of small Whitetip and Grey reef sharks, but nothing like the numbers on our dives in Palau. However we did see a large Napoleon wrasse, two beautiful big Green turtles, (one of which practically swam into me!), and the biggest ugliest Bumphead wrasse I have ever seen!

Tomorrow promises to be another interesting day in this ‘out of the way’ part of the globe … tell you all about it in 24 hours!

Adios, Diver Dave