By ʻAulani Wilhelm
We sat at the bow looking out toward a late afternoon horizon. After discussing various perspectives about when we might actually see Malpelo, a small Colombian island 500 miles from the mainland, the apprentice navigators collectively decided it was time to begin the search before the sun began to set. We hoped to sight the molar-shaped island that juts abruptly up from the sea, before we sailed into the darkness. It had been another almost eerily calm day at sea, a bit cooler than the day before but still a scorcher – without the benefit of wind or wave to cool us down.
Malpelo, with its tiny rock outcrops surrounding it, is the only remaining emergent land (.46 sq mi) still visible in the entire underwater seamount chain which shares its same name. It was formed 17-20 million years ago, about the same age range as ʻŌnūnui, ʻŌnūiki, and Pūhāhonu (known as the Gardner Pinnacles) and Kamokuokamohoali’i (Maro Reef) in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. At its tallest point, Malpelo is about 1,000 feet above sea level. Except for a small military post manned by the Colombian armed forces, it is uninhabited.
The underwater sanctuary is known for large aggregations of up to 1,000 sharks, including silky and hammerhead sharks. It is a top SCUBA destination due to its rich marine life and remarkably steep walls that descend to nearly 5,000 fathoms (30,000 feet).
Like Papahānaumokuākea, Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary is also a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its relatively undisturbed environment where marine species maintain their natural behavior patterns. Also like Papahānaumokuākea, it is one of only 16 Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas (PSSA) in the world designated by the International Maritime Organization. Last September Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos committed to double the size of the Sanctuary, which was already one of the largest no-fishing zones in the region.
As it had all day long, the ocean appeared vacant, with only limited sightings of wildlife – spinner dolphins, a handful of seabirds, and giant pilot whales in the far distance. Despite our best efforts to holoholo, the only response was the taking of one hook by what Archie Kalepa, our fisherman (among many other roles he has on the waʻa) predicted had been a shark. We were lucky, however, to spy three critically endangered leatherback turtles.
Looking for signs of an island, Archie and Nainoa spied a small flock of seabirds flying “with purpose,” as Mark Ellis described, in the general direction our apprentice navigators expected to see the island. They were not feeding and appeared to be returning home for the night. Squinted eyes scanned the horizon about 45 degrees in each direction looking for changes in clouds, shadows, and any aberration from the normal rise and fall of the waves at the edge of the sky. It takes a patient eye and particular focus to be successful. Despite all my efforts to look at the horizon, I was too easily distracted by the unusual currents and periodic debris I saw floating in the water.
Quietly, Mark brought our attention to a particular patch of horizon just off the port side manu. He pointed to one edge of a small line of cirrus clouds and drew an imaginary line to the waterline. Very humbly he asked if anyone could see what he thought he saw, a small greyish shape that appeared, then disappeared with the motion of the swells. Archie, Jenna, Noe and I searched to find what he was showing us. One by one we each thought we saw what he described. But after staring toward a dusk light horizon on a bobbing canoe for a while, our minds and eyes seemed to play tricks on us, making us doubt what we thought we saw over and over again. We stayed patient. ‘It had to be there,’ I convinced myself.
After what seemed like an eternity, the grayish shape became clearer. A square with a flat top became increasingly stable, with a new line of clouds seeming to emerge from it. The team of navigators had successfully guided us to the island as a team, and Mark sighted his first island. A proud moment for them all, and a proud moment for their teachers on board. We all hugged.
It wasn’t the first time I saw someone pull an island out for the sea. Back in 2003 I watched Pwo navigator, Bruce Blankenfeld, quietly and seemingly effortlessly pull Nihoa island in Papahānaumokuākea out of the sea. It was amazing, of course. Today, however was differently amazing. I had witnessed the passing down of cultural knowledge manifest right before my eyes – evidence of the decades of untiring commitment and dedication of the many leaders and dedicated volunteers of the Polynesian Voyaging Society to ensure the ancient art and science of non-instrument, deep sea navigation lives on to carry future generations forward. What a privilege. We all sat quietly in celebration of each other and of those before us who brought us here.
Without navigational charts with sufficient detail to ensure we didn’t get in trouble sailing among the strong currents and surrounding seamounts, we kept the island at a distance, thanking her for her gift, and headed south towards the Galapagos. Malpelo allowed us to pull her out of the sea today, gifting us with tremendous navigational practice. It was an experience we will never forget.
Many thanks to the Parques Nacionales Naturales de Colombia, Sandra Bessudo from the Malpelo Foundation and my colleague Maria Claudia Diazgranados from Conservation International for your support in helping us get the necessary approvals to pass through this remarkable global treasure. This experience wouldn’t have happened without your kindness. We are grateful for the work you do to protect Malpelo on behalf of global humanity.
ʻAulani is a crewmember and Senior Vice-President for Oceans at Conservation International
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