When traveling to other countries around the world, we need to be aware. It’s easy to see Polynesia as a vast tropical paradise full of soft, sandy beaches, beautiful sunsets and friendly indigenous peoples who are happy to entertain you with their culture. This, however, is not the reality of what Pacific Islanders are experiencing, and it’s important to acknowledge the history of struggles Pacific Islanders have experienced and how they have been taken advantage of in a variety of ways by white nations. We need to be respectful to the people and the cultures we visit, acknowledge and respect places of spiritual value and local customs.
The most striking thing that I learned, and what has stuck with me the most, is the importance of pronouncing words properly in the local language. While doing research in Tonga, one woman I spoke with had me practice the pronunciation of “’anga hinehina” (white shark) until I got it just right.
Q. What was your best experience?
A. My best experience has been exploring the island of Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai, a four-year-old volcanic island. It is a spectacular place, with canyons made of crumbling ash and a vibrant green crater lake. The water surrounding it is some of the clearest water I have ever swum in, and the ocean is teeming with wildlife. Birds and vegetation are spreading from the neighboring islands of Hunga Ha’apai and Hunga Tonga, and coral reefs are recovering just beneath the ocean’s surface.
One bright and sunny afternoon, I was standing with three of my classmates on the southern shore, looking out at the ocean. I noticed a funny white patch on the water, and was just about to tell them about it when, seconds later, an adult humpback whale breached right before my eyes. Her calf breached after her, flying out of the water with such grace.
After watching the whales, I joined others at the crater lake where we would be investigating potential hot spots in the sediments of the shallow waters of the lake. We wouldn’t have even thought to look for them if one of my classmates, Grace, hadn’t fallen into the lake and thought, “this mud is unusually warm.” Since we didn’t have any instruments for measuring underwater sediment temperatures, we ended up using the next best thing: our hands and legs.
I waded into the lake, the water cool and refreshing, creating an escape from the heat of the sun. Using a thermal imaging camera, we pulled out the mud and took pictures as quickly as we could to get the most accurate readings possible. It turns out that Grace wasn’t just imaging things, and the hottest sediments we found were up to 118 degrees Fahrenheit.
I’m very fortunate to have gotten to visit Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai, and I hope that this island is able to stick around for a long time. It really is a special place.
Q. How will you use this experience to further your education and career goals?
A. This experience has furthered my education and career goals by helping me figure out what I plan to do in the future. Working in the lab on the Robert C. Seamans showed me that I love doing research; but as much as I loved studying the ocean, walking around the forests in New Zealand made me realize that my future involves studying environments on land.
This is not to say, however, that I did not enjoy sailing. This trip will not be my last on a tall ship, and I hope to come back to SEA Semester and sail as a deck hand before going to graduate school, where I think I will study trophic cascades.
But we’ll see if any future experiences I have point me in a new direction.