Odyssey Logs

BPO Update: Community Spirit on Palmerston Island

Janet Hayes on Chapter Two is part of the Blue Planet Odyssey small team of volunteer sailors trained to conduct eye tests on behalf of the HIT Institute in Germany, as part of the BPO Community project. As Janet writes in her blog about their visit to Palmerston Island, the community spirit is very much alive in this remote part of the Pacific.


5th June

Palmerston is a beautiful atoll consisting of eight small islets lined with lush palm trees and beautiful white sand beaches. The opening on the north end of the atoll is too narrow for any sailboat to navigate through, therefore, the locals will come out to pick us up and take us to the island. Wow, what a ride through the pass into the motu lagoon. The ocean surf was quite tumultuous with it being high tide. Once we neared the opening for the pass, the boat driver waited until several large waves had cleared and then quickly gunned the engine and made a beeline for the narrow opening. We hung on for dear life knowing that he had done this countless times before. The boat rolled through the marked opening with inches to spare on each side and continued to guide the boat through a series of markers to make land. Now, I understand why they come to taxi you to shore because trying to navigate on our own would have been quite harrowing.

We land ashore and are greeted by Bill Marster’s extended family. I asked various questions regarding the rising tide levels and island shrinkage due to global warming. They don’t feel that the rising tides are a factor but soil erosion is their biggest foe, especially with cyclones and hurricanes that pass through periodically. The government would like to clear a bigger pass and build a concrete jetty for better access for cruisers and larger boats who stop for a visit. The locals insist that this will create more problems with the erosion of the island and destruction of the coral heads which are prominently growing within the lagoon. So far, the locals have been able to keep the government officials at bay with resistance to change in order to maintain the integrity of the island. This island motu has clearly maintained its beauty by keeping outside influences from destroying its natural environment. At one time, yachts were allowed inside the motu but the rules changed when a Frenchmen anchored his boat and proceeded to dump his trash into the water. When the locals asked him to clean it up, he refused and they forced him to leave and then changed the rules for cruisers. Their main source of income is parrot fishing and if the pass is increased in size, it will destroy the parrot fish ecological system. Bill said they are already worried about overfishing in the future of their island.

We are ushered to the school to conduct testing before the kids are released at 1:30 p.m. We are introduced to the principal, Kat, who guides us to an empty school room for setup and testing. Klaudia, Daphne and I quickly discuss protocol and procedure before the kids start arriving for the eye tests. One student was targeted because the teachers noticed that she was holding the reading material very close to her face when reading and studying. It was quickly determined that she was indeed unable to see distance and close up. As Klaudia worked with the young lady to determine exact vision numbers, I moved on to assess another young students with a machine measurement and eye charts. We will submit the information to the HIT organization in Germany. In total, we tested 15 students before they were released from school and will test an additional 7 on Monday along with teachers who want their eyes tested. One student was identified as needing a pair of reading glasses.

Following the testing, we were ushered back to Bill’s family compound where we met his wife and four children. We were fed an amazing meal of fish, french fries, beef stew, vegetables and pound cake along with ice cold coconut juice fresh from the coconut. We were introduced to all of the family members and talked about the history of the island. Pat and Norm were asked to help troubleshoot their TV/DVR system as it wasn’t working. Before long, they were up on a ladder reconnecting wires and getting the system to work. Meanwhile, a couple of the adults asked if I would conduct an eye test on them.

The day quickly came to an end when the sun started to sink towards the horizon. The Marsters family had spent the day feeding our stomachs and our souls with happiness and kindness. The seas had calmed down and the trip back through the pass was not as harrowing. The tide had gone out and the narrow openings through the coral were only a foot deep. There is no way we were going to navigate this with our own dinghy especially with the current and tide changes throughout the day.

Chapter Two and Tahawus crews ready for testing

Chapter Two and Tahawus crews ready for testing

Saturday, June 6th

We were invited to witness an annual tradition of “the sharing of the birds”. The locals had gone to several of the uninhabited islands within the motu and caught Bosom birds by hand. They gather as many as they can catch within a certain period of time and bring them back to the village for distribution. This event takes place on the first Saturday of June, July and August of each year as part of their island traditions. When we arrived, the birds were loudly squawking their displeasure inside a netted pen on the beach. One of the family leaders was responsible for counting the birds and determining distribution based on the number of members in a family. Each family member received their own bird for consumption. After lunch we were invited to assist in plucking, singeing the feathers and cleaning the birds for lunch on Sunday. It was a little more than my stomach could handle. A few hours later, there were feathers flying in the air and in everyone’s hair. I gathered feathers to use for earrings while Bill’s children gathered feathers to use for costumes at a later date.

After all the hard work, the group was treated to ice cream cones. We learned that the family has 8 chest freezers spread around the compound. The supply ship comes every two to three months with provisions that the family has preordered months in advance. This order includes perishables and nonperishable items but must last until the next ship arrives. The family was generously sharing their provisions with us even though they weren’t certain when the next boat would arrive next month. It was very humbling to be the recipient of such kindness and generosity.


Janet testing one of the students.

Sunday, June 7

We were asked to attend church with the family as part of their Sunday customs. The minister blessed us in our travels and our journey around the world. Afterwards, we were presented with a lavish feast of cooked Bosom bird, lamb chops, roasted chicken, coleslaw, seasoned vegetable, taro root and banana pudding cake. We shared stories and laughed about the bird preparations the day before. Since Sunday is a day of rest, the family is not allowed to perform any chores or play for the rest of the day, except for washing dishes. We asked if the kids could walk us around the island and show us the telecom building, solar panels and various other historical sites around the island. The local island administrator, Arthur Neale, also joined in the walk and explained the additional history of the island. Arthur is the son of Tom Neale who lived alone on Suwarrow Island for many years and wrote a book called “An Island To Oneself” which detailed his father’s solitary life while he lived on the island.

We were shown the small telecommunications office where you could buy wifi and cell service and the massive solar panel field which powers the whole island 24/7. Two months ago, the island only had 12 hours of electricity a day and had to ration their use during the evening hours. Now, with the help of the government, they have electricity like the rest of the world and are being charged per household by consumption.

Arthur pointed out the areas of erosion that were a concern since the last ocean surge and it appeared that the beach had eroded one foot from the last reading. We were shown the cemetery where the founder William Marsters was buried along with one of his wives and many ancestors. Mr. Marsters settled on the island with three wives and built a home for each wife. He proceeded to populate the island with many children and wrote rules in the history books to abide by for future generations to follow through the years. There are currently 60 residents living on the island which includes children.


Monday June 8

Sadly, we had to say our goodbyes to the Marsters family who have so kindly and generously shared their time, food, hospitality and happiness during our visit. Bill gave us care packages of parrot fish and bread and offered us many more food staples. We politely refused as we still had many items in our fridge and freezers. I was touched by his willingness to continue to feed us on our journey. It’s not very often that we are extended such unconditional community acceptance. We wish the Marsters family and island community much success as they continue to monitor the welfare of Palmerston and their ecosystem. It is truly a special and unique place to visit and will always remain in our hearts. Thank you Marsters family!



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