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Marcus Coltro 2 on 23/5/2013
Thanks Randy!

Randy Allamand on 23/5/2013
Great article Marcus! You are a very good writer! I really enjoyed the part about the dream with the lady & the live shells lol! Those are the best dreams!

Kiritimati by Marcus Coltro

Have you heard of Kiritimati? It is also known as Christmas Island (do not confuse it with the island of the same name in the Indian Ocean). Kiritimati is part of the Republic of Kiribati, about 2,000 kilometers south of Hawaii. It is the largest coral atoll in the world, about 150 sq. miles. The British conducted nuclear tests near there in the 1950's and the US conducted a similar test in 1962 (I did not find any glowing shells though).

In their language, Gilbertese, "ti" sounds like "ss" so Kiritimati sounds like Kirissmass, or Christmas! It is the first place in the world where the time zones start the next day, although it is on the same longitude as Hawaii. So when I left Honolulu, on Tuesday afternoon, I arrived on Kiritimati, on Wednesday afternoon, losing one day. On the way back, I left Wednesday morning and arrived at Honolulu, one day earlier, Tuesday morning - time travel!

Why Kiribati? The idea of going there was very appealing since there are few or almost no shells from that place in collections (do you have any?). I also found it odd that Bunnie Cook never went there, since it is not very far from Honolulu.

You can get there flying from Fiji or Honolulu. There is one flight per week on Wednesday operated by Air Pacific. Most (if not all) of the tourists are fisherman looking to catch large trevally or kingfish (Caranx ssp.) and bonefish (Albula ssp.) found inside the atoll. While searching for information on the Internet I came across one company that offers packages including flights and hotel. They give a brief description of the island and their Q&A section reads, "What to do on the island if you do not fish? Nothing, don't go." Well, I was certainly the only person among the tourists that did not bring any fishing gear...

First step was getting a permit to collect shells - a very bureaucratic process, but I finally got it. The flight from Honolulu took three hours and arrived at Cassidy "International" airport. I think my office is bigger than the airport... On the same flight I recognized the Spanish accent spoken by several people. They were all from Ecuador and were recruited to crew one of several tuna boats that were docked on the island.

After passing through customs (and getting a new exotic stamp on my passport) I looked outside for my transportation to the Captain Cook Hotel. There was a "shuttle" waiting where I met two American tourists coming to... fish, of course. The "shuttle" was a truck converted to carry passengers in the back.

The island economy is based on copra (dried coconut pulp). There are about 9,000 inhabitants, roads are not well-maintained, but are ok. I should say "is" ok since there is only one paved road. It took a few minutes to get to the hotel, which is beach front (duh, what else on an atoll?). I really did not care much to see my room so went straight to see the ocean a few meters away. Not the best place to snorkel, lots of waves crashing on the beach.

The room was very satisfactory, two beds, everything clean, a fridge, and air conditioning. The only thing I did not like much was the fact that hot water was scarce. Yes, I like to take hot showers, even in such places. Try snorkeling for five or six hours and have only a cold shower afterwards....but no problem. Although the room seemed very clean I always like to use a can of bug spray that lets go all of its contents after you break the seal (Fogger). You just have to leave the room closed for a couple hours and it will be protected for months against roaches and other insects.

It was already dinner time so I went to the restaurant where I met "all" the other three hotel guests. John (a guy who organizes fishing trips), Bill and Craig (two American fishermen who came with me on the plane), and Kent (a volunteer doctor who comes to the island once a year to help the local clinic). I was not expecting much for meals and thought it would be a good chance to lose weight. I proved to be mistaken, as all meals were quite good and I did not lose an ounce. While talking to my new friends I learned some good tips about the island, especially how to move around. I wanted to go to London to snorkel (I never thought I would write such sentence) and had no idea how to get there since the only rental car from the hotel was already rented. They have a bus on the island, but they told me it is not very reliable and I could wait for hours for it to show up. Kent offered me a ride the next morning when the clinic's driver was coming to pick him up, so all was set. I could try to go to Paris instead of London, but the roads were closed - yes, besides London, there is Paris (and there is a road between them!), Poland, and Tennessee (go figure that last one).

I woke up and got ready to leave, just had to wait for the clinic's driver. Since the island was colonized by the British, they drive on the "wrong" side of the road, I mean on the left side (the opposite of "right" is "wrong", isn't it?). I asked our driver how many kilometers it was between London and the hotel, to which he replied "30 minutes." And what about distance? "I only know by time." Checking Google Earth it is about 20km and it did take 30 minutes as he said.

Ken was nice enough to let me use the clinic's bathroom to gear up and leave my dry stuff while I went snorkeling a few meters away. As Air Pacific was very strict about luggage weight, I could not carry lead weights. So I took a pocket model weight belt, where you can insert lead pellet bags, and used some bags of beach sand (yes, I am a modest genius). The water was somewhat murky and the bottom was plain sand with a few grass patches and small stones near the shore. The only places shells could hide were scrambled masses of old electric cables and an old oil pipe all rusted and broken. Kind of disappointing - not many shells, except for Cypraea moneta, Conus pulicarius and Conus lividus, Terebra maculata, Nerita plicata, and a few other small shells. And no sharks even after the locals alerted me about their presence before I entered the water. After five hours snorkeling I went back to the clinic to get my ride back to the hotel.

I asked Ken why there was no coral in the lagoon and he said the British dredged the atoll decades ago, which destroyed most everything. The only place with life would be Cook Island at the entrance of the atoll, but it is a sanctuary. Looking on Google Earth I noticed that Paris on the opposite side of the entrance would most likely be the same as London as to sea conditions (another sentence I never thought I could write), so my alternative would be the beach in front of the hotel.

I got up very early next morning and walked on the beach looking for signs of interesting shells along the shore line. I heard that people had found beached Conus adamsoni there. I saw a local woman walking towards me with a bag in her hands. She asked me what I was doing and I explained I was looking for shells. She then opened the bag and inside there were lots of fantastic shells, including some live taken Conus adamsoni! I was so thrilled that I could not believe my eyes - until I looked at her once again and she turned into Gisele Bundchen! Then I woke up, damn...

In real life, I walked about two kilometers to where I saw a place where the reef was a bit further away from the beach and the waves seemed not as bad. It was not very easy to walk the long distances carrying all the gear, especially on soft sand with rubble. I found a spot under some trees where I could gear up and leave my dry clothes, water, and cookies (my lunch), behind some bushes. Not too important as there was no one else on the entire beach and I think I was the only person snorkeling on the whole island after hearing what the hotel clerk asked me. "Are you going to snorkel with all the sharks?" I really did not care about the sharks, but the waves and the current were awful. I think that was probably one of the most difficult places to collect shells I have ever been. Which is maybe the reason Bunnie Cook did not go there, despite the short distance from Hawaii.

I had to continuously grab something, a rock, or coral, or stick my knife on the sand in order to stay in place. Even fish were struggling to swim. At least I was finding shells... and the place was much nicer than London, lots of coral and tropical fish. I found Cypraea depressa, Cypraea poraria, larger Cypraea moneta, a few different Conus, large Thais armigera, a few rare Latirus amplustre, Bursa bufonia, and several small species. I saw many beautiful live Tridacna, but did not collect any, only taking several pictures. By the way, even taking pictures was difficult since most of the time I could not let go with either one of my hands. I almost destroyed my camera, which now has scratches all over it.

As usual, the best shells were near the outside reef where the current was strong. The closer I got, the worse it became. The current was so strong that I almost lost my mask and one of the waves threw me against a coral head. I was very glad I was wearing a 1mm neoprene wetsuit. The hit was so hard that I almost tore the suit and cut my leg. It would not have been nice to bleed there as I saw some sharks in the deeper water behind me. In this rough area I found large Turbo argyrostomus, a few Cypraea caputserpentis, dark Cypraea depressa and some Astraea. I thought about swimming past the reef, but I was not sure how strong the current would be and I did not want go back to Honolulu by sea.

After six hours I left the water, much happier than the previous day, but I still had to find an alternative for the following days. I got to the hotel when the sun was setting and sat for a few minutes on the beach to appreciate the sunset. I did that the whole trip. This change of routine is what keeps me going, from a city with more than 20 million people to a deserted beach! I always make sure to store those moments in my brain so I can use them on a stressful day at the office, or maybe one day mentally teleport back, if I acquire supernatural powers. I might not ever get rich selling shells, but the life experience, places I go and people I meet, pays for any trouble along the way. And these paradises make me realize how beautiful life can be.

I got back to my room to take a shower and check my findings, then went to dinner with my new friends. They were also very excited from their fishing day. They caught several fish and explained to me how it works. They each pay a private guide who stands knee-deep in the water a few meters from them. When the guide sees a fish they yell "45 yards, 2 o'clock" - meaning the distance and direction they should cast the line to catch a fish. The thing is, they are only allowed to take a picture and must put the fish back in the water. Nothing can be brought back to the hotel. The meal finally arrived - fresh sashimi tuna and lobsters, what a treat!

The next day I tried to look for land shells on the road opposite the hotel, towards a place called Bathing Lagoon (belongs to the hotel). On the first day Kent had driven me there on the way back from the clinic to check on a few bee hives he was farming. He is teaching the locals to farm and produce honey commercially. I knew it would be a long walk, about three km on a deserted road and they told me to take care since there are several small roads and I could get lost if I took a wrong turn. Because I am so smart, intelligent, and have a fantastic sense of direction (lies...), I did not bother to check the map and relied on my memory to get there. The road was flooded in several places since we had a severe thunderstorm the previous night, but was walkable. I did not find a single land shell and I guess the reason is the quantity of land crabs of all kinds, sizes, and colors. They probably eat anything they can find, including land shells. I kept walking towards the lagoon anyway. Of course I took a wrong turn and ended far from the lagoon, deep in the island. Since I was not going to find anything, I went back to the hotel and went snorkeling once again at the same spot from the previous day.

I tried to go a bit further from the hotel and found another place that looked ok. The difference was that there were no corals, just a "fluffy" pink bottom. I looked closer and noticed it was made of a gazillion small mussels covered by pink algae. After a few minutes the current was getting bad once again so I moved closer to the previous place where I could find "anchoring" spots to grab and stay in place. I found a few shells and only snorkeled for four hours this time.

The hotel has several rooms in the main building, also several bungalows on the property. I was in the main building and it was easier to walk to the restaurant and closer to the Wi-Fi hotspot (yes, they had one!). While waiting for dinner I saw the Ecuadorian guys having snacks and beers on the lobby. I talked to them in Spanish and they were very happy to learn that I had been to Ecuador several times and have many friends there, so they invited me to join them for a drink. They were recruited by a big fishing company that hires fisherman from the West Americas, from Mexico down to Chile. Crews stay on board the fishing boats from a few months to a couple years. It is a tough life, they only come to land once in a while for a couple of days, then go back to the rough sea. They told me the waves sometimes cover the entire boat, like those seen in the TV series Deadliest Catch where they go to Alaska to fish for crab. And I was whining about snorkeling in rough seas... After (several) beers I ate something and went to bed. (I wonder why I did not lose weight on the trip)

I still had a couple days to collect shells and the only option was going back to the same places. I tried walking the other direction but it was even worse. I also wanted to make a night snorkeling excursion, but adding the facts that I spent most of the day snorkeling and that the best collecting place was a bit far to walk at night (no lights whatsoever) I gave up on the idea. Maybe I am getting old...

I saw several beached species on the shore line that I did not find while snorkeling. They most certainly came from deep water behind the reef. To make a proper collecting trip to this place it would be necessary to have a boat and tanks (I wish Tony McCleery had not sold his sail boat) and more time, one week is not enough.

The flight back to Honolulu left very early and the customs people kept us waiting for a long time at the "International Airport." The flight was delayed as well. They check every piece of luggage looking for something, I don't know what as there is nothing to take from the island.

I can say this place is not for the faint of heart due to the tough collecting, but I was able to find enough material to make the trip worthwhile. I also to put a pin on another exotic place on my map!


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