The Digital Journalist
The Tide Is High
January 2007

by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

It all began in November 2005 when I read an article concerning rising sea levels and their effect on the low-level, one-meter-high coastline of the islands that make up the Carteret Atoll in the South Pacific. It sounded newsworthy, topical and tropical. Even though I knew little of how to get there, I was interested in going—I'd been to Kiribati Atoll on assignment a few months earlier and I wanted another Southern Pacific adventure.

Children play on the beach beside a fallen trunk of a coconut tree on the shoreline of Han Island, Carterets Atoll, Papua New Guinea, on Monday, Dec. 11, 2006. Rising sea levels have eroded much of the coastlines of the low-lying Carteret Islands and waves have crashed over the islands, flooding and destroying what little crop gardens the islanders have. Food is in short supply, banana and swamp taro crops are failing due to the salinization of the land, and the islanders live on a meager one-meal-per-day diet of fish and coconut.

(Photo by: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Greenpeace)
Almost exactly one year later, with the story gaining momentum amidst talk of an impending relocation of the Carteret islanders, I had persuaded two of my regular clients to give me the go-ahead to book flight tickets and make the journey. I went from my Tokyo home to Cairns, Australia, where I transferred up to Port Moresby in Papua, New Guinea. From there I flew to Buka Island in the autonomous region of Bougainville. That was all to prove to be the easy bit.

I would be travelling with colleagues: a journalist, a videographer and a logistician for help and security. We all met up in Buka township in a half-star hotel with a five-star view of the Buka sea passage. We were on a fairly tight schedule and wished to visit the atoll as soon as possible. The usual vessels for making the four-hour crossing were 22-foot-long, open, single-engine, 40-hp "banana boats." But, the wind had been blowing for two weeks straight keeping those vessels in the sandy cove port. Even if the winds were to calm we were stuck--there was no fuel on the island. This was an outpost of Papua, New Guinea, and we were now on "island time."

Rose Tsube (bottom left), Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Martha (top left, bottom right), and Manix (center) rebuild a sea wall made of giant clam shells to try and halt erosion of land by the waves, on Han Island, Carteret Atoll, Papua New Guinea, Sunday, Dec. 10, 2006. Rising sea levels have eroded much of the coastlines of the low-lying Carteret Islands and waves have crashed over the islands. There is talk by the Autonomous Region of Bougainville government to relocate the Carteret Islanders to Bougainville Island, but this plan is stalled due to a lack of resources, land and coordination.

(Photo by: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Greenpeace)
As we waited for a rumored delivery of fuel to arrive on the island, "perhaps today," "maybe tomorrow," or "I think it came already," we sat on our hotel deck debating how we could reach the atoll safely. Was it prudent to risk our lives across 4 hours and 80 km of open ocean in a banana boat? We knew boats making this crossing occasionally disappeared and we were nervous and not only for our equipment. Then on another blistering sunny morning, luck crossed our paths, the fuel arrived on the island and the hotel jeep driver, Ron, mentioned matter-of-factly, "In the hotel there are two people with a small fishing boat; they could take you."

Suddenly it all seemed too easy as we negotiated a quite expensive charter fee with our boat captain (but what price was too high for personal safety, air conditioning, a shower and electricity to recharge camera batteries?). We were trying to visit six islands where there is no electricity, no shops, no food to buy and no hotels. The people of the Carterets are suffering: their island coastlines are disappearing, their "gardens" regularly flooded with sea water, and their meager swamp taro and banana crops destroyed. Their only food source is now coconuts and fish; rumors floated of malnutrition and rampant malarial disease. On the morning of our departure we went shopping for our own provisions but also for supplies to give the islanders, to trade for fish and for possible shelter on the atoll.

A child walks in the "garden," an area formerly used for growing crops, but now destroyed by salt seawater waves, Puil Island, Carteret Atoll, Papua New Guinea, on Sunday, Dec. 10, 2006.

(Photo by: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Greenpeace)
Two hours before our departure our all-too-easy plan almost came to an all-too-quick end. A local politician whom we had interviewed objected to our fishing boat leaving port. We were grounded, caught in the middle of a local political squabble. Two meetings and a few phone calls later a fax arrived from a governmental official in Port Moresby granting us permission to depart. We sailed overnight on the fishing vessel, a motley crew consisting of ourselves, the captain, his wife, his one-year-old daughter, a deckhand and a quiet-spoken Catholic Priest who would "show us the channels through the reef, and possibly save our souls should it all go wrong."

For the next few days we anchored in the aqua-colored Tulun lagoon and explored the Carteret Islands first discovered by British navigator Philip Carteret in 1767. Covered in mosquito repellent and Factor80 sun block, I crisscrossed the lagoon, photographing on beaches eroded by the relentless sea, trying to figure out how to expose for the sun-blackened skin of the islanders against the sun-bleached sand.

I would shoot and listen as the islanders told me that "tides are changing and the weather is different," "the beach used to go out to there," and "the water came up to our waist." These islands all form one atoll but each had its own individual character and its own stories to tell. On Puil Island I was shown the crop gardens, now a barren wasteland after tidal waters had rampaged through. On Huene Island (population "about 20") I listened as Selina Netoi told me, "We live in fear. Maybe the next storm will take our little houses and our children and wash us all away." Selina has reason to be afraid, her island split in two in the 1970s, eroded through the middle by the sea. Now the beaches near her shack house are littered with the stumps of fallen coconut trees, their roots exposed by the waves. "We have little to eat and no one comes to buy our sea produce," she told me shrugging her shoulders, watched by the rest of her quiet and shy family, unaccustomed to white-skinned visitors, or to visitors in general.

Many islanders hope that a much talked about, but little acted upon, governmental plan to relocate them to the larger island of Bougainville will happen soon, but the future of the Carterets is uncertain. As I prepared to depart the island Bernard Tubin told me, "We live our life happily but because of this rushing of the sea, the current of the waves is so strong and we know people have been talking about this green-gas emission, we feel that our life is threatened and we don't know what is coming next."

The people of Carterets are by no means savage islanders living on a desert island; instead they are people with very few options trying to live the only life they know on a tiny remote atoll inhabited for previous centuries by their ancestors. They are Third-World islanders living with the actuality of rising sea levels, feeling the hotly debated effects of First-World consumption. Now they're in danger of becoming the world's first environmental refugees.

© Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert spent the early part of his freelance career working in Scotland, a country of dark winters and wet summers. In search of sun, color and healthier food, he relocated to Tokyo, Japan. He photographs, both within Japan and internationally, for a variety of editorial, corporate and NGO clients. His work has appeared in many publications such as, The Sunday Times Magazine, Time, Marie Claire, Italian Geo, The New York Times Magazine and others.

Further work, and Sutton-Hibbert's contact details, can be found by visiting his Web site:

He can also be contacted through his agents, World Picture News, in New York,

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